Sunday 16 September 2018

Speculative Biology with Dougal Dixon (and me) at TetZooCon, London, 6-7 October 2018

Some of you may already know the Tetrapod Zoology blog written by Darren Naish. It has been hosted in various places over the years. It recently moved away from Scientific American to its own place, I recommend it to everyone who is interested in regular biology besides speculative biology. Actually, I suppose that everyone with an interest in speculative biology will also be interested in real biology. Darren regularly discusses speculative zoology too, by the way, so it's worth browsing through his earlier posts for that reason alone.

Click to enlarge
He also organises a yearly convention, the appropriately named 'TetZooCon'. I will simply quote from the TetZooCon pages to tell you what it is about:

Are you interested in animals, and specifically in tetrapods: that is, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, living and extinct? Are you interested in their evolution, biology and diversity, in their portrayal in art, literature and fiction, in the animals of the distant past, in conservation, cryptozoology, domestication and, frankly, in just about anything relevant to the world of tetrapods? If the answer is “Hmm, I’m not sure”, you might like to go away and do something different. BUT if the answer is “Yes”, have you heard about TetZooCon? 

That should do it... This year it will be a two day event, for the first time. Although I had my eye on that convention for some time, this year is the first time that my schedule allows me to go and visit it. I already knew Darren from the World Science Fiction Convention in London, LonCon3, in 2014. Now, one thing led to another, and rather than just sit in the audience I will take part: on Sunday, October 7th, Dougal Dixon and yours truly will discuss speculative biology from 1400-1500 hrs. Afterwards there will be an opportunity for book signing by Dougal Dixon.

I hope to see you in London!

Saturday 1 September 2018

'After Man', by Dougal Dixon; a review with hindsight

The book 'After Man' is arguably the best-known book in Speculative Biology. It first appeared in 1981, so you may well wonder why I should choose to discuss a book everyone knows already, 37 years after its publication.

Well, a shiny new edition came out. It is a facsimile edition of the 1981 version, but with some changes. I still own the copy I bought in 1981 and could easily compare the two. The new version faithfully copies the monochrome sections at the beginning and end of the book that explain basic concepts such as the nature of evolution. These, printed on a somewhat coarse type of paper, enclose the heart of the book like slices of bread in a sandwich. That heart consists of 90 pages filled with illustrations in full colour, printed in much better quality on glossy paper. Even the page numbers match up perfectly.

The few changes are interesting. The introductory text has been updated in a few places, and these are indicated with a slightly different font, a nice touch for the bibliophiles among us. For instance, the old version states that early amphibians already had 5 toes on each foot, whereas the new version says that that pattern only emerged as the standard pattern after earlier experiments with other numbers.

Click to enlarge; copyright Dougal Dixon, with permission
The middle part of the book describes animals using ecological zones as a guiding principle, but Dougal Dixon has made two changes to the illustrations. These were originally done by professional artists and were based on sketches by Dougal. That process was not always easy, as Dougal explained in an interview with Darren Naish. I own some photocopies of early sketches for Greenworld that Dougal was kind enough to send me a long time ago, so I can say with confidence that he knows what he is doing when he sketches animals. I discussed Greenword, still only available in Japanese, here, here and here. Dougal gave me permission to use the drawing above to illustrate his own skills. These are of course predatory descendants of rats (falanxes) attacking a rabbit descendant, the rabbuck. Dougal was generally happy with the illustrators' work, except for two interpretations. In the new book he replaced the drawings of the reed stilt and the night stalker with his own drawings, and they indeed look better, in particular the reed stilt, that now is a lightweight and slender creature. I will not show them here; but leave them as an incentive to buy the book.         

I could stop here and consider the job done, but I have seen some critical discussions of Dixon's works, including 'After Man'. I sometimes think these criticisms are overly harsh and would like to add a bit of background to 'After Man', meaning the time in which it appeared.

Click to enlarge; Granada Publishing 1981
Everyone is obviously free to form his or her opinion on the matter, and let me stress that I have my doubts here and there too. As an example, let me discuss the night stalker in some detail. It is a fierce predator, descended from a bat that has given up flight and is a nocturnal terrestrial hunter, using sonar to find its prey. It walks on its front legs and uses its hind legs to catch prey, for which they arch over and outside of the front legs. The image above was copied from the dust cover of the 1981 edition, showing Dougal with a model of the night stalker. Dougal is very good at making such models by the way: I saw several of them for myself on the occasion of the Loncon3 science fiction convention (discussed here by Darren Naish and here by me).

Let's follow the scenario of evolving a land-living bat with specialised grasping legs. I would not expect all those features to evolve at once, but that one would set the stage for the next. (Whales did not evolve baleens the minute they entered the water, but had to become proficient swimmers first.) I expect the first step in that process to be that the bat gives up flight and becomes an animal walking on all fours. That will force quick changes to both the front and hind legs. I would expect that freeing one pair of limbs to catch prey and using the other legs to walk on to evolve only after that. (That, by the way, would be an example of 'centaurism'; see earlier posts here and here). Which pair of legs would become grasping limbs? My guess would be the front legs, because they are closer to the prey. But if the hind legs would be used for some reason, would they reach forward on the outside of the front legs, or in between, where the entire hind part of the body might also be swung forward to extend the reach?

My second doubt concerning the night stalker is that I do not think that sonar works well for a ground-based predator, as I explained in a series of earlier posts (here, here and here). Basically, using sonar is the opposite of stealth. I would therefore expect the animal to redevelop its eyes, keeping its extraordinary hearing as a passive sense. So my personal variant of a bipedal terrestrial predatory bat descendent would walk on its hind legs and not use sonar. I think it would be fairly likely, but it would also be much more conservative and also more boring than Dougal's night stalker...  

By now you may feel that all this criticism of what is probably the most famous creation of 'After Man' is a very odd way to defend Dougal's work. But there is a point here: it is very unlikely that anyone would have been able to raise such specific and detailed considerations in 1981. Such a person would at the time have to have been a professional biologist, not a member of the general public. I am not a biologist, and I can only raise such criticisms now because of several reasons. The first is having ideas; even though I thought hard about the use of sonar for a land-living predator, someone had to have to come with that idea first, and that certainly wasn't me; it was Dougal. The second reason is that you need knowledge to think matters through; to learn, there must be something to learn from.

Suppose you find yourself in 1981 wanting to know more about some biological subject, say sonar, the evolution of whales, or any specific animal group such as 'mudskippers'. You go to a book store or ask your local librarian, who will probably come up with the same one or two books every time, leaving you both frustrated and ill-informed. Anything specific would require access to something like a university library, and even there you would on some subjects find less information than you find on Wikipedia now. There was hardly anything to fill the gap between a general interest and professional levels. The information that is readily available now with a few clicks was either non-existent or almost completely inaccessible in 1981. So what could someone interested in biology, palaeontology and science fiction find in 1981? Well, disappointingly little:

  • On the dinosaur front, you would not be happy. There were stirrings of the coming 'Dinosaur Renaissance' (Bakker's paper from Scientific American from 1975 can be found here). But Robert Bakker's book 'The Dinosaur Heresies', that spread the message that dinosaurs were lively, athletic and interesting was still five years into the future in 1981. The most spectacular book on past life that you could own at the time was probably 'Life before Man', illustrated by Zdenek Burian. It had been around at least since 1973.
  • Speculative biology did not really exist as such. An early work such as St├╝mpke's 'Snouters' (1957) would remain unknown to you, unless someone book dealer would decide to distribute a new printing, so you could find out about it, by chance, by browsing a book store. I found one in 1983 (under its original German title of 'Bau und Leben der Rhinogradentia'). I later wrote about them here, here and here.            
That's about it. There was no information at your fingertips. If you wished to learn something from an author, you wrote them a polite letter and hoped for the best. No internet, no Google, no computers (well, except for the Sinclair ZX-81 with a 1Kb memory). The lack of information back then would now feel like a near vacuum, and as a result even the most interested people could not possibly become as well-read as many people on the forums now are. It was in this vacuum that Dougal Dixon used his knowledge of evolution and zoology to come up with not just one odd animal, but a whole book full of them. He in fact largely defined speculative biology with 'After Man'. It was an extraordinarily creative production at the time of its first appearance, and that is the only time to judge originality and creativity.