Friday, February 09, 2007

Playing Darwin's God

Figure 1. The Lesser Tadwee of southern Uqbar.

I don't want to play God.

All I want is the ability to live for billions of years, see and control everything that transpires on Earth, and speed up and slow down time at my leisure.

Why do I want these powers? I blame Dougal Dixon. His book After Man: A Zoology of the Future came out when I was still in grade school. I was freakin' fas-cin-ated. After After Man I was much taken with Dixon's The New Dinosaurs, Wayne Douglas Barlowe's Expedition, the awesome but dead-link-ridden Speculative Dinosaur Project, the creations of Nemo Ramjet, so on and so forth, imaginary zoology without end.

Figure 2. One of Nemo Ramjet's horrors.

I want the powers, obviously, so that I can tinker with evolution. Here are some experiments I have planned, just in case I wake up some morning with the aforementioned abilities. Most of them involve you either dying right now or never coming into existence, so I'll understand if you think they suck.

1. Humans go extinct immediately, and global temperatures rise to Jurassic levels over, say, 20 million years. When will Antarctica lose its ice cap? How fast? How much of the newly exposed land will be under water, and how fast will isostasy bring it back up? What will colonize this empty continent? Birds, obviously, but what else? What terrestrial flora and fauna will colonize Australia? How long will it take? It's a long haul to the nearest sizeable landmasses; on the other hand, transoceanic dispersal is apparently more common than we thought (de Queiroz 2005 Trends in Ecology and Evolution 20:68-73).

2. Another Antarctica experiment. The land bridge connecting Antarctica to South America never breaks. The circumpolar current never forms and Antarctica does not ice over. No polar ice caps, no ice ages. What survives on Antarctica? What happens in the rest of the world? In the warmer, wetter climate, Africa will probably be covered in forest, not savanna. What hominids, if any, evolve? Ooh, ooh, ooh--with the addition of Antarctica, South America ought to have more land area than North America. Maybe South America wins the Great American Interchange. That would be rad!

Figure 3. A truly fantastic image of SpecWorld.

3. Go back to the end of the Cretaceous. I know what you're thinking, but you're dead wrong, foo'. The dinosaurs DO go extinct. Everywhere except Australia. I don't care what the mechanism was, asteroid, or, uh, one of those lame reasons--whatever it is, it skips the Land of Oz. What do these dinosaur do with the Cenozoic? What do the monotremes and marsupials do with them dinosaurs? What happens during the Pleistocene? Do any of those dinAusaurs cross the ole Wallace Line and wreck some Asiatic shop? Or do the Aborigines smoke their asses 'til they ain't no moa? Ha ha hee hee.

4. Go back to the Permian. You know that part where the continents split up? Yeah, not so much this time. Fast forward to the Mesozoic. Any dinosaurs around, or did they lose out to the therapsids? Or did the harsh conditions on the mostly-desert supercontinent favor archosaurs right from the start, so that mammals don't even get a toehold? And what's going on geologically with this unnaturally large and long-lasting landmass? Those hot spots are still going to be burning. Maybe Pangaea is pocked with resurgent calderas. A desert supercontinent stocked with volcanoes and dinosaurs? Sounds like a nice getaway.

5. Starting now, all tetrapods go extinct except turtles. No more mammals, birds, crocs, lizards, snakes, amphibians... Obviously turtles are going to have to step up and take over the world. But how? I mean, they're turtles. Or maybe the turtles don't take over the world. Maybe fish beat them to the punch. Could they get out of the water in time to give the turtles some fight? Maybe not. But think about it, man! Super-tall giraffe turtles. Lean, mean cheetah turtles. Blind cave turtles. Giant whale turtles.


Seriously. If you had the aforementioned powers, what experiments would you do?

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Blogger Mike Taylor said...

Or maybe the turtles don't take over the world. Maybe fish beat them to the punch. Could they get out of the water in time to give the turtles some fight?

Why not? They've done it once.

Maybe not. But think about it, man! Super-tall giraffe turtles. Lean, mean cheetah turtles. Blind cave turtles. Giant whale turtles.

Alright, but doesn't After Man already have a sauropod turtle?

7:17 AM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

Why not? They've done it once.

Could be a good race. Might have to give it some time, though. I think that eventually fish could get out of the water again, and eventually turtles could overcome some of the constraints that keep them small and slow (comparatively). But that's like saying eventually Seymouria will give rise to an endermic flyer with air sacs. So I'm happy to give this one some time.

The more that I think about it, the more I think the fish would not get out of the water again. Any intermediate fishapod would get annihilated by the turtles, which are going to be freaking everywhere after I clear out the rest of the tetrapods.

Doesn't After Man already have a sauropod turtle?

Don't mention that abomination around here. I thought it sucked bigtime. Possibly because at least one of the animals was a complete ripoff. Right off the bat at the beginning of the show, there were some eusocial ectothermic flightless burrowing birds. Curious that just a year or two before Michael Swanwick's book Bones of the Earth had featured some eusocial ectothermic flightless burrowing birds. What are the chances?

I found that little bit of zoological plagiarism interesting because The Alien Life of Wayne Douglas Barlowe has a couple of pages of sketches of evolved future humans. Barlowe said he was going to do a book on that subject back in the day, but someone plagiarized his designs and beat him to press. Now, the only book that I know of that has actually been published on evolved future humans is Dixon's Man After Man. Which I also found pretty underwhelming.

Actually, my fascination with Dixon has fallen off exponentially. After Man rocked pretty hard. By the time The New Dinosaurs came out, it was clear that he was just taking critters from one clade and cramming them into the ecospace occupied by some other extant critter. Man After Man did nothing for me, and I just flat hated The Future is Wild, although admittedly my opinion of that was biased by seeing blatant plagiarism on screen in the first ten minutes.

I like SpecWorld better anyway.

9:29 AM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

Whoops! That last comment was totally incoherent. Before I went on the rant at the end, I should have clarified that the sauropod turtle is in The Future is Wild, not After Man. AM rules, TFW drools.

10:31 AM  
Blogger Darren Naish said...

Blame Mike for the phantom memory of seeing giant graviportal turtles in After Man. As I've told him many times, the mega-turtles were in FIW. They're obviously based on the idea that sauropods were just scaled-up turtle mimics and that turtles could be sauropod-mimics if conditions were right. As you'll know this is seriously arguable, or 'wrong'.

And I can't let this post go without mentioning it on my site you bastard. Stay tuned...

2:54 AM  
Blogger Neutrino Cannon said...

It would be a little bit of a different experiment, but I would want to test Jared Diamond's hypothesis in Guns, Germs and Steel about geographical determinism if the geography were just a little bit different.

I want to see what happens if humans develop agriculture before the Bering straits go all wet. Alaska, the Pacific Islands and East Asia would be a horizontally oriented, optimally divided hotbed of human development to rival Western Europe.

What would happen? Would North American humans get a leg up on history and domesticate their local megafauna? Would Beringia become the Eastern center of human technology and culture, eventually prevented from flooding by elaborate dykes? Would the Kamchatkan Empire and the Ilutian Kingdoms fight an epic war which nearly ends when an Ilutian general marches war mammoths over the volcanoes?

7:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

All excellent ideas (I like turtles).
As to SPEC, you might've had an outdated link to the site, which is presently here and is considering moving to a new and better site in the future. (just so you know)

10:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link Dr Vector! One of my favorite games is to extend the "scratch all but x" game for several steps. Let's leave some turtles alone for XX million years and see what they bring up. Now let's take their filter-feeding descendants and leave THEM alone... etc etc, it's pretty addictive!

2:35 AM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

Thanks all for stopping by and commenting.

Neutrino, I like the cut of your jib. One thing about the rise of civilization during a glacial period: there would be a hell of a lot of farmable continental shelf exposed. More arable land equals more people equals what? I like Beringia as the cradle of civilization. Europe might be a serious rival, though, with so much more land exposed and grassed-over seabeds to feed its population. On the flip side, the Beringians would have more incentive to develop big navies. Your vision of war mammoths marching over volcanoes is one of the most beautiful images I've ever held in my head. Somebody make this movie NOW.

Keenir, that's great news about SpecWorld. It's a real monument in the world(s) of speculative zoology. I'd kill for a SpecWorld coffee table book. Do you know if anything like that is in the offing?

Nemo, your idea of iterated what if is dynamite. After all, that's what real life does with mass extinctions. As long as we're speculating we might as well be equally bold. Love your art. Keep doin' what you're doin'.

2:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Keenir, that's great news about SpecWorld. It's a real monument in the world(s) of speculative zoology. I'd kill for a SpecWorld coffee table book. Do you know if anything like that is in the offing?

Yes. Just not soon.

In the meantime, we've started moving to my university server (almost unlimited webspace!) -- it's just that I am the limiting factor for uploading stuff, and I hardly ever have enough spare time at once. A few pages, usually updated over those from the bowdoin server, are already at (if that doesn't work, try; many pages that are unfinished but way advanced over their bowdoin versions (Dan ran out of time, too) or are altogether new can be found here

8:08 AM  
Blogger Will Baird said...

Hey Dr V (and Darren):

On a few of your scenarios, we've done them already a few times in discussions on Soc.history.what-if.

No Asteriod Impact Extinctions:

Heterodosauridae Diversifies:

Leapin Lemurs:

No Permian Extinction:

No Rodents:

No Himalayas:

Future Evolution:

Natural Landmines:

No Primates:

Jared Diamond Meets the Hobbits:

Future Elvis Taxa (or more properly convergent evolution):

Photosynthesizing Fungus:


Boy you guys are late in the game. ;)

If you care to join...;)

9:02 AM  
Blogger ExpatMom said...

There's also a series of posts on a world where Antarctica never separated from Australia, so the Neogene is much warmer and wetter.

Among many, many others.

Here's one of mine -- land crabs evolve earlier, do more:

Like all of Usenet, soc.history.what.if is gradually fading away. But it is still around, and there are still some lively conversations going on. Feel free to drop by.


Doug M.

11:55 AM  
Blogger Daniel M. Bensen said...

Hello fellow alternative evolution afficionados. This is Dan Bensen. I've been on hiatus from my own alternate world for some time now, but your lively conversation and amazing ideas pushed me back into the game.

I'm editing Spec again. Check out its new web page at

4:14 PM  
Blogger Daniel M. Bensen said...

Okay everyone, Spec has made its first step back into the world of the living

And if you want to talk to me about Spec, please visit my blog

3:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your nice post!

8:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I want amphibians to inherit the Earth!
Let's see some giant predator caecilians and hippo-sized semiaquatic non-jumping frogs. Let's see some lean salamander-leopards. How about an amphiuna-whale? The way I see it: bring on the amphibians!

5:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like the above commenter, I'd like to see the amniotes go extinct. What niches could amphibians expand into? Could flighted amphibians evolve? While retaining their amphibian nature?

Another idea: extinction of all aquatic tetrapods, both fish and secondarily aquatic. Sure, new lineages would re-enter the sea, but how might the aquatic invertebrates expand?

Or, more radical, extinction of all vertebrates, or perhaps chordates. Let's see if the arthropods can take over the large-animal niches. Maybe, without competition from bigger animals, they might find some way to grow larger, with analogous development of true lungs.

4) Placental mammals never evolve. I don't care what it takes, just keep them from evolving. Let the marsupials and the monotremes have a shot.

5) Some early hominid species enters North America, maybe an early Homo or even an Austrolopithecine. Might they evolve intelligence, and hold back the ancestors of those who, in our world, became the Native Americans? Or would they die out? Even if they did, how would North America's ecology differ with an earlier exposure to homonids? I'm guessing more megafauna surviving. Maybe permitting the Native Americans to develop better technology, and more domesticated animals. Heck, the survival of the horse alone would've made a huge difference. Maybe a two-way arrow of disease when Europeans encounter them.

6) Survival, somewhere, of an australopithecine or early homo species. Could make for some VERY interesting social issues in modern times, equal rights issues and the like ...

11:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One idea I have not been able to get out of my head is Elephant Island, that large tropical Island where, by sheer & incredible coincidence, the only mammals were elephants, who over the millenias evolved to fill up all all ecological niches available, from the small arboreal monkeyphant with his grasping trunk , the even smaller micephants, the flying squirrel like dumbophants up to the top of the food chain, the carnophant rex.

2:46 PM  
Anonymous James said...

Even though this is pretty old, I'd like to see what jellyfish would evolve into...Especially if they somehow move onto land after developing some muscle-type body parts

7:39 PM  
Blogger Mitch said...

another variation of this game is to take a modern species send it back in time and play the history of evolution out all over again.
Crocodiles in the Carboniferous for example?
Grass in the Triassic?
Camels in the Permian?
Coconut Palms in the Ordovician?

2:24 AM  
Blogger Daniel M. Bensen said...

I'm working on a science fiction book and I am posting to this forum to ask for help with my speculative geography and paleoclimatology.
The premise is that during the Tertiary, Antarctica drifted northwards until it (re)merged with Australia, creating a large continent in the southern hemisphere. (see a map at bensen-daniel dot deviantart dot com slash # slash d35x2bb)
My questions are:
1. How would this geography effect world climate? (we need an ice age because humans have to evolve)
2. What can we expect about the biota of a modern, temperate Antarctica?
3. Tectonically, is this premise at all feasible? Is there a better way to get a large continent in the southern hemisphere's temperate zones (that's important for the plot of the book)

Thanks in advance for your help.

Daniel Bensen

2:48 AM  
Blogger Daniel M. Bensen said...

And by the way, thanks for the shoutout for Spec :)

2:49 AM  
Anonymous levitra cialis said...

I have been reading some zoology books about dinosaurs , I think that their world was spectacular, could you imagine if dinosaurs still living ????

8:18 AM  
Blogger David Bofinger said...

I think the turtles have the land sewn up, the merely terrestrial fish like the lungfish will find it very hard to push in there.

But, as in tFiW, flying fish can learn to fly for real and their only competition will be insects. Then secondarily flightless flying flying fish [sic] can compete with turtles from the air down.

Some large arthropods are going to get established - equivalents of things like the Cretaceous dragonflies and today's coconut crabs - and some will survive the great testudine radiation but maybe not many.

Who have I missed. Have the molluscs any chance at all?

7:20 PM  
Anonymous GuesssWho said...

I'd like to remove the whole vertibrate concept, see what evolves from opabinia and anamalocaris and whatnot.

10:06 PM  

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