Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Great Filter – Trees

One of the ideas that people who write about Great Filters have is that it is us.  We arose because of a unique and rarely occurring combination of genes and because it was so rare, few worlds like ours give rise to intelligent life which learns how to travel to other solar systems.  That is why we have not been visited by extra-terrestrial life and the tourist trade is off and only restricted to locals.

Recall that a Great Filter is something along the road from pre-life (or pre-planet, even) that has a difference between the before picture and the after picture.  The before picture is full of worlds and there are lots of examples of the before type place in the galaxy.  The after picture is bleak and virtually no worlds lie in this category.  If the Great Filter is really tough, maybe none ever will, and the galaxy will remain barren of star-traveling aliens until it disappears.  This means that figuring out what Great Filter exists, or Great Filters exist, is a very interesting and intriguing exercise in both thought and science.

As noted in another blog post, it is difficult think about the far distant past and nail down exactly what a Great Filter is or could have been.  The details of the steps around that event, the genetic combination or any of a number of other possibilities, are not known yet.  Looking for Great Filters in more recent times is easier.  We have something to go on. 

Humanity is a bit proud of what it is, or at least some individuals are, in that we are the only intelligent species we know of, not including the ones we exterminated on the way to being intelligent and not counting the intelligent ones that don’t make tools.  If there was a word for a species related to ‘egotist’ for an individual, we might be called ‘speciesist’, but that combination of letters is undoubtedly too cumbersome to ever be repeated.  The general idea is that we are special and therefore maybe we are the Great Filter, but this idea arises because of a lack of humility.

From what we know of the rise from primordial slime to skyscraper building creatures, a lot of things happen along the way.  Perhaps it was one of those things that is the rarity and deserves to be considered the Great Filter, or one of them.  This is what the previous blog post alluded to.  There are a lot of things that happened in recent times, or which might be happening now, or which can be envisioned to happen in the near future, and perhaps one of those is the Great Filter.  If we figure it out, we might even use this information for our own advantage, assuming we want to get back on the train leading to becoming a star-traveling alien (to other cultures we happen to visit). 

This blog post is about trees.  Suppose trees never evolved, and all we had was grasses, scrubs, cactus, leafy vegetables, and whatever else there is in the plant kingdom besides trees.  This assumes there is a unique combination of genes that rarely gets together to make the first tree, and all the other planets in the galaxy don’t have any and therefore never got to be star-traveling aliens.  We make all kinds of things out of trees, and without wood, experiments might not get done, engineering advances might not happen, civilizations don’t become prosperous enough to afford scientists, transport on waterways has to be done on grass mats which don’t do very well on the open sea (Kon-tiki aside), and many other obstacles exist, all of which are sufficient to prevent us from ever making the transition from grass-growing agriculturalists to Apollo astronauts and beyond. 

Do we know if trees are the Great Filter?  They certainly have had a tremendously beneficial effect on human civilization and it is hard to imagine that we would ever have reached today’s pinnacle of culture without it.  In short, no trees, no American Idol.  The other side of the equation is the rarity of the origination of trees from non-tree life, and we don’t know much about that. 

We need to invent a new branch of science for the next paragraph.  My apologies if there are already rafts of grad students working on this field and I just missed the announcement of its formation.  ‘Archeogenetics’ would be the study of genetics of the last billion years or two.  Since we don’t know much yet about genetics, it is too early to kick off archeogenetics and too soon to expect any results from it to affect our thinking.  But it is not inconceivable that there is, inside the genome of the generic tree, some unique combination of genes that allows it to have a trunk that gets big enough to make a mast out of.   The archeogenetics of the future will reveal that particular combination or multiple combinations of genes that have to simultaneously mutate just right to have the first tree trunk. 

Perhaps there is something in our genes that understands this and that is why we have Forests Forever collecting money to preserve California old growth, and natural parks all around the world wherever enlightened people live, and wood floors, and people who camp out up in trees threatened by logging, and people who protest the demolition of parks with a few treasured trees in them, and arboretums, and lots more tree worship things, even culminating in druids. 

It would be nice if trees were the Great Filter.  That means we are destined to finish our inventing of space ships and travel the galaxy.  The Great Filter is behind us and not in front of us, so nothing stands in our way of fulfilling the assumed destiny of all primordial slime not stopped by the Great Filter.  All we need to do is keep stumbling forward, figuring out this bit of science and that neat engineering toy, and we eventually will find ourselves on Alpha Centauri or some more palatial planet not too many light years away.

It also has a great meaning for our lives.  Specifically, it means that we have a mission, should we choose to accept it.  We need to go to all the planets where life is struggling to get to the stars but can’t because they don’t have trees.  We need to drop down what they need so they can get by the Great Filter and join us on our tour of the galaxy, or at least become some interesting civilization to have a war with.
Assuming we do this, we might return in some millennia and see how things are going.  Maybe we will find the civilization of crabs on Planet 66 have incorporated us into their religion.  They have ceremonies where they pray for the ships to come back and not drop acorns on them, but something a bit more edible.  Their priests and priestesses have had visions of things like mangos and avocados and the crab people have the mango chant and the avocado chant, which they do every eleventh day at sunrise.  After the chant, the crab people walk around hoping to be hit by a falling seed, which might injure them but in a good cause.  One of the chapters in their holy works is about how the gods don’t care about collateral damage and it’s actually a good thing to be plunked on the carapace by an acorn falling from untold heights.  Crabs are kind of crazy that way.

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