For A Good Time On The Intertubes Today (And Forever): Annalee Newitz Takes Survival To Extremes

Very short notice this time, folks, but once again, I’m doing the funny intertube-radio thingee.  Today’s broad/podcast brings io9 founding editor Annalee Newitz in to talk about her book Scatter, Adapt, And Remember.*

We’ll be talking at 5ET, 2PT (about an hour and half from now).  Listen live or later on Virtually Speaking Science, or join us in the virtually live studio audience at the Exploratorium’s joint in Second Life, where an implausibly tall and fit Levenson avatar will interrogate Annalee’s robot self.

The focus of our chat — death, destruction, and the possibility of slipping the noose.  Annalee’s book looks at what it will take for the human species to survive another million years — avoiding the threat of mass extinction along the way.  Her book really does two things.  For one, it provides a very good short introduction to the science of mass extinction, what we know and how we’ve figured out about the five times in Earth’s history that ~75% or more of all species on the planet went caput.  Then in the second half, Annalee examines the threats humankind have already confronted, looks at what that history tells us about current dangers, and writes about the ways we can now think about near and long term escapes from the worst outcomes.  It’s a combination (as you’d expect from the mind behind the “We Come From The Future” brigade over at io9) of bravura science writing — imaginative and rigorously grounded accounts of current inquiry — and plausible, exciting speculation.


To emphasize:  this isn’t a work of speculative writing, fiction or non-fiction.  It’s an argument that includes speculation, given its weight through the third element of  Annalee’s title:  “Remember.”   There’s a beautiful section in the middle of the book in which Annalee discusses the science fiction of Octavia Butler.  There, she grapples with the nub of the book.  Whatever actual path(s) we take, should descendents of 21st century humans persist for geologically noticeable swathes of time, they will do so as one or many species increasingly divergent from our own.  What will be human about them, Annalee argues, will turn on the power and persistence of memory.  That sounds exactly right to me.

Come join us for the chat.  Should be fun…and more than that too, I hope.

*You can take up that title’s Oxford comma-hood in the comments, if you’re that kind of person.  Me, I’m an agnostic.

Image:  David Teniers the Younger, Apes in the Kitchen, c. 1645.

17 replies
  1. 1
    mclaren says:

    Scientists have discovered that the likelihood of the human race getting wiped out by an asteroid strike is much higher than had previously been thought.

    Given the current state of human civilization (so-called), I’m tempted to celebrate.

  2. 2
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    I thought at first those were badly-painted cats. Which made no aesthetic nor cognitive sense, given how carefully-rendered everything else in the painting is.

    Newitz’ book sounds interesting. I’ll try to catch the conversation, and I will add the book to the neverending TBR stack.

    I think the Oxford comma adds a bit of useful emphasis to the word “Remember.” Maybe not strictly necessary, grammatically, but stylistically elegant.

  3. 3
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    OT, but this is hilarious (via Powder Blue Satan):

    According to The New York Times, D’Souza’s lawyer is claiming that the conservative pundit is being “targeted…because of his consistently caustic and highly publicized criticism” of President Obama. (The prosecution has called these claims “entirely without merit.”) The Times also reports that prosecutors claim to have a recording made by the husband of a woman D’Souza was “involved with romantically” who was “one of the alleged straw donors.” According to the woman, D’Souza said that if he were eventually charged, he might plead not guilty to help “get his story out there”:

    D’Dumbshit’s delusions of his importance as a thorn in the side of the Kenyan Anti-Colonialist are comedy gold. He’s like Art Robinson projecting Robinson’s own fantasies of how he’d use the power of a House seat onto Peter DeFazio.

  4. 4
    different-church-lady says:

    Annalee’s book looks at what it will take for the human species to survive another million years

    At this point, I’m thinking, “Why would we want to?”


    …badly painted cats…

    Helluva band name that would be.

  5. 5
    jl says:

    @mclaren: I think that research says that the probability of a city, not the entire world, being wiped out is higher than formerly thought. As I understand it, the analysis is based on new measurements of the frequency of city-destroying size asteroid strikes, and there are more of them than we thought.

  6. 6
    Amir Khalid says:

    … but not so original, alas. There used to be a singer who styled himself Badly Drawn Boy.

  7. 7
    jl says:

    And a question for evolution mavens here. Won’t humans have evolved into something else by a million years from now? As I understand it, we anatomically modern humans are only 200 to 250 K years old.

    The way I figure it, we are doomed even if things go wonderfully,simply because of evolution.

    And all those weirdos wondering how to upload themselves into computers (our descendents will chunk them into museums of old clocks and stuff), or changing the human race into low energy something or others to survive as long as possible into heat death of universe in umpty billion years are wasting their time. We are goners in the natural course of things even with nothing but rainbows, unicorns and magic gumdrop lands in our future.

  8. 8
    Anoniminous says:


    A million years from now our descendents, if we have descendents, will be different. How much different and in what ways depends on too many Known Unknowns, e.g., another genetic bottleneck, mutation, etc., for prediction to be other than sheer speculation.

  9. 9
    daveNYC says:

    @jl: Not to mention that our far-future descendants will probably not be experiencing anything similar to what we consider evolution. Between genetic engineering and the ability to control our own environment (assuming crazy sci-fi levels of tech) the future shape of humanity won’t be left to something as vague as ‘go live in an environment with low levels of sunlight -> X years later everyone is pale in order to maximize vitamin D production’.

  10. 10
    jl says:

    @daveNYC: Pride goeth before a fall.

  11. 11
    sharl says:

    Finally got a chance to listen to one of these exchanges, though came in late. Newitz’s views of potential outcomes for our wretched species ranged from pessimistic to hopeful, with some basis provided for both views; easier to provide the basis for the former rather than the latter, of course.

    What I liked best about her view was her willingness to address our animal nature, which is not at all incompatible with the reality of our uniqueness as a species – but hey, what species isn’t unique? – but which I suspect makes a lot of folks uncomfortable. And I doubt that any comfort would be had by those folks upon hearing her go on to acknowledge the needs of the human animal, and how we might be able to meet those needs in a more hostile Earth environment.

    I’m afraid a lot of folks will summarily dismiss much of this, since it runs counter to a viewpoint that presumes a human being that is exceptional and distinct from animal: Garden of Eden and all that. That view is dearly held by many I suspect, and has been strengthened by religious, political and industrial institutions over the centuries. Given that kind of widely and (I suspect) largely subconsciously held view, I’m glad Newitz is out there slugging away. I haven’t been over to io9 in ages, despite reading and appreciating her past work; I’ll have swing by there more often.

  12. 12
    The Thin Black Duke says:

    @jl: “Pride”? Why would you say that? Why wouldn’t you use the tools available to you to ensure mankind’s survival? I’d call it “common sense”.

  13. 13
    Seanly says:

    Ur book link is no good. KTHXBAI

  14. 14
    sharl says:

    @Seanly: Heh, looks like Tom didn’t finish the link.

    Amazon link here; the reviews (88 of them) here.

    The histogram of her reviews shows mostly favorable responses, but unfortunately, the reviews at the top of the “most helpful” ranking are one-star. Make of that what you will.

  15. 15
    Villago Delenda Est says:


    I’m afraid a lot of folks will summarily dismiss much of this, since it runs counter to a viewpoint that presumes a human being that is exceptional and distinct from animal: Garden of Eden and all that.

    A great deal of the broomstick up the assedness of this type in regards to sex and sexuality traces to this strange notion that we’re different from every other biological thing on this planet.

    Uh, hello, dumbshits…you have to fuck to make babies.

  16. 16
    jl says:

    @The Thin Black Duke: I dunno. Seems to me evolution can still work in unexpected ways on what we humans think we are designing for ourselves.

  17. 17
    jake the snake says:

    I am among those who struggle to find a reason to believe a 6th extinction would be a bad idea. However, if we do find a way to survive as a species, perhaps that might be an indication that we deserve to survive. Though “deserve” might not be the correct term.

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