(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘anthropocene

“The beaver told the rabbit as they stared at the Hoover Dam: No, I didn’t build it myself, but it’s based on an idea of mine”*…

Of all the things that humanity builds from concrete or stone, there are few structures that influence the surface of Earth quite as profoundly as a dam.

By blocking the flow of a river, we dare to defy gravity’s pull on water from mountain to estuary – and influence the trajectory of geology itself. A dam does so much more than submerge a valley to create a reservoir: it transforms a river’s natural course, accruing silt and sediment at an artificial barrier, and dampening water’s erosional force downstream

Their vertiginous walls, striking shapes and deep foundations will also leave a unique archaeological imprint. Some of these engineered monoliths are so enormous that they may be preserved for millennia.

Meanwhile, dams can also bring deep changes for the people who live nearby, and the generations that follow them. When a government in a distant capital decides to exploit its rivers, destruction of local homes, farmland and livelihoods often follows. For example, while the rest of the world focused on Covid-19 earlier this year, an entire ancient town in Turkey was lost to rising reservoir waters. Long after we are gone, future archaeologists will study such submerged settlements and may wonder why we let them go for the sake of short-term politics and energy demand.

The effects can be felt a long way from home, too. Damming rivers that wind through continents, like the Nile in Africa, can withhold valuable water and power from countries downstream, forever changing the trajectories of those nations…

Few human structures can change a landscape quite like a dam– a pictorial essay: “How dams have reshaped our planet.”

* Nobel laureate Charles H. Townes


As we interrogate interruption, we might recall that it was on this date in 1570 that the All Saints Flood broke dikes and overwhelmed the Dutch (and parts of the German) coast. At least 20,000 people were drowned and many times that many left homeless; livestock was lost in huge numbers; and winter stocks of food and fodder were destroyed. In Zeeland the small islands Wulpen, Koezand, Cadzand, and Stuivezand were permanently lost.

Drawing by Hans Moser in 1570 of the flood


Written by LW

November 1, 2020 at 1:01 am

“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change”*…




In the near future, we will be in possession of genetic engineering technology which allows us to move genes precisely and massively from one species to another. Careless or commercially driven use of this technology could make the concept of species meaningless, mixing up populations and mating systems so that much of the individuality of species would be lost. Cultural evolution gave us the power to do this. To preserve our wildlife as nature evolved it, the machinery of biological evolution must be protected from the homogenizing effects of cultural evolution.

Unfortunately, the first of our two tasks, the nurture of a brotherhood of man, has been made possible only by the dominant role of cultural evolution in recent centuries. The cultural evolution that damages and endangers natural diversity is the same force that drives human brotherhood through the mutual understanding of diverse societies. Wells’s vision of human history as an accumulation of cultures, Dawkins’s vision of memes bringing us together by sharing our arts and sciences, Pääbo’s vision of our cousins in the cave sharing our language and our genes, show us how cultural evolution has made us what we are. Cultural evolution will be the main force driving our future…

An important essay by Freeman Dyson, emeritus professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton: “Biological and Cultural Evolution– Six Characters in Search of an Author.”

* Leon C. Megginson (often misattributed to Darwin, on whose observations Megginson based his own)


As we agonize over the anthropocene, we might recall that it was on this date in 1968 that James Watson’s The Double Helix was published.  A memoir, it describes– with manifest hubris– “perhaps the most famous event in biology since Darwin’s book,” the 1953 discovery, published by Watson and Francis Crick, of the now-famous double helix structure of the DNA molecule.

Crick, however, viewed Watson’s book as “far too much gossip,” and believed it gave short shrift to Rosalind Franklin’s vital contribution via clues from her X-ray crystallography results.  It was originally slated to be published by Harvard University Press, Watson’s home university,  Harvard dropped the arrangement after protests from Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins (their supervisor, who shared the Nobel Prize);  it was published instead by Atheneum in the United States and Weidenfeld & Nicolson in the UK.

In any case, the book opens a window into the competitiveness, struggles, doubts, and human foibles that were baked into this landmark in science.

220px-TheDoubleHelix source


Lest we doubt…

While some things stay (surprisingly, gratifyingly, depressingly) the same, there are some things– many things– that really are materially different, both in kind and in degree, from times past.

By way of demonstration, the folks at Globaia have compiled a collection of charts that is stunning (in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word).

to enlarge, click on the image above, or here, and again 

And as to the infrastructure that’s abetted all of this change, see Globaia’s Map of Global Transportation Systems.

[TotH to Curiosity Counts]


As we ponder the implications of so many hockey sticks all in a row, we might recall that Samuel Clemens’– Mark Twain’s– route to writing was round-about: In 1861, Clemens’ brother Orion became secretary to the territorial governor of Nevada; the national-treasure-to-be, having worked as a printer in St. Louis, New York, and Philadelphia, jumped at the offer to accompany his sibling West. Clemens spent his first year in Nevada prospecting for a gold or silver mine.  Out of money, he took a job as reporter for the Virginia City, Nevada, newspaper Territorial Enterprise; his articles on the booming frontier-mining town began to appear on this date in 1862.

Like many journalists of the day, Clemens adopted a pen name, signing his articles “Mark Twain,” a term from his old river boating days.

In 1864, he traveled farther West to cover the booming state of California, where he wrote “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”– the Tall-Tale success of which catapulted Clemens out of the West to become a globe-trotting journalist.

In 1869, Clemens settled in Buffalo, New York, and later in Hartford, Connecticut.  Clemens had spent only about five years in the West, and the majority of his subsequent work focused on the Mississippi River country and the Northeast.  Still, his 1872 account of his western adventures, Roughing It, remains one of the most evocative eyewitness accounts of the frontier ever written.  And surely more importantly, even his non-western masterpieces like Tom Sawyer (1876) and Huckleberry Finn (1884), in their playful rejection of Eastern pretense and genteel literary conventions, reflect a frontier sensibility.

Mark Twain, honorary Westerner, by Mathew Brady (source)

%d bloggers like this: