The Great SF Stories 1 (1939)

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, February 5, 2018

I’m having BIG fun reading old science fiction short stories. However, are there valid justifications for spending so much time reading old science fiction when I could be reading shiny new stories instead?  Or even spend that time reading high-quality literary works or vastly more informative nonfiction? I have to confess a sense of guilt. I worry I’m wasting my time slumming in a pulp fiction past.

The-Great-SF-Stories-1-1939

 

For some reason, I’m being drawn into a self-imposed project of sequentially reading annual anthologies of the best science fiction short stories starting with 1939. I picked that year because The Great SF Stories #1 (1939) is the earliest annual anthology series I could find. I’ve been soul-searching trying to understand why I want to do this, but so far my psyche hasn’t provided any conclusive insight. I have made these rationalizations:

  • I’ve been reading science fiction for over a half-century and want to make sense of that obsession.
  • I’m fascinated by the evolution of science fiction and its themes.
  • I think I actually get more science fictional bang for my buck out of short stories.
  • I’m trying to decide what’s unique about science fiction literature.
  • I’m trying to decide if science fiction has any value other than entertainment.
  • I’m wondering which stories are truly worth preserving.
  • As I progress through the years I want to see how cultural change is reflected in science fiction.
  • I wonder if old science fiction is worth preserving.
  • Finally, I wonder if this is a form of exorcism, where I’m trying to wrap up my relationship with science fiction. I assume if I study it thoroughly enough I’ll learn how all the magic tricks are accomplished.

Because the web now provides access to old pulp magazines I wish I had the time and patience to just read everything from each year — but I can’t. Most of those old stories are just crap. And even the best stories aren’t really that good by modern literary standards. I figure I have the time and patience to read one or two annual anthologies per month, covering 12-24 years a year. This means that I might have a pretty good knowledge of short science fiction by the time I’m 70.

The Great SF Stories series were edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. They began in 1979 with #1 (1939) and ended in 1992 with #25 (1963). I assumed Greenberg did all the work and Asimov added a bit of pithy memory under Greenberg’s short introduction to each story. These old DAW paperbacks generally run $10-60 on eBay. I got volumes 1-12 in a reprint hardback edition that collected two years for each volume. Those 6 volumes were renamed the Golden Years of SF. I think I was able to get all six for less than $40 including shipping. I’m working on buying #13-25. There is a certain symmetry of using this series because they cover science fiction 12 years before the year I was born and continue for 12 years after. They end just about the time I started reading the then current annuals edited by Judith Merril.

Here is the table of contents of #1 from ISFDB. The story link will take you back to ISFDB where you can see where the story has been anthologized over the years. That’s a good indication of its lasting value. Many were well anthologized in the 1950s and 1960s, and have since disappeared from cultural memory.

Were these the best science fiction short stories of 1939? Did Asimov and Greenberg leave out any better SF because they couldn’t obtain the reprint rights or weren’t to their tastes? I’m mostly going to talk about the stories I liked most, and if I can find some other stories from 1939 that I liked that Asimov/Greenberg didn’t collect.

My current favorite science fiction short stories for 1939 are:

  1. “Living Fossil” by L. Sprague de Camp (not in GreatSF#1)
  2. “The Day is Done” by Lester del Rey
  3. “Rust” by Joseph E. Kelleam
  4. “Black Destroyer” by A. E. van Vogt
  5. “The Gnarly Man” by L. Sprague de Camp
  6. “I, Robot” by Eando Binder
  7. “Misfit” by Robert A. Heinlein
  8. “The Four-Side Triangle” by William F. Temple
  9. “Greater Than Gods” by C. L. Moore
  10. “Life-Line” by Robert A. Heinlein
  11. “Pilgrimage” by Nelson S. Bond
  12. “Heavy Planet” by Milton A. Rothman

Jamie Todd Rubin discovered a letter in an April 1940 issue of Astounding by Isaac Asimov where 20-year-old Asimov listed his Top 10 stories of 1939. (Be sure to read Rubin’s “Vacation in the Golden Age of Science Fiction” if you love old SF short stories. I guess I’m not vacationing in the golden age of SF.)

Notice the overlap and difference between what was decided by Asimov/Greenberg in 1979 and the 1940 letter to the editor.

  1. One Against the Legion by Jack Williamson (serial novel)
  2. Lifeline by Robert Heinlein (in GreatSF#1)
  3. Gray Lensman by E. E. Smith (serial novel)
  4. Cosmic Engineers by Clifford D. Simak (serial novel)
  5. The Day Is Done by Lester del Rey (in GreatSF#1)
  6. Rope Trick by Eando Binder
  7. Nothing Happens on the Moon by Paul Ernst
  8. General Swamp, C.I.C. by Frederick Engelhardt
  9. Rust by Joseph E. Kelleam (in GreatSF#1)
  10. Smallest God by Lester del Rey

Back to The Great Short SF Stories 1, I wished Greenberg had not included the obvious fantasy stories. They could have included three more SF stories for 1939. “The Trouble with Water,” “The Misguided Halo,” and “Star Bright” just don’t belong in a collection called Great SF Stories.

Greenberg also included a second story by L. Sprague de Camp, “The Blue Giraffe” that had a nice science-fictional idea, but it paled in comparison to his standout story, “The Gnarly Man.” I would have used de Camp’s “Living Fossil” instead of “The Blue Giraffe” because it’s another standout story. “Living Fossil” had a much bigger SF idea — essentially prefiguring Planet of the Apes (1963). The idea was expanded by de Camp and P. Schuyler Miller in the novel Genus Homo that came out in 1941 in magazine form and 1950 in book form.

What if The Great SF Stories #1 (1939) could have included all the better SF stories from 1939 worth preserving? How many would that be? Asimov and Greenberg mainly focused on Astounding.

How is preserving worthiness decided? That’s hard to say. There are stories like “The Cloak of Aesir” by John W. Campbell that just didn’t turn me on at all. Should the personal tastes of the anthologist be the deciding factor? If we go by literary quality I’m not sure any of these stories are worth remembering.

Even though these stories entertained me I’m not sure I would recommend them to my friends my age, or younger readers. Science fiction from 1939 represents such a unique perspective on reality that I’m not sure they will be meaningful to many readers. I expect only old hardcore SF fans like myself who grew up reading these stories in the 1950s and 1960s will actually enjoy reading The Great SF Stories #1.

The only reason I can find for reading these stories is for understanding their influence on science fiction’s evolution. In terms of entertainment value, they can’t compete with modern science fiction found on Netflix or Amazon Prime. To a young person watching TV science fiction, 2018 science fiction is like shooting fentanyl and 1939 stories are like a watery Coors.

Ultimately, I decided the value of reading old science fiction comes from the pleasure of being an archeologist of science fictional ideas and themes. Think about it this way. There was a time in your life before you knew the concept of time travel. Can you remember when you first encountered it? The first time you conceive of traveling in time is mind-blowing. Of course, science fiction is so pervasive in our society that most children encounter all the classic ideas of science fiction before they go to school. They probably can’t remember the first time.

When I read these old stories I pay attention to the idea put across, and the historical context in which it was first created. I’m hoping by reading all these years of science fiction short stories will help me compile a list of themes and cite the progression of ideas through the years in the stories.

Here are briefly some of the themes I noticed from 1939. Over time I wish to expand them into full essays. I’ll try to avoid story specifics in case there are people who actually want to still read these stories. Even if you can’t find a copy of The Great SF Stories #1, most of the original magazines are available online for free. I read them with my iPad Mini by loading them in Dropbox.

Robots

There are two robot stories in this collection. The subject of “I, Robot” by Eando Binder is the first intelligent machine. “Rust” by Joseph E. Kelleam is about the last three robots on Earth. Both stories use robots for their POV, with Adam Link in “I, Robot” even using the first-person. I previously wrote, “I, Robot” by Eando Binder” to explain why I thought it a standout story in the history of fictional robots. In 1939 few people knew about computers. In fact, the term computer was a job classification for humans. I also like that Adam Link tells us his limitations.

“Rust” combines several SF themes, including the extinction of humanity, the extinction of robots, the creation of artificial intelligence, and programmed behavior. The robots in the story wonder why humans couldn’t overcome their instincts and they regret that their programming makes them kill. This is an early story of fearing the consequences of military robots.

“Rust” is a wistful story about the last three intelligent robots after man has become extinct, reminding me of Clifford Simak’s stories about robots telling each other tales of mythical mankind. I assume Simak read Astounding Science Fiction since his serial novel Cosmic Engineers ran in the magazine during 1939, so he probably read “Rust.”

“I, Robot” and “Rust” make bookend robot stories to include in this anthology of 1939. “I, Robot” is about the first intelligent robot, and “Rust” is about the last. Men want to kill Adam Link, but X-120 regrets exterminating humanity but blames humans for designing him to be a weapon. At one point X-120 obliterates a poor rabbit only to feel terrible remorse.  Unlike Asimov’s robots, the robot X-120 was programmed to kill.

Neanderthals

There are two stories in The Great SF Stories #1 about Neanderthals: “The Gnarly Man” by L. Sprague de Camp and “The Day is Done” by Lester del Rey. Both are about the last Neanderthal, however “The Gnarly Man” develops another science fiction theme, immortality. So in one story, the last Neanderthal was in the distant past, and the second he’s still living with us today. This idea has been bouncing around ever SF ever since, including “The Alley Man” by Philip Jose Farmer in a 1959 issue of F&SF, and recently in the 2007 film, The Man from Earth.

“The Day is Done” by Lester del Rey really grabbed me emotionally and is about the passing of a Neanderthal man who was living on Cro-Magnon charity. “The Day is Done” suggests Neanderthals interbred with modern man, which wasn’t a common belief back in 1939, but is considered fact today. It’s a lovely story that’s been often reprinted. You’d think stories Neanderthal life would be filed under historical fiction, but for some reason, science fiction has claimed them. See “5 SF/F Novels About Neanderthals That Aren’t The Clan of the Cave Bear” that barely mentions a few of them. I think the first story I remember reading on this theme was Mists of Dawn by Chad Oliver from the old Winston Science Fiction series. Asimov and Greenberg even did a whole anthology of such stories called Neanderthals.

Dangerous Aliens

This is one of the wonderful benefits of reading old science fiction is discovering the origin of popular modern SF stories. Ideas in new stories we read today are often old ideas being recycled. Anyone who knows “Black Destroyer” by A. E. van Vogt assumes the film Alien (1979) is its descendant — and Van Vogt shows us Coeurl’s POV, which is missing from H. R. Giger’s horrifying being.

“Black Destroyer” is a wonderful story on many levels. It feels like an episode of Star Trek, and this 1939 novelette includes many ideas that the 1960s TV show would explore in multiple episodes. The crew doesn’t include women, but it did have an important Japanese member.

“Cloak of Aesir” by John W. Campbell is another kind of alien invasion story, where superior beings take over the Earth and enslave humans.  It also involves the SF themes of Far Futures, Super Science, Psychic Powers, and Matriarchial Societies.

Prejudice Against Science

Both “Life-Line” by Robert A. Heinlein and “Trends” by Isaac Asimov are about anti-science prejudice. Of course, Heinlein’s idea was nutty, but he gave a decent enough explanation. I wondered if Heinlein and Asimov were reflecting anti-SF bias they felt from 1939 society. Science fiction and pulp magazines were considered trashy. Good parents didn’t let their kids reach such crap. SF fans often had to hide what they read, even though they thought of themselves as Slans (superior beings).

Both of these stories were about something else, predicting death and rocket travel, but I felt ultimately they were about prejudice to new ideas. When I was young I didn’t like “Life-Line” even though Heinlein was my favorite writer. But over the years, each time I reread “Life-Line” it gets better. For a first story, Heinlein was fairly savvy about storytelling, especially for writing for the pulps.

Mankind’s Extinction

Both “Rust” and “Living Fossil” a favorite story from 1939 not in this collection were about a time after humans went extinct. H. G. Wells started that idea I think in The Time Machine when he imagined the Eloi and Morlocks replacing us. Science fiction has often contemplated the end of humans, and well as our replacements.

“Living Fossil” did quite a lot for such a short story. De Camp nicely imagines monkeys from South America evolving our level of development millions of years after humans have disappeared. Even the interior illustration makes me wonder if Pierre Boulle ripped this story off for his novel Planet of the Apes. Evidently, L. Sprague de Camp isn’t as litigious as Harlan Ellison.

Living Fossil by L. Sprague de Camp - Astounding 1939 Feb

Matriarchial Societies

In “Pilgrimage” by Nelson Bond, we visit a far distant future after our society has long disappeared from the scene. Women rule. All the myths are about women gods. In “Cloak of Aesir” the alien invaders are ruled by the female of the species. I first encountered this idea in Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman from 1915. Goodreads lists 115 such books. Wikipedia has an article on “Single Gender Worlds.”

Psychic Powers

I thought psychic powers was an obsession of 1950s Astounding Science Fiction, but evidently, John W. Campbell had been thinking about it at least as early as “Cloak of Aesir” in 1939. “Star Bright” by Jack Williamson is a fantasy story about a man getting magical abilities from a meteorite piercing his skull and lodging in his brain.

“Greater Than Gods” by C. L. Moore is a powerful story about people in the far future projecting their thoughts to a man in our near future. Moore’s story is really about two roads the people of Earth could take in 1939. She just used psychic powers to show us two possible far-future outcomes–one a world united by power driven men (think Hitler), and the other a decadent world of peace and pleasure. Moore doesn’t want either, but she shows how both entice us.

Hard Science

There were two hard science stories in The Great SF Stories #1. The first was “Heavy Planet” by Milton A. Rothman that anticipates Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity. The second is Heinlein’s “Misfit” about a spaced based future CCC unit moving a small asteroid out of the asteroid belt into an orbit closer to Mars, making it into a long-term space station. Heinlein promotes the use of mathematics, discipline, and hard work. This could be his first juvenile SF story.

Conclusion

I really enjoyed these old stories, but I’m not sure younger people will. The storytelling is often crude. Modern science fiction on Netflix is far more sophisticated, colorful, exciting, and dynamic. I am constantly pleased while reading these old stories to unearth ideas we still use today. I feel like a science fiction archeologist piecing together the evolution of science fictional ideas. That’s very rewarding to me. Throughout this collection of 1939 stories, I found ideas that first amazed me in the 1960s when reading 1950s and 1960s science fiction. I thought those ideas were original back then. Evidently not. But were they original in 1939?

I assume if you live long enough you start thinking like the person who wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes. I also assume if I could time travel back to 450 BCE I’d find people telling stories that contained the seeds of all the stories in The Great SF Stories #1 (1939).

Jim

Is There Any Hope for the Future?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, October 24, 2017

A friend of mine recently posted to her Facebook that her world was rocked when she attended a lecture by Rev. Dr. William Barber who is leading a moral movement to repair the breaches in our society. I assume Laurie found hope in the idea we can save ourselves by creating a new moral order. Even though I’m an atheist, I’m all for this. The trouble is our society is too fractured. Is it even possible to put it back together again? I’ve recently wondered if there is any kind of movement that everyone could embrace and find agreement? I figured it would have to be as powerful as Christianity was in its first four centuries — and yet work with non-Christians and non-believers.

How can we find common ground? Everyone talks about America being politically polarized into conservatives and liberals, but I believe there are far more divisions than that cracking up our society. If every group identity is going to demand society conform to their narrow vision we are doomed. How can we find common ground when so many different viewpoints want to dominate making the rules? Instead of seeking cooperative compromises they all fight to impose their view while demeaning everyone else’s.

In small, homogenous societies, social coherence is found with shared morality. We live in a vast, heterogeneous society with countless ethical/moral visions which makes having shared values almost impossible. In the past, we all tried to agree on some social conventions such as etiquette, acceptable public behaviors, and abiding the laws. Such efforts are almost universally ignored now.

Our greatest obstacle to finding social consensus is defining reality. “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise” is how the apostle Paul began the divide between religion and science by attacking what he called the “empty logic of the philosophers.” Several hundred years later, St. Augustine continued with “There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity . . . It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn.”

The-Closing-of-the-Western-Mind-by-Charles-Freeman

I got these quotes from The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason by Charles Freeman. They explain perfectly how and why modern believers deny science. The faithful intuitively understand faith is threatened by science. It’s why Christianity embraced Plato and not Aristotle when they discovered the Greeks. It’s why conservatives have a never-ending guerrilla war with education working to undermine K-12 and higher education. They deny the results of science by denying science.

Is it even possible to find a common morality sharable by the sacred and the secular? We can’t even agree murder is evil. How can Christians embrace stand-your-ground laws, gun carrying permits, and AR-15s in light of the Sermon on the Mount? It’s strange that godless liberals support diversity, a concept that St. Paul brought to Christianity when many modern Christians reject it today. Not only is our secular society fractured into countless pieces, but so is Christianity. If believers in a single divine authority can’t agree how can secular society?

The old saying claims money is the root of all evil. I think it’s truer than ever. Money promotes self-interest, and self-interest promotes justifying the acquisition of money by any means. Our plutocratic society has escalated lying to the supreme tool of the greedy. Wealthy people and corporations have learned that lying pays big dividends. A great book that makes that point is The Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway.

There is a war on science, knowledge, expertise, and intellectualism. The greedy have aligned themselves with the faithful to attack science, and they are winning the war. We can never achieve a universal morality if half the population believes the end justifies the means, thus rationalizing lying. The age of fake news and endless assaults on journalism will never stop before society collapses. I sometimes wonder if the goals of the radical right are to destroy society so they can start over fresh.

There is no hope for any moral movements if we all can’t agree to stop lying. We all need to accept that science is the only tool we have for verifying reality. Science was invented to work across cultures and weed out subjective bias. It is an extremely effective tool for explaining the objective reality we all live in. We must accept that any subjective religion, philosophy, or opinion can’t be a basis for defining what is true. Religion has two choices. It can embrace science or reject it. Religion will strengthen itself if it accepts science, even if science denies it’s metaphysical assumptions. The real value of religion is creating shared values and stable communities — heaven on Earth rather than silly promises in exchange of silly declarations of beliefs.

The greedy are currently using religion to attack science to protect their wealth. The greedy have aligned with the faithful who are also attacking science to defend ancient memes created by primitive folks thousands of years ago. There is a logical synergy to their union but if it succeeds it will destroy our current civilization. Thus, greed is corrupting modern Christianity. I find it hard to accept the faithful who claim the moral high ground when Mammon is their ally.

I don’t know how they can assert America is a Christian nation when our society isn’t even close to resembling the sayings printed in red in their bibles. I believe Jesus tried to teach social action that has more in common with the Democratic party than the Republican. To me, the only valid analysis of Christian philosophy comes from what Jesus said. Everything else said in his name or about him is corrupt. Read The Five Gospels by the Jesus Seminar to understand what I mean, or the books of Bart D. Ehrman.

I believe our only hope is to get the faithful and faithless to agree on common secular morality. This is what the Founding Fathers intended when they created freedom of religion. Because religious beliefs are infinite in variety they need to stay out of politics and remain personal. We need laws and common morals that protect everyone equally. We need to ignore the politics of special interest groups that want special treatment for the few.

We need to agree that science is the only arbiter of explaining reality, promote universal quality education, develop a set of ethics that all agree on which protects both people, animals, the plant world, the environment, that develops a sustainable society. What we need is worldwide Constitution and Bill of Rights for everyone in the 21st century. We need to protect the poor and helpless, but allow the ambitious to succeed without collectively destroying the planet.

The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols

I’ve read two articles this week that suggests this won’t happen. Both are about the war on science and knowledge. The first is Bill Moyers dialog with Joan Scott at Salon, “In the Trump age, an embolden attack on intellectuals.” And this older article at The Federalist by Tom Nichols, “The Death of Expertise” which later became the book, The Death of Expertise.

Hope involves believing people can change. Since we haven’t for two hundred thousand years, why expect the human race to get its shit together at the last moment to avoid an apocalypse of our own making? We could save ourselves if we weren’t so greedy. Unfortunately, we live in a civilization where greed is the foundation.

JWH

 

Books To Read To Save The World

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, July 15, 2015

  • We will destroy civilization before the end of the century.
  • Denying science is denying reality.
  • Denying evidence for personal gain is treason to our species
  • Greed is destroying all the species on this planet including our own.
  • Self-interest is leading to species suicide.
  • We have the knowledge and technology to solve our problems.
  • We must change the way we live to save the planet.
  • Human nature is too stupid to survive free market capitalism.
  • We will not save the world just by buying LED light bulbs and driving electric cars.
  • Reading books will not save the Earth, but it will help understand the complexity of the problems we face.
  • Reading these books can be depressing.
  • Not reading these books only makes our problems worse.
  • Read and recommend books that help us understand the reality of your actions.
  • We can only divert the collapse of civilization if we find a new sustainable way to live.
  • Read ten books before deciding if I’m wrong.
  • Read another ten to begin to find hope.

If you know of other good books, recommend them in the comment section.

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? by Alan Weisman

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene by Roy Scranton

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty

The Rise and Fall of American Growth by Robert J. Gordon

Energy and Civilization: A History by Vaclav Smil

How Will Capitalism End? by Wolfgang Streeck

EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet by The Worldwatch Institute

Climate of Hope by Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope

The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea by Jack E. Davis

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan

Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild

White Trash: The 400-Year Untol History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisis Coaste

Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein

Sex Object by Jessica Valenti

Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few by Robert B. Reich

Dark Money by Jane Mayer

Getting to Green: Saving Nature – A Bipartisan Solution by Frederic C. Rich

The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World by Paul Gilding

Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean

Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life by David R. Montgomery

The Carbon Farming Solution by Eric Toensmeier

Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans De Waal

Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life by Edward O. Wilson

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder

No Is Not Enough by Naomi Klein

The Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea by Callum Roberts

Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization by Steven Solomon

Climate Change and the Health of Nations by Anthony J. McMichael

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by by Jared Diamond

JWH

“Humans Are Such Dicks!” Say all the animals.

If animals could talk, can you imagine their trash talk about us? Nothing for children to overhear. Imagine how furious they’d get if they could read books like The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert or Learning to Die in the Anthropocene by Roy Scanton. Humans are now the cause of the sixth great mass extinction event in the history of the Earth. We’ve fucked this world up so bad that scientists are now naming the geologic age after us – the Anthropocene. And since we’re such collective dumbasses, the age will probably be a short one. To make it even more tragic, scientists are discovering that animals are more aware, more sentient, than we thought. Consciousness of reality, is a spectrum, not a quantum leap. We may be the crown of creation on this planet, but we’re despotic rulers.

After I read The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, I started feeling very guilty about what our species is doing to all the other species. Then I started reading Half-Earth, Our Planet’s Fight For Life by Edward O. Wilson, who suggests we can absolve our guilt if we shared the planet fairly. I’m not sure most of my fellow humans feel that way. And then I bought, Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans De Waal. This one makes me feel even guiltier. Can we even comprehend minds not like our own? For the past year, I’ve noticed in my news reading more stories dealing with animal intelligence and sentience. Most people love animals, but do they love them enough to give them their fair share of the world?

I’m still reading on the last two books, but when I went looking for customer comments about them on Amazon, I noticed these other books. There seems to be a flood of animal awareness books coming out. Can we read enough books to actually mind-meld with animals? Can we expand our awareness of the natural world quick enough to change who we are, before we destroy us all?

What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins by Jonathan Balcombe (June, 2016)

What A Fish Knows by Jonathan Balcombe

Just as water influences the dynamics of vision, so it does for hearing, smell, and taste. Water is a superb conductor of sound waves, where they are almost five times longer than in air, as sounds travel five times faster in water. Fishes have benefited from this since the dawn of bones and fins, using sound for both orientation and communication. Water is also an excellent medium for diffusing water-soluble chemical compounds, and is well suited for the perception of smells and tastes. Fishes have separate organs for smelling and tasting, although the distinction is blurred because all substances are encountered in a water solution.

As they did color vision, fishes probably invented hearing. Despite the common assumption that fishes are silent, they actually have more ways of producing sounds than any other group of vertebrate animals. None of these methods involve the main method of all the other vertebrates: the vibration of air against membranes. Fishes can rapidly contract a pair of vocal muscles to vibrate their swim bladder, which also serves as a sound amplifier. They have the options of grating their teeth in their jaws, grinding additional sets of teeth lining their throat, rubbing bones together, stridulating their gill covers, and even—as we’ll see—expelling bubbles from their anuses. Some land-dwelling vertebrates get creative in producing nonvocal sounds, such as the drumming of woodpeckers and the chest pounding of gorillas, but fishes’ terrestrial cousins possess just two types of vocal apparatus—the syrinx of birds and the larynx of all the rest.

“What a Fish Hears, Smells, and Tastes” by Jonathan Balcombe

Makes you wonder what a fish feels and screams when hooked on a line, and then jerked out of the water. Imagine being that fish. Pescatarians probably feel fish are lesser creatures, and thus ethically consumable. But is that true?

The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman (April, 2016)

The Genius of Birds by Jennifer AckermanFor a long lime, the knock on birds was that they’re stupid. Beady eyed and nut brained. Reptiles with wings. Pigeon heads. Turkeys. They fly into windows, peck at their reflections, buzz into power lines, blunder into extinction.

Our language reflects our disrespect. Something worthless or unappealing is “for the birds.” An ineffectual politician is a “lame duck.” To “lay an egg” is to flub a performance. To be “henpecked” is to be harassed with persistent nagging. “Eating crow” is eating humble pie. The expression “bird brain,” for a stupid, foolish, or scatterbrained person, entered the English language in the early 1920s because people thought of birds as mere flying, pecking automatons, with brains so small they had no capacity for thought at all.

That view is a gone goose. In the past two decades or so. from fields and laboratories around the world have flowed examples of bird species capable of mental feats comparable to those found in primates. There’s a kind of bird that creates colorful designs out of berries, bits of glass, and blossoms to attract females, and another kind that hides up to thirty three thousand seeds scattered over dozens of square miles and remembers when it put them months later. There’s a species that solves a classic puzzle at nearly the same pace as a five-year-old child, and one that’s an expert at picking locks. There are birds that can count and do simple math, make their own tools, move to the beat of music, comprehend bask principles of physics, remember the past, and plan for the future.

“One – From Dodo to Crow: Take the Measure of a Bird Mind”  by Jennifer Ackerman

My friend Anne raised a baby starling this spring, and I hung out with her when she released the bird. For a couple weeks the bird would come see her. You could see that it had imprinted on Anne, and for a while, that bird lived in two worlds – his natural world, and ours. When you’re that close to nature, you see that nature is more than what we dismiss.

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben (Sept, 2016)

I can’t quote from the book, but here’s the blurb at Amazon:

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter WohllebenIn The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben shares his deep love of woods and forests and explains the amazing processes of life, death, and regeneration he has observed in the woodland and the amazing scientific processes behind the wonders of which we are blissfully unaware. Much like human families, tree parents live together with their children, communicate with them, and support them as they grow, sharing nutrients with those who are sick or struggling and creating an ecosystem that mitigates the impact of extremes of heat and cold for the whole group. As a result of such interactions, trees in a family or community are protected and can live to be very old. In contrast, solitary trees, like street kids, have a tough time of it and in most cases die much earlier than those in a group.

Drawing on groundbreaking new discoveries, Wohlleben presents the science behind the secret and previously unknown life of trees and their communication abilities; he describes how these discoveries have informed his own practices in the forest around him. As he says, a happy forest is a healthy forest, and he believes that eco-friendly practices not only are economically sustainable but also benefit the health of our planet and the mental and physical health of all who live on Earth.

I’ve been a vegetarian since 1969, and I have always assumed that plants didn’t suffer. This will be a hard book for me to read. Humans are animals, and in the animal world, everything eats some other creature. But I think, because we’re more aware of reality, we have an obligation to be more than an animal. If we used the animal world for our precedent on ethics, murder would be acceptable. We need to be more conscious of what we eat, how it affects our own health, how it effects the biosphere, and its impact on the ethical treatment of other species. If we stopped raising cattle, it would be one route to Wilson’s plan to share the planet. That would give back a tremendous amount of land to the plants and animals, and greatly reduce our carbon footprint. We should also cut back on fishing the oceans, and let the seas recover.

Of course, that means humans giving up something. We’re not really good at do-be-sharers. But if we gave up beef and at least half of the seafood we eat, we could dramatically change the direction of the sixth extinction. Will we? I don’t think so. I doubt many people will even read these books.

And I don’t mean to be cynical.

It’s just everything the animals say about us is true.

JWH

The Mathematics of Persuasion

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, December 6, 2015

I’m fascinated by the idea of society changing. This week it was announced that women will have access to all combat roles in the U. S. military. It wasn’t many years ago that would have been unthinkable. It’s less than 100 years since women got the vote in the United States, and now we could be close to having a woman President. Or think about the cultural shift of same-sex marriages. I’m already seeing charming ads by wedding planners running photos that feature a man and a woman, woman and woman and man and man couples. There’s also a lot of movement to legalize marijuana in various states. Society seems to be changing fast. But in other ways, it doesn’t. Even though we have a black President race relations are still very troubled. Sometimes I think culture can change fast, but not necessarily individuals.

chessboard growth

This makes me wonder about how an idea gets converts, and how fast a society can transform with a new idea. If one person takes up a new belief and convinces one other person, and they convince one other person, how long before it changes society? Of course, that depends on the frequency of conversion. But if one person converts two, and the two convert four, it would only take 30 doublings to covert all Americans to a new idea, or 34 for the world. See the classic rice on chessboard legend. If each doubling took a year, it would take three decades, but if it took a week, it would take less than a year.

Think about ideas that are emerging now. One that I’m interested in is the plant-based diet. My cholesterol numbers have gotten much better since I started that diet. I’ve lost weight, feel much better, and have much less inflammation. This convinced two of my friends to try it. Most people love to eat meat, but what if eating a plant-based diet turns out to be proven path to health? How long before half the country goes vegan? Most people will scoff at that idea as being downright silly. But it was only 150 years ago that this country had slavery, women couldn’t vote, cars didn’t exist, we didn’t have the income tax, and most folks died of things we consider curable today.

Things change. How long did it take abolitionists in the 19th century to enlighten enough people to change the country? How long will it take environmentalists to convince the world that climate change is something we need to stop?

I wish I knew the mathematics to answer this question: What is the difference between one person making one convert a year, or two converts a year, or three, four, five, or more? Social movements are built around people changing their minds and becoming converts. However, it’s also about old believers dying off. The growth of atheism and agnosticism is mainly due to older believers dying. That suggest that some changes takes a life-time.

I’m reading a tremendous book right now, Countdown by Alan Weisman, that is about overpopulation. Weisman reports from over twenty countries how different cultures view population growth, and their various approaches to sustaining ever growing populations with dwindling resources, in a world where the environment is collapsing. There is no question that we’re on a doomed path. The question is whether or not the mathematics of persuasion even has time to work.

I am writing a series of essays about how I’m looking for signs of hope for the future. So far, the only solution I can find is for seven billion people to change the way they live. Humans do change, but can they change fast enough to solve all the problems we face before we’re forced to live in a post-apocalyptic world? It’s no longer about surviving climate change, that’s just one of many of our problems, and I’m no longer sure it’s even our most threatening problem. Exponential growth, which the world economy depends on, is about to hit the wall. Probably before 2050, or even 2030.

Remember that old domino theory about communism? Well, communism wasn’t the problem, collapsing civilization is what we need to watch. Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, are the early dominos. Americans pay very little attention to what’s going on in other countries, unless they host a war that concerns us. But look how a war in Syria is affecting Europe. Keep an eye on Pakistan. Start counting the countries that are collapsing, and why. What would happen if Mexico collapsed? Pay attention to all the countries that have extremely high unemployment.

We can solve our problems if we can master the mathematics of persuasion. Unfortunately, we have built economic growth on a different set of mathematics which doesn’t equate with the mathematics of a sustainable environment. It’s like the Standard Model and Gravitation, they don’t seem to be related, but should be. We need to build an economy based on using less, and sharing more. That can’t be communism, even the Chinese have learned that. But it can’t be capitalism either. Socialism only solves some of the problem capitalism fails to solve. We need a whole new model. Probably some kind of steady-state capitalism mixed with socialism and environmentalism. But to transform society will require changing how seven billion people live. Is that even possible? We have nothing yet, so convert number 1 is waiting. And even if we had an answer, how fast can we go from 1 to 7 billion?

JWH

Searching For Hope Thanksgiving 2015

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, November 26, 2015

Yesterday was my 64th birthday. I had planned to publish “100 Signs of Hope for the Future” in reaction to my 63rd birthday post, “50 Reasons Why The Human Race Is Too Stupid To Survive.” That essay, the most popular one I wrote this year, still gets 20-50 hits a day. This year I felt challenged to discover twice as many signs of hope for my 64th birthday. I’ve been working for weeks, but alas I have failed. Not because I couldn’t find that many signs of hope, but because the essay just got too big to finish on time. I’ve decided to break it into several essays.

Thanksgiving 2015 

I’ve switched to searching for hope because pursuing pessimism is pointless. Even if we know we’re going to lose, we have to bet to win. Signs of despair are everywhere, so it’s too easy to find roads to apocalypses. The real existential challenge is to find  routes out of our maze of problems. Deciding what we want is the first step on the journey. I want an Earth friendly society, where everyone is equal, who follow universally accepted standards of ethics, with lifestyles that are sustainable over millions of years, that leads to opportunity for all Homo sapiens while still fairly sharing this planet with the rest of our fellow species.

When we are young we have great hope for the future, but as we age, little by little, that hope fades. I grew up with a tremendous sense of wonder for this amazing reality around us, but as I’ve grown old, I’ve become increasing pessimistic about the future of our species. Most people on this planet hide from reality in childish beliefs about God and Heaven, but as an atheist, I have to live with the scientific assessment of our existence. The future looks bleak. But I want to fight the natural tendency of becoming cynical while growing wrinkles. I desperately want to the human race to get its shit together and make the most out of this astonishing piece of ontological luck.

Finding hope for the future is a Mt. Everest size challenge. News reporting makes us all want to stick our heads in the sand. How can we overcome our sense of powerlessness? Why does being spectators on the sidelines of history feel so soul destroying? When will weathervanes stop pointing to countless hurricanes bearing down on us from all the directions of the compass? I actually believe there are ways to solve our collective problems. The trouble is we are our own worst enemies.

It would have been much easier to find a 1,000 signs of despair than 100 signs of hope. We all cope by ignoring what we don’t want to see, and rationalize things will magically get better. It’s impossible for one person to even comprehend the holographic information behind one half-hour news program. Having access to the internet overwhelms our minds with infinite data. We can’t even tell the facts from misinformation. We all maintain an ever shifting illusion about the future. The easier path is to ignore what might be, and focus on our personal needs and wants. I see hope in just defining our problems, which is what I want to do in future essays.

The other night I found an especially important sign of hope in a very strange place, the documentary Pandora’s Promise. This film is about environmentalists who were once passionately against nuclear power that have changed their minds. The hope I find, is not in the promise of cleaner energy, but in the fact that fervent true believers can admit they were wrong. To survive all the ill winds that blow our way, will require open minds with a strong willingness to study new information. We’re currently being bombarded by politicians who regurgitate the same brainwashed propaganda of their parties. This gives us little reason for hope. We need more Sauls who become Pauls, transformed by the light of reality. And before all you conservative Christians gloat with glee over my metaphor, let me tell you that you’ve still got your own Road to Damascus to travel.

For all of us to find hope for the future will require each of us to transform ourselves. Last year I was pessimistic because I doubted we could change. Recently I decided to bet on hope than spend my waning years becoming bitter about the human race, like the aging Mark Twain. What I need, and I think every else needs too, are signs of hope. I’ve spent a lifetime reading science fiction, so thinking about the future comes easy to me. If this essay seems more worried over despair that’s because it illustrates two significant points. One, finding hope is Sisyphean task. Two, recognizing that we have a problem is the beginning of transcendence.

Our problem as ordinary citizens, is we feel powerless at controlling our own fates. We think leaders should enact policies that will change the way we live. That passivity is dangerous. It is our individual decisions to change ourselves that is the solution. The key issue is sustainability. The ways we live our lives are not sustainable. For me to find 100 true signs of hope will require finding signs we are all choosing sustainable ways live.

People seldom change without being forced to change. Few people will unilaterally sacrifice what they have to help others, or even help themselves. It’s one thing to have a lot, and share some extra. It’s a whole other thing to give up what you have. This past year I’ve chosen to go on a plant-based diet for health reasons. I’m constantly tormented by what I can’t have. It’s not easy doing without. I know so many people who have far more serious health issues, yet they say they won’t change how they live to save themselves. They pray for magical solutions. Such false hope will destroy us.

I agree we won’t change without technological help. We’re more likely to survive if clever engineers invent technology that bypass our human failings. But technology can’t be our only salvation. Anyone who has been on a diet knows how hard it is to change the momentum of habits. Anyone who has succeeded at losing weight and transforming their health, knows how empowering new habits can be. No civilization of the past has survived a major disruption, so we have a perfect record of losing. On the other hand, our species has been mutating and transforming at a hyper-rate since The Enlightenment. Scientific knowledge has transformed our cognitive abilities dramatically, and with technology we’ve transformed human society, the face of the Earth, and the biosphere. So far this knowledge has allowed us to become a cancer upon the planet.

The reason why I wrote that pessimistic essay last year was because I felt people are incapable of change, but a year of reflection tells me the human race constantly changes. Recent research shows the brain is very plastic, capable of rewiring, even late in life. Another good sign of hope. However, humans tend to change because of powerful outside forces rather than by personal choice. We evolve through survival. And now it’s time to evolve like we never evolved before. Is it possible to intentionally guide our evolution? Can we choose to do what’s hard instead of what’s easy? Will the seven deadly sins always rule our habits?

There seems to be little reason to expect a political solution. A U.S. president from either party will never be bold enough to defy political self interest. In fact, their self interest thrives on our weaknesses. Does that mean we should just give up and wait for the apocalypse? I’d like to believe when the going gets tough, the tough get going, and we’re all tough enough.

Everything is interrelated. Solving any of our major problems requires solving our other major problems. Finding hope also involves recognizing the problem—we cannot solve problems we refuse to see. We cannot solve our problems without becoming different people from who we are now. Learning what we need to do will require reeducation, and that means a lot of reading and watching of documentaries. We need to learn how reality works. We need to stop pursing mindless forms of escapism. We’ve spent thousands of years praying to God, and we know that doesn’t work. Waiting for a Zoroaster, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, isn’t practical either.

To stop acting like lemmings rushing to the cliffs of oblivion requires thinking for ourselves.

Essay #982 – Table of Contents

How To Save The Planet–Without Detailed Instructions

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Humans are destroying the biosphere of planet Earth. Homo sapiens have overpopulated the planet, crowding out all the other species, and has initiated a self-destruct countdown. To solve this crisis requires creating a sustainable way of life, one that will ethically accommodate 13 billion people, allow other species to thrive, create a stable weather system, and not poison the biosphere with pollution. This is an immense challenge. There are countless books, studies, organizations, documentaries and pundits claiming they have solutions, but few people agree on anything. (I use the number 13 billion because most people today will see the Earth’s population grow to that number before it starts to shrink.)

The real responsibility falls on us individually. We each have to decide how to live and justify that lifestyle’s sustainability. In other words, any rational for survival you choose must be judged by what impact that lifestyle would have if 13 billion people also followed it. The Lifeboat Earth metaphor applies here. Ethically, we all have a justification to claim one thirteenth billionth of the planet’s resources, excluding the ethical share we first deem is due to all the other species. Our current philosophy is “everyone for themselves” – grab all you can get, and fuck all other humans and all the animals. It is this philosophy that will lead us to self-destruction, and why there is so much hate, violence and stress in the world.

Earthe-Europe1413

Finding an ethical way of living that is equitable to our fellow humans and to all the animals is hard. You will have to do a lot of research, read a lot of books, watch a lot of documentaries, and listen to countless thousands of talking heads argue and argue. One recent documentary I feel is very persuasive is Cowspiracy, a film by Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn. I shall use it as an example. At it’s core, the film is trying to do what I’m talking about regarding sustainability. However, I don’t trust it’s numbers, and I’m guessing it’s motivations aren’t entirely honest and straight forward. But understanding these problems I have with the film are exactly the skills we need in evaluating any solution to save the planet.

There is no reason to want or expect us all to decided on the same path. We can each develop our own consumption plan so long as it integrates into the whole, and we each use only our fair share. Before we can begin inventing our individual solutions we need to understand what is our fair share of consumables and pollution. The mathematics of such an undertaking is way beyond my ability. So I never trust other people who claim to have that ability.

I find documentaries that use lots of facts, figures and infographics to be more persuasive than documentaries that don’t. The watchers of these film must deal with is whether or not the film’s figures are accurate. Even cheap, crudely made films can have great impact, such as Cowspiracy. I was far more moved by Cowspiracy than I was the more famous and better made, An Inconvenient Truth. Both appear to be about climate change and environmentalism, but I suspect the underlying motivation by Cowspiracy is animal rights. Andersen and Kuhn contend that raising farm animals has more impact on the environment than all burdens the various transportation industries place on the planet.

Do their numbers add up? Is their basic assumption correct? They are offering a reasonable solution to save the planet. Are they right? They offer a very simplistic path to solving the sustainability problem. First, watch the film Cowspiracy (free on Netflix streaming, $4.95 digital download, $19.95 DVD). Their solution, stop eating meat, poultry, fish and dairy. We must evaluate their plan. Would choosing a plant based diet make a sustainable lifestyle? Cowspiracy defines the sustainability issue properly, but I doubt their numbers justifying their solution, even though I’m personally pursing a vegan lifestyle and I’m for animal rights. I’m willing to consider that there might be ethical ways to eat meat that is sustainable.

Whether or not to eat meat, and whether or not raising food animals has a massive impact on the environment are a highly contentious issues. You can can find people on both sides of the argument claiming they know the truth and throwing out tons of facts and figures. I wish to set the ethical issues of killing animals aside for a moment, and just consider Andersen and Kuhn’s assertion that raising animals for food has a greater impact on the environment than all of the transportation industries combined. Does giving up meat help the environment significantly? More than going to mass transit and switching to a renewable energy based economy?

My guess is we could greatly improve meat and dairy production to make it sustainable, but it might require that people eat a lot less animal products than they do now. And even then, we’d still have to bring back the issue of animal cruelty. Andersen and Kuhn do define many of the issues we have to consider in creating a personal sustainable lifestyle.

  • We all have a fair share of fresh water this is sustainable, but will vary by location.
  • That a sustainable lifestyle will impact specific area of land.
  • That land set aside for humans should leave plenty of natural areas for animals.
  • That the impact of our land requirements not impact the weather, pollution or the biosphere.
  • That our personal energy use must be sustainable.
  • That we shouldn’t let people starve while we feed animals to produce meat.
  • Can we raise animals so they have quality lives before we kill them?
  • Are there humane ways to kill animals?
  • Is it ethical to kill animals?
  • Should you eat any animal that you didn’t personal kill?
  • Should we give land to food animals when wild animals have so little?
  • That factory animal raising is not sustainable.
  • That free range animal raising is less sustainable than factory animal raising.
  • That industrial fishing isn’t sustainable.

I’ve been a vegetarian since the 1960s, and in the last couple years I’ve been veering towards veganism to reduced the clogs in my arteries, so Andersen’s and Kuhn’s solution would be no sacrifice for me. It would demand a tremendous change for most people, and a drastic transformation of society. Can you imagine if all restaurants were vegan and all grocery stores health food stores? I’m going to assume Cowspiracy plays fast and loose with its numbers simply because the film is on the amateur side. On the other hand, I’m going to assume they might be right and explore their solution.

We often admire members of The Greatest Generation because they survived The Depression and WWII. We admire their determination and sacrifice. We admire first responders and soldiers for their dedication and heroism. Often I meet people who wished they had done more good in their lives, or even lament they hadn’t done something extraordinary like their heroes. Some even feel their life has been without meaning. I don’t believe you need to be Pope Francis or Martin Luther King to help other people and make a great sacrifice. Just being decent, law abiding and nonviolent adds a lot to our society. Choosing not to act like an asshole and controlling your temper goes a long way toward bringing peace on Earth. Of course, I think many folks reading this will say they’d prefer to work inside burning buildings or go to war in Afghanistan than give up eating meat. However, from now on out, the best thing we can do for our fellow humans and our descendants is live a sustainable lifestyle. Are we willing to make that sacrifice and dedicate ourselves to meeting the challenge?

You need to see the film to be convinced that animal farming is having a greater impact on the Earth than all forms of transportation combined. Cowspiracy asks why all the major environmental groups are not focusing on the biggest problem the planet faces. If Andersen and Kuhn are right, then the single quickest way to fight climate change, the current mass extinction of animals, the destruction of the oceans, the collapse of civilization and create a sustainable society is to give up eating animals. The documentary points out that a plant based diet is sustainable, and it’s healthy. My own research into healthy diets is uncovering more and more doctors advocating a plant based diet. Giving up meat is better for the planet and better for you, and gives us hope for our descendants. However, I don’t know if Andersen and Kuhn’s numbers are anywhere near accurate.

Will people give up eating meat? I doubt it. Republicans are taking the brunt the responsibility for not doing anything about climate change because they refuse to give up fossil fuels. What if giving up meat could actually solve climate change without waiting on new renewable energy technologies? I doubt even liberals would embrace that solution. Why are bacon and eggs, milk and cheese, beef, chicken, pork and fish so important to us? What if the facts and figures in Cowspiracy are right?

Are there any sustainable sources of animals products? If people raised chickens and rabbits in their backyards, feeding them with yard grown food, would that be sustainable? What about hunters culling deer populations every year, or other animals that could live abundantly in the woods without human support? What if all fishing was from hook and lines? Andersen and Kuhn make it obvious that neither factory animal farms, or free range animal farming are sustainable. But what if everyone hunted their own meat? What if you really wanted to eat meat and were willing to hunt down an animal, kill it and butcher it, you could eat it and be sustainability justified? Andersen and Kuhn assumes all the land that went into grazing or raising food for livestock would be returned to the wild. Would that be true?

We all ignore the fact that we’re consuming more than the Earth can give. Humans are increasing in numbers while everything else is decreasing. We’ve been laughing at The Limits of Growth for forty years because the book hasn’t come true. We always assumed science and technology would continually solve the problems of exponential growth. The Club of Rome didn’t anticipate disruptive technology, but their basic premises were still correct. The Earth’s resources are finite and consumption can’t increase forever.

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