Fractal Physics and human evolution

When can you reasonably elevate an analogy to the status of a fractal? When there is sufficient similarity in detail between the subjects being compared to suggest a common principle is at work in shaping them. Can the concept of fractals apply to processes as opposed to objects? If so, let’s try an experiment, and see if we can relate the process that governs the evolution over time of cooperating groups of individual humans, and the changing states of water as it heats up. It may well turn out to be nothing more than a crude analogy, but the possibility that there’s a single principle underlying both is intriguing.

Everyone knows about water, and how it changes depending on its temperature. At the cold end of the spectrum it is a solid. At zero degrees centigrade it melts, and at one hundred it boils. Everyone has words for these states, ice, water, steam.

When anthropology was young, still reeling from the impact of Darwin’s seminal ideas, it became common wisdom that there were three stages in human evolution: savagery, barbarism, and civilization. The idea of savagery gradually morphed into the more polite “hunter-gatherer” category, while barbarism morphed into an intermediate group defined more by what they weren’t than what they were: ‘better’ than savages but not yet like us. We, of course, were the civilized ones.

Careful study of the physical properties of water gradually led our scientists into fascinating complexities. Ice is mostly crystalline but the quality of the crystals varies depending on the temperature. If you try to crack an ice cube with a spoon, the results depend on how cold it is. Other factors are at play: as I found on a trip around Iceland, old glacier ice has a different molecular structure. You can make an unusual martini with it. (You can see the directions in which my other interests have led me in this exploration). When water reaches the melting point an interesting thing happens, it contracts a bit. If it didn’t, if it behaved like most other substances when they melt, ice wouldn’t be on the top of bodies of water and the world would be a very different place. 

Anthropologists and others have studied the remaining pockets of hunter gatherers in enough detail to support a host of theories about how they evolved over time. They figured out what it was that distinguished our species from the other large mammals that roamed the planet and how those distinctions evolved. They defined levels of social complexity within the broad spectrum of pre-agricultural societies. They isolated the cultural, geographic, and climatic conditions that had to prevail to enable the critical transition to a sedentary, agriculture-based way of life. We came to understand that it was a fortuitous and highly improbable coincidence of factors that made our subsequent social evolution possible.

Water in its liquid state is as basic to our daily life as the air we breathe. For many of the ways we relate to it, water is literally vital. Rainfall, ocean currents and the tides, potable water supplies for populations, water for agriculture, you name it, all have been studied in great detail. Ice is important, steam is important, but water in its liquid form is the essence of life. When our scientists discover new planets as our horizons widen, one of the first things they look for is some sign that it may have water. 

Civilization as we know it is dependent on the capacity of individual humans to behave in ways that make cooperation possible. Once the necessary groundwork has been laid and cooperation is established, through whatever means, all sorts of doors open that remain forever closed to other animals. Culture kicks in as a means of strengthening group identity. Competition becomes the rule. both between individuals within the group, and between groups competing with each other. As time goes on and groups become larger and more complex, the process heats up and accelerates.

When water heats up beyond a certain point it begins to seethe. Little bubbles start to form and you know you stick your finger in at your peril. If it’s in a tea kettle, you don’t hear the whistling sound yet, but you know that it will come soon unless you take it off the stove.

When the civilizing process has reached a certain point in any extended portion of humanity, its very success breeds new and apparently insoluble problems. Population has exploded, people are getting crowded, old techniques for keeping order are breaking down, needs are beginning to outstrip available resources. Despite material progress a miasma of universal discontent is becoming evident. 

Suddenly, the water stops seething and starts boiling. It is moving from a liquid to a gas.

Is our society on the verge of boiling?  Are we becoming a changed sort of animal, undergoing a metamorphosis at least as profound as the one that occurred about ten thousand years ago, when we morphed from a sapient animal into something quite new on the planet?  If so, are we headed for annihilation, or is there a bright future?

 “What next?” said the tadpole.

Post script: Here’s the key, in case you didn’t fully appreciate it the first time around:

Part I: Ice. Stasis. Change occurs but only very slowly. Our ancestors evolve, but only very slowly, over tens of millennia.

Entr’acte: ice melts, with the singularity that water is denser than ice. Enter the Neolithic, also the result of a singularity, or rather the conjunction of several.

Part II: Water. Fluidity, motion. Rate of changes much greater. Meanwhile our ancestors embark on the high road to civilization.

Entr’acte: hot water seethes, as hot as it can get while remaining a liquid. Meanwhile we arrive at what appears a dead end with population explosion, man-induced climate change, information revolution. We are seething too.

Part III: Water turns to steam. Question: what will our transformation make of us?

A possible answer is inherent in the analogy. When I want to clean grease out of my frying pan I put a small amount of water in it while it is still very hot. The water gets superheated before it has time to to boil off. That substance, liquid water above the boiling point, has special properties, one of which is that it emulsifies the grease, turns it into a brown liquid that goes easily down the drain.

Maybe the Jewish population of Germany and Central Europe became superheated during the Holocaust, and many of the survivors migrated to Israel, where they have been emulsifying the neighborhood ever since.

Maybe this fractal idea is not so hot after all. Maybe we better just call the whole thing an analogy and let it cool off.

At least, there ought to be the stuff in all this fantasizing for a piece of poetry. Poetry doesn’t have to make sense, it just has to sound like it does.

Maybe I should have waited until April Fools Day to post this nonsense.

Carl Coon 6/30/12, rev. 1/12/13

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