Sunday, August 30, 2015

Parenting in an Evolutionary World

(Picture from here.)

Tomorrow we take our son to college.

Yes, it’s an emotional. We’re taking someone we’ve known for 18+ years, who has essentially been the center of our lives for all that time and putting them in an environment where we no longer have control. He has to sink or swim on his own. High school is more forgiving than college and college is more forgiving than the outside world. So this is a step that still is somewhat protected. That said, it’s still a step and a big one for him.

So, as I tend to do, I want to examine this in a larger context.

Humans are incredibly diverse. We have some common behaviors: religion (in its broadest sense), managing the relationships between men and women, rearing children, language, music. One of the common markers across all cultures is the transition from child to adolescent to adult. It can be as abrupt the onset of menstruation determining a woman is fit to marry or as long as going through high school, college, graduate school, internship and, finally, a job. But the passage is marked.

Evolution suggests that we express our heritage in our behavior and frame. The horse’s hoof is made of the same material as human fingernails, though its form is different. Even the furthest relatives to us, perhaps single celled eukaryotes and even bacteria, still use the same DNA that we do, though they use it differently. It shouldn’t be surprising that our closest relatives show common ground with us in their behavior and frame.
They mark the passage from child to adolescent to adult as well.

In general, chimpanzee community retain the male children while the females migrate away to join other groups. This isn’t universally true. Flo, one of Jane Goodall’s Kasakela community subjects, had several children both males and females. The males stayed with the community as expected but several of her daughters did as well. Flo’s status passed down through her offspring. Several of her sons and daughters gained high status in the community. All of them retained relationships with their siblings and their mother for the duration of her life.

Still, the transition is important. Chimps nurture their offspring for about five years. While the childhood phase passes after that there are often strong sibling relationships—similar to adolescent to child or adolescent to adolescent relationships in human families—for a long time after. Goodall talks about one of her subjects, Sniff, who at six adopted his little sister when his mother died. However, Sniff didn’t manage to get her the milk she needed and she died. Sometimes, adult females will adopt orphaned children. One wonders, then, if Sniff’s attachment to his sister was a help or a hindrance.

You can cast the same story into human terms: a young boy struck with grief at his mother’s death and holding onto his sister as his sole remaining family member. But the boy is too young to care for her properly and the community too disorganized to step in. Tragedy occurs. Would it be any less a tragedy for Sniff and his sister? I don’t think so.

I wonder, then, how the parents of the chimps that leave feel. There’s no direct way to determine the nature of the relationships between parent and child in the chimpanzee. We can infer relationships by how many times one chimp grooms another, how often they are in each other’s company. But we can’t tell if Flo is proud of Figan’s rise to prominence or if she might grieve the loss of a daughter when she leaves for a new community.

When we look at our relatives closely, a gulf opens up, made up of our inability to communicate directly and how we must guard ourselves from projecting human attributes on what is clearly something different. Not to say there is not common ground—there is enormous common ground. But when we try to apply things that are important to us—pride in our children, shame at past deeds, hope for the future, despair at our own inadequacy—these cannot be attributed to our biological cousins. Either there is no way to determine them or the context is too close to us for us to drill down to the common ground.

What would pride in your children feel like if you were a chimp? In what context could it be applied?
I don’t know the answer.

My son is a beautiful young animal. He’s smarter than I am and certainly stronger. I think he feels about things differently than I do. I was far more excited than scared going to college. But I had moved from city to city, state to state, all of my life. The transition from home to college was just a mark of geography. The confidence and skills had already been discovered.

He has had a different upbringing. He grew up in the same place, the same house, the same piece of land and town, from the day he was born. This is a much bigger transition for him. His skills at living outside the family and in a new place are untried and that makes him nervous.

I’m not going to hover over him. But I’m glad he’s only a couple of hours away. 

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Consideration of Works Present: The Europa Report

(Picture from here.)

I haven't done much on films. There's no particular reason not to but I haven't.

I decided to do one on Europa Report because of the press associated with it and Interstellar. Namely, that both films purported to be as scientifically accurate as possible. (See here.)

In the case of Interstellar there's a lot of truth in that. After all, when you have Kip Thorne as a scientific adviser it's hard to go far wrong. The problem with Interstellar isn't the science in the film. It's the film itself-- but that's a topic for another post.

In order to get at the science in Europa Report I'm going to have to talk about how the film ends. So, if you haven't seen the film and want to preserve your childlike innocence, leave now.

Okay? Then, let's begin.

Europa Report is about a manned mission to the Jupiter moon Europa. Since the entire thrust of missions looking for life in this solar system is founded on follow the water, Europa is a likely candidate. It actually has more liquid water than earth. (Here is a good description of NASA's proposed mission.) There's a fair bit of good science here along with a fair amount of drama put in for no good reason.

Quick plot summary: Europa One goes to Jupiter. After about six months of mission time they get hit by a solar storm knocking out communication. Two crew members go out to fix it, one gets killed by a plot device. The other one is haunted by guilt. Ship makes it into orbit around Europa and drills into the ice, releasing a probe. It gets disabled mysteriously. The ship lands. Crew drills through ice and gets samples: life. Biologist sees a light and must investigate in person. Ice breaks and she falls through-- camera suggests strongly she's been eaten or the equivalent. Ship tries to leave but engine malfunctions and the ship crashes back on Europa, cracks the ice and begins to sink. But the lone survivor manages to fix the communication before the ship sinks beneath the ice (and are eaten by something the looks like a tapeworm with a sea anemone for a head.) Earth receives communication and recognizes noble scientific heroes.

Now, as I said there's some good science in the film. Not great but good. There's a lot of false drama. By this I mean things that the filmmakers put in to keep our interest since the fact of finding life practically next door in the solar system won't hold us through the popcorn. Things such as the solar storm knocking out communication such that a person dies in the repairs, leaving the guilt ridden survivor there to send us a message in the end. Things like the ship missing it's landing spot. Or the engines failing on take off-- pretty much everything at the end.

Now, if you wanted to see this done right, watch Space Odyssey from the BBC. In that series the drama derives right out of what they're going through. For example, a man gets cancer from the radiation on the trip and can't use chemo since it will contaminate the water in the ship, poisoning his crew mates. Sure, a solar flare can happen. But the way they repair it, and how one crew member has to sacrifice himself for another is just bad mission planning.

You don't have to believe what is happening on the screen; you have to suspend disbelief. It's what makes the tag line for Christopher Reeves' Superman so irritation: "You will believe a man can fly." Well, no, I won't What I will do is suspend my belief that a man can't fly for the duration of this film. Didn't work for going back in time, though.

That's the problem with Europa Report: it doesn't have the courage of its convictions. I'm convinced the filmmakers initially thought we could cope with a dramatic film about science and then got scared and lost its nerve. I mean they made a lovely space suit. Europa is based on real imagery. The creatures they built could happen-- probably not on Europa, but somewhere. Weightlessness was based on actual weightlessness.

I can even suspend my disbelief that humans will ever get there. The only way we'll ever get to Europa is with robots.  Jupiter is a roiling sea of radiation and until China is ready, the rest of the manned space program is a joke. But enough of that.

I could have managed the false drama-- hey, I like a lot of films with predictable and tired drama. It's not a deal breaker. But Europa Report completely falls apart at the end.

Let's think about Europa for a moment. It's has a surface of ice on a body of water, probably with a rocky core. In a vacuum. The weight of the ice is pressing down on the water, right? There's no air pressure, right? What happens when the ice breaks? 500 km high geysers of water blasting into space. That's what.

So anyone breaking the ice to the water on Europa is blasted out into space. See a light shining through the ice? Unlikely the ice is transparent-- glacier ice isn't. Seems like there's an inherent selection against animals just hanging around on the surface. Besides which, I suspect that predators (And these were predators. No mistake.) would not dwell at the bottom of the ice flow. I mean it's possible if there were some sunlight getting through but I doubt it. I don't think there would be enough light and the places there were would likely be the ones most vulnerable to rupture-- the animals would run away rather than stay there.

A better way to do it would have been to can the false drama and get to Europa and build a mission base there. A pressurized bubble. Do all of the things you want to do-- false drama and all-- on Europa. Let's say the actually try to attract predators by mimicking the equivalent of sea weed or prey. Inevitably, they misjudge the situation (as they did in the actual film) and everyone dies but not before getting of the noble communication. That could have been good drama and good science.

I think people think of Europa Report as a good science film because it's so much better than so many others.

That's not a high bar. That's barely a paint stripe on the road.