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A paleontological parable

February 23, 2012

The goniatite, a chubby, free-swimming cephalopod about the size of a baseball, contrived to stay in business as a species for some 140 million years over four distinct geological epochs until it went extinct in the late Permian, 125 million years ago. This remarkable record entitles us to ask what sustained the species so long and what brought about its eventual downfall.

Jack O’Brien

Jack O’Brien

The soft-bodied invertebrate lived in the latest and largest chamber of a series of increasingly large chambers arranged in a spiral pattern, abandoned chambers being filled with air for buoyancy.

When during normal growth the latest chamber became too small for comfort, the owner secreted a new and more commodious chamber joined to the previous one by a simple butt joint. This turned out to be a highly successful plan for living, with just one drawback: If the occupant delayed too long in constructing a new chamber, the butt joint might give way, leaving the goniatite without buoyancy and with its rear end exposed to hungry predators.

Then, as often happens, the gene responsible for joint construction, named SUT, was damaged by a stray proton, and started turning out saw-toothed joints. Happily, the increased joint strength propelled the species through a further complete epoch. But beware of miracles! The damaged gene was unstable, forever tinkering with the blueprints in search of novelty. The sawtooth pattern slowly changed to an interlocking sawtooth, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that strongly resist a lateral pull. For a whole epoch, this made the shell even stronger, but eventually, in the late Permian, the whole shell became such a mass of interlocking sutures that, like the puzzle that holds together laterally but falls apart if you remove its support, strong-jawed predators crushed the shell, and that was the end of the goniatite.

So what has all this to do with us? Well, we are descended from a tribe of quarrelsome apes harboring a gene for novelty called TEC, which, as it too cannot refrain from tinkering with the blueprints, is quite possibly SUT in a new disguise, having applied its joint-building expertise to the multiplication of neurons. Initially achieving nothing more than the idea of fishing for termites with a twig, one thing led to another, and TEC brought us down from the trees, through the Stone, Bronze and Iron ages, the agricultural and industrial revolutions, to our present electronic revolution. The next step is nuclear power followed by teleportation. Then, having exhausted our own planet, we shall launch into the cosmos as an electromagnetic species, traveling at the speed of light but with the morals of a quarrelsome ape.

Clearly, this is a recipe for disaster, and to protect the cosmos we must act quickly to excise TEC from the human genome. Are you willing to put up the money?

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