Risingshadow has the honour of featuring a guest post by Eugene Linden.
About Eugene Linden:
Eugene Linden is an award-winning journalist and author on science, nature, and the environment. Deep Past is his first novel, which draws on his long career in non-fiction as the author of ten books, including his celebrated works on animal intelligence and climate change.
About Deep Past:
If nature could invent intelligence of our scale in a blink of geologic time, who’s to say it hasn’t been done before...
A routine dig in Kazakhstan takes a radical turn for thirty-two-year-old anthropologist Claire Knowland when a stranger turns up at the site with a bizarre find from a remote section of the desolate Kazakh Steppe. Her initial skepticism of this mysterious discovery gives way to a realization that the find will shake the very foundations of our understanding of evolution and intelligence.
Corrupt politics of Kazakhstan force Claire to take reckless chances with the discovery. Among the allies she gathers in her fight to save herself and bring the discovery to light is Sergei Anachev, a brilliant but enigmatic Russian geologist who becomes her unlikely protector even as he deals with his own unknown crisis.
Ultimately, Claire finds herself fighting not just for the discovery and her academic reputation, but for her very life as great power conflict engulfs the unstable region and an unscrupulous oligarch attempts to take advantage of the chaos.
Drawing on Eugene Linden’s celebrated non-fiction investigations into what makes humans different from other species, this international thriller mixes fact and the fantastical, the realities of academic politics, and high stakes geopolitics — engaging the reader every step of the way.
Publishing date: May 2019.
Guest post by Eugene Linden: The Ancient Intelligence in Deep Past is Fictional, But Could It Have Happened?
Without giving anything away, my forthcoming novel, Deep Past, centers on the discovery of an intelligent species that inhabited the planet millions of years before humans appeared on the scene. The narrative spine of the thriller involves professional jealousy, international intrigue and great power competition, all of which, while fictional, would be plausible to readers of contemporary headlines. It’s the discovery of an ancient intelligence that moves the novel into the realm of science fiction, and the natural question is could this ever happen?
The answer: it’s much more likely than it would seem at first glance.
To some degree this is a question of probabilities, and a change in the view of the role of which intelligence/consciousness as an adaptive strategy that has taken place of the past few decades.
Until the 1970s, the conventional wisdom was that propositional intelligence, language, and consciousness were the unique province of humanity, and that animals lacked the capacity for symbolic thought and conscious decision-making. Experiments showing that chimpanzees (and then orangutans, gorillas, parrots, and dolphins) understood the meaning of words and could use those words to communicate with humans and describe their surroundings began to crack that view. As studies and observations of various aspects of higher mental abilities proliferated, it became clear that a wide number of species had some degree of problem solving abilities.
This, in turn, implied that some degree of consciousness was a widely shared adaptive strategy. At the same time, evidence problem solving abilities began showing up in smaller brained animals such as octopus, crows, even bees, fracturing the assumption that only place to look for evidence of consciousness is in large brained animals.
These developments were all part of a paradigm shift as the conventional wisdom changed from viewing humans as entirely different in higher mental abilities to humans being part of a continuum in which intelligence is widely spread though in varying degrees throughout the animal kingdom.
If many different animals possess some ability to solve problems in the present, then it increases the likelihood that a number of animals might have had some ability to solve problems in the past.
All well and good, but if some past creature had an intelligence that rivaled ours, wouldn’t we know about it?
Maybe not. If we, as a species, had disappeared 15,000 years ago, there would have been little trace of our intelligence for some future species to discover.
And then there is the element of time. Organized brains began to appear on the planet roughly 780 million years ago. That’s a lot of time for an intelligent species to come and go. Moreover, a look at our evolutionary history underscores the point that it doesn’t take a huge amount of time for intelligence to grow by leaps and bounds.
Tool making only lodged as an adaptive strategy for our ancestors about 1.85 million years ago, and the great growth in our brains took place in the past few hundred thousand years. Once a species becomes committed to relying on brains rather than brawn, things can happen pretty fast.
As of now, there is no convincing, material evidence that a creature with human-like abilities has come and gone in the deep past, but, as the saying goes, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The more we know about the nature of what we call intelligence and its origins the more likely it becomes that humans are not nature’s first experiment with extraordinary higher mental abilities. And so, if someday such evidence surfaces, we should be awestruck, but not surprised.