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Fear and laptops on the genesis project

There’s a fascinating essay in today’s New York Times Magazine about how a group of scientists are searching for the origins of blogging.  It seems that in January 2006, the Stardust spacecraft will return from its encounter with the comet Wild 2, bringing with it a payload of cosmic debris “which scientists now expect may offer significant clues about blogging’s origins here on earth.”

Until recently, many scientists believed that blogs were formed in a kind of primordial soup formed when a bunch of people got really pissed off:

Left-wing politics are thriving on blogs the way Rush Limbaugh has dominated talk radio, and in the last six months, the angrier, nastier partisan blogs have been growing the fastest. Daily Kos has tripled in traffic since June. Josh Marshall’s site has quadrupled in the last year. It’s almost as though, in a time of great national discord, you don’t want to know both sides of an issue. The once-soothing voice of the nonideological press has become, to many readers, a secondary concern, a luxury, even something suspect. It’s hard to listen to a calm and rational debate when the building is burning and your pants are smoking.

While acknowledging that some bloggers lack the evolutionary maturity necessary to appreciate the “calm and rational debate” the American media offered when it keenly analyzed Bill Clinton’s fraudulent land deals, Wen Ho Lee’s treasonous espionage, Al Gore’s criminal eye-rolling, and Saddam Hussein’s fearsome cache of weapons of mass destruction, most scientists now believe that the origins of blogging go back much further than had previously been imagined.

Indeed, the search for a “Last Universal Common Ancestor,” or LUCA, may not only answer the question of how blogs first arose from inorganic media; it may also help to explain the process of evolution itself or, as one researcher puts it, “the question of how the primitive, early Kaus became the highly intelligent Kos we know today.”

The jargon of blog-biology is daunting, with its talk of “archaea” such as “extremoblogs” and “acidoblogs” ("blogs that have been found to thrive on the gas given off by raw ‘drudge’ and that both excrete and multiply in concentrations of acid strong enough to dissolve metal and destroy entire city sewer systems").  And some of the science sounds more like the stuff of science fiction, like the distant-future NASA mission to Europa (one of Jupiter’s moons) in which unmanned spacecraft will drill into the moons miles-thick ice crust in order to search for the building blocks of blogs beneath.  “We’d have a picture of what blogs may have been like on earth before they evolved into the modern Pharyngula of today,” says Jeffrey Bada of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.  “Of course, it’s hard to imagine the kind of environment thats on Europa producing blogs that look anything like the blogs we have here, either Kaus or Kos-like organisms.  And thats what I find fascinating.”

Still, the search for the origins of blogging poses fundamental questions about the nature of life itself, even if as the NYTMag essay suggests in its closing paragraph we are all about to kill each other in a surge of religious-fundamentalist hatred and turn the stewardship of the planet over to a bunch of enlightened, cosmopolitan giant insects who will get rid of American popular culture and replace it with a series of strange clicking noises:

“Things are in the saddle,/And ride mankind,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in a poem warning against the soul-withering effects of civilization’s excesses. Knowing what we do now, however, about blogs’ beginnings, the word “things” takes on a whole new meaning. And should our internal extremoblogs eventually ride or override us (as human behavior sometimes suggests they are doing) into recreating the very fires from which they first emanated, there is, perhaps, some comfort to be found in blog-biology’s revelation that our own rugged ancestors will be around to inherit this earth and start the entire cycle over again.

Really thought-provoking stuff, definitely worth your time this Sunday afternoon.  Hey, I wonder if the insects will also have blog ads?

Posted by on 09/26 at 07:23 AM
  1. At least the articles didn’t pay any attention to the nitwits who claim that blogs just pop into existence without any antecedents (to the Intelligent Design blog creationists, I just say, look at my site. Case closed.)

    There are still confusing cases of phylogeny, though. For instance, what is the lineage and relationship to other sites of highly derived, richly apomorphic forms like michaelberube.com?

    Posted by PZ Myers  on  09/26  at  09:04 AM
  2. The overdeveloped satire capability of michaelberube.com must be an exaptation, don’t you think?  A successful use of a feature other than for the reason it originally evolved through natural selection.

    But Michael, quit sucking up to the cosmopolitan giant insects, will you?  They see right through such transparent flattery, you know.

    And happy birthday.

    Posted by Sean  on  09/26  at  09:28 AM
  3. Camille Paglia, that inveterate self-promoter, has claimed that she invented the blog when she wrote for Salon.com.

    Posted by  on  09/26  at  01:10 PM
  4. happy birthday, michael!  i hope yours is going as well as mine rasberry

    Posted by Arthur  on  09/26  at  01:35 PM
  5. Happy birthday, Arthur.  Also let’s not forget Barbara Walters and T. S. Eliot!

    And David, yes, I remember Camille claiming to have invented the blog on the grounds that she published bizarre stream-of-consciousness crap on Salon ("I hate identity politics and I despise the Sopranos for its negative portrayals of Italian-Americans").  But I filed that claim away with Billy Joel’s suggestion that “We Didn’t Start the Fire” counts as a “rap” song.

    Posted by  on  09/26  at  04:00 PM
  6. You’re a humanities prof and you share a birthday with TS Eliot? Oh, dear. Do people natter on at you about the “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” all the day?

    Posted by PZ Myers  on  09/26  at  04:57 PM
  7. It gets weirder, PZ—my wife shares a birthday with Ezra Pound.  I am not making this up.  But no, thankfully, nobody gets all Prufrock or Gerontion on me, and nobody recites the damn Pisan Cantos to her.  We’re just proud to share our birthdays with two of the more talented anti-Semites in our literature. . . .

    Posted by  on  09/26  at  05:05 PM
  8. And I thought you were the one blogger who was older than me.  I guess I’ll have to keep looking and until then I’m stuck reading children like you.  Happy Birthday-

    Posted by  on  09/26  at  07:17 PM
  9. Happy Birthday!

    JR:  I’m 52, will I do?  If so, come on over to marykay.typepad.com/gallimaufry.


    Posted by Mary Kay  on  09/26  at  09:31 PM
  10. Posted by Amardeep  on  09/27  at  05:34 AM
  11. Actually, Amardeep, I find that it works just fine if there is no such essay.  That way, the dunderheaded “it is interesting to observe that” intro looks even more dunderheaded!

    Posted by Michael  on  09/27  at  05:44 AM
  12. Oh, so THAT’S why I’ve been feeling awfully arthropod-ish lately!  The carpal tunnel is killing me, and strange clicking sounds certainly dominate this habitat, contrapuntally generated by mouse and keyboard.

    Posted by  on  09/27  at  09:48 AM
  13. The thing is, the New York Times really does write about shit like that.  They’re always looking for stupid biological explanations for social phenomena, so the piece is closer to reality than it means to be.

    Posted by Jonathan  on  09/27  at  03:39 PM





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