Imagining Deep Past: A Guest Post by Eugene Linden

By Eugene Linden: My novel, Deep Past, is a hybrid of sorts, with feet (if books can be said to have feet) in both the science fiction and thriller genres. The novel grew out of a thought experiment, which in turn grew out of decades of writing about the evolution of intelligence, and a variety of topics that relate to the nature and evolution of intelligence. Over the years I’ve come to believe that intelligence/awareness is far more widely shared as an adaptive strategy than was previously believed. We look around the world and we can see problem-solving abilities in a host of animals, ranging in creatures ranging from octopus to crows and parrots, to the great apes, elephants, and dolphins. True, as of yet, there has been no evidence of a sentient creature that possesses quantitative and symbolic abilities on our scale.

But – and this is where the thought experiment begins – the great flowering of human abilities occurred in a span of just a few hundred thousand years, and through most of that span humans had very little in the way of material culture. If we had died out fifty thousand years ago, our ancestors would have left few traces to show that an intelligent species ever inhabited the planet. So, given that organized brains date back over 750 million years, who is to say that over that immense sweep of time, some other creature with intelligence on our scale hasn’t come and gone?

Certainly not me.

In Deep Past, I try to imagine the discovery of just such a long-gone, intelligent animal. Creating such a creature entailed developing a credible set of circumstances that might give rise to the runaway growth of brain power in the distant past, as well as the circumstances that would have hustled it off the evolutionary stage.  

Eugene Linden

Though I was writing science fiction, I wanted the story to be credible, and a plausible outgrowth of what we know about evolution.  A theoretician of artificial life named Christopher Langton who used to work at the Santa Fe Institute developed a broad framework to explain how adaptations become maladaptive. He focused on how simple organisms evolved into more complex systems. In this work he discovered a see-saw between stability and instability as different organisms try different strategies to exploit any given system. Eventually, one organism comes out on top and proliferates until it destabilizes the system and it crashes, leading to a new cycle. The lesson is that your best adaptive strategy may ultimately hustle you off the evolutionary stage.

I also needed to envision what external circumstances might both foster the rapid growth of intelligence in a species, but then ultimately do the species in. Here I had an obvious candidate: climate change, though in the deep past the climate change would have been part of natural cycles, and not the self-inflicted wound we’re in the process of perpetrating. 

In a previous non-fiction book, Winds of Change; Climate, Weather, and the Destruction of Civilizations, I had explored research in the role past, natural episodes of rapid climate change had played in the development of human brain power. That role turns out to be major. Starting about 1.85 million years ago, a series of violent weather upheavals that lasted about 100,000 years coincided with periods of rapid evolutionary change in which the more specialized of our ancestors tended to die out and the generalists (read brainier) survived. And now that there are 7.3 billion of us, it’s open to question whether we could survive the weather chaos that occurred in the past. It’s bears noting that during the past 8,000 years, a truly goldilocks period of weather for humans, our numbers increased more than 1,000 fold.

My research for Winds of Change had given me a good road map of past extreme episodes of climate change going way back in geologic time, and I set the period of my imagined intelligent species (I’m not going to be a spoiler and name the species it here) well back in the past, at a time when our hominid technological prowess consisted of little more than throwing rocks.

I needed one more thing for my evolutionary recipe for intelligence: isolation. One of the more fascinating byways of evolutionary biology is E.O Wilson’s theory entitled island Biogeography, and its precursor in eco-geography, the Island Rule, first proposed by J. Bristol Foster. In vastly simplified form, these formulations explain why islands tend to be less diverse than mainland ecosystems, and why, in these less diverse situations, evolution tends to run wild, producing giants and dwarf species as well as other exaggerated traits, perhaps even traits like intelligence. In my case, I chose to situate my long-gone species on a virtual island, a stretch of land isolated by inhospitable terrain, rather than a real island, like the Skull Island of King Kong.

Once I had the recipe for how to create a super intelligent being, I needed to decide what type of intelligence that would be. Here I drew upon two more big ideas. In my book, The Octopus and the Orangutan, I explore the question of whether convergent evolution – the notion that nature tends to optimize a creature for its particular ecological niche so that even unrelated species tend to converge on the same shape if they face similar life challenges – might apply in the realm of higher mental abilities as well as physical shape. For example, humans and dolphins might live in utterly different circumstances, but they both live in large, highly complex social groups, a situation that rewards those members with enhanced abilities to understand and manipulate what their peers are thinking and doing.

The fact that humans and dolphins both have large, complex brains connects to another concept that helps explain how intelligence might have evolved. This is the idea of “ecologically surplus abilities.” Simply put, this means that a capability that evolved in response to one set of challenges might turn out to carry with it other benefits. In terms of intelligence, the evolutionary pressures that produced the dolphin’s big brain had to do with the survival benefits of using sonar to “see” surroundings and prey in the relatively opaque underwater environment. But, in equipping dolphins to precisely decode the signals its sonar produced, nature also might have been equipping the dolphin to think symbolically. This idea allows us to see how higher intelligence might have been a byproduct of practically driven, prosaic abilities.

All of these factors drove me to think of an intelligence similar in some respects to ours, but coming from very different circumstances and building on a very different base. We humans like to manipulate particles and objects, but what if our past evolutionary history had oriented us towards waves and interconnections; what is our intelligence had more in common with the strange qualities of quantum mechanics rather than Newtonian laws? That was a fun, but daunting avenue to explore.

While I had some experience trying to understand many of the sciences I drew upon in writing Deep Past, I also had to dive into disciplines with which I was much less conversant such as geology and remote sensing. Even though Deep Past centers on the discovery of something widely viewed as impossible, the story is built on solid science. If there’s any overarching belief that informs my book, it’s that, over time, the ordinary workings of nature can compose magical creations out of the most mundane materials.

Author’s Website:

Deep Past will be released May 14, 2019. Preorder from any of these sellers: