Big Think Interview With Robert Wright
Robert Wright is a journalist, scholar, and author of several best-selling books about science, evolutionary psychology, history, religion, and game theory, including "The Evolution of God," "Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny," "The Moral Animal," and "Three Scientists and Their Gods: Looking for Meaning in an Age of Information." He is a visiting scholar at The University of Pennsylvania and Schwartz Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. He is also the co-founder and Editor in Chief of Bloggingheads.tv, a current events "diavlog" featured in The New York Times and elsewhere.
Robert Wright: My name is Robert Wright, and people call me Bob. I’m Editor in Chief of Bloggingheads.tv and the author of several books, The Evolution of God, The Moral Animal, and Nonzero.\r\n
Question: Why has evolutionary psychology exploded in popularity?\r\n
Robert Wright: Well, I think it’s not surprising that evolutionary psychology should be occupying center stage given the fact that the human mind was created by evolution. So, in a way you can ask, why did it take so long? And I think the answer there is two-fold. First of all, there were some genuine kind of refinements, or extensions of the theory of natural selection in the 1960’s early ‘70’s that allowed us to make sense of the not obviously animal parts of human behavior and emotion. Things like altruism, love, the conscience, empathy. So there’s that. And separately, there had been some political resistance to the idea of using Darwin to think of human psychology. And that dates back to political things that have happened in the first half of the 20th century. So, at the same time that there was genuine progress in the field, there was a kind of slow kind of dissipation of the long-standing political resistance. But it wasn’t – it didn’t happen overnight. I mean, when I wrote The Moral Animal in 1994, there was plenty of resistance.\r\n
Question: What are the major unanswered questions in evolutionary psychology?\r\n
Robert Wright: I think, I really think that the big questions are kind of taken care of in evolutionary psychology. If you look at the landscape of human thought and feeling, the main contours are broadly speaking explained and it’s a question of working out the details. Now, there are little kind of riddles. I mean, there’s no consensus on the origin of, like laughter. And the answer there is, there’s probably no single answer. It’s kind of a lot of little thing converged, or laughter is something that in rudimentary form emerged for one purpose and was adapted for various other purposes. But I would say, in terms of the basic emotions that the govern our everyday lives, you know, ranging from fear to envy to joy and including these things like altruism and empathy, broadly speaking we now know why they’re here. And they seem to comply in their dynamics with what the theory would predict.\r\n
I mean, there is separately from that, the question of consciousness, but that’s a metaphysical conundrum that is not, per se, answered by evolutionary psychology, but the more I say about that the less sense I will seem to make. So, I’ll stop there.\r\n
Question: Is there a class of human behaviors that evolutionary psychology can’t illuminate?\r\n
Robert Wright: Religion is not an adaptation. That is to say, it’s not here because it was conducive to the replication of the genes underlying it. I mean, I think there are genes underlying religion in the sense that all the kinds of basic emotions that are part of religious experience, things like “awe” for example, and various kinds of superstitious intuitions and some of the various things that might make up religion do themselves have a basis in the genes. It’s just that those genes weren’t preserved by natural selection because they gave rise to what we now call religious behavior. So, I think religion as we think of it is largely a product of cultural evolution. It took shape in essence, you might say, after natural selection did its work.\r\n
Question: How did religion emerge from evolved human traits and behaviors?\r\n
Robert Wright: Well, for example, take the intuition that you see in some kinds of religious context that there’s something that is a source of evil, or a source of contamination. Something that has this metaphysical property that should lead you to keep your distance. Well, that could make sense as a product of natural selection in the context of things that could give you a disease. So for example, it may be that the kind of revulsion that people have at kind of rotting flesh, or something – Okay, that’s bad stuff, get away from it. That could have a clear-cut foundation in natural selection. But that kind of aversion, the idea of something giving off some kind of vibes that should lead you to steer clear of it, can then become more of a religious conception in other contexts. Or an emphasis on ritual purity in that sense, this basic distinction between the pure and the kind of non-pure, and the idea that there’s these things you do to make sure you’re on the right side. That’s just one example of something whose ultimate roots could be in natural selection and yet there’s a kind of a – some cultural evolution has to happen before it assumes the forms that we’re most familiar with.\r\n
Question: How has religion itself evolved since our hunter-gatherer days?\r\n
Robert Wright: Well, to judge by observed hunter/gatherer societies, and there were a lot of them that have been observed before they had a whole lot of contact with more technologically advanced societies. To judge by them, there was a time before the invention of agriculture when apparently every society on the planet was essentially polytheistic. There was a belief that there were a lot of gods and spirits and they were responsible for the good things and the bad things. And in fact, it appears that the original function of religion was to figure out, why do good things happen to us? Why do bad things happen to us? How can we manipulate the forces responsible for those good things and bad things, which were assumed to be kind of human-like beings, psychologically, you know, these gods that were deposited. How can we manipulate those to increase the number of good things that will happen and reduce the number of bad things? How can we reduce the amount of disease, the number of horrible storms, and increase the number of wars we win, or the number of – the amount of food that grows around us or something.\r\n
So, originally religion did not seem to have been concerned with morality the way we think of religion being now. And one reason is because in a hunter/gather society, morality is not such a complicated issue. When you’ve got a small group of people living around each other day-to-day, people just kind of keep each other honest. There’s not – as far as like theft, which is one thing that came to be a big issue, in a hunter/gather village, the two things about theft are, there’s no where to hide what you steal, and there’s not much to steal anyway. Right? So, it’s kind of not an issue.\r\n
Now, as time wore on and societies grew more complex, you had larger and larger societies, and people interacting with one another who weren’t on such kind of close terms, didn’t know each other so well. The more and more you did have what we consider kind of moral/ethical issues like theft. And then you do see religion begin to assume the role of the enforcer of these kinds of moral sanctions. So, when you get to kind of chiefdoms, which are when you have – at the point where you have agriculture, but writing hasn’t yet been invented, you have these kind of modestly complex societies known as chiefdoms, and in a lot of those you see these ideas that people who steal fruit from a tree that’s on somebody else’s property they will be punished by the gods and stuff like that.\r\n
Question: Is it valid to consider some faiths more “evolved” than others, or are all such distinctions inherently biased?\r\n
Robert Wright: Well religious beliefs have evolved over time. It’s that there are some kinds of beliefs that are more characteristic of large civilizations that existed only after the invention of writing. I wouldn’t say that that fact makes them better. The fact that they are more evolved in that sense is not a value judgment. On the other hand, it’s true that as time has worn on, especially in situation where people have had productive contact with different kinds of people. People with different ethnicities, different nations, that has tended to kind of broaden their moral horizon. This is something Peter Singers has documented in his book, The Expanding Circle. So, they tended to start thinking, well maybe it isn’t just people of our group that are human beings and deserve to be treated decently. Maybe people who speak a different language, people of a different ethnicity.\r\n
I think that constitutes moral progress. And sometimes that has been associated with religion. In other words, it doesn’t have to be, you can have a sheerly secular philosophical version of that belief, but given how pervasive religion has been in the belief system of most societies, that kind of moral progress has shown up in the evolution of religion. And I think you can call it moral progress. It’s not confined to religion and I think it’s a product of a kind of concrete forces – it kind of happens in recognition of enlightened self-interest. But I think it’s good. It’s one of the hopeful things about the direction of history that a belief that a lot of us take for granted now, the idea that people everywhere are human beings and deserve to be treated decently did have to be kind of invented, and was invented. And I think history was on the side of the eventual discovery of that moral truth.\r\n
Question: Which were the most surprising historical truths you uncovered about various religious figures and stories?\r\n
Robert Wright: Let’s see. I guess, I had never really taken a look at the question of what the historical Jesus may have been like. And there’s a tendency to think – I mean, people who are trying to – believers who are trying to reconcile their belief with growing reason to doubt that the gospels are all that reliable. The attempt to make a reconciliation has tended to move us in the direction that Jesus kind of said all the good stuff that’s attributed to him and there’s a tendency not to emphasize some of the bad stuff. Like, for example, when he seems to refer to a woman as a dog because she’s not Jewish. My conclusion, and I didn’t go into this having a bias, my conclusion was that actually it’s probably being closer to the reverse. That the emphasis on a love that crosses ethnic bounds, which you do see start showing up in the gospels, probably didn’t come from Jesus, but was more a product of the way early Christianity evolved in the Roman Empire.\r\n
To me this is actually kind of heartening. I mean, I guess if I were a believing Christian, which I have not been since childhood, I might have another view of this. I might be kind of dispiriting to think that Jesus didn’t say all this stuff. But the reason I find it kind of good news is what I see happening in the Roman Empire is that just natural forces that emanate from the expansion of social organization, which social organization tends to do naturally. These forces nourished a doctrine of brotherly love that crosses ethnic and national bounds. In other words, I think this is a likely product of the natural direction of history that people would reach this conclusion. And for me, that’s heartening in itself. In a way, more heartening than the idea that, had it not been for this one man from Galilee, we would have never figured this out. I’d rather think that human history naturally gives rise to this sort of enlightenment.\r\n
Question: Are we moving toward greater reconciliation or greater strife among various faiths?\r\n
Robert Wright: I think history has tended to move people toward mutual acceptance, you might say. In other words, the moral compass has expanded over time if you compare us to the time when people in one hunter-gatherer village thought the people in the next village were subhuman. That doesn’t mean that continued progress is guaranteed. What is guaranteed, and this is what is interesting to me, and this is what leads me to think that it’s not crazy to say that there’s some larger purpose with a moral dimension unfolding through human history. What’s interesting to me is that the way history seems to be set up, although I know “set up” is sort of a biased term. I’m not sure that anybody here thinks it was set up. But the way the system works, is that if people don’t make the moral progress, they pay a price. So, right now, in the history of the world, if people in the different Abrahamic faiths, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, don’t get better at accepting one another don’t get better at tolerance, it can be really bad for the world on an epic scale. You know, we could be talking about the collapse of the society. And I think this is built into the system and we’ve seen it time and time and time again that history forces people to either expand their moral compass or pay the price. So, all I can say for sure, is that – or pretty sure, is that I think the salvation of the world in the sense of just holding the system together, having some degree of peace and order, depends on further moral progress. That doesn’t mean the outcome will be good, but it’s interesting to me that the system drives us to this point where we either make the moral progress, or we pay the price.\r\n
And this is actually reminiscent of something that various biblical prophets were kind of saying in one sense of another. And not just biblical prophets, I would say Mohammad, I would say Abrahamic prophets in general. A common message is to say that salvation is possible so long as you align yourself more closely with the moral axis of the universe. Now, usually these prophets, they didn’t use the term, “moral axis of the universe,” of course, they used the term God. But they did think of God as the moral axis of the universe. And I would say that even now, even if you are secular, you can still say that the salvation of the world in this concrete sense of holding it together is going to depend on humanity aligning itself more closely with the moral axis of the universe, if you agree with me that that axis involves things like acceptance of people who are different than you and overcoming prejudices and biases and so on.\r\n
Question: If morality is to evolve further, must it evolve beyond religion?\r\n
Robert Wright: I mean, certainly the moral progress that is required to save the world can take place in a context devoid of religion. I mean the kind of enlightenment that it takes for people to accept one another is not something that has to take place in the context of religion. On the other hand, I certainly don’t think that progress, even that kind of ultimate progress that is necessary requires shedding religion, per se. It may require abandoning some beliefs that are characteristic in religion in some places, or in some brains right now; it certainly does. But you can certainly be abundantly moral, human, and enlightened person, and be religious in a meaningful sense.\r\n
Now, there are certain doctrines that – there may be important religious doctrines. There are religious doctrines that are important to some people that will probably have to be shed, yes, for the good of the world. Certainly the idea that not only is my God kind of better than yours, but so long as you believe in the wrong God, we can’t do business, or I should kill you or something. But almost nobody actually believes that in any of these religions. If you look at the way people actually live, they’re much more practical than that. And so I wouldn’t say there are any mainstream beliefs that have to be abandoned. And we don’t have to have any single religion. All that’s really required is tolerance of other beliefs and in that sense maybe a certain amount of intellectual humility. But I don’t think you need some sort of merger of religious beliefs. There are doctrines that could help, like the notion of the god – the idea that the different gods that are worshipped are all different manifestations of the single underlying divine unity. That might be a productive thing for people to agree on. But even that, I wouldn’t say, is essential.\r\n
Question: Can a scientific worldview be reconciled with faith?\r\n
Robert Wright: Well I guess originally religion was doing what science does now, which is to say, it’s main function originally seems to have been to make sense of the world. And kind of the primordial religious hypothesis, the idea that all these forces of nature animated by beings that are psychologically very much like human beings, seems to be wrong. And science has rightly attained authority in this realm. And its success definitely undermines a number of specific religious beliefs. So, I’m not somebody that says science and religion are in these intrinsically separate realms and there is no conflict. There is a conflict between science and a lot of specific religious beliefs. But if the question is, is science compatible with religion in the most basic and generic sense of the term “religion?” I think it is. Certainly if you accept the definition like William James’ definition of religious beliefs is, which is, and I may not get this just exactly right, but the idea that there is an unseen order and our supreme interest lies on harmoniously adjusting ourselves to that order. I would say the idea that I personally hold, which is that there is a moral order built into – almost into the trajectory of organic life on this planet, but certainly kind of human history. I’d say even if you believe that much without even addressing the question of whether the order was set up by some sort of personal divine being or something. Without even going there, if you believe that there is a moral order, and perhaps even in that sense an overarching purpose, again leaving aside the question of where the purpose comes from. And if you think it warrants you orienting your life with respect to it and that that brings you closer to moral truth, I think by James’ definition that qualifies as religion. And I think that’s fully compatible with science. For that matter, the Deism, the idea that God kind of wound up the clock and let it go is fully compatible with science. That’s why it was popular in the Enlightenment and around the founding of America. And for that matter, people believing in an interventionist god, science doesn’t – you can never prove that there’s never been an intervention. Right? So, even that is not in the strictest sense incompatible with science, although it’s not kind of the way I think of it.\r\n
So, I do think lots of specific religious beliefs have to be let go if you’re going to reconcile religion with science; certainly including a literal reading of Genesis. And I personally don’t believe any of the revelations in the Abrahamic lineage were actual, literal revelations. But I think reconciliation is possible.\r\n
Question: Since 9/11, has America adopted wise short-term and long-term policies in the war on terror?\r\n
Robert Wright: Well I am much more pessimistic about the chances of our – I guess I’m more pessimistic about the outcome on the so-called war on terror now than I was shortly after 911. And I would say the mistake I think we’ve made is to overestimate the near term threat and underestimate the long-term threat. So, the big threat is still years off when you might have terrorist groups truly in possession of nuclear weapons, or truly devastating biological weapons. And I don’t mean anthrax, which is not – doesn’t leave anything contagious. But truly devastating biological weapons. That’s the thing to worry about. And the trouble is that if you get scared about the short term and start overreacting to that threat by doing thing like invading countries, what you wind up doing is making it more likely that the long-term threat will be realized because you increase the number of people who hate you and you kind of help do the job of terrorist recruiters for them. And just little things like reacting to a failed attempt to bomb an airplane by saying, “Well, maybe we should start doing ethnic profiling in airports and stuff.” I mean, if you don’t think Osama Bin Laden would love to see us do ethnic profiling, then I think you really don’t understand what he’s after. I mean, that’s exactly playing into his hands. And so, I just think that’s the sense in which – one of many in which being kind of panicked about the short term, when in truth, there aren’t any massive short-term threats out there, is making it more likely that the more apocalyptic scenario in the long-term could unfold. I think that’s the big mistake we’ve made is to just not realize that hatred will be increasingly lethal as time goes on, so it’s better to generate less of it than more.\r\n
Question: If the US were to start over in its strategy in the war on terror, what would you advise?\r\n
Robert Wright: I would say, first of all, think about establishing structures of international governance that would effectively police weapons of mass destruction. And we haven’t made any, if much, progress on that front since 911. And don’t be distracted from that by short-term adventures that are kind of focused on a single seeming manifestation of the same threat. Like in Iraq. I mean, we actually knew there were no – no one thought there were actual nuclear weapons, per se, in their – or truly contagious biological weapons for which we lacked a vaccine or anything like that. So, we should not have gotten sidetracked by these various things. And I think what that would call for is a president who really gave the “nothing to fear but fear itself” kind of sermon in an inspirational way. In other words, that irrational fear is the greatest enemy. It’s going to lead us to play into their hands.\r\n
Question: Does Afghanistan have any remaining strategic value, or is it now a distraction from long-term anti-terror strategy?\r\n
Robert Wright: Well, Afghanistan is an example of the damage that can be done by Iraq. And we got distracted from Afghanistan by Iraq and now both that and the Pakistan situation festered. I mean the strategic significance of Afghanistan is that it’s interacting with Pakistan in a way that tends to destabilize Pakistan. And Pakistan does have nuclear weapons. So, you would not want a radical group to take charge of Pakistan. I don’t think that’s on the verge of happening, but it’s the reason that that region matters to America’s national interest in the most kind of concrete sense.\r\n
But I guess I think also, there’s – in a way this gets back to evolutionary psychology. We have to be mindful of what our impulses evolved for. So, the impulse of retribution, why was it designed by natural selection? I mean, now the way you see it played out is, we’ve got to get Osama Bin Laden, or we’ve got to get somebody else because of something they have done to us. And it often, you do like to punish people who have done bad things, that is true. But you have to remember that the retributive impulse itself was designed for a different environment by natural selection, a hunter-gatherer environment. And in a modern environment, it can go awry. I mean, the most obvious example is road rage. I mean driving does something to you and you briefly have this impulse to actually pursue the person and do something that can get you both killed, and there’s like no payoff, when you think about it. The purpose of seeking vengeance in the ancestral environment was to show people that you can’t be trifled with; it was for the demonstration effect. And when you’re on a super highway, there’s nobody you know who is observing you act on your road rage. And that’s just an example of an impulse that can be completely dysfunctional and I just think too much of our foreign policy is governed by impulses like that, that we’re not sufficiently critical of.\r\n
Question: What excites you most about new media right now?\r\n
Robert Wright: I’m getting to the age where some new media are starting to seem threatening. I mean, first of all, I would say things beyond a certain age, things come along like Twitter and you’re like, do I have to figure this out? And so far, I haven’t surrendered. It’s like Facebook came along and I’m like, okay, I’ll join Facebook. And Twitter, okay I’m paying a little attention. But the older you get, the less enthusiastic you are about your social environment kind of being transformed.\r\n
Aside from that, there’s a separate problem that I think is a genuine problem, leaving aside my age, which is that in general, for a long time ever since the – well really long time, the tendency has been as information processing and transmission gets easier and cheaper, it’s been easier and easier to organize kind of smaller and smaller interest groups, you might say. Even back with computerized mass mail 40 or 50 years ago, that’s what allowed people to organize taxpayer’s into interest groups, or old people into interest groups, and now the internet basically is an extension of that same trend is leading of the further kind of balkanization of opinion. So, people go to their blogs where they basically it’s preaching to the choir, they hear things they already agree with and there’s this cocooning effect. And I think that’s a real problem.\r\n
And Bloggingheads, I didn’t really start out thinking about it this way, but it has shown the capacity to some extent counteract that just because if you bring two people together in a conversation. I mean, we do split screen video dialogues, it’s harder for them, even if they strenuously disagree with things, it’s harder for them to be uncivil toward one another. And it’s harder for them to avoid the serious arguments that is being made by the other side. So, it’s been kind of interesting to see that effect and to try to cultivate a comment section that is fairly ideologically diverse because you don’t see that much of that on the internet. Most comment sections for most blogs are fairly ideologically homogenous. So, that’s an interesting, you know, it’s not going to save the world, but it’s an interesting attempt to some extent to transcend the really naturally kind of balkanizing and tribalizing tendencies of the internet.
Recorded on February 12, 2010
A conversation with the author of "The Evolution of God."
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It could lead to a massive uptake in those previously hesitant.
A financial shot in the arm could be just what is needed for Americans unsure about vaccination.
On May 12, 2021, the Republican governor of Ohio, Mike DeWine, announced five US$1 million lottery prizes for those who are vaccinated. Meanwhile, in West Virginia, younger citizens are being enticed to get the shot with $100 savings bonds, and a state university in North Carolina is offering students who get vaccinated a chance to win the cost of housing. Many companies are paying vaccinated employees more money through bonuses or extra paid time off.
The push to get as many people vaccinated as possible is laudable and may well work. But leading behavioral scientists are worried that paying people to vaccinate could backfire if it makes people more skeptical of the shots. And ethicists have argued that it would be wrong, citing concerns over fairness and equity.
As a behavioral scientist and ethicist, I draw on an extensive body of research to help answer these questions. It suggests that incentives might work to save lives and, if properly structured, need not trample individual rights or be a huge expense for the government.
In the United States, incentives and disincentives are already used in health care. The U.S. system of privatized health insurance exposes patients to substantial deductibles and copays, not only to cover costs but to cut down on what could be deemed as wasteful health care – the thinking being that putting a cost to an emergency room visit, for example, might deter those who aren't really in need of that level of care.
In practice, this means patients are encouraged to decline both emergency and more routine care, since both are exposed to costs.
Paying for health behaviors
In the case of COVID-19, the vaccines are already free to consumers, which has undoubtedly encouraged people to be immunized. Studies have shown that reducing out-of-pocket costs can improve adherence to life-sustaining drugs, whether to prevent heart attacks or to manage diabetes.
A payment to take a drug goes one step further than simply reducing costs. And if properly designed, such incentives can change health behaviors.
And for vaccination in particular, payments have been successful for human papillomavirus (HPV) in England; hepatitis B in the United States and the United Kingdom; and tetanus toxoid in Nigeria. The effects can be substantial: For example, for one group in the HPV study, the vaccination rate more than doubled with an incentive.
For COVID-19, there are no field studies to date, but several survey experiments, including one my group conducted with 1,000 Americans, find that incentives are likely to work. In our case, the incentive of a tax break was enough to encourage those hesitant about vaccinations to say they would take the shot.
Even if incentives will save lives by increasing vaccinations, there are still other ethical considerations. A key concern is protecting the autonomous choices of people to decide what they put into their own bodies. This may be especially important for the COVID-19 vaccines, which – although authorized as likely safe and effective – are not yet fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
But already people are often paid to participate in clinical trials for drugs that have not yet been approved by the FDA. Ethicists have worried that such payments may be “coercive" if the money is so attractive as to override a person's free choices or make them worse off overall.
One can quibble about whether the term “coercion" applies to offers of payment. But even if offers were coercive, payments may still be reasonable to save lives in a pandemic if they succeed in greater levels of immunization.
During the smallpox epidemic nearly 100 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the power of states to mandate vaccines. Compared with mandating vaccination, the incentives to encourage vaccines seem innocuous.
Exploitation and paternalism
Yet some still worry. Bioethicists Emily Largent and Franklin Miller wrote in a recent paper that a payment might “unfairly" exploit “those U.S. residents who have lost jobs … or slipped into poverty during the pandemic," which could leave them feeling as if they have “no choice but to be vaccinated for cash." Others have noted that vaccine hesitancy is higher in nonwhite communities, where incomes tend to be lower, as is trust in the medical establishment.
Ethicists and policymakers should indeed focus on the poorest members of our community and seek to minimize racial disparities in both health outcomes and wealth. But there is no evidence that offering money is actually detrimental to such populations. Receiving money is a good thing. To suggest that we have to protect adults by denying them offers of money may come across as paternalism.
Some ethicists also argue that the money is better spent elsewhere to increase participation. States could spend the money making sure vaccines are convenient to everyone, for example, by bringing them to community events and churches. Money could also support various efforts to fight misinformation and communicate the importance of getting the shot.
The cost of incentives
Financial incentives could be expensive as a policy solution. As in Ohio, lottery drawings are one way to cap the overall cost of incentives while giving millions of people an additional reason to get their shot.
The tax code could also allow for a no-cost incentive for vaccination. Tax deductions and credits are often designed to encourage behaviors, such as savings or home ownership. Some states now have big budget surpluses and are considering tax relief measures. If a state announced now that such payments would be conditional on being vaccinated, then each person declining the shot would save the government money.
Ultimately, a well-designed vaccination incentive can help save lives and need not keep the ethicists up at night.
Geologists discover a rhythm to major geologic events.
- It appears that Earth has a geologic "pulse," with clusters of major events occurring every 27.5 million years.
- Working with the most accurate dating methods available, the authors of the study constructed a new history of the last 260 million years.
- Exactly why these cycles occur remains unknown, but there are some interesting theories.
Our hearts beat at a resting rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute. Lots of other things pulse, too. The colors we see and the pitches we hear, for example, are due to the different wave frequencies ("pulses") of light and sound waves.
Now, a study in the journal Geoscience Frontiers finds that Earth itself has a pulse, with one "beat" every 27.5 million years. That's the rate at which major geological events have been occurring as far back as geologists can tell.
A planetary calendar has 10 dates in red
Credit: Jagoush / Adobe Stock
According to lead author and geologist Michael Rampino of New York University's Department of Biology, "Many geologists believe that geological events are random over time. But our study provides statistical evidence for a common cycle, suggesting that these geologic events are correlated and not random."
The new study is not the first time that there's been a suggestion of a planetary geologic cycle, but it's only with recent refinements in radioisotopic dating techniques that there's evidence supporting the theory. The authors of the study collected the latest, best dating for 89 known geologic events over the last 260 million years:
- 29 sea level fluctuations
- 12 marine extinctions
- 9 land-based extinctions
- 10 periods of low ocean oxygenation
- 13 gigantic flood basalt volcanic eruptions
- 8 changes in the rate of seafloor spread
- 8 times there were global pulsations in interplate magmatism
The dates provided the scientists a new timetable of Earth's geologic history.
Tick, tick, boom
Credit: New York University
Putting all the events together, the scientists performed a series of statistical analyses that revealed that events tend to cluster around 10 different dates, with peak activity occurring every 27.5 million years. Between the ten busy periods, the number of events dropped sharply, approaching zero.
Perhaps the most fascinating question that remains unanswered for now is exactly why this is happening. The authors of the study suggest two possibilities:
"The correlations and cyclicity seen in the geologic episodes may be entirely a function of global internal Earth dynamics affecting global tectonics and climate, but similar cycles in the Earth's orbit in the Solar System and in the Galaxy might be pacing these events. Whatever the origins of these cyclical episodes, their occurrences support the case for a largely periodic, coordinated, and intermittently catastrophic geologic record, which is quite different from the views held by most geologists."
Assuming the researchers' calculations are at least roughly correct — the authors note that different statistical formulas may result in further refinement of their conclusions — there's no need to worry that we're about to be thumped by another planetary heartbeat. The last occurred some seven million years ago, meaning the next won't happen for about another 20 million years.
The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.
- A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
- It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
- The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
Humanity knows surprisingly little about the ocean depths. An often-repeated bit of evidence for this is the fact that humanity has done a better job mapping the surface of Mars than the bottom of the sea. The creatures we find lurking in the watery abyss often surprise even the most dedicated researchers with their unique features and bizarre behavior.
A recent expedition off the coast of Java discovered a new isopod species remarkable for its size and resemblance to Darth Vader.
The ocean depths are home to many creatures that some consider to be unnatural.
According to LiveScience, the Bathynomus genus is sometimes referred to as "Darth Vader of the Seas" because the crustaceans are shaped like the character's menacing helmet. Deemed Bathynomus raksasa ("raksasa" meaning "giant" in Indonesian), this cockroach-like creature can grow to over 30 cm (12 inches). It is one of several known species of giant ocean-going isopod. Like the other members of its order, it has compound eyes, seven body segments, two pairs of antennae, and four sets of jaws.
The incredible size of this species is likely a result of deep-sea gigantism. This is the tendency for creatures that inhabit deeper parts of the ocean to be much larger than closely related species that live in shallower waters. B. raksasa appears to make its home between 950 and 1,260 meters (3,117 and 4,134 ft) below sea level.
Perhaps fittingly for a creature so creepy looking, that is the lower sections of what is commonly called The Twilight Zone, named for the lack of light available at such depths.
It isn't the only giant isopod, far from it. Other species of ocean-going isopod can get up to 50 cm long (20 inches) and also look like they came out of a nightmare. These are the unusual ones, though. Most of the time, isopods stay at much more reasonable sizes.
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During an expedition, there are some animals which you find unexpectedly, while there are others that you hope to find. One of the animal that we hoped to find was a deep sea cockroach affectionately known as Darth Vader Isopod. The staff on our expedition team could not contain their excitement when they finally saw one, holding it triumphantly in the air! #SJADES2018
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What benefit does this find have for science? And is it as evil as it looks?
The discovery of a new species is always a cause for celebration in zoology. That this is the discovery of an animal that inhabits the deeps of the sea, one of the least explored areas humans can get to, is the icing on the cake.
Helen Wong of the National University of Singapore, who co-authored the species' description, explained the importance of the discovery:
"The identification of this new species is an indication of just how little we know about the oceans. There is certainly more for us to explore in terms of biodiversity in the deep sea of our region."
The animal's visual similarity to Darth Vader is a result of its compound eyes and the curious shape of its head. However, given the location of its discovery, the bottom of the remote seas, it may be associated with all manner of horrifically evil Elder Things and Great Old Ones.
Researchers discovered a galactic wind from a supermassive black hole that sheds light on the evolution of galaxies.
- A new study finds the oldest galactic wind yet detected, from 13.1 billion years ago.
- The research confirms the theory that black holes and galaxies evolve together.
- The galactic wind was spotted using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile.
An enormously powerful galactic wind generated by a supermassive black hole 13.1 billions years ago has been discovered by researchers. The scientists used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, which combines 66 radio telescopes, to make the find. The results are published in the Astrophysical Journal.
This is the earliest example of this type of wind yet spotted that underscores the role of black holes in the formation of galaxies. Research has shown that galactic winds affect redistribution of metals around the galaxy and impact start formation.
Black holes and galaxies evolve together
In previous studies, scientists have noticed an unexpected proportional relationship between the mass of a supermassive black hole at the center of a large galaxy, which can grow up to billions of times more massive than the sun, and the mass of the galaxy's central area (known as a "bulge"). The proportionality of the masses is especially unusual considering that galaxies and black holes are so different in size, with the bulge generally being orders of magnitude larger. This led the researchers to conclude that galaxies and black holes developed together through coevolution, which involved some physical interaction courtesy of the galactic wind.
As ALMA's press release explains, a galactic wind starts coming into existence when a supermassive black hole gobbles up giant quantities of matter. It is then moved at such a high speed by the black hole's gravity that it radiates intense energy, which in turn, pushes surrounding matter away, creating the galactic wind.
Takuma Izumi, the paper's lead author and a researcher at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ), says an important question is: "When did galactic winds come into existence in the universe?" Finding this out can lead to understanding how galaxies and supermassive black holes coevolved.
Finding an ancient galactic wind
The researchers used NAOJ's Subaru Telescope to locate over 100 galaxies that existed more than 13 billion years ago that featured supermassive black holes. They then used the high sensitivity of ALMA to analyze the gas motion in these galaxies, finding that the dust and carbon of one of them (dubbed J1243+0100) emitted radio waves. This allowed the scientists to detect the presence of an intense galactic wind that rushes forth from the supermassive black hole at about 1,118,468 miles per hour (500 km/second). The energy of the wind, the oldest found so far, is so strong that it pushes away stellar materials, preventing stars from forming.
Interestingly, the mass of the bulge in J1243+0100 was found to be about 30 billion times larger than that of the sun, while the mass of the galaxy's supermassive black hole was estimated to be about 1 percent of that. This ratio is essentially the same as the mass ratio of black holes to galaxies in today's universe. To the scientists, this demonstrates how essential black holes are in affecting the growth of galaxies, supporting the notion of coevolution from the early period of the universe.
"Our observations support recent high-precision computer simulations which have predicted that coevolutionary relationships were in place even at about 13 billion years ago," explained Izumi.
The scientists are planning to observe a large pool of space objects in the future, with the goal of clarifying "whether or not the primordial coevolution seen in this object is an accurate picture of the general universe at that time," further commented Izumi.