Love and Longing in the Seaweed Album

From Charles F. Durant’s Algae and Corallines of the Bay & Harbor of New York (1850), via Public Domain Review

A lovely essay from the Public Domain Review, on the 18th and 19th century fad of seaweed collection, touching on its countercultural and feminist connections, and some of the fascinating figures who became obsessed with the “useless” plants. Sasha Archibald captures the strange allure of seaweed collecting, seen by its advocates as a more refined alternative to the more obvious, less subtle pleasure of flower collecting. This passage on the hobby’s effect on air-balloon pioneer, pseudoscience debunker and generally fascinating character Charles Durant really struck me:

His research served only to remind him, again and again, how partial his knowledge. Algology is a concession, and a surrender too. Durant seems to bow his head before the “unfathomable abyss” of his topic, which proves “too wide, too deep, too vast for perfect exploration”. Seaweed chastened his ego, and abasement made space for love.

Transcendence: How Humans Evolved Through Fire, Language, Beauty, and Time

(I’m trying to get in the habit of distilling some of the key concepts from the books I read, instead of just letting them wash over me before moving onto the next. I’m pushing 40, my memory isn’t what it used to be, and the act of summarizing is still one of the best ways for me to internalize a lesson.)

In trying to pin down the traits that have helped humanity thrive over our 35,000 post-Ice Age years, Gaia Vince lists four key technologies: Fire, Language, Beauty and Time. Really, though, she’s listing four aspects of a single technology. While I never would have thought to connect them in this way, Vince makes a compelling case that those four ideas, broadly defined, are all ways of offloading the work of evolutionary adaptation to external energy sources:

When humans began deliberately accessing resources of energy beyond their own muscle power, they transcended the realm of biological life and entered a new state of being.

In this reading, fire takes on many roles that would otherwise have to be done by the body: cooking food is a sort of pre-digestion, making it easier for our stomachs to break down tough meats and vegetables; it wards off predators overnight, allowing for more rest; it alters landscapes, creating grasslands that are more favourable to the endurance hunting techniques humans favour and making things more difficult for the other predators we compete with. The list goes on, but the commonality is that instead of relying on the energy we’re able to create with our own bodies, we outsource those energy needs to transcend our physical limitations.

Of course, that consumptive outsourcing has gotten us into all kinds of trouble over the millenia, and is at the root of most of our current environmental and cultural issues. There’s no denying that it has let us accomplish far more than we ever could have with our bodies alone.

Vince’s list of technologies gets more abstract as it goes, which is appropriate given that abstraction is such a seemingly unique human trait. Language offloads the energy requirements of teaching, allows for complex thoughts, and seems to structure how we percieve the world to such an extent that multilingual people will give different answers to questions of preference or opinion depending what language they are speaking at the time. It also allows for a “cumulative culture,” where knowledge gained by one person and one generation can be built on by the next, which is the key to the exponential growth of our technological sophistication.

Beauty, in Vince’s telling, is a tool for binding us as cooperative societies, promoting trade, specialization, and community. Time is the most tenuous of the topics, allowing for a conception of a future that led to multi-generational mega-projects and monoliths, and eventually to the predictive systems of science. It also moved us out of touch with our own natural bodily cycles as we increasingly defined reality and dictated behaviour through more objective, external measurements of time.

Humanity isn’t particularly well adapted to most of the environments we inhabit—at least not physically. Instead, we have a “developing bath” of culture, environment, and genetics, all of which influence each other, and which allow us to adapt to new situations at a pace that genetic evolution alone could never manage. As Vince says,

Local knowledge is indispensable because of an evolutionary trade-off, in which our species gave up innate adaptation to an ancestral habitat in return for the culturally adaptive versatility to survive any environment.

In her conclusion, Vince makes the argument that humanity is on the verge of transcending again, into a superorganism she calls Homo omnis, or Homni. Comparing humanity to a slime mold isn’t immediately flattering, but it’s an interesting thought; the mold is a collection of individual organisms that can, in times of stress, act as if it is one larger organism, capable of things that the individual units never could.

The book’s ending is a hopeful one, focusing on humanity’s collective triumphs while still nodding towards the (largely self-created) challenges we face. Homni seems a step too far for me, mostly because recent years have challenged my belief in our potential for collective action. But maybe that’s just me focusing too much on the short term, unable to pull back and see our deep history, or project into our deep future. I hope there’s at least some truth to it, that the pattern of transcending our limitations continues. Because Vince is right; our potential is tremendous.

What I Read in January 2022


New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future (James Bridle, 2018)

Read in preparation for Bridle’s upcoming Ways of Being, which sounds like a more optimistic expansions of New Dark Age’s themes. Not that I think Bridle was wrong to be concerned about the consequences of our current technological direction, and New Dark Age makes an excellent case that the desire to conflate the real with the computable is causing more harm than good. Well-chosen examples make for an enjoyable read, but Bridle’s critiques have permeated the culture over the last few years. Diagnosing the problem is important, but dark as things get, the future never truly ends, and I’m looking forward to something with a little more hope.

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (David Graeber & David Wengrow, 2021)

If there’s one key arguments I took from this—and given its massive scope, it’s probably foolish to reduce it to a single message—but if there is, it’s that society and humanity are much more malleable than we usually think. The Davids take it as their task to complicate our notion of pre-history. Instead of a straightforward progression from utopian foraging cultures to hierarchical farming states, they point out that there’s been an incredible variety in how societies organize. Some societies even change their models seasonally, choosing different structures, hierarchies, and even identities throughout the year.

Given all that variety, the question is: how did we get so stuck in one model of society, and how do we start imagining a way forward? I’ve seen grumblings that Dawn of Everything’s history isn’t as radical as it presents itself, and that it isn’t as accurate as it should be, but taken as a prompt for imagining better futures, it’s still well worth a read.

My View of the World (Erwin Schrödinger, 1951)

Maria Popova’s Marginalian blog prompted this one, and while her summary does a fantastic job capturing both the meaning and the spirit of Schrödinger’s essays, I’m still glad to have read its entirety. Popular memory of cultural figures tends to reduce them to a single idea, and for Schrödinger it’s the one thought experiment; if it wasn’t for Popova’s post I would never have guessed he was writing on notions of panpsychism or universal consciousness while he was also helping redefine our understand of the nature of reality. His writing is wonderfully poetic in places (“What is it that has called you so suddenly out of nothingness to enjoy for a brief while a spectacle which remains quite indifferent to you?”), a touch overly technical in others, but I guess that’s to be expected for someone with such wide-roaming thoughts.


The Taiga Syndrome (Cristina Rivera Garza, 2018)

Referenced in Jack Young’s phenomenal essay, Making sense of our multispecies world: Body-Forest as community, Garza’s book is something like a detective story, a poem, a fairy tale, and a collection of cryptic koans. Difficult to pin down, in other words, but fortunately it’s short enough to be read in one sitting, which makes it more inviting for future re-reading. Given how obliquely it approaches its subjects, it strikes me as one that will reward time spent percolating in the unconscious, too.