Monday, May 12, 2008

All about flies ... and tubesharks

Because I have a fascination with natural history (evolutionary theory and speculative biology in particular), I'm always looking for great books and websites for reference. Just recently I found the Anatomical Atlas of Flies. What a fantastic resource for the budding entomologist! What was particularly brilliant about this site is its graphical user interface. You just click on a species and then use the tabs to find out all about the wee beastie's various distinguishing features. And a roving magnifying glass allows you to zoom in for a better look. Fantastic.

This is the sort of resource that the internet should be providing. I'm also a huge fan of The Tree of Life Web Project which aims to show the inter-relationship of all living species to each other and to previous extinct species. Again, very user-friendly and graphic. More of the same, please.

Mention of speculative biology leads me to mention some other sites and books you may enjoy. Speculative biology is the science of 'What if ...?' It is the science of imagining and designing life-forms that don't exist - but could. They may be organisms that could have existed in some alternative time-stream (such as 'what would have happened if the dinosaurs had continued to evolve?). Or they may be alien biologies that have developed on other worlds. Or they could be future Earth biologies. The fact is that life adapts itself to its surroundings, so no matter how bizarre its chemistry or ancestry, it will still evolve along the most effective path and, to some degree, that allows us to make certain predictions. I've just been re-reading Cliff Pickover's The Science of Aliens and came across these paragraphs:

'Evolution on Earth tells us a lot about possible alien shapes. Although every detail must be different, there are patterns of general problems, and common solutions to those problems, that would apply to life on alien worlds. In the course of Earth's history, whenever life-forms have had a problem to solve, they have solved them in remarkably similar ways. For example, three very unrelated animals - a dolphin (a mammal), a salmon (a fish) and an icthyosaur (an extinct reptile) - all have swum in coastal waters darting about in search of small fish to eat. These three creatures have very little to do with one another biochemically, genetically, or even evolutionarily, yet they all have a similar look. On first glance they look like nothing more than living, breathing torpedoes. Although they are biologically quite different, they have all evolved streamlined shapes to help them travel quickly through the water. This is an example of convergent evolution and we might expect aquatic aliens that feed on smaller, quick-moving aliens also to have similarly streamlined bodies.'

'Animals encounter similar environmental problems and cope with them in a similar way because that solution is an efficient one.'

'These universal solutions will be found on other planets with life.'

So there you go. Convergent evolution in action ... and Dr Pickover obviously believes that convergent evolution is a 'universal'. So on any world where there is light, will eyes evolve as an efficient solution as they have so many times on Earth? Welcome to the world of Spec Bio.

Four books that are a must for any speculative creature designer are After Man - a zoology of the future, The New Dinosaurs and Man after Man - all written by the ever-engaging Dougal Dixon - and Future Evolution by Peter Ward and Alexis Rockman. I might also suggest The Future is Wild (aka The Wild World of the Future), a TV-series tie-in book very much in the vein of After Man.

Rat Evolution (picture by Alexis Rockman) from Future Evolution

The Night-Stalker (picture by Diz Wallis) from After Man

And there are websites too. Chief among them is the staggeringly large Speculative Dinosaur Project site, somehow managed by Daniel Bensen, Brian Choo, Tiina Aumala and many others. In this you'll find out what could have happened if the Chicxulub meteor had utterly failed to hit the Earth 65 million years ago. My favourite pages are not the dinosaurs (though I love them). It's the cephalopod pages - I have a particular fondness for the giant baleen squids.

Imperial Baleen Squid (picture by Brian Choo)

Then there's Pavel Volkov's Russian 'Spec' site that looks at future evolution for this planet. He presents us with life in the Neocene Age; an age where Snowloppers run around on high mountains and Sharkodiles hunt in the warm tropical seas.

And I must mention Gert Van Dijk's alien world of Furaha project where he has designed an alternative biology for an essentially Earth-type world as an example of what could have happened here. (Note: The Contact group used to run a similar site about their speculative world Epona, but this seems to have been scaled back - I can barely find any mention of it on the web).

Furahan Tubesharks by Gert Van Dijk

I also have to mention Alex Ries and his Exoblog and the inimitable Nemo Ramjet. Alex is, I firmly believe, a future superstar of the alien life art circuit - his creatures are every bit as believable and realistic as anything Wayne Barlowe has produced. Meanwhile, there's more on Nemo's site than I can explain in just a few sentences. I strongly recommend downloading his portfolio and his superb All Tomorrows PDF book that graphically shows you the development of humans over the next several billion years.

A future sub-species human by Nemo Ramjet

Shadow of the sun by the brilliant Alex Ries

And finally there is the aforementioned god of speculative biology - Wayne Douglas Barlowe himself. His staggeringly realistic and utterly alien beasts have dominated this field for decades now. You can visit his site here, but my advice is to get hold of his book Expedition. It's chock full of glorious paintings and pencil sketches and is a thing worth having just as a work of art.

Sacback by Wayne Barlowe

So there you go; a kickstart into the world of Spec Bio. It's a world where imagination meets science and I can't think of any place I'd rather hang out.

As a final, final little treat, here's Disney's take on the subject. Back in 1957, they produced an episode of its Disneyland series (sometimes known as The Wonderful World of Disney) called Mars and Beyond. The programme discussed the possibility of life on other planets, especially Mars. Included in the short feature are cannibalistic plants, rock eating animals, dust eaters and odd creatures that can use armour or petal-like flaps to cover themselves during sandstorms. They're more imaginative than some of the stuff that people are coming up with today. I just thought you'd like to see some of them. Here's the movie:

Perhaps the most curious thing about this film is that it happily talks about evolution as a fact. Now, some 50+ years later, we have US states banning the subject from the school curriculum. Is it me, or is that a giant leap backwards for Mankind?

All artwork (c) the respective artists. Please Mr Disney - don't sue.


Gert Van Dijk said...

Hello Stevyn,

A few months ago I installed a bit of Javascript on several pages of my 'Furaha' website to find out where visitors were coming from (and in fact to see if there were any). It turned out that a fairly large proportion were coming from your 'Worlds of Possibility' blog, which I myself enjoyed very much.

So when I saw that someone had been referred from your present blog, I of course had a look, and found a reference to Furaha as well as to the tubesharks. There are a few bits I did not do, mostly involving the design of planetary orbits, done by Martyn Fogg. But all lifeforms are my own design. Should you wish to
have another look at the site, you may find I have started a blog as
well. I haven't got much time to spend on it, and will therefore
probably slow down the rate of new posts from once a week to twice a

Anyway, I just wanted to tell you how much I like your take on
speculative biology.

Best wishes


Alex Ries said...

In fact because Barlowe is SO good and there are so few big players in the field you have to really check yourself to be sure you dont end up copying his style.

He just seemed to hit 'alien' right on the head, and it can be hard to take it in your own direction sometimes.

The planktivore squid is a fantastic concept, I'll have to check out the site. I wonder if they would come to resemble the vertebrate solution to filter feeding SO closely though, considering the diverse ways it has evolved among past invertebrates [eg. fan worms, bamboo shrimp etc]Still, this kind of convergent evolution may happen, though I am not totally sold on the 'pectoral' fins.

Looks great in any case.


Stevyn Colgan said...

Thanks guys - I did enjoy running the 'Worlds of Possibility' blog but my writing (and other projects) takes me to many different areas of discussion and research and I couldn't run blogs for every one of them. So it's all here now. I hope you'll be frequent visitors.