☞ The Losses of Time

American Chestnuts, Shifting Baseline Syndrome, and What is Normal

The American Chestnut (Brooklyn Museum).

In this Age of Pandemic, each of us are drawn to what we have lost, both in terms of the permanent and tragic losses—lives, jobs, educations—as well as the smaller losses, the routines of everyday life, whether regularly seeing loved ones or eating inside restaurants or attending sporting events. While we hope, on some level, that things will return to normal when “Coronavirus is Over” (as my children say), we also recognize that some things might never be the same. There will be a rethinking of city and building designs, and we will likely never view large gatherings the same way again.

But these rapid changes in how we perceive our society are generally the exception rather than the rule. The reason we are bemoaning so much of what might be lost or irreparably change is only because we are experiencing the loss so quickly and visibly.

Far more often, these changes happen slowly, over the course of decades, or a human lifetime or more (I wrote an entire book about this in terms of how we perceive knowledge change). When it comes to our environment, the concept of shifting baseline syndrome is a defining one: because of, for example, a fishery’s consistent yet slow depletion—specifically a multigenerational one—most of us don’t even realize it. Whatever baseline we are born into is taken to be normal, and if it shifts a bit over our lifetimes, that is lamentable, but hardly noticeable. But when these shifts add up over time, we end up with the loss of entire fisheries. (For the interested reader, I recommend following Paul Kedrosky, who is obsessed with this concept—in a good way!—and ensures that I always think about shifting baseline syndrome.)

This was made clear when I was reading an article recently about the potential return of the American chestnut tree, via genetic engineering. Many of us don’t even realize what we had lost:

The American chestnut has been called the redwood of the East. From Georgia to Maine, up and down the spine of Appalachia, no other tree could match its grandeur. Its trunks rose 100 feet high and could reach 10 feet in diameter. With crowns that spanned a fifth of an acre, its prodigious nut crops were essential food for everything from bears to passenger pigeons. It was known as the cradle-to-grave tree because people were born in rot-resistant chestnut houses, warmed by chestnut fires, entertained by chestnut fiddles, and laid to rest in chestnut coffins.

Such a loss! And I didn’t even realize what I was missing. I have lived in a world bereft of these trees. Shifting baseline syndrome had struck again.

Related to this, I also came across a project called Resurrecting the Sublime, devoted to recreating the scent of an extinct flower:

Using tiny amounts of DNA extracted from specimens of three flowers stored at Harvard University’s Herbaria, the Ginkgo team used synthetic biology to predict and resynthesize gene sequences that might encode for fragrance-producing enzymes. Using Ginkgo’s findings, Sissel Tolaas used her expertise to reconstruct the flowers’ smells in her lab, using identical or comparative smell molecules.

I smelled the recreated odor, and I must admit there was a magic to that smell. Whether or not the smell was accurate, there was a bewitching quality that transported me to a lost world.

It turns out that the world we live in is one steeped in loss, whether vanished species, ways of life, books and manuscripts that no longer exist, or so much more. But we often don’t even realize what is gone. We are surrounded by wonders, but underneath them lies an undercurrent of bittersweet change. So don’t be blinded by shifting baselines, whether that involves reading history more carefully, or even just talking with people from previous generations. What is normal need not be the same as what is the default.

Building on my interest in alternate histories, I just published an article for BBC Future about the maps of alternate histories. Check it out!

I was excited to see the news that a new category of organ might have been discovered in humans (a type of salivary gland). I discussed the rate of new organ discovery in The Half-Life of Facts, and how it basically stopped hundreds of years ago. But, apparently, that book is not closed and the field of anatomy still has so much to teach us.

Within a newsletter I was reading, there’s a short essay about SimEarth. It highlights the strangeness of its manual:

The best part of the game doesn’t even take place on-screen. Rather, it’s SimEarth’s chunky, wire-bound game manual, which, at a whopping 250 pages, includes an introductory earth sciences textbook and a preface by Lovelock himself. Though it was probably made to help market the game as educational software, the manual is a marvel. There are detailed sections on topics like glaciers, atmospheric chemistry, and convection. Not, that is, on how to address these issues in the game—just explanations of the processes themselves.

You can check out the entire manual over at the Internet Archive.

And, finally, here’s an article from the arXiv: “Contact Inequality -- First Contact Will Likely Be With An Older Civilization.”

Until next month.