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A Most Stupendous & Audacious Undertaking

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The REAL story of Avatar is in the ecology
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nasu_dengaku
[edit: this page seems to be a favorite for Russian spammers because it's linked to from a lot of blogs, and lj does a terrible job of blocking spam comments these days.  I've turned commenting off.]

Avatar is worth seeing as a demo reel for state-of-the-art filmmaking technology that will completely revolutionize the industry and will eventually trickle down to independent filmmakers over the next 20 years or so.  The movie was visually so stunning that I managed to more than tolerate a thoroughly mediocre plot.  Lots of people have written about the special effects, the plot, and the issues of race the movie brings up.  My questions is...

So, could a world like Avatar evolve?

The conclusion is very surprising. 

In the film, the trees have nervous systems.  One tree in particular has the memories of generations of sentient inhabitants and the ability to control all the animals of the world.  The people of this world can also control the animals by doing a neural meld with them.

Basically, it's as if James Cameron decided to create a world where the Native American's spiritual beliefs were made literal through biology.

Why would a plant need a nervous system?

Nervous systems are only useful when an organism needs to take very rapid coordinated action in different places in its body.  A few plants on Earth have rapid coordinated movements, but this is rare and the systems for movement tend to be horrible hacks with high energy cost.  Plants could gain an increase in fitness if their movement helps them catch prey, defend against a predator, or get more energy via sunlight.  The trouble is that nervous systems are expensive, energetically speaking.  Plants get all their energy from the sun, and at least on Earth, solar energy conversion by plants is fairly low, I think around 1-2%.  So basically plants have a very low energy budget, and that means that the luxury of rapid movement is probably out.  (Hey, if photosynthesis provided a lot of energy, then we'd all have chlorophyll in our skin, and we'd make extra energy on the side just by walking around outdoors.) Carniferns (predatory plants) are very rare in our world - their evolutionary "strategy" just barely makes sense, and only under very specific circumstances.  Trees couldn't do much to defend themselves from predators using rapid movement since they cannot uproot themselves and have made a choice for greater strength at extremely low ongoing energy cost (wood) instead of more limited strength and greater flexibility at very high energy cost (muscle)  Plants do move in order to gather more sunlight.  Phototropism is very common in the plant world, but the rate of movement of the sun is on the order of hours, so a nervous system is not necessary.  Maybe if the planet rotated a full revolution once every half-hour then plants would have a reason to move rapidly.  So overall there's not a strong reason for plants to develop rapid movement or a nervous system. 

However, not only is there a plant with a nervous system, there's a sentient tree.  In addition, the nerve architecture is the same across plants, animals, and the sentient humanoids.  Thus it must have evolved before plants and animals split off from each other, which is kind of unlikely since large animals (with nervous systems) could only evolve once there were plants to eat, and plants with no predators or prey likely would not need nervous systems, as mentioned earlier. 

Oh wait, Occam's razor.  There has to be a much more simple explanation: Intelligent design. 

Pandora is a post-Singularity world.  Some time ago the Na'vi achieved sentience, built incredibly advanced computers, and created the technology necessary to upload their consciousnesses into these computers.  Those who embraced technology saw huge advantages to living in the simulated world and departed their physical planet.    However, some Na'vi chose to shun technology because they valued a deep connection with nature and the life of the noble savage.   Some charitable world-builders decided to create the ideal world for these beings -- they genetically engineered a wide range of species to make literal the spiritual beliefs of their ancestors.  They created a locally omnipotent computer, Eywa, to oversee the world, as well as an interface, the Hometree, that allows the luddite Na'vi to communicate with it in a way that's compatible with their spiritual beliefs and hides all the technology behind a veil of biology.  When the world is sufficiently threatened, Eywa ensures that the threat is dealt with in a way that does not compromise the primacy of the Na'vi's worldview.  Looking at the ecosystems of Pandora, the evidence for intelligent design is everywhere.  Of course, this is James Cameron's intelligent design at work, but for the purpose of this little thought exercise, it indicates the clear presence of a post-Singularity civilization.
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And here I thought that trees with nervous systems that become smarter than people was just a hilarious caricature of treehugger mythology.

man, I am so psyched to see the movie again, with a seat closer to the screen and cleaner 3d glasses.
(Frozen) (Thread)

I think we all got what we wanted to get out of the movie. :-)
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

It would be super cool if a prequel was made elucidating the post-Singularity history of Pandora.

Edited at 2009-12-24 06:27 pm (UTC)
(Frozen) (Thread)

I am in rapturous support of this idea!
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

Emphasis on *that* would've made it a better movie. When I saw that scientist-chick trying to convince the bad capitalist of the significance, I was like *Oh, you all just totally failed at developing a potentially awesome plot-point!!* I felt the same way about Terminator: Salvation. The idea had *so* much potential...
(Frozen) (Thread)

Smashing idea! Well done.

Unfortunately Cameron is too adept at spoiling stories that were brimming over with potential to take on this sort of intelligent plotline in any prequel or sequel.
(Frozen) (Thread)

He was definitely making a big point about the parallels between the human/machine, Na'vi/animal, and human/Na'vi cyborgs. So this isn't very far afield.
(Frozen) (Thread)

Oh, and that Wikipedia article about plant movement mentioned tropisms as "growth/movement". That reminds me of a really really neat point I gathered from attending a little philosophy of biology workshop the other day in Australia. One of the grad students was doing a project on the evolution of behavior, and how we have to drop the neo-Darwinist dogma that all evolution proceeds through DNA in order to understand the real story. But it came out in discussion that it's very difficult to define what exactly we mean by behavior, as opposed to development or growth. On the one hand, memory seems to be something like a behavior. But things like learning a language or learning to walk are part of development. And it becomes very difficult to draw a distinction between them, especially when one or both of them involve cells actually modifying their internal DNA, as often happens. (It's mainly just through adding and removing methyl groups to "silence" certain regions, rather than changing the sequence of base pairs. This is an important part of the specialization process by which certain cells become liver cells or skin cells or whatever, despite all having exactly the same sequence of base pairs. So it's an important part of development, but also shows up in some things we might normally call "behavior".)
(Frozen) (Thread)

a simpler explannation

(Anonymous)

2009-12-28 10:41 pm (UTC)

You say, "Nervous systems are only useful when an organism needs to take very rapid coordinated action in different places in its body." Creationists make the same argument for eyes (sometimes summarized as "what use is half an eye?"). The answer is that the needs systems meet change as those systems evolve: early light-sensitive patches detected changes in the seasons, then recessed into pits to become more directional to distinguish lighted areas from unlit ones, and so on. A very unsophisticated "nervous" system would allow a plant to retract extremities in the face of predation, or expose fruiting bodies only when suitable pollinators or carriers were present, then evolve from there.
(Frozen) (Thread)

Re: a simpler explannation

nasu_dengaku

2009-12-28 10:55 pm (UTC)

A very unsophisticated "nervous" system would allow a plant to retract extremities in the face of predation, or expose fruiting bodies only when suitable pollinators or carriers were present, then evolve from there.

I agree with you on this. Carniferns (eg venus fly traps) do possess very rudimentary nervous systems. I think the reason systems like the ones you mention have not evolved widely is that plants' optimization for low energy consumption makes the energy tradeoff of activating and maintaining some "muscle" to achieve a desired outcome a net negative except in rare situations.
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

Re: a simpler explannation

kmo

2009-12-30 07:09 pm (UTC)

The mother tree in Avatar grew right on top of the mother lode of unobtainium (presumably an energy source par excellence). This could be interpreted as coming as no co-incidence in either a postsingular ID scenario or in one that resulted from a neo-darwinist process.

Edited at 2009-12-30 07:11 pm (UTC)
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

co-evolution

(Anonymous)

2009-12-29 07:19 pm (UTC)

I really enjoyed how the biology of the whole planet was depicted. especially the evolved behavioral rituals between the natives and flying reptiles. The tree of ancestors particularly was an interesting co-evolution between the natives and this tree species. the trees provided this neural-spiritual location for the natives and so the tree gains protection. reminded me of the relationships presented by Michael Pollan in The 'Botany of Desire'. I fully enjoyed this move as a new age 'Fern Gully', raising consciousness.
(Frozen) (Thread)

I think if the Na'vi were uploaded into a supercomputer, they would set up a better defense for their planet than a bunch of pacifists with bows and arrows.

Here's the scenario that I think is plausible: the Na'vi reached the singularity and created a super-intelligent AI that was designed to be benevolent and harmless and make the Na'vi happy. This AI then decided that the Na'vi would be best off living in blissful ignorance, so it erased their societal memory and prevented technological development. By the AI's construction, it was subsequently forced to shackle itself so it couldn't freely make decisions--it had to wait for prayers.
(Frozen) (Thread)

Perhaps that explains the unusually large number of non-lj commenters.
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

Isn't this the same failure of imagination that drives earthly ID'ers to conclude that certain features could never evolve?

Integrated nervous systems between sessiles and mobiles seem highly adaptive for all parties! Mobiles can use the forest as a sensor mesh; sessiles can rely on their semi-symbionts to respond to threats, transplant seedlings, perform pruning and other husbandry tasks. Even in the movie, we see plants working in concert to retract en masse after a few of them are disturbed -- presumably a defensive adaptation to avoid trampling.

If you're a gazelle, of course you would like the grass to tell you when a lion's coming. If you're the grass, you might be willing (evolutionarily) to do that in exchange for the hyenas' cooperation trampling competing plant species.

Given a truly alien biology where different mechanisms evolve at different points and the very plant/animal split might have gone down very differently, I don't see why you'd have to reach for the ID deus ex machina.
(Frozen) (Thread)

Thanks for crystalizing this. I was asking some of the same questions while watching the movie. How could animals possibly evolve so that they have a handy neural input jack on their head which the bipeds can plug into and take control of them through?

Plus their god is real, and is even able to in a short time fully understand human neuroanatomy and map it into their system.

It has to be a designed world, post-singularity.

Which means rather than being "dances with wolves" this is more the other famous SF trope, where the advanced humans land on the primitive alien planet, and laugh at the primitives, and it turns out in the end that they were more advanced than humans all along. Like Star Trek's Organians and many other stories.
(Frozen) (Thread)

Re: Yes, this has to be it

brad_templeton

2010-01-10 08:15 pm (UTC)

BTW, I expanded on this topic in my own blog:

http://ideas.4brad.com/avatar-isnt-dances-wolves-its-another-plot
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

Re: Yes, this has to be it

nasu_dengaku

2010-01-15 07:10 pm (UTC)

That was an interesting read, thanks.
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

Maybe the trees etc. *are* their technology

(Anonymous)

2010-01-10 08:01 am (UTC)

I agree the ecology is the story, and that it requires advanced biotech. But there are simpler (and more compelling) explanations. What if the Na'vi developed biotech, not metal tech, and the trees are their computers?

This leads to a more interesting story; there are no primitives (or luddites) in the picture at all. What we see is a confrontation between two very different technomes as well as culture -- but the Na'vi technome is if anything more advanced. After all, life figured out how to create replicators and assemblers a long time before humans created tools.

The Na'vi perhaps never developed space flight, or spread by biological means (panspermia, anyone?) So they may be weaker in some potentially important respects. This could lead to some interesting follow on stories.

I wrote up thoughts along these lines in a couple (http://jed.jive.com/2009/12/avatar-and-the-posthuman-future/) of posts (http://jed.jive.com/2009/12/two-kinds-of-technology/) in December.

To me the most interesting aspect of all this is the one illustrated in the post and comments here. We take metal tech so much for granted as the only possible way forward that we assume they had to go through a phase of building computers. But they started with brains, and ended up with brains (that could wire together) and a planetary tree-brain. Why take a detour through hardware?
(Frozen) (Thread)

Pandora as a post-Singularity synthesized paradise

(Anonymous)

2010-01-26 09:49 pm (UTC)

I loved Avatar, but found it oddly retro-futuristic. The humans, as has been pointed out, have the really amazing ability to create the titular Avatar bodies (pretty impressive bio tech), yet still have a largely contemporary tech level. No apparent A.I., no visible sign of advanced nanotechnology, no great use of robotics aside from power suits, no grand advancements in intelligence augmentation, etc. Pretty much a very near future vision treading water for decades.

If I were a fan fic writer (not), and interested in more contemporary science fiction (am), which includes post-singularity type musings like Ken Macleod's "Newton's Wake", I would try to paint the biosphere of Pandora as the result of a designed terraforming effort. A fully designed environment (which it happens to be in truth), designed as a honey trap for humanity and placed as close as possible to Earth to try to teach us some kind of lesson.

The aliens of Pandora lead a seemingly primitive lifestyle yet do not seem interested in the comforts of technology because their carefully designed world grants them many advantages over our own world's version of primitive. These blue folk are all super model skinny, tough, beautiful, and gifted with a true and measurable afterlife. They don't seem to have massive problems with internal parasites, visible disease, or other downsides that our technology helps to ameliorate. They are what we would want life to be like if we wanted to live in primitive conditions. All the good, little of the bad - except getting eaten by a Thanator - that gets you laughed at in the afterlife.

So how, in Avatar's timeline, did humanity miss out on Singularity type technological advances? My notion is that it was a sort of hidden singularity. Most of humanity has missed out while the mind children slipped off Earth to play. One of those playthings turns out to be Pandora and its biotech Paradise. A fully simulated (many Na'vi generations included)biosphere emplaced fully formed on that terraformed (Pandoraformed?) moon. Basically showing off. From the Unobtainium,to Ey'wa, to the biologic USB ports, the whole of it a masterwork. Pandora is like a Faberge Egg, with surprises inside for those who can see them.
(Frozen) (Thread)

Quite a fascinating analysis!
(Frozen) (Thread)

If the tree-brain was genetically engineered, but is as useless as you say it is, then such a trait would surely have been lost over time. If a tree can conserve energy by not responding or participating in the root-network of other trees, then it would be better able to out-compete the rest of the trees and reproduce. Essentially forming cancerous growth - a faster-growing, nonfunctional species of tree. Cancer kills us, as sentient beings, so I don't think we can say that Eywa would be immune to this either.

The whole ecosystem would rapidly collapse without constant intervention from its creators.

(BTW, there are creatures, most notably the slug Elysia chlorotica, with chlorophyll in their skin, and it does provide a considerable advantage to their energy, even allowing the slug to survive without food for long periods)
(Frozen) (Thread)

I'm supposing that the post-singularity computer is actively managing the Hometree, but this computer is hidden from the Na'vi so they can enjoy their fantasy world. Thus, the Hometree is more of a biological interface to a superintelligent computer than an organism left to evolve on its own.

Also, I remember that slug from high school bio class, but the fact that this system did evolve but is still highly uncommon suggests that it is not a significant evolutionary advantage. Slugs do have a very low metabolism.
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

Sadly our own tropical forests have no such defense mechanisms, and we humans exploit the resource mercilessly.
(Frozen) (Thread)

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