There’s a good piece of internet lore that makes the circle every few years. It’s the story of how the width of common railroad tracks came to be. The distance between the common rails (or gauge) is 4 feet 8-1/2 inches. Depending on which version of the story you read you get various details about British trams, wagon wheels, ruts, and Roman chariots. Finally, and the reason for these stories, is that everything is then reduced to the width of two horse butts. Whenever you can reduce anything to a horse’s ass there is a bit of comedy in it. Yes it’s funny and it might very well be true, but if this story is true, its implications are far greater than simply laughing at the legions of engineers who based their transportation designs for the past several millennia on the width of a horse’s ass. It would seem that the decisions were deliberate and therefore locked in time, rather than optimal and based on a comprehensive search of the available decision space, which indicates that an evolutionary algorithm is, or in this case is not, at work.
My thesis here is simple. If we as human’s, with our free will and ability to choose options, choose paths forward in the development of our technologies that lock us into certain standards, we may miss the powerful ability of evolution to keep us viable as a species. The ability to move, or migrate, has always been a fairly important trait of many species that has kept them alive. Legs allowed us migrate but trains allowed us to conquer the land masses. Yes we can swim and stay afloat, but boats allowed us to conquer the island nations. Many other species have used their ability to move about, and in some cases travel great distances, in order to survive. They physically adapt or die. Ours is the first species that because of our technology do not have to physically adapt in order to survive. Harnessing electricity tops the list. This is where global warming creeps in.
Freeman Dyson contends that we will adapt to changes in our environment with technology. If we really begin to destroy our environment, sooner or later, since we are smart innovators, we will invent the technology that saves us from ourselves. Not the least example of which has been our ability to invent the nuclear bomb but then not to use it to our own demise…at least not yet. We have been seeing the signs and hearing the warnings associated with the destruction of our planet for several decades now. So the innovation and technological need has been surfacing. We are forced to decide between paper or plastic, and now the reusable lead laced shopping bags made in China. The problem, if we choose to face it, is big…very big. This month’s Atlantic reports that to stabilize the carbon in our atmosphere the “entire world would have to reduce its per capita emissions to the level of Kenya.” That’s stepping back a few years. Certainly since before we harnessed electricity. And this is where decisions and the standards that we choose become so crucial to our survival.
In his book “Collapse”, Jared Diamond explains to us what happens to a civilization that has a tree based economy that happens to live on an island. What happens when all the trees are gone? When eco-systems are in balance the evidence of evolutionary adaptations are amazing…witness the foraging patterns of the army ant. Over a 20 day bivouac a colony of army ants systematically forages 360 degrees around their mobile colony in 14 raids, each raid separated by 123 degrees of separation before the next raid. This search algorithm naturally developed over millions of years of evolution. At the end of 20 days the entire colony picks up and moves. What if one of those ants felt tired and decided they didn’t want to move this month? Well we can speculate on how the colony handles dissidents and I can guarantee you their constitutional rights are not being protected. In an ant colony the “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…or the one”, as Spock would say. The same is not true in our society. This whole business of standards in transportation has never been based on the needs of the many; it has always been based on the needs of the few. And that’s the problem. Transportation must serve the evolutionary needs of the species, not the commercial needs of those with intent to exploit the species the cheapest way possible. This is not an essay to describe all the various times in our transportation history that bad decisions were made that changed the direction of our country…but we continue to witness more of them every day. The point of this essay is to make clear that we might have unwittingly broke the evolutionary algorithm with regard to human transportation.
If we believe the internet lore that the standards that have emerged for rail transportation have locked us into a rut, no pun intended, we have a problem. The version of the story I read recently carried the 4 foot 8-1/2 inch standard even further. It seems distance between rails also restricted the final size of the solid rocket boosters (SRBs) for the space shuttle. As we so painfully know down here on the Space Coast, the shuttle program is over. Would larger SRBs on the space shuttle have saved the program? Hard to say…the cost to weight ratio would have been significantly improved with more initial boost…would this have allowed us to do more and to have demonstrated far more value to the Country with regard to our manned space program? I don’t know but the point here is evolution. If the restricted size of the SRBs can be traced to the design specifications for Roman Chariots we are broken as an evolutionary species.
If this is true then Freeman Dyson’s belief that we will be able to overcome our own environmental disasters through innovation and technology and that one day, if necessary, we will escape to other planets to preserve our species has suffered a serious set-back. We have created an island in space from which we cannot escape. And one day, when all the trees are gone, we will not be able to carve a wooden raft upon which we can float to the natural preserving resources of another island within our galactic chain.