Debunking myths on genetics and DNA

Monday, January 16, 2012

Tackling the mysteries of evolution: Peter Watts talks about consciousness, publishing, and his Hugo nominated novel Blindsight

One of the things I enjoy the most about running this blog is getting to know writers. I also get to learn about the infinitely many faces of the publishing world, like the new and ever-growing realm of self-publishing. Today, though, I have a story that is even more amazing, because amazing is the person I talked to: marine biologist Peter Watts is the author of the Hugo nominated novel Blindsight, as well as the Rifters Trilogy Starfish, Maelstrom, and Behemoth. Publisher's Weekly gave Blindsight a starred review, defining it an
"Intellectually challenging hard science fiction ... Watts puts a terrifying and original spin on the familiar alien contact story. Combines riveting action and a fascinating alien environment with a stimulating exploration of the nature of consciousness."
Peter is one of the most interesting writers I've talked to, so without further ado, please join me in welcoming Peter to the blog today!

EEG: For starters I'd like to know more about your research: I love marine biology, can you tell me a bit about what you do?

PW: Research-wise, these days, zippo. I used to work on the distributional/biophysical ecology of marine mammals, but that was before I ran screaming from academia in reaction to the inevitable craven political bullshit involved. For a while I worked for a research consortium investigating why marine mammal populations in the North Pacific/Bering had collapsed a few years after the US fishing industry moved into their feeding grounds. Turned out most of our funding came from the US fishing industry; what could possibly go wrong? I also worked for a private research association funded by the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Turned out I wasn't allowed to say anything that might reflect negatively on the animal welfare movement.

I'm told that somewhere, in some far-off land, scientists are not whores with data sets. Somewhere, people like me get to follow the data wherever they lead. I remain skeptical. If such a utopian realm exists, it does not lie within the bounds of marine mammalogy. So these days I'm pretty much a full-time writer. I still do the occasional bit of biostatistical analysis as an independent consultant -- migratory waterfowl stuff, mainly -- but it's been years since that was my primary source of income. At least with science fiction, you're supposed to make shit up.

EEG: LOL. I see. I guess I'm lucky, then, to be working on viruses instead of mammals. Though a decade ago saying that AIDS was caused by HIV was also something highly frowned upon.

Let's talk about your books. Blindsight is a fascinating read that touches on many scientific and philosophical concepts. Can you tell me how the story was born? Was it one concept in particular that intrigued you or a scene or... ?

PW: The question of consciousness -- not what it is so much as what it's good for, in a Darwinian sense -- has been rattling around in the back of my head ever since 1991, when I read an offhand comment Richard Dawkins made in an afterword to an anthology of ecology essays he'd edited. I can't remember what that book was called -- it had a pale blue cover with a picture of a wasp's nest on the front, if that's any help -- but Dawkins tossed off this remark to the effect that it was very easy to imagine a nonconscious meat robot that could do pretty much everything we do, so the functional utility of consciousness is thus one of the great mysteries of biology.

He obviously wasn't the first person to raise that issue; his iteration just happened to be the one I read at an impressionable age. As thought-fodder, it was both profoundly inspiring and profoundly limiting. Inspiring, obviously because sapience seems to be at the heart of what we are as a cognitive species, and we have no damn idea how it works. But limiting, too, because the question "What is it good for?" implies that it is, in fact, good for something. The question itself puts you in a box. Obviously self-awareness serves a purpose to the organism; surely natural selection would have weeded out anything so metabolically expensive if it didn't serve some vital purpose, yes?

So I went for years trying to think of what that vital purpose was. Finally I realized that nobody asks how a parasite benefits its host; the very question would betray an ignorance of what parasites are. And then it occurred to me that the very absence of function -- the idea that the core of what we most exalt about ourselves might in fact be an impediment, that the little guy behind the eyes is actually a tapeworm that the system would be better off without -- well, that's a much more dramatic punchline than the realization that, Oh, of course, we need self-awareness because we couldn't do X particular thing without it. So that's what I went with; it was consistent with the limited research I'd done, it was beautifully nihilistic, it would make a memorable point that readers could argue about. But I didn't really believe it. I figured there was some obvious function that just hadn't occurred to a dabbler like myself, and that any real real expert would shoot down that punchline in an instant.

It wasn't until I got to the copy-editing stage that it began to dawn on me that a significant number of those experts were coming to exactly the same conclusion. Lucky coincidence, eh?

I'd just add here that, having broken out of the "Must be good for something" box, there's a follow-up question that I find very helpful when dealing with those papers that do argue for useful sapience. Some are really ingenious; perhaps my favorite was a piece by a dude named Ezequiel Morsella, who claims that consciousness exists to mediate conflicting motor commands to the skeletal musculature. The question I always ask myself when such a mechanism is presented is "Okay, but is it possible to imagine a nonconscious agent that does the same thing?" I'm perfectly willing to accept that we use consciousness for a variety of tasks-- evolution is always grabbing whatever's at hand and repurposing it to some other task. So maybe we do use self-awareness for logical deduction, or muscle mediation, or the aesthetic appreciation of grapes for all I know. But to me, a more interesting question is always, can we imagine something that does all that nonconsciously? Would its solution to the problem be more efficient than ours? And would it kick our asses if the two of us ever ended up on an island with limited resources?

EEG: That's fascinating and indeed one of the hardest problems ever tackled by both science and philosophy. Though if I may add my two cents, I think the heart of the problem is that the question "What is it for?" in science is ill-posed. Take genetics, for example. So much work has been done looking for "causative" loci, attributing function X to locus Y, when in fact it's like trying to answer the question of why a stream chose exactly one path to come down from the mountain, out of a million possible paths.

Back to consciousness, I was quite intrigued, last September, by your observation on Too Hard for Science? that if you split the brain down the middle you get a split in consciousness with different tastes and opinions.

Which sort of brings me to the next question... In your bio you write: "Peter Watts has spent much of his adult life trying to decide whether to be a writer or a scientist, ending up as a marginal hybrid of both." Can you elaborate more on how the two worlds, science and writing, coexist in you?

PW: I've wanted to write SF (age seven) almost as long as I wanted to be a marine biologist (age five). To me, both pursuits are flip sides of the same coin: both involve experiments of a sort. You start with a premise, and (here it comes again) follow the data. The difference, of course, is that there are fewer constraints when writing SF: you don't have to spend ten years developing real-world expertise in your subject; you don't have to fellate NSERC or the NSC for funding; peer-review -- such as it is -- is generally a lot more forgiving. You're not saying "This is"; you're asking "What if it was?" But in both cases you're exploring questions about the way the universe works.

Of course in science fiction your answers are more likely to be wrong, because you generally don't have the requisite fine-scale expertise and nobody can predict the future. But in real science, your answers are less likely to be deep, because most science is step-by-step trudgery and the filling in of a million little holes in the knowledge base. It doesn't matter whether your data are more reliable: "What if the lachrymal secretions of herring gulls can be used as an index of heavy-metal contamination" just doesn't have the same zing as "What if the Internet developed a sex drive?"

(I'd also add here than I'm increasingly convinced that too much scientific expertise actually makes one a worse SF writer, simply because every time you have a cool idea, your own expertise squashes it flat with all the reasons why it would never work. You become strait-jacketed by your own knowledge of the state of the art.)

EEG: Ah, we're on the same page on this one. I've written in another interview that I truly believe that writing a story (any story, in fact, not just SF) is like solving a system of equations. Your variables are the characters, your initial conditions the premises, and then you just sit down and solve it.

Let me warp up with one last question: I'm curious as to why you have a free version of Blindsight on your website when the book is on the market...

PW: I myself went the Creative Commons route for two reasons. Short stories, out-of-print titles in my backlist had stopped earning money anyway. I was giving up nothing by posting them online, and by setting them free I was increasing my exposure to potential fans who might go on to buy my next book if they liked what they read. At the very least it would cost me nothing, and at most it could significantly increase my readership.

I set Blindsight free, however, while it was still in print (just a couple of months after it was released, in fact) and for entirely different reasons. It's pretty obvious that Tor had written it off as a failure even before it was released: one of the two largest retail distributors on the continent had chosen not to preorder any copies, so Tor slapped on a cheap-ass cover and put out a very small print run. Then the critics started raving about it, but of course because so few copies had been printed nobody could buy the damn thing; Blindsight was the weekly #1 bestseller in at least a couple of stores that didn't even have any copies‚ the greatest number of their orders was for a book they didn't even have in stock, because not enough copies had been printed to meet the demand!

You'd think at this point that Tor would've hustled out another print run, and they did in fact start talking about it. But then they decided to wait until all the physical stock had left their warehouses. Then, once that that happened, they changed their minds and decided to wait until the back orders had built up. They kept moving the goalposts.

At this point I had pretty much come to the conclusion that Blindsight was going to fail commercially no matter how many good reviews it got, simply because there were so few copies for sale. So I had a choice: it could fail commercially and be read by no one, or it could fail commercially and at least be freely available to anyone who wanted it. There was no "succeed commercially" option that I could see. So, with nothing to lose, I put it out in the Creative Commons— and hardcover sales nearly tripled the very next week. The rest is history: strong sales, numerous award nominations, multiple hardcover printings, and widespread overseas translations. Blindsight is being used as a required textbook in a couple of university philosophy courses, and even as a core text in a neuropsych course at the University of Miami. It's been a commercial and critical success beyond anyone's expectations, and there's no doubt in my mind that none of that would have happened if I hadn't resorted to a Creative Commons release.

It's important to recognize, though, that it wasn't the CC release per se that caused the boost in sales, it was the publicity that resulted from the CC release. My actions were covered by boingboing, and by high-profile bloggers like John Scalzi and Kathryn Cramer. If those folks hadn't taken notice, Blindsight would have languished. But giving one's stuff away is still a pretty rare strategy, and that makes it newsworthy, and that's why my strategy worked.

That's also why it won't work for very much longer. As more and more people jump on the CC bandwagon, this kind of move will become a lot less noteworthy. We'll have to come up with some other way of drawing attention to our work. But for now, and in this case, the Creative Commons did more than just boost my sales and get me wider recognition; it literally saved my career as a writer.

EEG: I'm really glad it worked because you totally deserved the success. Thank you so much for being with us today and for sharing your experience with us.

To find out more about Peter's books and work, check-out his website and his blog, where he muses about writing, publishing, and yes, of course, science, too.


  1. Very good interview. Peter is quite interesting as both a writer and a thrower outer of ideas.
    It occurs to me that the usual topics of this blog sort of correspond to the "how would conscious entities do against non-conscious invaders?" question in a way. Viruses fit the role of implacable non-conscious invaders fairly well if you look at it from a certain resolve.

  2. Brilliant, Steve! I never thought of that but you're absolutely right!! Viruses are unconscious entities which cause lots of disturbance in our "conscious" worlds... how interesting... wow, now this thought will linger at the back of my mind for the rest of the day.... hmmm... oh, the joys of plotting!! ;-)

  3. Fabulous interview, now there is another book out there to read. I love true SF because it allows us to reach into ideas that in any other realm would be supressed or labeled heretical. As long as we have consciousness for whatever it is worth, why the hell not explore it! Peter sounds very interesting.

  4. Peter is indeed very interesting and so are his books, I'm sure you'll enjoy Blindsight! :)


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