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Truth about Lemmings

October 2, 2012

Scientists still debate the truth about what lemmings actually do. Their periodic migrations can best be explained by dispersal in search of fresh resources. The strongest swimmers make it across the streams–and if the stream turns out to be an ocean, you’re just out of luck.

Of course, genetic history is made by the winners–those who crossed the streams. Those populations that reproduce faster, even just a few percent faster than others (red versus blue, above) will take over, despite the crashes inbetween.

In Vonnegut’s Galápagos, we humans are all lemmings. We all descend from infinite apocalyptic rises and falls. In real life, the ghosts of ocean-drowned humans never return to haunt us, like the Vonnegut’s ghostly narrator. We go on merrily assuming that energy demands, economic growth and atmospheric CO2 rise can go on forever (that is, until the next crash). But what if Earth falls into catastrophe–like the lemmings, we cannot tell the difference between stream and ocean.

That’s what my students got, last week before the exam. More cheerful topics this week.

  1. Darcy permalink
    October 2, 2012 3:00 pm

    great read,Joan!

  2. October 2, 2012 4:30 pm

    I wish I lived in a University town…

  3. JamesPadraicR permalink
    October 3, 2012 10:08 am

    Arthur Clarke wrote a story (don’t recall the title) where aliens visiting a primitive Earth decide to take the form of small mammals and await the return of their ship. Over the millennia they forget their origins, except for an urge to return to the landing site which is now under water. One of many of his stories that have stuck with me.

    • paws4thot permalink
      October 4, 2012 4:24 am

      I remember the story, and the “slow reveal” of which species the mammals are (obvious in the context of this thread though), but can’t remember the title either.

      • October 4, 2012 9:09 am

        Sorry, but that sounds like dumb biology to me. Clarke must have been thinking of the Disney version of the lemmings, where the film maker tossed them into the sea. In fact, lemmings are strong swimmers and expect to make it across.

        • paws4thot permalink
          October 5, 2012 4:06 am

          ACC was a radar engineer who turned to being an author. Also, and I’ve just checked this, most of his short fiction has original copyright dates from the mid 1940s through to 1970 or so. Based on when I first read the story, this one can’t be written much if any later than 1975. Are you possibly judging it on research done after it was written?

        • JamesPadraicR permalink
          October 6, 2012 10:59 am

          I assume Clarke meant it as one of his joke stories. Like “Food of the Gods” which deals with vat-grown meat, and ends with the narrator spelling out a new word to his audience: C-A-N-N-I-B-A-L. And another ending with a bad pun. I believe all three of these store are in his collection “The Wind From the Sun”.

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