A number of people have asked if I was going to publish the talk I gave at the Necronomicon convention last month. I was planning to put it out there simply as a PDF but I thought it would be better to put it on this blog so I could provide more information and elaborate on some of the ideas I presented. Thus, I will provide the presentation in a series of episodes. This, obviously, is Part I. I hope you enjoy it.
Also, I do want to once again thank Niels Hobbs for inviting me to give the talk. The convention was incredible and it looked like everyone (including me) had a great time.
The talk was formally called “Human Interpretations on the Biology and Evolution of the Old Ones”
The outline for the presentation is as follows:
1. Review of current taxonomic description of life on Earth
2. Previous “taxonomic” description of the Old Ones
3. Lovecraft’s biological extraterrestrial discoveres
4. Shoggoths and Elder Things
5. Deep Ones
7. The “Colour” out of Space
8. A proposed “classification spectrum” and conclusions
So for Part I, I am talking about current taxonomic descriptions of life on Earth. In turn, this will be linked to a proposed “classification spectrum” for Lovecraftian entities in a subsequent part of the presentation.
As a child, you basically think of life on Earth as being made up of plants and animals and this is how life was basically categorized by Carl Lennaeus who established the binomial nomenclature (Genus, species) for modern taxonomy. Thus, two Kingdoms were recognized; the Kingdom of Plants and the Kingdom of Animals. However, a third Kingdom was proposed to include the microorganisms that were revealed through the use of the microscope. Richard Owen and Ernst Haeckel proposed the Kingdom Protista.
When I was in college, five Kingdoms were recognized, separating the fungi from the plants and the bacteria from other microorganisms (such as the many forms of algae and protists like amoeba). Currently, an additional ranking of life on Earth is placed above the level of Kingdom and its called the Domain. There are three recognized Domains and include the Archaebacteria, Eubacteria, Eukaryotes (animals, plants, protists and fungi).
So where am I going with this relative to Lovecraftian Horrors? Well, my point is some of Lovecraft’s creations are Earth-bound entities. In fact, some can be included in Terrain taxonomy, which I why I am introducing these concepts. But before I talk about how Lovecraft’s creations fit (or don’t fit) into Earth life taxonomy, let’s briefly talk about evolution.
In its most basic form, evolution can be described simply as “change of time.” Darwin and Wallace both developed the concept that evolution gives rise to species through the process of natural selection. In Darwin’s mind and concept of evolution, all life is related and life on Earth can be thought of as a great tree, with new species being represented as new branches. Darwin sketched this as shown below.
Note, Darwin thought of the human species as being one of the many branches on the Terrain Tree of Life. The concept that humans are not particularly special when compared to other species on Earth is a somewhat Lovecraftian idea.
That humans are equal with all other species in the eyes of evolution put people in the Victorian Era into an uproar (as well as still upsetting many people even today). Aren’t we as a species special? Aren’t we “better” than ferns, slime molds, giraffes and squid? A lot of people have a hard time with this, including many supporters of Darwin and evolution. The figure below shows an interpretation of the Tree of Life by Ernst Haeckel.
Note that here instead of Darwin’s view of the “tree” as being shaped more like a shrub with all branches being equal, the tree is a mighty oak that shoots to the heavens and who is on the top, why humans, of course! Even the original title of the figure “Pedigree of Man” indicates that all of that hard evolutionary work on Earth strived to achieve or reach that pinnacle of evolution – Man! However, its all on your point of view. I just finished a book on The History of Life by Michael J. Benton and one of his concluding points was that the “pinnacle” of evolution depends on what you are. So, to a cockroach, the pinnacle of evolution would be – the cockroach. Or if you are a squid, the pinnacle of evolution is the squid. This is one of the reasons why Darwin’s scribble is not drawn as a tree but more as a shrub, where branches do not represent a hierarchy but instead the development of species over time.
To conclude this part, I want to show you another “interpretation” of Life on Earth, using the three Domain classification and a specific cellular component that all life possesses. Specifically, this is ribosomal ribonucleic acid (rRNA). I won’t go into the details of rRNA but I will say two things. First, rRNA is a component of ribosomes (an organelle in cells) that is essential for protein synthesis. Second, since it is found in all of life (bacteria, plants, animals, fungi and protists), it can be used as a “marker” to compare species to one another. Thus, the more closely related two species or groups are, the closer their branches will be to each other. In addition, looking at rRNA can also give you a sense of the genetic diversity of Life on Earth. This puts all organisms on equal footing in a comparison of all life on Earth. This was Carl Woese’s idea and this is what he came up with:
Looks more like a shrub than a tree don’t you think? Based on this view of life on Earth, the vast majority of the genetic diversity is found in the microbial world. That one branch that says “we are here” does not represent humans, it represents all animal life. From a genetic perspective humans are a pretty insignificant component of the pool of life on Earth. Such a revelation is something Lovecraft would have certainly appreciated.
This “rRNA” view of life on Earth correlates well with HPL’s philosophy. For example, this quote comes from Collected Essays, Volume 3 – Science (edited by S.T. Joshi)…”Man, so far from being the central and supreme object of Nature, is clearly demonstrated to be a mere incident, perhaps an accident, of a natural scheme whose boundless reach relegates him to total insignificance.” – HPL.
Next time I will be talking about Derleth’s taxonomic description of the Old Ones.