Wednesday, May 30, 2012

D'ou Venons Nous/ Que Sommes Nous/ Ou Allons Nous

I grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the heart of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Chickamauga Dam and Chickamauga Lake were constants in my childhood, One summer as a college student I worked for the TVA. But it wasn't until after I had settled in New England, in the 1970s, that the TVA built its Raccoon Mountain Pumped-Storage Plant.

Customers use more electricity during the day than at night, yet most generators produce power at a constant rate. What is needed is a way to store power during periods of slack use and recover it during times of high demand. One solution: Pump water to the top of a mountain during off-peak hours, and let it fall back down during peak times, driving generators.

And the perfect place: Wild, virtually unpopulated Raccoon Mountain, less than ten miles from downtown Chattanooga.

It's something to see, for my money (free) more worth a visit than those perennial Chattanooga tourist attractions Rock City and Ruby Falls.

At Ruby Falls, visitors take an elevator from high on the side of Lookout Mountain down into the heart of the mountain, then walk though a beautiful cavern to a huge natural underground chamber with a waterfall pouring from ceiling to floor. Yes, it's impressive, but...

At Raccoon Mountain, there's a big artificial lake. At the Visitor Center, one enters an elevator and descends a thousand feet into the root of the mountain. A walk through a long tunnel opens onto a balcony overlooking a vast artificial cavern, as big as a football pitch, containing four huge pump/generators, along with other assorted technology, all painted in bright primary colors. The scale of the thing took my breath away.

I mention this, because I just came across this time-lapse video on the TVA web site (scroll down for video). Watching the video, what came to mind? Curiously, E. O. Wilson's controversial new book The Social Conquest of Earth.

Wilson, as you know, is an expert on the social insects (particularly the ants), and in his new book he lays out a theory of how we became human that draws on the evolution of sociality among invertebrates and vertebrates; we are what we are, with all of our lofty, virtuous qualities, because natural selection has favored social behaviors.

(Which is not to say that natural selection does not also work with individual selection.)

Watching the video, I couldn't help but feel I was watching a teeming, scurrying colony of ants deep in the earth. Of course, what I was watching was a highly organized choreography of managers, engineers, heavy equipment operators, mechanics, and workmen, a social division of labor that manages to accomplish monumental tasks -- the hollowing out of a mountain and filling it with hugely complex machines -- that benefit the larger social community.

According to Wilson, sociality (or eusociality), not competition between individuals, or even between closely related kin groups, accounts for where we have come from, what we are, and -- in the most optimistic scenario -- where we are going. Whether he's right or not, time will tell. But watching the scurrying ant/humans in the TVA video, I knew I was watching the social conquest of Earth.