October 13, 2012 @ 10:29 pm
My son really enjoys Dreamworks' Dragons: Riders of Berk, where dragons are the disruptive technology that radically alters Viking society and the balance of power between the different tribes. And where the Viking adults all speak with Scottish accents, for some reason that I do not understand.
NOVA this week was about the real disruptive technology of the time, the Ulfbert sword, made of a particular type of "Crucible Steel" that was stronger than anything else in Europe. They do a fine job of detailing the why of that, chemically, down to the crystal structure of the iron/carbon mix in the steel, and I won't repeat all of that here. I want to talk about the parallels between engineering and biological evolution. Not the arms race positive feedback aspect, which I've mentioned many times before (in reference to classrooms, creationists & Tylenol poisoners, among others). When I talk to engineers about what they do, they seem to think that because their designs are deliberate, that they don't count as evolution, because biological mutations are random. Their designs, on the other hand, are creative and not random. I sometimes argue the point, because I think that much of our creativity is bounded randomness (like how you can roll 1-6 on a d6 cube-shaped die, but you can't roll a 7 on one die), but today I won't. I don't need to, because the process of evolution doesn't require randomness; it only requires variation. How the variability got there doesn't matter. As long as there are multiple types of steel, or multiple shapes for the blades to take, then some of them will be more successful than others in a given environment.
Take chain mail as an example from the video. The rounded tip of the cavalry swords used to slash from horseback were not good at penetrating chain mail with a thrust. The pointy tips of the Ulfberts were much better at poking through. Does it matter whether that happened in one step, or five, or fifty, or thousands (which most people would agree was pretty random)? I say no. I argue that intelligence just makes the evolutionary process work faster and better. Intelligence doesn't change it into a different type of process.
A side effect of the Ulfbert's success was forgery (or as an evolutionary biologist would call it, Batesian mimicry). Almost as common in the archaeological digs as the authentic +ULFBER+T hallmark, made with the proprietary high-carbon crucible steel, was the dyslexic +ULFBERT+, made with ordinary crap medieval European steel. The difference is obvious to us, because we know how to read. To the mostly illiterate Viking sword-buying consumer, an Ulfbert would have been an Ulfbert, until it broke during a fight. Even then, there probably weren't too many complaints, except maybe by surviving relatives. No Ulfbert recalls, certainly, and probably not even any refunds.
Science and magic and religion were not separate back then, as far as we can tell without a time machine. All writings may have been spells (which is probably one reason they didn't look too closely at the spelling). When a smith added the burnt bones of your ancestors (or of a bear, maybe) to the sword he was forging for you, the resulting sword really was stronger. That was an empirically observable, provable fact. Whether that effect was due to the carbon, which could be also gotten from more distantly related charcoal, or to the soul of the ancestor was really an interpretation, a second hypothesis following from the observable facts. It was not a necessary hypothesis. It may never have been tested or even thought of during the 200 years the Ulfberts were made, before the Vikings lost access to that high-quality steel made somewhere in central Asia.
The practice of heating a defeated enemy's sword and twisting it up to make it useless for undead zombie revenge, on the other hand, was not defensible as science. That seems more like insurance.
Coincidentally, today's Audubon field trip to Morrow Mountain State Park ended with a walk around the crown of the hill, literally stepping on the remains of at least 10,000 years of stone tool manufacture. Sharp chips of stone litter the entire mountain, drifted up like snow in some places, 7 or 8 feet deep. If you didn't know, you'd assume it was trucked up there, like gravel. It was crazy. We also saw about the only outcropping of the native rhyolite left on the surface, deeply scarred by tools over its whole visible face.
What was so great about this particular batch of rhyolite? Well, apparently, like the crucible steel, there was some quirk, some important difference in the way the crystals formed. They cooled faster, or slower, or were squeezed differently from other rhyolite crystals. Whatever the details (and noone there was geologist enough to explain it to me exactly), Morrow Mountain rhyolite was both harder, which held an edge better, and easier to flake into specific shapes. This combination of performance and design was the iPhone of its day. Pieces of the stuff have been found as far away as Maine, Florida, and west of the Mississippi. There was also a distinctive shape to the spearheads called the Hardaway point, which makes me wonder how many fake Hardaway points there were floating around the Stone Age economy? Hardaway knock-offs?
Wow, it's getting late. That originally unintentional pun just now was way funnier to me than it should have been. I clearly need to go to sleep, so I'm just posting some references from a quick Google search without reading them in detail.
http://rla.unc.edu/lessons/lesson/l302/l302.htm (scroll down to see nice drawings of the various shapes of the spearheads, which show the same variation in design as the sword blades I mentioned above)