Coastal Geology of Victoria, Australia
This blog has been quiet for a while, not because I wasn’t traversing lands with a rich geological history; instead, my primary audience (off-road enthusiasts) had expressed no interest in geology. It turns out that they were typical Americans. Also, I’ve been busy writing novels and doing other literary actions, but now I’m writing this for myself. This is a record of my travels, with enough details to remind me of where I went and why it’s worth remembering.
This post reports on my first excursion since coming to Australia, a trip from Melbourne to Apollo Bay along the coastline of Bass Strait. Let’s get some perspective.
This is the SE tip of Australia. Melbourne is labeled, as is Tasmania and Bass Strait, which is 150 miles (~350 km) across. This post covers the very short distance from Melbourne to the tip of the continent to the SW. This was a day trip of only 200 km, which took about four hours because we stopped a lot.
Time for some geology. This trip is entirely located within the state of Victoria. The geologic map I’ll be using is from 1982 but I don’t think it’s very out of date because the geology of Australia has not been explored in detail. Here’s a portion of the Victoria geologic map, with city names. It is a rectangle bounded by Melbourne on the NE and the NW corner of Bass Strait on the SW.
We drove our trusty Toyota Yaris along Highway A1 and turned south, reaching the coast at Torquay, due south of the western tip of Port Phillip Bay. This is a geologically interesting area at the southern edge of a Quaternary volcanic zone (orange background with v’s scattered in the geologic map), overlain on Tertiary (25-65 MYA) marine sediments (tan area in center of above figure).
The underlying sediments of Tertiary age formed ridges along the shoreline covered by sand from the eroding poorly cemented sandstones, as seen in these photos from Spring Creek Park in Torquay.
Note the yellowish, non-marine coloration of the sediments in the right photo. They erode rapidly and don’t form bluffs. The absolute (radiometric) age of these sediments was unknown at the time of this writing, but this exposure is the top of the stratigraphic column in this area; in other words, we will be going further back in time as we head westward.
Many faults have been inferred for the region, as shown in a hypothesized cross-section along the coast.
Note the field geologists’ interpretation of faults, shown by nearly vertical lines, in the middle of the section. The green colors represent sections of the earth’s upper crust dominated by non-marine sediments whereas the red are volcanics from about 29 MYA. The slivers of orange in the center are the sediments shown in the previous photos. They are riding on older Cretaceous (green) sediments with volcanics systematically exposed and subsequently eroded, because of uplift along faults (vertical lines).
Our trip westward along the coast took us into the older, Cretaceous, sediments (shown in green in the previous maps) beginning southwest of Anglesea, where the Great Ocean Road entered a National nature preserve that resembles Southern California near San Diego. This photo was taken near the edge of a bluff overlooking the coast, but it was closed because of recent cliff collapse.
There are a number of rivers flowing to the coast from the inland uplands, but few of them reach their destination by late spring. The underlying rocky ridges form barriers that the river channels are forced to follow parallel to the coast for kilometers, forming structural lagoons with seasonal mixing with the ocean. The Anglesea River is a good example. The channel formed a lagoon that did not debouch into the ocean, although at high tide, during storms, there was inflow from the ocean. Here’s a look at this phenomenon.
The first photo shows an anatomizing river, with side channels and bars, as if reaching its destination. The second shows the berm that prevents the river’s flow from reaching the ocean. The berm is overtopped only during storms from sea, or high-water flows from land. All of the river’s flow is absorbed into the dry sand in this arid environment. The river flow is not sediment laden, as shown in this photo of birds bathing in the shallow water.
We tasted the water, and it was slightly brackish, from seawater overtopping the berm. The rivers don’t carry a lot of sediment from the arid, low-relief landscape through which they run. Thus, the substantial wave energy impacting this coastline is not spent redistributing sediment from rivers and instead erodes the coastline. The next two images show how this process occurs.
The first photo looks west from the Anglesea River, where the rocks are weaker and form a less-steep bluff. They also reveal changes in dip, from almost horizontal to dipping seaward at more than 30 degrees to the right of the photo, near the river’s mouth. This may well have been a fault zone during a regional uplift event. The photo on the right is from east of the river, where the bluffs are much stronger. However, rubble piles at the base of the cliff indicate where collapse has occurred. This is the area where the previous image was taken from the top of the cliff.
Note the dark coloration of the lower half of the bluff face in the second photo above. This region experienced extensive volcanism about 30 million years ago, when Australia is hypothesized to have passed over an upper mantle “hot spot.” There is an extensive volcanic field north of this area and basalt blocks have been brought in to reduce coastal erosion; however, the dark layer in the photo is a layer of ash that has formed a weak volcanic rock called tuff. Here’s an example of this tuff in place over older sandy sediments.
It is much less resistant to erosion by wave action than the blocks brought in for erosion control (seen in the left foreground of the previous photo). As the cliff retreats, the lower rock forms a table covered by a thin veneer of sand reworked continuously by waves. Slightly more resistant rock forms ledges that are exposed at low tide, as seen in this photo.
These exposed outcrops are visible along this entire section of coast, which is underlain by these same sandstone/conglomerate rocks. For example, here’s a photo taken at Aireys Inlet a few miles to the southwest. Note the tuff layer at the base of the pillar, seen clearly in the close-up photo below.
Because of the variable wave approach (from SW to SE), and heterogeneities in rock strength as well as structural factors such as faulting, many small pocket beaches have formed, many of which are the mouths of seasonal rivers and streams. Here is a good example.
Some of these bays are very large, as is this example from near Aireys Inlet.
The coast is lined with steep mountains eroded within Cretaceous, non nonmarine sedimentary rocks, forming very short streams that are prone to flash floods during heavy rain. The streams are so steep, that waterfalls can be found within a kilometer of the coast, such as Sheoak Fall, near Lorne, shown below.
The second image shows flood debris in the foreground, more than fifty feet above the stream bed seen in the distance, deposited during a flash flood. Another feature of these coastal sediments are the presence of calcareous concretions, formed during burial and diagenesis, which dissolve out when exposed to slightly acid rainwater. They leave large voids like this.
There are even caves higher up the slopes. The entire drive to Apollo Bay was similar to what I’ve described above, sandy beaches overlaying rock shelves, with seasonal rivers debouching into the ocean. We finished the drive by following a two-lane road through Otway National Park and seeing a spectacular primordial forest that stood out in sharp contrast against the semiarid coastal environment.
Silence is Golden
The first movement of Sam’s daily atonal symphony always began with a buzzing alarm clock, momentarily silenced by his palm, which wouldn’t work on the garbage truck grinding down the alley behind his apartment, its diesel engine shaking the walls; the familiar whirring of hydraulic pumps raised steel lifting arms into place, screeching into steel cradles, tearing at his ears like fingernails on a chalkboard, leaving him cowering in bed, hands over his ears to muffle the bang, bang, bang of the dumpster being emptied before the cacophony reached a crescendo, warning Sam to sprint for the bathroom and reach the comparative quiet of the shower before the 140 dB climax, played by a passing train engineer on his air horn, blasted him into quivering submission on the bathroom floor.
The second movement was performed in the kitchen by his wife who, apparently aware of the completion of the Allegro behind their apartment, began the clamor of Andante as soon as Sam sat down at the dining room table, her unwilling audience; bam, bam, bang, bang, went the pans, expertly wielded by Nona, her voice asking about his flight to Florida, perfectly timed to be understood between the microwave humming, beeping, the electric teapot boiling, adding its bubbling tones to the bedlam; the radio announcer shouting to be heard, despite her having a background role–the arrogance of some musicians.
The Minuet or third movement was usually performed in a vehicle, either Sam’s car, a bus or a taxi, but it would be different today; longer than usual, it would incorporate the efforts of musicians waiting along the route to JFK airport, where a new group of performers would add their discordant notes to Sam’s auditory nightmare.
Sam was accustomed to the formulaic beginning of the face-paced Scherzo; as always, it started as he descended to street level with loud cars accelerating into the morning, joined by a motorcycle engine hitting 9000 rpm; accompanied by blaring horns, the sirens of ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars, the apex arrived on cue; trash cans dragged by sleepy residents, scraped against the sidewalk–fingernails on chalkboards–profanities hurled at God and each other indicating the beginning of the Trio, making Sam wonder which dissonant instruments would join the Trio today as he climbed into the taxi, smiling as the first guest performer flew over in a helicopter, its spinning rotors marking the start of the interlude.
The neatly dressed and shaved taxi driver, speaking unintelligible English, was not a guest performer, but the splash of the tires through puddles, windshield wipers scraping on dry and mud-smeared glass, indicated that the second performer of the Trio was the rain and its aftermath; the taxi radio emitted semi-human sounds, barely understandable in the turmoil of the third movement; the final instrument turned out to be a pile driver that drove an auditory spike into Sam’s brain; thud, thud, thud, went the machine until the light turned green and the Minuet could resume.
Sam imagined the travelers rushing through the terminal as dancing to the third movement, now being played by the public address system; voices talking over each other, none of them intelligible, warned of the consequences of unattended baggage and cars, departing flight gate changes, gate agents looking for standby passengers going to Milwaukee or London, FAA rules with respect to carryon baggage; newscasters on TV monitors mumbled news designed to promote a sense of aircraft safety as silent golfcarts rolled by, beep, beep, beep, just like the dumpster and the piledriver; the background supplied not by cellos but by thousands of shoes echoing off the stone floor of the terminal.
The Finale began when Sam was seated in economy class, next to a middle-aged woman who was apparently meant to perform with her annoying, manly voice, asking him personal questions, making him want to get off the plane, cancel his business trip to Clearwater Beach; but he didn’t do that, instead he played the conductor, nodding at her monotonous comments, keeping time with the crew talking indecipherably through the public speakers which his neighbor apparently was unaware of; like the last violin of a sonata, she finally stopped talking, giving way to the slamming overhead bins, the final pleas of mercy from babies, hydraulic motors screeching, ventilation nozzles blowing full blast like a tornado, jet engines howling, screaming, takeoff, bumping, flaps up, more hydraulic whining, wind howling just outside the metal skin, headphones playing unintelligible sounds against background hissing, volume wide open, only hearing half the words, shrieked announcements warning of landing, welcome from flight deck, bang on touchdown, brakes screeching, thrust reversers deafening, more screaming hydraulics, motor high pitch, servos low pitch, start-stop, start-stop, whirring, brakes complaining, wait to get up, silent engines replaced by a quieter humming; his neighbor silent, her performance complete.
Sam suffered through the very long fourth movement in today’s atonal symphony, and finally found himself alone on a stretch of sandy beach.
Laying on a chaise near the palm trees well back from the clamoring of the breaking waves, Sam listened to the fifth movement, Adagio, a very slow movement played by a breeze rustling in the palm trees, birds singing, not too close, a distant car horn, not a train horn to be heard; the musical instruments of civilization could never be silenced, and Sam didn’t want to quiet the atonal musicians for eternity, but he did like to hear the fifth movement sometimes.
One Man Show
Encumbered by his backpack and winter coat, Howard shuffled toward the young man with short brown hair and wearing a black facemask and rubber gloves; the half-completed hotel registration form extended in his free hand was rejected. He was directed towards a low table and told to complete it and make any choices for optional accommodations. For 150 Australian dollars per night, he could get a room with a balcony. Howard had had a cigarette before entering the hotel with two other people who smoked, an attractive young Australian woman and an American guy. They were both paying for the breathing space. Howard couldn’t afford it and, besides, he’d been cutting back. This would be an opportunity to finish the job.
The twenty-six-hour trip from Jacksonville had been remarkably smooth and, boy, the Australians had their act together. The fifty people on his flight had been whisked into buses without delay and taken to the Sheraton Hotel. Soldiers had handled their luggage and were standing by to escort them to their rooms. VIP service.
His immigration form was accepted by a young Australian Border Force officer who began typing clumsily, asking Howard to clarify some of his written answers. Within ten minutes, he was parting company with Erica and Aaron, promising to meet for a cigarette in two weeks. Ha Ha. Howard wouldn’t be smoking anymore by then. He’d join them, however, to maybe get Erica’s phone number.
The room was nice, especially the black-marble-clad bath that included a walk-in shower and jacuzzi tub. But it wasn’t meant for long-term occupancy. The only drawers were in the closet. The main room was furnished with a king-size bed and work desk with office chairs. Not even an armchair. That would be fine with Howard, who was going to be teleworking during quarantine.
Several times during the first afternoon in his room, Howard caught himself picking up the pack of cigarettes and heading out the door to take a break, only to find himself facing a hotel employee sitting in a chair, enforcing self-isolation. He smiled sheepishly and waved at the bored employee, never the same individual. These Australians were clever. He couldn’t get to know his guard and bribe them.
The fourteen-day quarantine didn’t start until midnight, so Howard took the calendar from his backpack and numbered fifteen days; he would be released on 23 November. He resisted the urge to cross out the first day because it didn’t count. He felt cheated.
Howard faced Day One squarely, ready to do whatever was necessary to keep Australia safe. There was one thing he really liked about the quarantine: meals were delivered three times a day and left outside the room, accompanied by three knocks on the door. The food was excellent, the menu varied, but there was nothing extra. It was less than he was accustomed to eating and that worried him, until he read the information sheet from the hotel; he could order outside food for delivery, or even get selected items from the hotel kitchen. On the other hand, this could be an opportunity to lose a couple of pounds, secure in knowing that the Australian government would make sure he had plenty of calories during quarantine. Sweet deal. He’d stop smoking and lose a few pounds, maybe even adopt a healthier diet.
He breathed a sigh of relief when he finally crossed out Day One, but he was a little hungry when he slipped between the expensive sheets to see what was on TV.
Howard was an early riser. Thus, breakfast at eight a.m. was too late for his liking, so he kept something out of his meals to have a pre-breakfast snack: juice, some raspberries, a banana, a roll with margarine. Of course, saving something for the morning left him less-than-satisfied in the evening. He accepted that he was in quarantine, which was turning out to be a lot like boot camp, except for the lack of exercise. The hotel staff had thought of that, supplying a guidance sheet that included a list of exercises to help him stay healthy. He’d never thought about how active he’d been just moving around the house, the office, the city, and all of that was gone now. He started doing all of the suggested exercises. That made him even hungrier.
“Damn!” he exclaimed aloud, examining his paltry dinner, the roll and fruit he’d set aside for the next morning. “This is going to be harder than I thought.”
It was with relief that he crossed out Tuesday, Day Two, as finished.
Howard realized in horror that he had been brainwashed. He waited for breakfast to arrive, checking the clock constantly, opening the door to see if perhaps the delivery person had forgotten to knock three times. He picked up the phone receiver several times, ready to call, but waited; he would give them an hour before complaining. He hated people who demanded attention by complaining all the time. Maybe they delivery schedule was different; after all, everyone couldn’t get their meals at exactly the same time. Breakfast arrived at 8:55 a.m., five minutes to spare. Famished, drooling, he rushed to the desk and tore open the paper bag.
His anticipation collapsed like a deflated balloon when he removed the warm plastic dish. It was oatmeal, with some blueberry jam or something on top, with a couple of shaved almonds.
“What the hell?!”
Neither the bag nor the plastic container was marked as “DF,” which meant dairy free. God only knows what he was eating. This was a game changer. Now, he not only didn’t know when to expect his next meal, he didn’t even know if it would make him sick.
He plotted his revenge as he ate his gruel. Day Three crossed off the calendar.
Howard’s suspicions were confirmed the next day, when he spoke to his friend, Ted. Ted knew a guy who’d flown to Australia during the supposed Swine Flu pandemic of 2009. The guy had tested positive, according to the Australian experts, but had no symptoms. It was all a hoax, designed to get money from quarantined visitors and push the deep state agenda for global totalitarian government. Just one little piece of the big pie.
“Who’s this friend, the guy who supposedly witnessed this? Maybe he’s lying.”
Ted scoffed. “Man, he’s in hiding since he blew the cover off the story. I met him on the dark web. What he knows…”
Howard had heard enough sales pitches to be suspicious. “How does this guy know about the deep state…all that shit? I never heard about it.”
“Would I shit you? You don’t hear the truth on the news, Howie, that’s just b.s. for the masses. Use your head, man.”
“So, why do you think this guy got a positive test result but didn’t get sick? Isn’t’ that called asymptomatic?”
“That’s a word they made up to cover the truth, Howie. Asymptomatic is another way of saying, ‘There ain’t no fucking Covid.’ Get my drift?”
Howard didn’t but he let it go. Until the nurse came by to collect some samples from his throat and nose. He would know in within two days. They wouldn’t call if his test was negative. Time would tell. The rest of the day was uneventful, except that the meals came at random times, always within the hour he’d allowed for human error and laziness. They just made the time limit a couple of times. And some of his meals were labeled “DF.”
Something was going on as he crossed off Day Four.
The Covid test came back positive. Ted had been right. It was all a coverup for an international conspiracy. Howard examined several web sites Ted had suggested, and his worst fears were proven correct. How could he have been so blind?
The meal delivery became more inconsistent; sometimes his bags were labeled “DF” and sometimes not; sometimes they didn’t arrive for more than an hour late. He’d called and been told that his meal was on its way.
With his positive test, someone came around and probed Howard like an alien investigator, claiming to be checking for symptoms. There would be no symptoms. That was all bullshit. He didn’t think they were implanting a device in his head either; they were collecting DNA and other cellular samples that were being used to classify him. They wanted to turn him into a slave. He’d read about it. But there was nothing he could do until he could escape from captivity. Without external assistance he was trapped. Ted suggested he should remain calm and not let them know that he was onto them. Otherwise, he would disappear like so many others. Ted knew a web page that listed their names.
The food had been poisoned. Howard got diarrhea on the sixth day of quarantine and the people who answered when he dialed for information claimed not to know what had happened. He knew. His food had been mislabeled for days, to confuse him so that the experiment wouldn’t be disrupted. They were studying him, to see how far he could be pushed. It was about mind control. He’d read about it on a web page.
He decided to see if escape was possible, so quietly entered the hallway, blocking his door open with a shoe. He didn’t get three steps before a policeman, who’d replaced the hotel employee who’d been stationed in the hallway the first day, appeared and asked Howard if he needed assistance.
“No. I was just looking around.”
“Well, sir, that defeats the purpose of the quarantine, doesn’t it?”
Diabolical. “I guess so.”
Howard returned to his room and washed his dirty clothes in the bathtub with some detergent that had mysteriously appeared outside his door.
Day Seven proved the truth of Ted’s ominous prediction. Howard had been intentionally infected with an experimental bioweapon called Covid-19. It was all described on the QAnon web page. But Howard wasn’t going to be one of their patsies. When the nurse called to check on his status, he didn’t tell her about his fever, sore throat, shortness of breath, aching, no way. They would have to get their data from someone else because Howard wasn’t going to play along.
He was on his own. They weren’t going to break him, not in two weeks. The next few days would be critical.
The toxin they’d given him was strong. He spent Day Eight in the bed, or slouched across the day bed, shivering. But he was able to maintain his cover of not being ill, so no one came up to collect more data and probably reinfect him. He flushed most of the food down the toilet, to avoid more poisons and disguise his activity. That was one of the most important precautions he’d read about: don’t let them know what you’re doing, especially your efforts to circumvent their observational program.
He watched a lot of TV and got his work done. It turned out that he could complete a day’s worth of meetings in a few hours because of the time saved not driving all over. No one knew about his medical condition and thus his captors were unaware of the success of their operation.
He was already feeling better when he crawled into bed.
Knowing that his communications were being monitored by them, the unidentified cabal referred to by QAnon, Howard didn’t tell Kathy that he’d been poisoned when he spoke to her via WhatsApp on Day Nine. But he let his guard down and she was quick to attack.
“What do you mean, you’re the victim of a conspiracy, Howie? You never mentioned that before. What’s going on?”
He laughed and tried to sound nonchalant as he responded. “I was just kidding. This quarantine is some serious shit. I can’t leave the hotel room, not even for a cigarette. Nothing.”
There was an awkward silence. She was thinking. That worried him because Kathy thought of herself as rational, not easily fooled, and thus she was susceptible to the disinformation campaign being waged by “them.” Sure enough, she showed her gullibility with her next words.
“Have you been talking to Ted? You know, he spreads that crap for fun, to see how stupid people are. He’s some kind of anarchist. You didn’t fall for it did you?”
Howard had to lie to guarantee his safety. “No. Haven’t heard from him yet. I didn’t know he was into conspiracy theories. Who’d of guessed.”
He could hear her head shaking as she considered a response. Finally, she said, “At least you can’t act without thinking…you do remember your surprise birthday party, don’t you? When you called the police?”
He’d forgotten about that embarrassing incident. “You didn’t have to bring that up, Kathy, don’t worry. I’ll get out alive…”
“What the hell?”
On Day Ten, a nurse came to collect a sample for Howard’s second Covid test. His temperature had decreased so they didn’t have an excuse to take him to a secure facility for further testing. He got lucky there. It wasn’t in his hands anyway. If they wanted to keep him for further observation, all they had to do was falsify another positive test. He was at their mercy.
The police state called all the shots.
Lunch arrived late and Howard was pacing near the door, waiting for the clatter of a cart outside, three knocks on the door. Maybe he’d been distracted. He opened the door and was shocked at what he discovered.
The door across from him opened at the same time and Erica, the attractive Australian woman he’d sat near on the flight from San Francisco, faced him across the hallway. She quickly motioned for him to join her, so he slid a shoe into the door and covered the six feet separating their rooms in two steps.
Once inside, they shared their experiences. Erica led him to her private terrace where they smoked a cigarette. She had gotten a positive Covid test too, which made them wonder what the Australian Border Force was up to. His suspicions were confirmed by Erica, who had learned about the deep state from QAnon as well. Two people on one flight victims of the conspiracy. Far more than coincidence. They agreed to meet every day, but he’d bring his own cigarettes next time.
When the knock came at her door indicating that lunch had been delivered, Howard waited for the sound of the cart leaving before slipping out and picking up his own lunch, before entering his room, removing the shoe after him.
A salad and a bag of sea-salt potato chips.
Day Eleven made Howard wish he’d never left Jacksonville. It wasn’t the bioweapon he’d been subjected to, nor the contaminated food he’d been given, nor the psychological warfare that had been directed at breaking his willpower; he was finally broken by the microwave waves bombarding him day and night. Just like the embassy in Havana. He had stumbled into a field test of a new psychological weapons program using multiple assaults. The entire quarantine program was a cover up for a top-secret CIA black operation coordinated with the Australian Border Force.
His suspicion was confirmed by Erica when they met for a cigarette before lunch. They had come to the same conclusion: they would probably be released unharmed when the experiment was completed, but there was a small chance they would be selected for further tests. They didn’t want to risk disappearing, to be subjected to torture and mind control experiments for the rest of their lives.
There was only one way out. They went to the balcony rail together and looked down at the street 18 floors below.
Howard was ashamed of his weakness when confronted by the precipice of Erica’s balcony. There had been nothing to say. It was out of the question. A quick glance, exchanged in a moment, had sufficed to share the futility of escape. Trapped, they accepted their fate, getting little solace from knowing they were not alone.
“What are we going to do?” Erica asked hopelessly. She certainly didn’t expect Howard to have an answer.
“I don’t think we’ll be chosen for the advanced studies. After all, the odds are in our favor.” Howard scoffed and added, “We have as much of a chance of becoming long-term research subjects as we do of dying of Covid-19, if it were real.”
Erica nodded quickly. “It’s funny, isn’t it?”
“How they can take us any time they want…we’re at their mercy. They can infect us with a bioweapon or use us as guinea pigs in secret research. And nobody will know or care…”
“There’s always tomorrow. We’ll know the truth, as long as we don’t let them know that we figured it out.”
Time was running out. They were scheduled for out-processing the next day, Saturday, Day 13. They would know then whether they were going to spend the rest of their lives as test subjects. Those unlucky enough to be chosen got the bad news the day before their release. It had all been discussed on the internet.
They had another cigarette in silence.
Howard faced an army officer and a policewoman the next day. They informed him that he would be released from quarantine in the morning, free to continue to his destination. He’d been unable to contain his frustration to the people who thought they were giving him good news.
“So that’s it? The experiment continues…if you even know what you’re a part of.”
“What?” asked the older man, wearing a camouflaged uniform.
The young woman interjected, “Oh, it’s okay, Sergeant, he’s referring to a conspiracy theory in which people in quarantine are being subjected to Covid-19 and other viruses as part of a secret government program.”
“Oh, is that all? Very well, sir, take care after your release. And enjoy your stay in Australia.”
They were smooth. Erica verified Howard’s experience, although she hadn’t mentioned her suspicions. They welcomed everyone, even those who would disappear after quarantine. She suggested they should stick together, maybe there was safety in numbers.
That was the plan at the end of Day 13.
Howard was in the early release group, between 4 a.m. and noon. He checked his room before rolling his suitcase into the hall, watching nervously as the door closed permanently. No re-entry. Erica appeared from her door and they headed to the elevators together. There was no one else in line to check out with the local police and New South Wales authorities.
Erica went first and was finished in a few minutes, before being escorted through the back door of the hotel, the same door they’d entered through two weeks earlier. Howard’s palms were suddenly sweaty as he faced the expectant face of the middle-aged policeman. None of the officials was smiling.
Thinking and Civilization
Isaac Asimov had a good idea when he created the fictional science of Psychohistory. He didn’t discuss the equations used to predict the course of future events because…well…it was science fiction, but Kalev Leetaru of Google has started trying to do that. His vision is described in an excellent article available online. This is a great idea and will certainly lead to a better understanding of the behavior of societies. However, there is no theoretical basis for processing global data, looking for patterns in actions, emotions, texts, images, etc. It’s simply an empirical algorithm.
Asimov’s imagined science of Psychohistory has become a reality, but researchers in the field don’t take the approach of Leetaru and Google. It is a spin-off of social sciences, focusing on the history of childhood, psychobiography (studies of individual historical figures), and the motivation of large groups (through studies of available material that reflect unconscious thinking and behavior). Although not recognized as legitimate by most sociologists and psychologists, Psychohistory is stubbornly hanging in there. Nevertheless, this isn’t a useful way to understand societies’ cycles. For that, I will go far out on a limb, possibly into thin air.
In this essay, I plan to propose a fundamental conjecture for what happens to societies and why. My theory is based on the axioms of Psychohistory originally proposed by Asimov, with a couple added by later writers: (1) applicable to large populations; (2) the population remains ignorant of the prediction; (3) no fundamental change in society; and (4) human reactions to stimuli remain constant.
What the approaches of Google and academic Psychohistorians lack is a basic tenet for their analyses. Google analyzes big data looking for “Key words” whereas the academics are applying complex theories from psychology and psychiatry.
The basis of my approach to Psychohistory is straightforward, but it’s based on an idea that may not be fully understood by the reader.
Systems One and Two
From a functional perspective, the human brain is divided into subconscious and conscious processing operations. It isn’t easy to separate them cleanly, however, so it’s a slightly fuzzy idea. One alternative approach doesn’t treat all conscious processes the same. Some are actually functioning in support of subconscious operations. Mental processes that are dominated by, or in direct support of, subconscious processing are called System One.
System One processing is often called intuition or general knowledge. These are skills or information that you don’t have to think about to use, like how to drive a car or operate a machine. All goes well using System One, until something unexpected occurs. Accidents result. Where the conscious mind is dragged into the System One thinking is by making excuses afterward, e.g., “It’s not my fault.” This is clearly a judgement decision, but it isn’t based on analysis.
System Two doesn’t make excuses. It analyzes the options supplied by System One, balancing them against the situation that has to be dealt with, taking into account new information not yet stored in memory and thus readily available to System One. Instead of coming up with fast solutions using a heuristic process of sifting through (often incomplete) memories, it analyzes every option, weighs it, and is (typically) able to overrule System One, which has no say in the final action. At least that’s the plan. The problem is that thinking (using System Two) is slow and tedious. Sifting through all those data can be time consuming, so we skip it most of the time, settling for whatever is offered by System One.
We sometimes get carried away and make bad decisions using System One. Why does this occur? And is it predictable? These are two questions that this post is going to address.
The Evolution of Cultural Cognition Patterns
Sociology is the application of psychology to groups of people, which makes the study more statistical than studies of individuals. Thus, extrapolation of cognition style (i.e. Systems One and Two) is also going to become more averaged out in general; extreme thinking will of course exist in societies, but won’t dominate their development.
We can ask the question: Does cultural cognitive style change with the passage of time, i.e., with the generations? We need to answer this corollary question to answer the fundamental ones posed above.
There is no way of directly addressing such an abstract question, so we have to rely on inductive reasoning. For example, consider the conditions in prehistory when System One thinking would have been more advantageous than System Two. When there are no rapid changes in external factors (e.g., dramatic climate changes), there is no reason to spend much time analyzing problems. Many generations face the same environment, the same animals and plants, the same neighbors threatening them. Environmental factors are in dynamic equilibrium and analytical thinking is a waste of time.
The situation is different if something dramatic occurs, a series of events lasting several generations, which gives the group long enough to adapt new cognitive thinking patterns. Cultural evolution would have occurred, from the System One society of static times, to the System Two cognitive response during a dynamic period. All with no change to the mental capacity of the society living through these intervals.
Application to Cultural Evolution
This process is not new nor has it ended.
It is easy to imagine millennia passing with hunter-gatherer kin-based groups slowly evolving cognitively, even with no change in brain size; of course, soft-tissue changes would leave no record to be examined by anthropologists. When the rate of environmental change increased, as during documented episodic retreat and expansion of the ice sheets and associated changes in global weather, people had to think more to survive. These were stressful times, not just for one generation but for many cohorts. Consequent to changes in climate, the animal groups early humans would have interacted with were changing due to migrations in response to climate change.
The result of this stimulus-response cycle would be cognitive and cultural languishing for millennia, until something reached a tipping point, forcing System Two to become prevalent for anyone who wanted to survive. One outcome would have been episodic cultural accomplishments; e.g., new tools, horticultural, agricultural, pastoral techniques.
If the hypothesis of System Two thinking dominating societies during periods of stress and leading to cultural advancement is accepted, it is natural to ask what happens when societies fail to adapt System Two cognitive patterns in response to environmental threats. Many authors have discussed examples, but Jared Diamond’s books document societies that adapted and others that failed to do so, and subsequently disappeared. These potential cognitive and cultural states suggests the growth and decay of societies by their own decisions, supported by the archaeological and historical record.
It is not an excessive leap of imagination to identify climate change as a major driver of cultural cognitive evolution. For example, it is quite reasonable to interpret the growth of civilization during the last ten-thousand years as a single, cultural response to the most-recent warming trend of earth’s climate. Once agriculture had been invented, allowing larger population densities, there was a new environmental factor–population density. But progress hasn’t been steady because human societies are splintered and each develops more-or-less independently for most of its history. The Greek and Roman civilizations burned out after flourishing for centuries.
I use this phrase differently from neuroscientists and psychologists, who posit the concept for an individual brain. I’m borrowing it and applying it at larger scales. Just as sociology borrows from and is dependent on psychology, so Psychohistory is dependent on work by many brain researchers.
Thomas Jefferson said that a nation needs a revolution every generation. I think this was his way of expressing the need for new ideas to influence society, not a call for civil unrest. But he naively assumed that new ideas could develop without an existential threat. He didn’t understand about stress and cognition. I also think that he was stating his fear of equilibrium dominating the evolution of American society, stifling it.
Germany is an example of stress and how it can lead to good and bad outcomes. The Germans came close to Jefferson’s ideal, suffering through several radical changes in government within a century: an absolute monarchy, a constitutional monarchy, a democracy, a fascist dictator, a liberal democracy. They survived but it wasn’t fun. They innovated in response to external pressure from their European neighbors.
Alternatively we can see an example of what I call cognitive entropy in the history of China, which has not had an existential threat to its society in more than 2000 years, when a period of civil war ended. Because of this social equilibrium, the case can be made that the early technological and social advances made by China were extinguished by cultural stability. I call this an entropic process because the natural state is a cognitively homogeneous society, with local hot spots of innovation rapidly assimilated through shared cultural processes.
There is an inevitable sequence of events resulting from societal cognitive entropy:
- When a human mind is not stressed, it stops thinking using System Two. Analysis ceases. System One is sufficient to handle known environmental conditions with minimal stress.
- When System Two thinking stops, conservatism dominates: there is no need to change anything. It’s all okay. We don’t need different tools, social structures, ideas. New ideas are actually discouraged or forbidden.
- When conservatism reaches the roots of a society, progress stops because there is no perceived need for innovation. Eventually, the society will accept any bad situation, no matter how dire, because it has lost its collective ability to think with System Two. Individual warnings go unheeded.Trusted institutions are responsible for responding to increased stress.
- System One and System Two societies often alternate, especially where geographical factors are important. For example, Europe was fractured and definitely in a System Two cognitive phase during the Muslim invasions of 355-1291 CE, culminating in the independent repulsion of the Arabs by the French in the west and the Viennese in the east. The resulting stability led to the Middle Ages, a period of extreme System One thinking.
There is ample intellectual support for the concept I’m proposing. No historian has failed to glimpse, if not propose, coherent cycles of history, from nations to the world. These authors simply didn’t acknowledge the fundamental relationship between psychology, sociology, and societal development I’m advancing here. Implicit in the concept of Psychohistory.
We have answered our original questions. Cognitive decline occurs when a society is not facing an existential threat, especially from an external source. Internal sources are more difficult to identify and are less likely to be successfully challenged. This is an important difference between Germany in the late 19th and 20th century and the U.S. in the late 20th and 21st.
And is cognitive decline predictable? I think so, but not with the precision of Asimov’s Psychohistory. We’re not living in a science fiction story; but the idealogical polarization of America in the face of no existential threats, is predictable from psychohistorical axioms. In such stable times as exist today, people rely on authorities to make decisions (compare to the Middle Ages of Europe); following is easier than System Two thinking, so opinions become polarized. Ambiguity is dissolved in the clarity of partisan politics. A similar process occurs with religious and other kinds of institutions because people rely on these organizations to solve complex problems and present simple choices. Democracy at work.
Recent political events in the United States suggest that we as a nation are approaching a state of cognitive entropy. This clearly affects large fractions of society (both liberal and conservative, recalling that a political conservative is not necessarily the same as a social conservative). This process occurs despite many experts speaking in the media about the problem.
They are ignored by people who don’t want to think.
Bob looked up, shielding his eyes from the midday sun, and spotted the source of the droning, a helicopter approaching from the west. Helicopters didn’t fly over his quiet suburban neighborhood very often. Not much to see in Shady Heights. It was the police from the markings. His eyes followed the aircraft as it drew near at a surprisingly low altitude, maybe two-hundred feet. He instinctively looked down the tree-lined street, wondering what the police were looking for.
His curiosity piqued, Bob stepped out to the curb for a better look, his gaze anxiously sweeping the peaceful landscape. The noise of the blades cutting the hot air brought several of his neighbors outside. Manny waved from his front lawn across Hastings Street and joined Bob.
“What do you think is going on?” Manny asked.
Bob moved to the side for a better view of the helicopter hovering over Manny’s brick bungalow. “I don’t know, but they seem interested in your house.”
They were joined by Margaret and her husband, Franklin. Franklin sipped his beer and said, “I’ll bet they’re lost. They don’t have Google Maps for helicopters. I once had a neighbor the cops threatened from a helicopter, using a bull horn. They told him to get on the ground. A SWAT team dropped down on ropes.”
“What—” Bob started to interject.
“Yep. They were looking for a serial killer. Thought they had him cornered in his backyard, having a beer. Turned out he lived behind my friend. Good thing Ricardo hadn’t been a victim but still…”
The small group moved over for a better look. Bob didn’t hear anyone talking on a bullhorn, but the aircraft continued hovering over Manny’s house. Then, he realized what was happening.
“I’ll bet it’s a practice drill, like what Franklin said. They’re probably working on finding the correct address.”
“That’s it,” Manny added.
“You’d think they would have figured it out by now,” Margaret said. “Or a police car would have arrived to verify the address. I mean…they can’t see the house number from up there.” She pointed at the helicopter still hovering over Manny’s house. Everyone’s eyes followed her pointing finger.
Another helicopter was approaching from the north at a higher altitude. It wasn’t the police. Bob was the first to identify it.
“That’s a KBHF News chopper. Maybe this isn’t a practice. What the hell’s going on?”
“Those eyes-in-the-sky boys monitor the police channels, looking for a breaking story. They’re probably just here because the police are,” Franklin offered.
Margaret began, “Do you think they’re talking on the radio…” She didn’t finish her sentence when the police helicopter spun around and climbed rapidly, towards the KBHF aircraft several hundred feet above it, on a collision course. Everyone waved their arms frantically.
Bob grimaced and ducked instinctively when the two helicopters collided. The horrific scene unfolded in slow motion. The spinning blades of the police chopper disintegrated, shredding the KBHF helicopter. The two aircraft, locked in a deadly embrace, engulfed in a ball of flame, plummeted towards Manny’s three-bedroom house. The fireball missed his home but crashed into Tom and Brenda Martin’s house next door. They were out of town. Bob watched the scene unfold in a daze, frozen where he stood, until it was too late to duck or run.
The small group was knocked to the ground by the blast. Debris covered Bob’s yard, the front windows of his house shattered, but miraculously the four of them were uninjured. Bob’s ears were ringing as he stumbled through his front door, intent on collecting his cellphone and calling 911. He was followed by the others as if leading them to safety. The phone hadn’t been damaged.
Bob was speaking to the dispatcher while the others turned their attention to the television, intact between the shattered windows, tuned to a baseball game. The game was interrupted by a newscaster Bob recognized. The old guy who did the weekend afternoon newscast.
“We’re interrupting the game to report breaking news. The police have tracked a man who recently escaped from the state prison to Shady Heights. We’ll hear from the KBHF eyes-in-the-sky team for an update.”
“What the hell…” began Manny.
Margaret added, “This should be interesting.”
“They don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground,” was Franklin’s comment.
Bob finished his call to 911, looked out the front window at Manny’s house, now on fire from the explosion. He shook his head in disbelief at the stupidity of the newscaster.