Thursday, April 19, 2018

Sapient Hibernators?

Recently on Quora someone asked why human beings can't stay awake for a week straight and then sleep for the same amount of time, instead of alternating sleep and awake time every day. The most convincing answer is that we evolved to live in harmony with the alternation of light and darkness. We are diurnal mammals, and our (roughly) 24-hour circadian rhythm harmonizes with daily changes in sunlight levels, making us active by day and at rest by night. We need that period of dormancy every night for our brains to repair ongoing wear-and-tear and process the events of the previous day. Not all animals function the same way, of course. Some are nocturnal. Cats sleep in short stretches throughout the day, with a lot of activity around dawn and dusk (crepuscular). Dolphins, some other aquatic mammals, and some birds sleep with only half of their brains at a time, so one brain hemisphere is always awake.

It occurred to me to wonder what our lives would be like if we hibernated. I would be happy to sleep through the dreary, cold stretch from January 2 through the third week of March, when the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts convenes in Orlando. Aside from skipping the worst of winter, I could gorge on goodies over the holidays, then painlessly burn off the fat while asleep. I've read only one story featuring a sapient species that hibernates, Melanie Tem's unique vampire novel, DESMODUS. Her non-supernatural vampires are essentially humanoid, intelligent vampire bats. The females, the dominant sex, are the only ones who hibernate through the winter. The males migrate. With access to human culture's modern technology, they drive south every year in a convoy of huge trucks, in which the sleeping females and the young (cared for communally) are safely ensconced. How would their clan manage if they all had to hibernate, though? Wouldn't they be overly vulnerable?

Risks of vampire-slayers finding their dens and slaying them while dormant might be minimized if Desmodus had a metabolism like that of bears, which don't really "hibernate" in the strictest sense, Instead, they enter a state of torpor from which they can wake up quickly and easily if the need arises. In true hibernators, heartbeat and respiration slow drastically, and body temperatures decrease to the level of the surrounding environment. Arctic ground squirrels may even reduce their abdominal temperatures below freezing.

Could a hibernating species develop an advanced technological civilization? What would happen to their machines and infrastructure during prolonged periods of universal dormancy, with nobody available to perform upkeep and maintenance? Maybe a hibernating intelligent race might be limited to preindustrial technology. If we discovered such a race on a distant planet, we could supply them with machines and technicians to care for the equipment, but the natives would remain dependent on us for those resources. Of course, such a species might instead take their cultural evolution in a completely different direction from ours and produce a civilization that doesn't rely heavily on physical technology—biologically based, perhaps. It's hard to imagine, however, how they could achieve space flight, so I visualize their being confined to their home planet when we meet them.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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