I’m reading a biology book right now, The Making of the Fittest, that talks about how much information about the past we’re able to reconstruct from the forensic record of currently available DNA. One of the things that Sean Carroll, the author, talks about is the fossil genes to be found in our genome. Fossil genes are the cratered but identifiable remains of genes that no longer code for anything. They can arise when the protein they code for no longer does anything useful. For instance, the genes that help form eyes are no longer useful among cave fish. Eyeless mutants can thrive in a sunless sea, and their nonfunctional eye genes can persist in a recognizable form for millions of years before eventually being pulverized into genomic dust.
This weekend I went to a conference (Foo Camp), and at some point my cell phone went into an unrecoverable coma. Since I needed to coordinate an after-conference visit with some friends in the Bay Area, I had to make several phone calls. Old-school mesozoic landline phone calls. This means that I needed to find public pay phones in Berkeley on a Sunday afternoon. This brings me to the topic of fossil phones, which is closely related to the topic of fossil genes.
Since the rise of Homo mobilephonicus, the selection pressure to maintain working public phones has essentially vanished. This has allowed vandalism, neglect, and cosmic rays to do their worst to existing phones. Let me save you the trouble of walking into a liquor store on San Pablo Avenue and asking for the nearest pay phone. You will be looked at as though you just asked for the whereabouts of the neighborhood gramophone purveyor.
By the time I found a phone that worked, I had stopped at no fewer than five ostensible pay phone locations. Two of these had been simply ripped off of their mounts. They’ll all be dead soon. But the fossil record will betray our ancient love for gramophones and bakelite records to a thousand generations yet to come.