Pharyngula

That Stephen Hawking guy is saying that we need to get colonies out there in space to preserve the human race. I’m a space opera fan, I think space exploration is a worthy endeavor, but I have to admit that watching Chris Clarke whomp on Hawking is very entertaining, and I agree. Hawking has it all wrong.

When fans of technology start preaching about escaping disaster on earth by setting up space stations and moon colonies and terraforming Mars, an image comes to mind: a dying hanged man, kicking and squirming, ejaculating reflexively and dribbling a few pitiful drops of semen into the dirt. Emigrating to some other world doesn’t save us; under the best of circumstances, only a miniscule elite few would escape, and as Chris points out, the technological problems are so great (Guess what? We have no idea how to build a home on another planet that won’t require continual resupply and that will last more than a few years) that even that would only be a temporary reprieve. Flicking a few gametes into the sky isn’t any kind of salvation—it’s desperate and sad and futile.

I’m both less and more pessimistic than Chris about the possibilities, though. I think there is a path to accomplishing expansion to other worlds, but it is indirect. The first priority is to put our own house in order: we need stable, sustainable human cultures that know how to maintain a healthy environment (if we can’t prevent ourselves from trashing a whole planet, how are we going to ever maintain a viable home in the more limited and hostile confines of a habitat elsewhere?). Given that opium dream, I could see a pattern of evolving technology and careful exploration leading to the gradual establishment of some kind of humanity elsewhere. Not as an ‘escape’, of course, but because life, like cockroaches, expands to the limit of its ability.

Another twist, though: if we have a stable terrestrial society, we might not want to send people offworld, because of the certainty of unforeseen consequences. Organisms are sensitive to their world; look at human evolution, and what you see are changes in response to climate and environment. One circumstance under which I can imagine a human speciation event would be colonization of a radically different world and limited exchange of genetic material…exactly what we’d see with an expansion into space. Making it even more complicated will be biotechnology. We have a problem with bone loss under low gravity conditions, so hey, let’s tweak calcium physiology a little bit. And as long as we’ve got the hood on this baby open, let’s toss in a few more improvements. In the long run, I don’t think that any of our progeny that we spin off into space will be human for long, and I don’t think we can predict what a post-human race would want, or how it would interact with us.

It’s a mistake to try and predict how post-humanity would evolve, because any guess will almost certainly be wrong, but I don’t see big-skulled humanoids with attenuated limbs buzzing about in flying discs. I think the priorities in an environment as hostile as, for instance, the surface of Mars would be conformity, control, and specialization—social concerns to maintain safety and stability in a very nasty place. Individualism would be discouraged, since loners don’t survive in a situation requiring communal dedication. Humans in a space colony could be more like naked mole rats, with reproduction regulated tightly and in the hands of a few, caste-like arrangements of workers, and social mechanisms to make sure no one individual could put the community at hazard.

Sure, our many times great grandchildren could get a foothold off of planet Earth. But do we really want to create a competing race of naked mole apes?


Amanda joins in on the Hawking-bashing.

Comments

  1. #1 TheBrummell
    June 14, 2006

    PaulC said: “Fortunately, we can keep those payloads small as long as we’re sending what counts: self-replicating, self-repairing assembly systems. These will have to be developed first on earth, which is why I don’t see any big need to push for space exploration right at the point (particularly sending humans).”

    Humans *are* self-replicating, self-repairing assembly systems. Read Dawkins – what are we, if not giant robots built for our selfish genes? Having said that, I like the idea of von Neumann machines, built of large blocks of smelted metals and etched silicates. The much-feared “grey goo” scenario already happened – they’re called “bacteria”.

    I’m going to fall into the soft compromise zone in the middle of this split: sooner or later, humanity (and associated commensals) with either colonise another cosmic entity successfully, or go extinct. Neither scenario has much to say about the other species on Earth, but I’m expecting most of those to go extinct in short order before either scenario really gets going. I’m personally betting on the extra-Earth colonisation scenario, simply because it seems easier to establish a colony somewhere than it is to completely annihilate the most successful (in terms of varied environments inhabited) species ever encountered on Earth.

    Speculations on the physical nature of the humans (or post-humans, or transhumans) who actually accomplish the establishment of self-sufficient colonies Somewhere Else seem rather pointless – we have no data to base extrapolations on, so no idea can be excluded.

    Grimgrin said: “Finally and this is, for me, where the argument ends we should have space colonies for one very simple reason.

    Because it would be AWESOME.”

    Agreed, wholeheartedly.

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