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?