7 August 2012


Cameron M Smith and Evan T Davies. Emigrating Beyond Earth: Human Adaptation and Space Travel. Springer, 2012.

When I were now’t but a nipper 50 years ago, the factual children's magazines of the period such as Knowledge and Look and Learn used to feature dreams of the future, and the amazing world of 2000. This included colonies on the Moon and Mars, huge orbiting space stations, trips to the outer solar system and the like. This was the age of the high rise blocks, which looked marvellous in architect’s drawings, but were much less so in real life.

Often these were pictured under domes, connected by monorails, or by private helicopter. From them one could go on the afternoon shopping outing to New York, or the day trip to Bondi Beach, courtesy of hypersonic sub-orbital aircraft. Food was in little pills, clothes would be made of paper or some other disposable stuff and domestic robots would do all the housework. Needless to say none of this has come to pass. Equally they did not predict the Internet, mobile phones, Facebook, twitter, heart transplants, genetic engineering, personal computers and many other actual developments. The future remains unpredictable.

This does not stop these two American authors, an evolutionist and an anthropologist working as a defence attaché, from reviving the old dream of planetary colonisation. This, they argue, is necessary to prevent civilisation collapsing when a variety of rather nasty things happen. Exactly how a limited number of Martian colonists would keep human civilisation going if the home planet collapsed is not made clear.

The authors make parallels with great voyages in the past, both by Europeans and Polynesians; but no terrestrial voyager ever left the biosphere, they sailed on the Earth’s seas, borne by its winds, breathing its air. They went to places where the basic biosphere was such as to sustain them (and in exploring wiped a lot of that biosphere out as they did so, from the mastodon to the moa and dodo). Travellers to other worlds will face challenges like no human society before them, they will be truly strangers in a strange and foreign land.

Like many such works, the largest part of this book is taken up with other matters, such as a survey of general and human evolution; interesting enough in itself and always useful in a country where such things are often denied by religionist ideologues, but not entirely germane to this issue.

I am not saying humans will never colonise the Moon or Mars, small numbers will, though not, I suspect, till long after 2040 when they imagine that the first child will be born on Mars, and not until after highly sophisticated machines have forged a habitat for us out there.

But with developments in robots such as the one which has just landed on Mars, artificial intelligence and virtual reality, how many people will want to physically travel to other worlds, when they can have a completely realistic experience of being a passenger on a planetary rover in their own homes? Might not future generations say to today’s babies in their great old age “do you mean to say Granny, that when you were little they sent people into space?” in much the same way that we express horror at the thought of children sent down mines or up chimneys.

The way to deal with potential catastrophes is not to think in terms of some saving remnant on Mars, but to develop the technologies to prevent them. We might imagine the technologies which could deflect an incoming asteroid, even if we don’t possess them, but we scarcely imagine the technology needed to defuse a super-volcano, or prevent global warming. They will be enormously complex and enormously costly, far beyond the resources any imaginable development could produce. So if we are to avoid extinction we will have to move to some completely different form of society, one far more different from ours than ours is from that of the builders of Stonehenge, and one we can no more imagine than the builders of Stonehenge could imagine ours. Nevertheless people have done this; there are places where old people in their youth lived essentially Neolithic lives, and now see their grandchildren occupying all the niches of the modern global society. In that journey the old utopian vision of a world guaranteeing peace and freedom, bread and justice and true human dignity to every human being on the planet would not be then end of the journey but the first stumbling baby step.

By the time human beings (or whatever succeeds them) are in the position to be thinking of interstellar journeys, it is likely technology will be of a sort no magician could ever conceive. Nor is it likely, pace these authors, that it will be by means of generational star ships, would the inhabitants of a globalised (or solar systemised) society really want to swap that for the narrow introverted world of a star ship? If interstellar travel by anything other nanoprobes is possible it is likely to be by means of a technology compared with which the fictional Enterprise and Voyager complete with holo-deck, warp drive, conscious androids and holograms, would be at the level of a hand axe.

The authors’ vision of interstellar colonisation is alarming, because it argues for looking for suitable habitats, but of course if there are worlds out there that people could live on without extensive terraforming, they are, by definition, homes to complex biospheres, because our sort of atmosphere was manufactured by biology. As the authors concede the genuine extraterrestrials would be very different from anything we could readily imagine, it seems absurd to think we could ever have the “right” to colonise and smash up, even inadvertently, alien biospheres. This seems a lot like traditional colonialist attitudes to me. -- Peter Rogerson.

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