This is an abstract of a talk given by Steve Lee for the Saros 'Leaving Home' series.
The full transcript can be accessed by selecting any heading.

Manufacturing an Evolutionary Event

  1. Should we explore space?
    The problems facing our civilization seem so overwhelming that talking of space exploration appears frivolous or even ideologically suspect. However, although these problems may be all too real, they are small when looked at from a perspective appropriate to activity beyond this planet. Far from being a waste of resources, such activity is perhaps the only form of high energy consumption of long term value.
  2. The Evolutionary Significance of The Space Programme
    For the first time the biosphere has produced living beings which have left the planet to view it from outside. The biosphere as a whole has not grown appreciably for some considerable time (since the colonization of land in fact). The colonization of space would provide the first opportunity for the biosphere to actually grow since it first became a sphere.
  3. Growth, Expansion and Proliferation
    Expansion is simply increase in size, but as well as growing in size, living things are capable of proliferating by making copies of themselves. This is an expression of the replication of the information content of the cell. Since information is not limited to any one medium, organic, carbon-based structures may not be the only way of replicating information. Proliferation involves the replication of a basic unit or units, thus increasing the size of the total set. Growth implies more than this. It implies the differentiation of structure and function amongst the proliferating elements, and their organization to form a single, coherent body.
  4. Midwives of Gaia
    In seeing humanity as the eye (or even I) of the universe, philosophers are perhaps being too high-minded. A number of more apt metaphors suggest themselves. The most polite way of putting it is to say that through space exploration we may act as the midwives of Gaia. The problem with this analogy is that it assumes that the biosphere acts like a single organism - a debatable assumption. From a biological stand-point the shift to a space exploration is of at least the same magnitude as the first colonization of land by life-forms originating in the sea. That is why I term space exploration an evolutionary event. As with the shift from sea to land, it is a shift into a harsher environment, less conducive to life. As yet humans cannot reproduce in space, so must return to earth to breed, in that sense we are analogous to amphibians which must return to water to complete their life cycle.
  5. The Nature of the Evolutionary Event
    An apparent difference between space exploration and the colonization of land is that the latter was not just a behavioural adaptation, but a process of transformation resulting from the arising of mutant forms. If the colonization of space is of equal or even greater magnitude it will require some form of transformation within the organisms involved. What selection pressures would be exerted on us by the cold, low-pressure, low-gravity, high-radiation environment? Highly sociable, thick-skinned, non-smoking blobs with a liking for computer games seem one possible outcome. A more disturbing idea is that the mutations necessary for humanity's move into space may have already occurred.
  6. Creating New Environments for Life
    In some ways establishing a colony off-planet is less like adapting to a new environment than constructing one. Some scientists envisage modifying entire planets to make them suitable for terrestrial-type life - a process for which the term 'terraforming' has been coined. Such an attitude may seem out of step with current concern over Man's impact on the environment, but all organisms control their environment to a greater or lesser extent. According to the Gaia hypothesis, life as a whole does not simply adapt to the requirements of the planet on which it finds itself, but constructs and maintains its own environment. So terraforming is perhaps something that life has done before, and with human assistance, may do again, thus spreading Gaia beyond the present biosphere.
  7. The Greater Biosphere
    Is a space colony a complete move out of the biosphere? The biosphere is not limited to this planet, the most obvious extra-terrestrial component being the energy source - a star eight light minutes away. When we reflect on what modern science tells us about our place in the universe we see that we are already participants in a greater world than the world which orbits our sun. This apparent leap of the imagination is reinforced by a knowledge inherent in basic physical perception. The material basis of our consciousness of the world is the brain's interaction with its environment. On a cloudless night the physical correlate of perceiving a star is therefore not a little man inside an isolated skull, but a physical system light years in diameter (and a process acting over aeons of time). If one accepts this ecological view of mind, it follows that any attempt to construct a meaningful philosophy of our place in nature, must at the very least accord with the sense-base. Since our planet is a mere eight thousand miles in diameter any attempt, however well meaning, to make concern with the earth alone the context of human aspiration is doomed to failure. In the long term few human beings would be prepared to worship a god (or goddess) smaller than their own field of consciousness.
  8. Taking a Global View
    The evidence of the fossil record indicates that the history of life on this planet is punctuated by periods of mass extinction, some perhaps caused by impact from meteorites). It has been suggested that through the space programme humankind may act as a sentinel, protecting the biosphere and our species from such external threats. If Homo Sapiens decides not to fulfil its extra-terrestrial destiny, then hopefully our increasing interest in conservation will at least insure that there are sufficient resources left to get our successor-species off the planet when the next natural mass extinction occurs!
  9. Conclusion
    Paradoxically, it is only when the inhumanity of the universe is grasped that true compassion may arise - a real reverence for all life, unclouded by sentimentality. When a culture faces such issues it also raises a problem of motivation. Being forced to consider things on a scale where our normal motives appear irrelevant creates a vacuum. The mentality of beings who have proved able to cross this invisible barrier is as mysterious to our present selves as the depths of space itself. For Homo Sapiens to make the crossing seems to require something we can only call faith.

This page, and all contents, are Copyright (C) 1995 by Saros. The material may be used freely providing the source is acknowledged.