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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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(C) 1995 by Saros. The material may be used freely providing the source is