Will we ever journey to the stars?

(the second in a series entitle “Will our species pass the BIG intelligence test?)

It makes sense, when you think about it. There should be a test of worthiness before a wannabe spacefaring species takes flight. Think of what the colonizing Europeans did to the native peoples in Africa and North and South America; and those victims were members of our own species!

Have we shown that we are ready for membership in the BIG world (the universe out there that, surely, is teeming with life)? Definitely not…

On our planet there is a harmony in Nature—worms break up the soil to make it more fertile, bees pollinate plants, herbivore animals live off plants, carnivores feed off one another up the food chain… At the top of the food chain stands the current “king of the mountain”. There have been many, many such kings over the history of life on our planet. And none of them showed any concern for their underlings…

But none of them—until man ascended to the throne—had the ability to destroy the entire biosphere. With our technological capability we have, rightly or wrongly, given ourselves a position of dominance that makes the reign of the dinosaurs look like Sesame Street. And every day we demonstrate how much we care for our present and future fellow Earth-dwellers…

Many will say, “Who cares?” They know that interstellar space flight is far in the future. “Not in my lifetime!” they would say, dismissively. And they know that we are a very long way from solving the problems that plague us today. “What can I do, anyway,” would be their last word.

But the problem is that it is not just about turning our future into an episode from Star Trek. It is about our survival as a species…

The BIG intelligence test doesn’t have a “fail and forget it” option. Failure will bring the end of our civilization. In the best case that will involve a massive die-off, reducing the human population to the levels of two hundred years ago (about one billion people). In the worst case we will become extinct and so damage our ecosphere that it takes millions of years to recover—as happened after the Permian-Triassic (“P-Tr”) extinction event when massive releases of methane gas and global warming led to a significant reduction in oxygen and ozone levels. The P-Tr event is considered “the mother of all extinction events,” extinguishing over 90% of all marine species  and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species.

As each year passes, solving our problems becomes more urgent. Our population grows, stressing our infrastructure (particularly food production) and accentuating the horrific gap between the “haves” and the “have nots”. Our weapons get ever more lethal—and ever more likely to fall into the hands of an extremist or suicidal maniac, diseases become more exotic, more drug-resistant and more mobile… Real and imagined mental diseases proliferate. There is only one way out: we have to pass the BIG intelligence test.

Passing the test means growing up to become Future Man. It means accepting that we, as a species, have passed the point where our evolution is left to nature, or fate… It is in our hands. We, and only we, will decide what our future is to be. We can do it—by evolving into Future Man, Homo Sapiens Supernus…

There are two kinds of evolution. Biological and cultural. Biological (or for some, Darwinian) evolution is the process that took over three billion years to produce the first hominid, and another million years to produce modern man. Biological evolution will not help us deal with the BIG test. In fact, it is biological evolution that has got us into the mess we now find ourselves in. Think about it. Biological evolution actually selects for most of the bad qualities that we must, very soon, find a way to suppress. I mean all the “rugged individuality” traits that, heaven help us, we still admire (if only secretly).

Here is an example of what I mean. Let’s suppose there is a nice young man (NYM), a little old lady (LOL) and a self-centered middle aged man (SCAM) on a ship that is sinking. There is only room for one more on the life boat. The NYM looks at the LOL, smiles and says “, you go,” to the LOL. The SCAM elbows both aside and climbs into the life boat with a triumphant glare. Whose genes survive to create copies of this behavioral monster?

Biological evolution selects for self-centered, aggressive behavior. The biggest and the baddest survive. We have to use cultural evolution to become Future Man.

Cultural evolution is behavioral change in response to new information. An example of cultural evolution is the migration of many species of birds to escape the rigors of winter. The onset of winter was “the information”; the response (by a bird genius) was flight towards the equator. The survival of the birds making the trip meant that the “bird genius” gene multiplied in the population. The behavior eventually became hard-wired in the bird’s DNA.

In humans the most cited example of cultural evolution is the drinking of animal milk. It is, of course, natural for human babies to drink their mother’s milk. They are able to digest the milk by virtue of an enzyme called lactase that breaks down the lactose in the milk. In mammals, however, the production of lactase ceases as they grow up. Without lactase to help, milk becomes indigestible and causes unpleasant digestive problems.

About 8,000 years ago, however, it appears that adult humans experimented with cow’s milk and discovered that some adult humans were lactose tolerant (i.e., the lactase production gene had not been switched off after infanthood). As a life-fostering trait, this was favored by evolution, and now many adult humans can enjoy milk. Lactose intolerance is now relatively uncommon among Europeans—although it is still common among some cultures (e.g., Native Americans) whose ancestors did not domesticate cattle for their milk.

A much more recent example of cultural evolution is the dramatic decline in birth rates in many cultures (a good thing too…). The nearly universal presumption of the eternal availability of modern technology (such as the electricity, telephone, internet, personal transportation, etc.) is another increment of cultural evolution that, of course, we take for granted—but creates a gigantic vulnerability for our species…

Historically, say over the last two thousand years, cultural evolution has been mostly good. It has “civilized” us. It has given us a keener sense of right and wrong.

But my sense of it is that (bad) biological evolution is winning over good (cultural) evolution right now… We are going to have to make a big effort to change that before it’s too late. More on that in the next post…

5 thoughts on “Will we ever journey to the stars?

  1. The stellar journey requires the resources of a unified industrial base. The US alone, does not have the resources to sustain a space faring culture. There are too many competing agendas within the industrialized world to mount a sustainable space program that would lead humanity to the stars. The economic demands of a growing “2’nd” world will consume the “extra” resources that would be required to mount an effective “leave the cradle” program. Too much work and development is necessary in too short a time frame to achieve the cultural “escape velocity” for a stellar migration. We should study the life cycle of the artic animal called the lemming. Why? Our race is following that life cycle pattern. We too will fall off the edge of the cliff, since as a species, we are too stupid to do otherwise. Consider the following – I postulate that many of the “good Christian” people would be the first ones in line to plant a bomb in our first interstellar space craft because they would call it an “affront to God!” I would love for to us go to the stars. However, we would have to leave behind most of our culture and beliefs since they are little removed from the cries of our primate ancestors as the sabertooth prowled below!

    Beam me up Scotty!

  2. Absolutely right, David. The US alone, does not have the resources… Nor does it have the will…
    As you say, a venture of such magnitude is inconceivable within the current, essentially tribalistic, framework of human society and government.
    I agree, too, that religious institutions would be far more likely to hinder than help. Let’s face it, they are perhaps the most offensive example of the egoistic tribalism that we have to leave behind.
    On the other hand, we are going to need unity and a new, substantially higher, level of morality to reach the “next level”. We have a loooong way to go….

  3. Peter, do you have other topics, upon which, you have commented? I would, no doubt, find your thoughts interesting.


  4. David,
    Google “tribalism flaw”. That should bring you to my first post on the blog. From there you can navigate forward in time to the rest of the posts by clicking the next post hyperlink at the top of the page (above and to the left of the heading). I wish the navigation was a bit more intuitive… Sorry about that. Any comments will be appreciated. I have the feeling that we may “be on the same wave length” in some important philosophical respects…

  5. “Traveling to the stars.” is just a technology-timeframe-relevance-bias. By the time “traveling to the stars” becomes technologically feasible the very same levels of technology will have rendered us into something very different as we are today and we will most likely have no interest in “traveling to the stars”. Our virtual realities, simulations or even entire universes will be much more interesting than “traveling to the stars”.

    “Biological evolution selects for self-centered, aggressive behavior. The biggest and the baddest survive.” that is just false. Check the papers of Frans de Waal … evolution made primates highly empathic and cooperative. As I wrote in another reply it is our highly competitive monetary system and the culture it creates and the artificial scarcity it induces that is problematic.

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