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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Making Aliens 6: The Descendants

dna7.gifThe Repercussions of Planetary Settlement

by Athena Andreadis

Art image: David Noever, NASA/Marshall Flight Center

Part 6: The Descendants

Among its consequences, genetic engineering may also reverse a problematic human trend towards biological homogenization which is as dull and dangerous as its cultural equivalent. By eventually recognizing that we are one species and interbreeding enthusiastically to celebrate that fact, we have stopped our further evolution by extinguishing isolated breeding pools. We have overtaken earth, first by being adaptable, then by dint of our technology. From a jaundiced ecological viewpoint, the recent explosion of humanity has been likened to a lemming population boom or a moth infestation. Such booms are invariably followed by busts — and in our case, a crash would also mean irreversible loss of technology.

From our very beginnings, we tended to consider ourselves the jewel in the crown of creation. We believed that at least some of us had been created in the image of the local deity. Yet by considering our germ line sacrosanct, we have painted ourselves in a biological corner. Each terrestrial species has a finite lifespan. Moreover, most successful species branch, whereas we humans are down from a half dozen relatives to a single representative — Homo Sapiens sapiens. If we insist in remaining unchanged, without evolving or radiating, we may degenerate and disappear without intervention of a great catastrophe either from something home-brewed like war or from a random event, such as the impact of a rogue comet. We’ll blink out not with a bang, but with a whimper.

In that respect, our absolute dominance in our current configuration has not served us well for the next step. Deeply embedded in all our plans and ideas is the not-so-hidden assumption that we will fundamentally remain as we are. But the difference between living on Earth and anywhere else is qualitatively different from living in New York versus living in the Arctic. Almost certainly, if we really wish to go into space as long-term explorers, rather than as tourists, we will have to accept radical change — and with it the disquieting possibility that we will not be the crowning spire of the next cycle, but its foundation.

Interestingly enough, we actually seem to be designed for rapid speciation. The successive branchings of the humanoid group have come at ever shorter intervals: the genus Homo arose 5 million years ago; Sapiens, 0.5 million years ago; Sapiens sapiens, 0.05 million years ago. If you put 1,000 people in a row, the first in the line would be the very first Cro-Magnon, the last in line one of us. Our species is actually very young, and almost certainly in biological flux — except for our insistence that we are the perfected end product.

Settling on other planets will speciate humanity even if we forego genetic engineering, because it will create relatively isolated breeding pools in circumstances radically different from those on earth. Human groups also developed characteristics specific to their terrestrial environment — the Mongolian epicanthic fold, the heat-efficient Inuit compactness, the heat-dissipating Tutsi lankiness, the enlarged heart of the Nepalese and Ecuadorians; last but not least melanin, whose dosage increased where appropriate to provide shelter from sunburn, unwittingly causing humanity endless woes. Genetic alleles that are anathema today spread quickly and widely through populations for very good reasons in the past: a mutant hemoglobin made carriers resistance to malaria, while killing homozygotes with sickle cell anemia; a mutant ion transporter did the same for cholera, but killed homozygotes with cystic fibrosis. Between the expense of interstellar travel and the discomfort from different gravity, pressure and other planetary specifics, we will see differentiation much faster.

Speciation means this, in practical terms: At some point, the pools will no longer be able to interbreed. Our colonials will not just have different accents. They won’t be Brazilian Portuguese, or Egyptiot Greeks — or even those real aliens, Australians. They will no longer be humans as we define the term. To put in succinctly, they will not be someone that we can easily love either in the fundamental biological sense or in the equally influential cultural one — and in the end, that is the commonality that binds us.

In that respect, TV science fiction has served us poorly, by depicting humanoid aliens as ersatz samurai like the Klingons or fake Tibetans like the Bajorans. Written science fiction has done much better in presenting visions of such offshoots of humanity — for example, Kingsbury’s Courtship Rite and Cherryh’s Forty Thousand in Gehenna. In effect, by sending out long-term planetary expeditions, we will create aliens more surely than by leaving picnic trash on an uninhabited planet. Our first alien encounter, beyond earth just as it was on earth, will be with ourselves as seen through the distorting mirror of divergent evolution.

The differentiation of humans into truly separate branches will force us to face our hard-wired fear of anyone who is almost like us, but not quite. The last true such encounter was roughly 40,000 years ago, between the Neanderthals and the Cro-Magnon, though it has been replayed in countless first contact situations between cultures ever since (not to mention the exchanges between the sexes). Ever since humans became sapient, they enhanced their self-esteem and justified their raids by insisting that those beyond the next hill (or for that matter, those cleaning their latrines and/or bearing their children) were subhuman, despite the indisputable and well-known fact that all aliens were fully human by the sole criterion that is biologically relevant; namely, production of offspring.

Such xenophobia was once a survival mechanism, but now it’s as useful as our appendix and wisdom teeth. And despite our other strengths, embracing the alien is decidedly not high on our list of attributes. Certain segments of the scientific and space aficionado communities have been cheerfully discussing how to interact with Little Green Women and Men. Well, the armchair philosophers will get the chance to practice their theory when humanity splits into groups of cousins who won’t look like the usual Hollywood brands of benevolent aliens — not like angels, not like human newborns and not like snuggly, cuddly Ewoks.

This prospect is one of the scariest aspects of venturing into space, yet at the same time one of the most exciting. It’s also a development that will guarantee the survival if not of our species, then certainly of our legacy. It has taken us a long time to reach a fragile and imperfect unity, cemented by the understanding that we are all really one large family. To go to the next stage, we must voluntarily renounce that unity and relax our iron grip on the evolution that we have arrested. After all, don’t forget that if not for sudden jumps in speciation, most of them caused by environmental pressures — an asteroid hit here, an Ice Age there — we wouldn’t be here. Planetary settlement helped along by judicious application of genetic engineering is merely the continuation of this trend, except that some of the process will be under our control. Stasis ends in death not only culturally but also biologically. If we don’t go into the next stage, our descendants won’t just lead lives devoid of meaning, doomed to repeat outworn patterns in the confines of a worn out planet. They will also peter out, dead branches of a dried-up tree.

If we allow ourselves to grow up and give rise to other sapients, it’s quite possible that our descendants will be as kind to us as we were to our ancestral species. However, whether we like each other or not, I hope that they inherit our curiosity, because that’s the one indispensable ingredient for success. And despite all the caveats I listed, I think we will venture to the stars — for knowledge, for glory, but above all, because we thirst to know what is behind the next bend in the path. Compared to the oceans that we and our inheritors will navigate, our efforts until now are like the launching of paper boats in a bird fountain.

“There is the sea, and who will drain it dry? Precious as silver,
inexhaustible, ever new, it blooms the more we reap it.
Our lives are based on wealth untold, the gods have seen to that.”

Clytemnestra in Agamemnon, by Aeschylus

Making Aliens 1: Why Go at All?

Making Aliens 2: The Journey

Making Aliens 3: The Landing

Making Aliens 4: Playing God I

Making Aliens 5: Playing God II

Making Aliens 6: The Descendants

10 Responses to “Making Aliens 6: The Descendants”

  1. intrigued_scribe says:

    This last installment is highly compelling and drives home the significant, if not seemingly insurmountable obstacles separating humanity from biological growth (and perhaps also intellectual growth among other kinds), from fear to homogenized breeding pools to environmental factors. Also, the necessity of overcoming prejudice and hubris–and this reveals a bit of cynicism on my part where this is concerned–stands out as one of the foremost issues and strikes as one that would be highly difficult for many to discard and brings to mind those who would be unwilling to even make the attempt.

    On the positive side, of the levels to which genetic alteration and interplanetary travel–and open minds–can take humanity gives a vivid, promising glimpse of a bright future and the potential that may give rise to it.

  2. Athena says:

    I have also concluded that we have many enormous obstacles to overcome on our way to the stars, and most have to do with our innate make up. To paraphrase a soundbite originally coined about Brazil: Humans are the species of the future and always will be! (*laughs*)

  3. rocketscientist says:

    Ah ha! Your master plan is at last revealed! They will indeed be coming with torches! Athena MacFrankenstein!


    You make you point very convincingly, unfortunately many will look at such ideas as blasphemous and dangerous, without realizing that the very thing goes on whether we know it or not.

    The territorial reaction to the Other may be hardwired into us for survival but as you point out every species has a lifespan, is it possible that this is simply a trigger to keep us from outliving our own? I wonder whether that’s plausible or not – life setting it’s own perimeters in order to ensure that there will be room for the new.

    Your essays always make me think about strange things. You are clearly a dangerous person…


  4. Athena says:

    Dangerous? What a wonderful compliment!

    You made an interesting point about species lifespans adjusting to the larger (eco)system. They certainly do, and biologists have been developing equations and models for such complex interactions. The other variable in that is the occasional catastrophic events, that wipe the slate partly clean. The problem I see with humanity is that we have decided we “ain’t evolving” (to quote a Supreme Court member). A recipe for extinction, if I ever saw one.

  5. […] Yet no matter how palatable the methods and outcomes are, it seems to me that changes to humans will be inevitable if we ever want to go beyond the orbit of Pluto within one lifetime. Successful implementation of transhumanist techniques will help overcome the immense distances and inhospitable conditions of the journey. The undertaking will also bring about something that transhumanists — not to mention naysayers — tend to dread as a danger: speciation. Any significant changes to human physiology (whether genetic or epigenetic) will change the thought/emotion processes of those altered, which will in turn modify their cultural responses, including mating preferences and kinship patterns. Furthermore, long space journeys will recreate isolated breeding pools with divergent technology and social mores (as discussed in Making Aliens 4, 5 and 6). […]

  6. bigdan201 says:

    Indeed. This goes back to the point that going to other planets is the best insurance for our species. I was also thinking that once were settled on multiple planets, the species would diverge. The populations of humans would become markedly different from each other. We’ve seen this on earth – just compare a European to an African to an Asian.

    But human divergence would become even more pronounced than that on different planets. This would be great for variety, and would prevent the dangers of homogenized globalism. In a wild and chaotic universe, homogenization can be downright dangerous!

    I’m all for different breeds of humans.. although there will surely be some friction when this happens. Different types of humans are more likely to react to each other with “WTF” than anything else, except perhaps with a new form of racism. We’ll simply be different, in ways that we can’t guess at now.

    I’m looking forward to when humanity leaves the cradle of the Earth. For all the aforementioned reasons, and also because space is awesome.

  7. Athena says:

    Actually, if we settled on other planets, differences would become far greater than those between humans on earth. Between the planetary variations and the isolation of each colony, we would speciate. This would mean no more interbreeding, which has never been the case for us on earth.

  8. DereenigneEsrever says:

    Speciation doesn’t go far enough, we should allow room for something new; Jupiter has enough fuel to keep earth in day light in the coming long night for over 58 quadrillion years, and there are estimated to be as many over 50 jupiter-mass brown dwarfs in the galaxy as stars. There are plenty of dead worlds to choose from as well as plenty of sterile building material out there for space habitats/constructs beyond current imagination. A planet with so much as even a clearly nonsentient bacterium thus can and should be allowed to evolve in peace since not even the most powerful computer simulations will be able to dream up the futures modes of consciousness the cosmos can dream up on these many worlds.

    In a decade we’ll have tasty lower priced lab grown meant, and well within 40 years ‘brainless clones’ will end medical use of other species. In less than 60 years aging with be cured and birth control will be so perfect harmless and reversible that it will be done at birth. Technology such as perhaps mining metals from sea water will let all our material demands be met on Earth and there will be no overpopulation forcing us into space. Instead we will spread into space only for the adventure fun and experience and yearning to grow. Life will become greater diversity and unity at the same time.

    We didn’t just not get the choice of our gender time or place of birth, but also which conscious species we were born as. Most of the time we are not sapient except for a moment here and there. Technology will break down the arbitrary distinctions between not only itself and life but also between different conscious species. As we come to include all life and we gain immortality if nothing else many will be driven by boredom over the billions trillions and quadrillions of years and beyond to explore this universe of consciousness that we better let evolution make as vast in our local group of galaxies as it naturally would. As transmitted mind files we will travel between trillions of worlds, and this will be easy even between local group galaxies since in the dark night -other than this it will be quiet thus virtually free from interference.

  9. Athena says:

    I don’t think these things will happen as fast as you hope. The time frame, if we manage to survive various self-sufficiency crises, is more along millennia.

  10. DereenigneEsrever says:

    I agree that mind file technology may take at least millennia and definitely longer than Ray Kurtzweil thinks since Roger Penrose is a lot closer to the truth as to the complexity involved.

    Lab meat and brainless clones have already been accomplished but I grant, going by the first house sized computers to now, that these may likewise take up to 50 years to economical high quality and ubiquitous. Self-replicating nanotech is almost certainly at least as difficult as curing aging which in turn is about as or less difficult as genetic engineering advanced enough to adapt ourselves to other planet/alien-ecosystems.

    In any case without these technologies we mortals with two-year attention spans are faced with multi-milennial terraforming of Mars which can’t save us from overpopulation as it only has one four the area of Earth. And travel to even the closest star would require either ethically questionable generation ship journeys of 20,000 years or probably more, or a (currently) politically inviable Orion craft fueled by about over 300,000 one megaton nuclear bombs.

    With nanotech we could make the atomically virtually perfect fuel pellets to make fusion reactors work and make Orion ships unneeded. But interstellar travel will still be about anything other than escaping overpopulation. The Fermi paradox may very well be explained by and make a compelling argument for the survival issues you raised.

    On an optimistic note if that is the primary true answer to why the galaxy appears not be colonized already, there could still be many successful species out there who colonize just slightly more than one star system for each colonized star system where they die out so that it would take a few billions of years rather than 10 million for the galaxy to be completely colonized. At any rate I’m so excited for us to start this adventure and see what’s really out there.