Earth Brains, Star Minds

by Athena Andreadis

I was lucky enough to watch the launch of the Polar Lander. Whether or not it landed, its journey is one more signpost along the winding path of our insatiable need to know our universe. We've wondered about our surroundings ever since we became self-aware That inquisitiveness pushed us out of our original home, most probably in an African savanna, and drove us to explore and occupy our entire planet, regardless of the local environment. The same curiosity is the fuel for our exploration of space. But there is a crucial difference between our exploration of earth and that of anywhere else -- including the earth's oceans, which take up most of its surface.

At first glance, we're miracles of flexibility. Among advanced mammals, our physique is the least specialized and our brains the least hardwired -- at least at birth! With the exception of our manual dexterity, we're physically mediocre at everything else, jills and jacks of all trades and perfect for none. Our brains, too, can reroute and rewire almost at will, if presented with the crucial information at the right window of opportunity. So, for example, it has come to pass that we read and drive cars, skills never required of our tree-swinging ancestors. And so strong is the mind that our brain generates, that it can bypass practically all the biological imperatives, substituting for these cultural ones -- which, incidentally, can be just as inflexible and counterproductive as their biological counterparts.

However, this power of our mind, which made us wish to understand our universe and enabled us to take the first steps towards such a goal, cannot overcome all obstacles. As Keats said, we are impassioned clay, and the emphasis falls equally on both words. Or, to borrow a well-worn phrase from another literary tradition, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.

Plainly put, humans are native to this planet. Even if we believe that terrestrial life originally arose from some version of panspermia (whether by experimenting ETs or contaminated comets), the seeds were at most at the bacterial stage. We know this from the fossil record, despite the legislative decisions of several US states, from the fact that all earth life has the same genetic code and because all species are, to a large extent, optimized for this planet -- from their muscle strength to the wavelengths they can sense.

At this point, evidence is steadily accumulating that Jovian planets are circling other suns. Where big gaseous planets exist, small rocky ones also must lurk. Nevertheless, all the planets that belong to the same class as Earth will differ widely in their outcomes, just as tiny details in our local drawing boards have generated environments as different as hot springs and frozen mountains, and lifeforms as diverse as roses and sea urchins.

So as each advance brings us closer to our dream of exploring and perhaps settling other planets, we don't merely have to contemplate and solve the engineering feats of getting there. These will definitely be formidable, but they are just the overture to a very long and difficult opera. If our venture out is not to be merely a more expensive repetition of our vanity foray to the Moon, we have to give serious thought to how we will live on extraterrestrial planets.

Like good representatives of humanity, we will address this question through technology -- but the vital question is, which technology. We have three choices:

1. closed systems -- terrariums for people such as Biosphere 2;

2; terraforming -- making other planets Earth-like; and

3: genetic engineering -- changing ourselves and our imports to suit our planet host.

No matter where we go, we will need aids for living at the start, so bubbles and domes will be inevitable for the early generations. However, for long-term exploration and living, adaptations are unavoidable, unless we want our new worlds to resemble prisons or intensive care units. Therefore, for the long haul, it will have to be terraforming, genetic engineering or, most likely, a combination of the two.

Terraforming has been the darling of engineers and planetary physicists, for several reasons: it is macho; it bristles with gizmology and makes gods of engineers -- geeks becoming builders of worlds, games of SimCity turning into the real item. Terraforming is morally palatable at first glance, unless (or sometimes even if) the planet to be terraformed has advanced endogenous life.

We have to negotiate the burning issue of the potential absolute destructiveness of terraforming, before we go on to list its other disadvantages. None of us would bat an eyelash at depriving bacteria and fungi of their niches, and most of us would tolerate the destruction of lower flora and invertebrates. On the other hand, we also dream of extraterrestrials as ahead of us as we are of invertebrates stepping down from on high bearing such gifts as immortality recipes and stable wormholes. So I ask you, would you give equivalent gifts to lobsters or, if we want to be serious, to beehives, which exhibit a certain kind of hardwired collective intelligence? My point here is that the cutoffs are dangerous slippery slopes, especially if one day we expect to be hosts to ET visitors, rather than unexpected guests on planets that lack technologically sophisticated stewards.

A second point is that even if the endogenous life is advanced, we may fail to see it in time -- a strong possibility, given that life beyond earth will be so different as to be incomprehensible and also given that our current primary indicator for intelligence boils down to the rather crude metric of technological prowess. Most of you have read or know of Stanislaw Lem's classical novel, Solaris. Earth species are as similar to us as they can be, yet we still cannot agree if whales or elephants are intelligent -- or even our cousins, the higher apes, who have recognizable family and clan configurations and who also transmit acquired knowledge to their offspring, including rudimentary technology. In fact, the closer our host planets are to Earth, the more likely it becomes that they are favorable to life, and the least likely the natives will be to survive terraforming unscathed.

As it stands, not even Earth has done too well with terraforming. Straightening of rivers has led to horrific floods and avalanches, damming has extended the domain of diseases carried by insect vectors, the building of enormous cities is straining their local environment -- witness the ever-expanding desert around Los Angeles -- and the habits of the First World have started a greenhouse effect and blown a hole through the protective ozone layer. Even now, we come up with new facts about terrestrial geology that give us pause. A new planet will be a much greater mystery and delving into it without adequate knowledge may well destroy it. Furthermore, unless we have technology at Kardashev level II, we still won't be able to change a planet's rotation rate or its distance from its primary, the two major determinants of climate.

The other sticky point about terraforming is that not only are we really clumsy at it, but we are also not long-lived enough to really follow it through. Even if we find ways to extend our lifespan, our time horizon is too short to allow us to be gods. The projections for terraforming Mars hover around thousands of years. Humans are clever and industrious, but their attention span is finite. It is unclear that such a long project can be sustained unless it is turned over to a priesthood, thereby setting a dangerous precedent whose consequences are well documented on our planet. Even if we entrust the task to machines, they won't be able to gap such long time spans unless we make them self-reproducing and immune to programming mutations. Terraforming is like sculpting clay with a shotgun: you shoot at the clay until something emerges that you can live with -- if there's any clay left at that point.

Last but not least, terraforming is a failure of the imagination. Why would we want to turn other planets into second Earths? This is like going to a travel agent and saying, Here are all my life savings; send me to a place just like Pasadena. The terraforming approach reminds me of the English missionaries to Hawaii, who dressed in boiled wool and ate boiled meat while surrounded by hibiscus trees, warm waters and a sophisticated maritime culture -- or, closer to home, of people who go on expensive package tours but insist on eating at McDonald's in Paris.

So if we want to be really adventurous and cutting-edge but, seriously, if we really wish to be an integral part of life on the new planets, rather than tourists gazing at the Serengeti from behind the glass of air-conditioned buses, we have to opt largely for the third choice: genetic engineering of the prospective colonists.

The expression genetic engineering automatically raises hackles, though the concept of the heliocentric system sounded equally incendiary and blasphemous when it was first discussed, to the point of getting several of its adherents burned at the stake. There seems to be a contradictory stance whereby altering the human germ line is considered equivalent to playing god. In fact, most people seem to use the words genetic engineering and eugenics interchangeably and, granted, they do overlap and can be used for nefarious ends like any other application of scientific knowledge.

Yet we do protest too much, and we know it. Everything that humans touch they engineer, whether these items are animate or inanimate. All our foods, vegetable or animal, all our clothes or structural materials which are not synthetic, our pets, our royal families, from the Levites to the Incas to the Hapsburgs, are the results of genetic engineering. Too, segments of humanity have practiced inbreeding for racial, cultural or even financial reasons -- and several cultures have additionally constricted their genotypic variety by selectively killing or aborting their daughters.

We have also practiced reverse genetic engineering by allowing the continuation of genotypes that would normally have become extinct -- from the short-sighted and disabled, who would have ended up inside the stomachs of a lioness pride under normal circumstances, to hemophiliacs who would have bled to death from a minor scratch before reaching their reproductive years.

In the next few years we will complete the reading of the human genome. That is an important first step towards controlled engineering but a first step only. What determines the fate of an organism are interactions between genes and gene products, and even these do not decide an organism's personality. Contrary to the ideas of evolutionary psychologists, who adhere to the crudest equivalence of gene with behavior, we are the product of our genes only as a species. As individuals, we are solidly the products of our synapses, which give rise to a cacophonous variety of complex entities. And that is how our finite and uniformly shaped biological bodies can house brains that create paradigms contrary to their instinctual reactions and to the input of their senses, from quantum mechanics to constitutional amendments.

Genetic engineering has advantages that outweigh those of terraforming by a wide margin, in my opinion. Genetic engineering requires neither nuclear bombs nor mirrors the size of a solar system. Its results can be seen within a few years, given the generation time of most terrestrial species, compared with the millennia of terraforming. Also, whereas terraforming is a linear, one-shot deal, genetic engineering resembles parallel processing in that several lines of inquiry can be pursued concurrently.

Last but decidedly not least, genetic engineering may well turn out to be economical. Species not so good for one world may well thrive on another. And I submit to you that the hubris involved in genetic engineering is several orders of magnitude smaller than that involved in terraforming. At least we're good at the former, as the variety and quality of our foodstuffs and pharmaceuticals attest. Nor would we be condemning entire worlds or species to destruction. Terraforming is a battering ram, genetic engineering is a scalpel. Which one would you prefer for a delicate, complex operation -- whether this is repairing a watch, performing a heart bypass or fine-tuning a new world?

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. 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.

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. 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. 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 40,000 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.

We all know the frisson of unease that we feel when we encounter someone almost like us but just slightly out of register. Such xenophobia was once a survival mechanism, but now it's as useful as our appendix and wisdom teeth. 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. Furthermore, our receptivity to competition is such that we eradicated anything that impinged on our territory, whether this was our pocket or our ego, from Neanderthals to lions to whales.

In contrast to terrestrial humans, our planetary colonists will eventually become something that differs from us in ways beyond aesthetic preferences. To put in succinctly, they will not be someone that we can easily love -- and in the end, that is the commonality that binds us. 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. In the end, though our brain is young, small and finite and the universe old, large and possibly infinite, the two share another characteristic beyond evolution: they are full of marvels which we have only just begun to glimpse. 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. The words of Aeschylus, a compatriot of mine, from almost three thousand years ago, come to mind. What he had to say applies to both our universe and our minds:

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.

This article was first delivered as a talk at the Planetary Society Planetfest99, in Pasadena, on December 3, 1999. It may be not be used for profit, must be reproduced with no changes, editing, or additions whatsoever, and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice: Copyright © 1999 by Athena Andreadis. All rights reserved

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