Sunday, October 4, 2009

Against preserving the human species

An imagined Mars colony
(Don Dixon Space Art)
There may be good reasons for colonising Mars. But preserving the human species isn't one of them. Nevertheless it’s a motive that’s often cited when colonising Mars is discussed.

J Richard Gott (professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University) wrote in New Scientist 12th Sept 2009 (p 35) that a self-supporting Mars colony would make the world a better place, by making the world not the only place for us, thus improving the long-term survival prospects of our species.

I say, firstly, if we spoil this planet, how can we claim to deserve to survive as a species? One of the first lessons we teach a child, is that you clean up one mess before you make another.

Secondly, it's not self-evident that the survival of the human species is a worthwhile goal. The right to survive must be earnt, not assumed. If we can create a just society amongst existing humans, then we shall have earnt that right. Until then, not.

I'm not arguing against space exploration, nor even against colonising Mars. But lets get the reasons right. I say that the scientific enterprise is justified by one criterion only: that it contributes to human happiness. A Mars colony would contribute to science, it would be a human achieving without parallel, it might conceivably bring economic benefits. All those are worthwhile aims.

But the following are not worthwhile aims : providing an escape route for a privileged elite; and ensuring the survival of a species that has proved itself unworthy.

One of the most prominent scientists who think preserving the human race is a reason for colonising space is Stephen Hawking. He says : "Life on Earth is at an ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers". [1]

Now whilst Hawking is right in his premise, he's wrong in his conclusion. The extinction of the human species is not the worst consequence that could flow from the disasters he enumerates.

Firstly, it’s really human civilisation that stands in danger of being wiped out; a number of humans would almost certainly survive any of those catastrophes to perpetuate the species. Even supposing that is what he really means, the key point is that those catastrophes would be the occasion of much suffering, and this would fall disproportionately on the poor and disadvantaged of this world. The very people least responsible for any man-made catastrophes. And the least likely to be emigrating to Mars.

Avoiding that suffering is the only goal which is worthwhile. And it's a goal that preserving human civilisation on Mars contributes nothing to.

[1] New Scientist 5 May 2007 (issue 2602). Another similar link here. And he's still at it in June 2017.


  1. Your paragraph starting "Secondly, it's not self-evident that the survival of the human species is a worthwhile goal..." is a very thoughtful view, as is the later point about human 'civilisation' being what is threatened, not the human race, and how the poor would be disproportionately affected.

  2. Thought-provoking stuff, but may I disagree on a couple of things? I'm only broadly familiar with Darwinism, but as I understand it it asserts that the species which have survived and will survive are those which adapt best to do so - there's no moral high ground, nature is indifferent (unless there's some kind of Higher Power at work) so it's a circular argument - if you survived then you deserved to do so. Secondly, I'd argue that until we can feed, clothe and look after every man, woman and child on the planet we should stop looking outwards and turn our attention to our own planet. What do you think?

  3. Yes Noggin but there's more to life than Darwinism. No other species can say this. But we can. We, uniquely amongst living things, can choose to ask the question : who deserves to survive?

    As to your contention that we should stop looking outwards till we can feed, clothe and look after everyone here, this is a seductive argument. But I say lets make a list of harmful, useless, or frivolous activities. The most costly go at the top of the list. Then lets start crossing activities off from the top and work down. So first we stop making nuclear weapons, then we abolish the arms trade generally, then we abolish the tobacco industry, then we abolish McDonalds, then we dispossess the rich, then we pay bankers the same as cleaners, and THEN AND ONLY THEN if we still haven’t got everyone fed and clothed and free of malaria, then we abolish space exploration. Which by the way costs a tiny faction of what's spent on arms. Though I wish I had trustworthy figures to back this up.

  4. My point is that "deserving to survive as a species" (as opposed to deciding who from that species deserves to survive) is meaningless. Unless you're advocating the idea of some kind of karmic justice the universe doesn't understand the word "deserving" any further than if you survived you "deserved" to (ie had the best design to). As individuals our strongest instinct bar none is to survive, so probably we take this on at a collective level too. Given that, who's going to say "Actually we don't really deserve to survive as a species, let's throw the towel in and give the cockroaches their chance at running things"?

    On your second point I'd agree with some of it in an ideal world,(although how abolishing the tobacco industry/McDonalds and equalising the pay of skilled and unskilled workers would help I'm not sure, though I expect your tongue was in your cheek when you wrote that bit) but we don't live in a ideal world, which is the point. NASA's annual budget is $18bn, which is a colossal sum by anyone's standards. If your family doesn't have enough to eat you don't go out and spend a fortune on a firework display.....

  5. Hi Peter,

    Thought provoking blog. I disagree with a few points however:

    First, you mention that "Preserving the human species isn't one of them".
    What better reason can there be? There is no better motivator than being told your life depends on it!

    Secondly, you ask if we spoil this planet how can we claim we deserve to survive as a species (You learn to clean up your own mess as a child)?
    If as a child you break a cup making tea. Do you give up making tea? I made a number of mistakes when first learning to drive but practice makes perfect. This is the first planet we have tried to protect so its expected we will make a few mistakes!! Some of these mistakes are reversible (got the bumper fixed on the car) or irreversible (had to dump the cup). I hope the mistakes that are being made in relation to the planet are reversible. If not it is more critical to find another world. Also, I think that if we develop and understand how to terraform other worlds it should help reverse some of the issues we have caused on our home world.

    Thirdly, you state that "The right to survive is earnt, not assumed".
    True, this is earned by the pioneers that risk their lives venturing out to other worlds at risks that are not fully understood. It is also earned by the people who develop and make the technological breakthroughs that are needed to colonise new worlds.

    Finally, I would like to say that although I agree that humanity should try to colonise Mars and beyond I do not think we should look at this as a reason to ignore the problems we have on the only place we can survive. Same way as putting on a seatbelt or having a functioning air bag is not the best way to prevent being killed in a car crash. Best prevention is to avoid crashing in the first place. It is useful to have a plan B. But I think the first goal is to protect plan A (earth) while working on the plan B's.

    Look forward to seeing you at the first meeting in September.

    Kevin M