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.