In a heartfelt essay titled “Clarke and Kubrick Glimpsed the Future,” Jim McDade compares 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, the epic science-fiction collaboration between Arthur C. Clark and Stanley Kubrick, to an epochal event in history and ruminates on the implications of Clarke’s philosophy for the future of the human race. Endorsing Clarke’s optimistic view of technology’s impact on the future, McDade concludes that we must choose between “space as an extension of the human domain” or “certain extinction…by denying ourselves the survival opportunity that awaits us above the atmosphere.”
Personally, I find the sentiment highly dubious. The “either-or” choice seems an artificial construct advanced by someone with an agenda. (McDade is a “member of the Advisory Board for the One Giant Leap Foundation.) What is McDade arguing, exactly? That human life is ultimately not sustainable on Earth, so we should just use it up and then go elsewhere and use that up, too? What does that make the human race out to be – the interstellar equivalent of locusts, devouring worlds as we spread throughout space? Isn’t this the role usually played by monsters in science-fiction films – the rapacious invaders who have used up their home world and want more?
McDade is working from an outdated premise, the sort of thing that Robert Heinlein used to toss off casually in his fiction as though it were an unquestioned fact, when it is really nothing more than a philosophical assumption, almost an article of faith. It is simply this: that the only choice for any species is between evolution (which is equated with “progress”) and stagnation (which is believed to lead to death).
Evolution, however, is not necessarily a progressive phenomenon. The concept of “survival of the fittest” is not part of Darwin’s theory but a later misinterpretation of it, leading to the belief that individuals or species that die out are somehow “weak” and deserve their fate so that the “strong” survivors may go continue with being burdened by them.
A simple thought experiment gives the lie to this assumption. Imagine a species that survives an ice age that kills off half its population. We can assume that the survivors have been “naturally selected” according to their superiority, but what happens when the ice age ends, replaced by a tropical climate bringing diseases that had lain dormant during the cold? Perhaps the half of the population that died was the half with the best resistance to plague or were otherwise better equipped to survive in the post-ice age.
In any case, animals as diverse as sharks and crocodiles show that “progressive” evolution is not necessary for long-term survival. Species can survive quite happily for millions of years with little or no evolutionary change at all. The same is true for human beings.
If we continue to explore space, it should be with a Sense of Wonder, not with a desperate hope of survival. Technology will no doubt open up avenues for space exploration, but this exploration should not be necessary to prevent the extinction of the human race. In fact, it is just as easy to imagine that – long before we are able to reach out to the stars – technology will help us improve the quality of life on this planet to the point where there will be little if any desire to leave it out of need to search for something better. No, if and when we go, it will because we are curious to find what lies “Beyond the Infinite,” not because our live on Earth is finite.