Sense of Wonder: Beyond the Infinite or Certain Extinction?


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McDade is working from an outdated premise, the sort of thing that Robert Heinlein used to toss off casually in his fiction as though it were an unquestioned fact, when it is really nothing more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.

7 Replies to “Sense of Wonder: Beyond the Infinite or Certain Extinction?”

  1. I think it merits mentioning that 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY was one of CINEFANTASTIQUE founder Frederick S. Clarke’s favorite films. The 25th anniversary issue devoted to the film was a highlight of the magazine’s latter years. In fact, if you check Fred’s bylines, I believe they would support my theory that he went to see this Arthur C. Clarke-scripted film as Fred Clarke… and emerged, 140+ minutes later, as Frederick S. Clarke.

  2. I think you’re absolutely correct about Fred Clarke and 2001. I remember his response to a letter writer who asked what kept him going when he had so little good to say about most sci-fi films coming out at the time (this was the ALIEN cover story in issue 9:1). Said Fred:
    “What keeps me going? I can still feel the buzz from seeing 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY in 1968, and that could last me the rest of my life.”

  3. I certainly do not view the human race as “locusts”. I will state my argument below.
    1- The planet Earth has always changed and always will change. We are presently enjoying a temporary period of hospitable conditions. This will not last forever.
    2- The movement of human beings into space, along with our companion species, is a matter of choosing bewteen life an death.

  4. In between your point #1 and point #2 lies the unstated assumption that technological progress will inevitably make outter space colonization feasible. Either we will learn to make other planets in our solar system artificially habitable, or we will learn to circumvent the speed of light and find some naturally habitable planet in another solar system. Either way, we will find some method transplanting the entire population of Earth to its new home.
    As the saying goes, while you’re wishing for that, why not wish for a pony, too? (The pony is the magical element that mekes all wishes even better!)
    One could just as easily wish/imagne that future technology will enable us to keep the Earth habitable in spite of climate change.

  5. Steve- You have an accurate understanding of the technological challenges. I infer that you also share my strong desire to do everything possible to preserve our earthly habitat.
    It may indeed turn out that we humans are not up to the task of space colonization. Our ability to deal with climate change will also test our technological capability. We may not be up for that challenge either.
    The biggest challenge will be the sudden, catastrophic climactic and atmospheric changes that will follow an large asteroid strike, super-volcano eruption, or the sudden release of undersea methane deposits. There are other potential catastrophes that lurk in our future.
    In the near term, we would not be able to save everybody or every species in the wake of such a global catastrophe. Sooner or later, we will see hundreds of millions or even billions of people killed by some form of global catastrophe. It may be too late already. Nobody can predict when global catastrophe will occur, but we know that it eventually will.
    As you point out it is very unlikely that we could evacuate the entire planet with the kind of technology that our best imagination can anticipate. Fortunately, science and technology progress in an accumulative manner. New discoveries and new inventions lead to new solutions and creations that a previous generation was incapable of imagining. For example, radio, television, and the World Wide Web were each totally inconceivable and too fantastic to predict for those generations that were around before we began to understand electromagnetic fields and sub-atomic particles. Ultrasound, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, and thousands of other inventions would have been too fantastic for the 18th century scientific community. We simply cannot anticipate the state of physics and engineering one or two hundred years from today.
    Space faring technology still offers the best hope for at least a portion of humans and native earth species to survive. The longer we wait to pursue development of space technology, the greater the hardship may be to some future generation. It is a moral imperative to develop human spaceflight systems.

  6. I fear this debate is just running around in circles, but I will go ahead and make the next lap anyway.
    If, as you say, “We simply cannot anticipate the state of physics and engineering one or two hundred years from today,” then how can you conclude that “Space faring technology still offers the best hope for at least a portion of humans and native earth species to survive”?
    It is just as easy to imagine that we will learn to deal with asteroids, super volcanos, or undersea methane deposits, as it is to imagine that we will build a space ark that will save a portion of humanity.
    Your approach sounds as if you are willing to give up on trying to save the planet, along with all its people and species. We are supposed to take comfort in the thought that “a portion of humans and native earth species.” If that’s the best your space technology can offer, that’s all the more reason to concentrate on protecting the planet.

  7. Steve, I guess we can just agree to disagree. We share the desire to save our planet, but I see space exploration as an opportunity that will help us do just that.
    We continue to learn more about our own planet as we begin to understand the life cycles of the planets and stars. When we visit other worlds, we expand the base of knowledge about solar-planetary energy balance and the interaction of many weather variables. Climate change is a concern for all of us.
    Thanks to Apollo, we better understand the tidal driven recession of the Moon and the link between recession and the slowing of Earth’s rotation.
    Drastic climate change is an old and continuing story on Earth. Climate change has origins in several different phenomena. Human-driven gaseous Carbon Dioxide production is just the latest climate driver to be identified. The short span of recorded history has revealed that cyclical solar magnetic activity is linked to at least one of our ice ages. The complexity of our present day global climate model continues to confound efforts to accurately predict the weather on a weekly basis, much less predictions covering several decades.
    I hope that we eventually do become a so-called super civilization that is capable of diverting 300 kilometer-wide asteroids or adjusting the output of stars in order to preserve our climate on Earth. (See this month’s issue of THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY for a dose of Gregg Easterbrook’s doomsday terror. Gregg is also an opponent of human spaceflight.) I also hope to see new branches of the human family and other Earth origin species living throughout our solar system and beyond.
    Eventually, the Earth will be overtaken by nature unless we venture in a frontier that offers the requisite necessities for renewal. The Earth has a fixed volume and surface area. Resources are not unlimited and even recycling is not 100% efficient. Every process, including recycling, produces useless or even harmful residuals. Those residuals gradually accumulate in a closed system. eventually the system breaks down. At the same time, the raw inputs into that closed system become scarcer and scarcer. Only a tiny percentage of the solar system’s total amount of oxygen, water, and minerals essential to life is found here on Earth.
    Our expansion into space is no different from any of the previous expansions in the history of earth species, including humans. The laws of thermodynamics cannot be ignored. All closed systems eventually shut down. In my view, space offers the only alternative to a premature death for this planet.

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