Centauri Dreams believes profoundly in what I might call ‘realistic optimism.’ While an aggressive belief in the human future can be overstated, it’s important to remember that intellectual fashions come and go, leaving many a futurist trying to explain another failed prediction. The view here is that the vast problems that face our species are solvable through common sense and technology, and that somehow we will engage our tools to get us off-planet before we annihilate ourselves.
Playing into this notion is the work of David Haussler, cited recently by Freeman Dyson as one reason for his own deeply optimistic view of the future. Studying the human genome, Haussler and team at UC Santa Cruz discovered a section of DNA called Human Accelerated Region 1. HAR1 evidently shows up in the genomes of a wide range of species, from mouse to chicken to chimpanzee. It was apparently unchanged for about three hundred million years, as Dyson told Benny Peiser in a recent interview (see this New Scientist story for more on HAR1).
Dyson notes that this unusual patch of DNA is considerably modified in the human genome, with eighteen known mutations. That means that as we move from the common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans to our species today, HAR1 seems to represent a key difference between humans and other mammals. Dyson sees it as wrapped up in the evolution of the human brain, and that’s good news because the more we understand what drives us, the more we can do about it.
Listen to Dyson relating HAR1 to the work of a man he deeply admired:
I am optimistic because I see the discovery of HAR1 as a seminal event in the history of science, marking the beginning of a new understanding of human evolution and human nature. I see it as a big step toward the fulfilment of the dream described in 1929 by Desmond Bernal, one of the pioneers of molecular biology, in his little book, The World, the Flesh and the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul. Bernal saw science as our best tool for defeating the three enemies. The World means floods and famines and climate changes. The Flesh means diseases and senile infirmities. The Devil means the dark irrational passions that lead otherwise rational beings into strife and destruction. I am optimistic because I see HAR1 as a new tool leading us toward a deep understanding of human nature and toward the ultimate defeat of our last enemy.
My own optimism holds that we will develop the technologies to maintain a large human presence in space in a variety of habitats. And of course the hope is that we will gradually expand outwards — either as humans adapting to living in the vacuum (Dyson sees this happening) or through highly developed artificial intelligence — to the stars themselves. With more than enough external threats from our own environment and nearby space to keep us busy, losing the fear of annihilation from our flawed human nature would be a major step in this direction. If Dyson is right, such a goal may emerge from our studies of the genome.