Human Universals and Cultural Evolution on Interstellar Voyages

by Paul Gilster on May 30, 2014

Cameron Smith last joined us just over a year ago with an essay on human interstellar migration in the context of biological evolution. Here he turns to issues of culture and change over time. An anthropologist and prehistorian at Portland State University in Oregon, Dr. Smith brings insights he has gained in the study of the early human experience on Earth to the manifold problems confronting us as we head for the stars. His current work on interstellar issues is part of his engagement with Project Hyperion, an attempt by Icarus Interstellar to develop parameters and reference studies for a multi-generational worldship. Be aware of Dr. Smith’s excellent recent volume Emigrating Beyond Earth: Human Adaptation and Space Colonization (Springer-Praxis, 2013), and ponder the synergies that occur between the study of past human migrations and the ongoing cultural and biological evolution of a species aspiring to leave the world that gave it birth.

by Cameron M. Smith, PhD

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1. Biological and Cultural Evolution

Any change in the heritable properties of a population over generations is evolution, and we can be sure that the human genome will evolve on multigenerational interstellar voyages, just as it continues to evolve here on Earth today. Even in relatively short, 5-generation voyages, a relatively small gene pool for humanity would have to be carefully composed to prevent collapse in the form of a demographic ‘extinction vortex’ following, for example, a catastrophic plague. This is all clear from elementary population genetics, as I pointed out recently in a technical article in Acta Astronautica1—and it’s important to note that not only will we have to be careful to ensure the genetic health of humanity, but also that of all our plant and animal domesticates and symbionts.2

And, we must remember that genetic information is, in the human lineage, only one channel or stream of adaptive, evolving information; another is culture.3 Culture evolves as surely as biology; like genes, information is replicated (culturally, in the form of ideas), varies in its expression, and those variable expressions of ideas do not all survive to be transmitted to the next generation, but some are more-often copied than the rest; culture, then, does not merely change by a process analogous to biological evolution, it does indeed evolve, albeit in its own way.4 While natural selection has not been entirely buffered out with technology, in human cultural evolution it has largely been replaced by ‘cultural selection’; two examples on opposite ends of a spectrum of selection are propaganda, the deliberate spread of certain information in a population, and censorship, deliberate prevention of the spread of such information. While these are driven by conscious motives, a significant difference from natural selection, which has no intent or purpose, these remain selection in that they alter the frequency of ideas in a culture, and shape its history.

2. How Will Human Culture Evolve Beyond Earth?

We can be sure that our genome will be shaped by new conditions, and some such adaptations, to new gravity environments for example, may be predicted based on what we know of human genetic diversity and adaptability. Can we say anything similar about how human culture might evolve? We can, but we must remember that culture change is much more rapid than biological change. With mass media, an idea can be presented to, and affect the behavior of, billions of people in a matter of seconds. For this reason, culture change is more historically contingent and less orderly, we might say, than biological change. But human behavior is not random, and there are patterns.

For example, in all human cultures a number of basic issues must be solved for sheer survival; an individual needs certain quantities of calories, fresh water and nutrients daily, and the way these are obtained can be strongly conditioned by the immediate resource environment. This has led to humanity, worldwide, developing or evolving cultural traits—“human universals”—that reflect basic problem-solving for the kinds of life form that we are, biologically and socially. An example of this is our subsistence mode. While this differs widely in detail worldwide, all humans have solved basic subsistence needs in one of four main modes of subsistence; foraging (hunting and gathering), pastoralism (raising domesticated animals), horticulture (low-intensity farming and animal domestication) or agriculture (intense farming with complex irrigation and animal domestication). These work for humanity, as opposed to, for example, photosynthesis (not available to [directly] process energy in most animal life). And, the mode of subsistence strongly conditions many cultural variables; for instance, foraging people are normally rather egalitarian, with few instances of social ranking, while among horticulturalists and agriculturalists, social ranking (inequal access to resources by population members) is common. In this case, elementary issues such as social ranking ethos are strongly conditioned by subsistence mode. There are plenty of other factors that play into the shape of a culture, and responsible anthropologists are careful not to be ‘ecological determinists’. But we can learn from such cases.

3. Where to Begin? ‘Human Universals’

Where to begin? It’s easy to be overwhelmed when we begin to think about how human culture will change on multigenerational voyages. To order my thoughts, I have begun to tackle this issue by researching the above-mentioned “human universals”. Again, these are domains of behavioral regulation common to all human cultures. For example, all cultures, in one way or another, regulate sexual behavior, and incest in particular. All human cultures also have basic moral systems for dealing with truth-telling, property theft, and killing. And all human cultures have distinctive languages, styles of bodily decoration, family structure and so on. Remember, the ways that these issues are solved differs by culture (leading to tremendous cultural diversity worldwide), but a set of universal cultural facets is a good place to start when we consider what we might expect to evolve beyond Earth. Table 1 displays some universal cultural domains (over 50 have been identified by anthropologists5), explains the concept of the domain, and provides an example of some alternatives.

Table 1. Common Cultural Domains

Domain
Concept
Examples
LanguageSpecific spoken and gestural (bodily) systems of communication, including vocabularies and grammars.Some languages assign gender to nouns, while others do not.
EthicsConcepts of right and wrong, justice, and fairness.Some cultures execute murderers, while others do not.
Social RolesRights and responsibilities differ by categories such as age (child, adult), gender (man, woman), and status (peasant, King).Cultures differ in the ages at which people take on certain rights and responsibilities, and specifically what those rights and responsibilities are.
The SupernaturalConcepts regarding a universe considered fundamentally different from daily experience.Different cultures worship different gods, goddesses, and other supernatural entities.
Styles of Bodily DecorationHuman identity is often communicated by bodily decoration, either directly on the body or with clothing.Some cultures heavily tattoo the body while others communicate identity more with clothing styles
Family StructureConcepts of kinship or relations between kin, and associated ideas such as inheritanceSome cultures are polygynous, where males have several wives, and some are polyandrous, where females have several husbands.
Sexual BehaviorRegulation of sexual behavior, including incest rules.Cultures differ in the age at which sexual activity is permitted.
Food PreferencesConcepts of what are appropriate food and drink in certain situations.Some cultures eat certain animals while others consider them unfit to eat.
AestheticsConcepts of ideals, beauty, and their opposites.Some cultures value visual arts more than song, and vice versa.
Ultimate Sacred PostulatesCentral, unquestionable concepts about the nature of reality.Some cultures consider time to be cyclic while others consider it linear.

Rather than generally cast about, then, grasping for what might change over generations of human cultural evolution during future voyages to distant worlds, each of us guided by our own specific ideas and interests, we can systematically use the tools of anthropology and the principles of evolutionary theory to make useful predictions and recommendations to care for the cultural health of interstellar migrant populations.

Such recommendations are often considered ‘meddling’ or ‘social engineering’ by critics, but of course every new law we pass, every tradition we begin to follow, every marriage we sanction or disallow is ‘social engineering’. I take the view that rather than interfering with ‘natural’ culture change, such informed regulation of culture would make for a better future (especially for future human voyagers) than if we left things to ‘fate’. That could too easily go wrong, as we see in the last century of global warfare, where civilization is a thin veneer, nothing more than a set of agreements that, once and easily breached, result in conflict. Thinking clearly about what might befall future generations is not social engineering, it is taking care of the future, as we do by purchasing insurance individually, or working to ensure universal human rights by the passage of international regulations on certain behaviors.6

4. Two Guidelines for Multigenerational Cultural Health

As mentioned, currently I have no clear recommendations, but I am working on many in my research for a forthcoming book, (tentatively titled Principles of Space Anthropology). For example, while we cannot be certain how the regulation of sexual behavior, a cultural universal, will play out in detail off-Earth, we can be certain that it will be adjusted to accommodate a lower population growth rate than we have in many areas of Earth today. If interstellar voyagers are to emphasize no, or very low population growth for some generations, for instance, social institutions and sanctions might well be used to delay impregnation until somewhat later in life than we see, for example, in developed countries today. Marriages themselves might be carried out at a substantially later age than we are accustomed to, and out-of-wedlock births might be significantly discouraged by social means. In one way or another, the finite size and resources of the interstellar vehicle or vehicles would demand a low-or-no population growth ethos for some centuries, and this would surely affect reproductive rights and result in some kind of regulation of sexual behavior. How do we decide what recommendations to make for planning interstellar voyaging? I have at least two guiding principles that will help condition my own recommendations.

First, human culture, and evolution in general, do not typically tolerate rapid and significant structural change. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that bodies and cultural values are somewhat tailored to modern or even ancient conditions, and radical change on a short scale might well dissolve the close connection between the anatomical or cultural feature and the environmental variable. For this reason, I tend not to recommend new and radical social structures or other arrangements for interstellar voyages. Rather, I think it will be best to use social and cultural arrangements that have been familiar to humans for thousands of years; people should not be arranged, then, in new kinds of family structure, or unfamiliar housing such as ships’s barracks, but as families living in familiar environments including villages and towns connected by travel routes that pass through uninhabited areas.

Second, concerning the populations of interstellar vessels, I strongly believe that we should go in large numbers rather than small, barely-sufficient numbers. While some human populations have been able to survive for centuries in the low hundreds, even cut off from other breeding populations, such cases are exceptions to the rule that human populations are interlinked, yielding genetic populations not of just hundreds of individuals, but multiple thousands. This accords with what we see in vertebrates in general, and mammals and primates in particular, where natural and genetically healthy populations rarely drop below 5,000. I also recommend doubling or tripling the outsetting population to guard against the possibility of catastrophe; plague is a particularly terrifying spectre for enclosed populations, and just as passenger aircraft wings are engineered to take not 3 g’s but 10 or more g’s before failure, safety margins should be built into such plans. Since populations alone can significantly affect the shape of cultural universal adaptions, these must be considered together.

The prospect of interstellar voyaging to spread and preserve humanity and civilization is too great a leap for some to make; they call it ‘pie in the sky’, ‘irresponsible dreaming’, ‘escapism’ and plenty else. My anthropological perspective suggests these are all pessimistic critiques from people lacking in creativity or foresight—or even the hindsight that reveals the ruins of each of the ancient civilizations. I am thrilled to be working with Icarus Interstellar to slowly assemble the puzzle pieces required to provide the breathtaking option of long-term space settlement for humanity over the next 100 years.

References

1. Smith, C.M. 2014. Estimation of a Genetically Viable Population for Multigenerational Interstellar Voyaging: Review and Data for Project Hyperion. Acta Astronautica 97(2014):16–29 (abstract).

2. Xu, J. and J.I. Gordon. 2003. Honor thy Symbionts. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 100(18):10452-10459.

3. Whiten, A., R.A. Hinde, K.N. Laland and C.B. Stringer. 2011. Culture Evolves. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (366):938-948.

4. Gabora, L. 2013. An evolutionary framework for culture: Selectionism versus communal exchange. Physics of Life Reviews 10(2): 117-145.

5. Brown, D.E. 1991. Human Universals. Philadelpha, Temple University Press.

6. For example, see the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and its use of sanction in many cases to ensure them. Though the UN can be ineffective, its very existence at least demonstrates the will to work in union for the betterment of all.

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neutrino78x May 30, 2014 at 11:06

The more I’ve read about generation ships over the years, the less I like the idea. I think we should either wait until the round trip to the nearest star can be made in less than 30 years ship time, or better yet, wait until we have developed suspended animation. I used to think otherwise but I have become convinced of the ethical problems with making live aboard a ship their entire lives. Sleeper ships are much better! :)

Al Jackson May 30, 2014 at 11:58

@ Cameron
Do you think there are any Human Universals in the Gethenians on Winter in Ursula K. Le Guin’s stunning science fiction novel The Left Hand of Darkness?

Alex Tolley May 30, 2014 at 12:37

This all boils down to: Worldships with large populations, not too much cultural change.

So if it turns out that worldships are not feasible because of the massive resources and energy requirements for propulsion needed, then what?

Your conclusions are more useful for space cities/colonies, which will be large, although they will for the most part be close enough to allow cultural memes and genetic shuffling.

Suppose we explore Nielsen’s ideas of different modes of star flight. Let’s take the new physics, small ship route. Then we might imagine humans populating the stars more akin the family/small tribe colonizing model. What are the differences here – required genetic shuffling with other families or tribes. But cultural evolution outcomes could be much more diverse. What data do we have from history (and pre-history)?
What about a different model where ships are slow, but humans travel as stored software for later instantiation in artificial bodies, where reproduction is no longer genetic? How does that alter the conclusions? Or what about a civilization that travels as meat, but the “lockstep” idea by Karl Schroeder is practiced? Does sociology and anthropology help us in these other approaches, or should we just use these disciplines as part of knowledge base and let the SciFi authors get more involved?

Steve Kilston May 30, 2014 at 12:48

Excellent treatment of an important topic! As you may know, I too have advocated a large population on any generations ship — the relative cultural stability advocated by Cameron Smith gives another reason for that. (My original reasons included genetic diversity, a wide range of skills to maintain the ship and its inabitants, enough talent for significant creative efforts in science and the arts, and the boredom-fighting stimulation from not running out of new people to encounter.) Because it seems to me that fairly large cities meet all these criteria, I’ve tried to get people thinking about a ship that carries a million inhabitants.

ljk May 30, 2014 at 13:07

There Might Be 100 Million Planets In The Galaxy With Complex Life

by ELIZABETH HOWELL on MAY 30, 2014

What a multitude of worlds! A new study suggests that the Milky Way could host 100 million planets with complex life, leaving no lack of choice for astronomers to look for organisms beyond Earth. The challenge is, however, that these worlds might be too far away from us to do much yet.

“On the one hand, it seems highly unlikely that we are alone,” stated Louis Irwin, lead author of the study and professor emeritus at the University of Texas at El Paso. “On the other hand, we are likely so far away from life at our level of complexity, that a meeting with such alien forms is extremely improbable for the foreseeable future.”

The figure came from studying a list of more than 1,000 exoplanets for metrics such as their density, temperature, chemistry, age and distance from the parent star. From this, Irwin’s team formulated a “biological complexity index” that ranges between 0 and 1.0. The index is rated on “the number and degree of characteristics assumed to be important for supporting multiple forms of multicellular life,” the research team stated.

Full article here:

http://www.universetoday.com/112265/there-might-be-100-million-planets-in-the-galaxy-with-complex-life/

So how does this correlate with the very recent comment from a certain fellow at The SETI Institute that humanity would find intelligent aliens in our lifetimes?

ljk May 30, 2014 at 13:34

To quote from the main article by Cameron M. Smith:

“The prospect of interstellar voyaging to spread and preserve humanity and civilization is too great a leap for some to make; they call it ‘pie in the sky’, ‘irresponsible dreaming’, ‘escapism’ and plenty else. My anthropological perspective suggests these are all pessimistic critiques from people lacking in creativity or foresight—or even the hindsight that reveals the ruins of each of the ancient civilizations.”

The oft-used phrase that humans are “monkeys with car keys” is not terribly far off, even though yes I know we are primates, not monkeys. Take a good look at what is on most television and the Internet to see that most human concerns are about what most animals on Earth focus upon: Eating, fighting, gaining territory, and reproduction. These humans do not need or want other worlds, Earth is enough for them. Many are outright frightened at the prospect of leaving their birth nest, or having unknown beings from other worlds come here.

Hopefully all we really need to obtain the galaxy and beyond are enough of the right kind of people to do the tasks at hand. As the old science fiction nerd credo goes: “The meek shall inherit the Earth – the rest of us are going to the stars.”

Consider this:

http://thecosmist.com/

ljk May 30, 2014 at 14:06

What happens to the people aboard a Worldship midway in the journey to Far Centaurus who decide they do not want to participate in being just more links in the chain of creating the new generation of crewmembers who will breed the next generation and so forth until the target system is reached?

These people did not have a choice in existing when and where they are. On Earth at least such dissatisfied folks have a chance to try something new elsewhere from their birth community (there is something to be said for living on a spaceship eight thousand miles wide that comes with its own air and other resources). But where do the like-minded people on a Worldship go to get away from their society?

Do we just drug everyone into following the orders of mission planners long dead from a world that might as well be alien to Worldship people? How about “tricking” them into thinking they are living on Earth through the generations ala The Matrix until the final crew reach their new world. I wonder what the reaction will be when they find out that their lives and the lives of their ancestors were massive illusions to keep them from learning the truth just so they would not rebel or commit suicide during the journey?

Perhaps this will all be circumvented by future biotech that will make humans more durable and smarter mentally and physically as well as longer lasting. Of course this then leads into why send biological humans at all, why not just their minds? But will being disembodied entities make them any less susceptible to the issues of being on a very long voyage aboard a confined vessel, assuming again they are not augmented in some way, meaning controlled.

I think Worldships should only happen if there is no other choice for humanity to venture to the stars and even then only if it is the only choice for the survival of our species. That does not make the issues I have already brought up any less relevant, however.

The ones who create and start on such a journey will no doubt do so with full awareness and positive approval, but since the success of such a venture relies on those generations who have to live and die inbetween and did not volunteer to be there, we really need to consider how plausible is a multigenerational starship in terms of its crew reaching another star system alive and functioning.

Or have I just been too long influenced by Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky?

Alex Tolley May 30, 2014 at 14:10

…a meeting with such alien forms is extremely improbable for the foreseeable future

It depends on what “meeting” means. Two-way communication? Yes, that is not going to happen unless we discover FTL communication. But that is very different from discovering a signal that was accidentally or deliberately sent in our direction. My guess is that Shostak will be disappointed in 20 years, unless he was just hoping to make a career out of the search.

But at this point, any talk of life in the cosmos, let alone intelligent, advanced technological civilizations, is just speculation.

Chris W May 30, 2014 at 14:19

Though it was a minor point, the concept that stuck out to me was the idea of catastrophe upon a small enclosed population. Perhaps this suggests that geographical limitations, analogous to those on Earth, should be built in to any generation ship design. I.e. create multiple populations that are isolated from each other, and create artificial barriers to travel between them (not denying travel, just making it artificially hard/time consuming) to prevent spread of disease, access of terrorisys, etc. And of course once you do that, the cultural implications are numerous!

Alex Tolley May 30, 2014 at 16:51

@ljk
How about “tricking” them into thinking they are living on Earth through the generations ala The Matrix until the final crew reach their new world. I wonder what the reaction will be when they find out that their lives and the lives of their ancestors were massive illusions to keep them from learning the truth just so they would not rebel or commit suicide during the journey?

e.g. “Thirteen to Centaurus” http://www.jgballard.ca/deep_ends/jgb_thirteen_to_centaurus.html

When a crew member discovers the truth of the “mission” he decides to remain complicit.

One could argue that even the ideas of deep space, “island hopping” colonies might be problematic if the descendants cannot leave. Perhaps the need for the Hermit Kingdom’s strategy “nothing to envy (outside our nation)” might be necessary.

ljk May 30, 2014 at 16:58

Chris W said on May 30, 2014 at 14:19:

“Though it was a minor point, the concept that stuck out to me was the idea of catastrophe upon a small enclosed population. Perhaps this suggests that geographical limitations, analogous to those on Earth, should be built in to any generation ship design. I.e. create multiple populations that are isolated from each other, and create artificial barriers to travel between them (not denying travel, just making it artificially hard/time consuming) to prevent spread of disease, access of terrorisys, etc. And of course once you do that, the cultural implications are numerous!”

Ever see the 1973 television series The Starlost?

http://www.snowcrest.net/fox/star.html

Apparently it was a good idea that was poorly executed. Like that has never happened on television before.

Andrew Palfreyman May 30, 2014 at 19:53

I don’t see a treatment of the rise of the despot, who gets to make any rules he/she wants.

Rob Henry May 30, 2014 at 23:35

ljk’s first paragraph of his most recent comment above could EQUALLY read …
What happens to the people aboard Earth in between waves of World Ships being launched to Far Centaurus who decide they do not want to participate in being just more links in the chain of supporting the old generation of Earth dwellers who will breed the next generation and so forth until the next target date for launch is reached?
… These two ways of thinking are equally valid, and share in common their unavoidability.

Rob Henry May 30, 2014 at 23:44

One negative I must note is that it is crazy to obsess about a pandemic directly wiping out humans, when a disease that destroys any creature with a non-redundant niche, would destroy the whole system.

Michael May 31, 2014 at 3:17

@Chris W May 30, 2014 at 14:19

‘Perhaps this suggests that geographical limitations, analogous to those on Earth, should be built in to any generation ship design. I.e. create multiple populations that are isolated from each other, and create artificial barriers to travel between them (not denying travel, just making it artificially hard/time consuming)..’

We could have multiple generation ships going out in the same direction, this would give us advantages such as,

1) A greater population dynamic i.e. disease, low gene diversification issues.
2) A degree of redundancy if something goes wrong with on one of the ships.
3) Each could have different life preserving process going on in each ship i.e. sleeper ships, lockstep, normal etc.
4) A wide base high resolution communication/optic systems using the lensing focus point of stars to still remain in contact with the home system (the home world might discover FTL drives and transmit the information to them)
5) Different cultures.

ProjectStudio May 31, 2014 at 5:35

“I think Worldships should only happen … only if it is the only choice for the survival of our species.”

I would tend to agree – particularly when faced with significant constraints of social engineering. However there is a competing notion about living (and presumably growing) worldships, which would perhaps not face such Malthusian constraints during the journey.

Much of the range of ideas around world ships expressed reminds me of a long ago Canadian sci-fi series called the Starlost. Different cultural samples, subjected to selective reproduction rights – purported to be objectively selected by computer – inhabited isolated biospheres strung along a a great space ark after the earth was destroyed. People within the biospheres had forgotten they were traveling through space at all. Those dis-satisfied with the arrangements in their biosphere had not other option, but in the series ended up floating through the bounce tubes connecting the spheres, looking for the backup bridge…

I think that just as “how we go” matters, it also matters “why we go at all.” By nature, humans reproduce. The earth is limited and our population hits a hard wall determined by resources disease, food, air, climate, and elbow room. The “why” of expansion into a limitless universe is just that, it is limitless.

Anthony Mugan May 31, 2014 at 6:58

A thought provoking article, thanks.
The model seems to be essentially mono-cultural for a specific world ship. This may be a question of practicality but are there any lessons that can be learned from human societies today as to how or if a multi-cultural world ship could be managed stably over long periods, if at all?

Brian C May 31, 2014 at 11:38

Generation ships will NOT cause delay in births. If birth rates are stable, as in 2 children per woman, then population will remain constant no matter how short the period of time is between generations. But if there were any population growth, like 2.1 children per woman, this growth would be multiplied if the generation gap were shortened.

There will be huge advantages in women having children at a young age on generation ships: from reduced chance of genetic damage due to radiation, and that children born are likely to be educated by their great grandparents. This will be extremely important in a small population culture.

ljk May 31, 2014 at 13:08

Rob Henry, did you not read my second paragraph from the comment you quoted?

Craig Watkins May 31, 2014 at 13:47

Is genetic diversity necessary once once we’ve unlocked the secrets of DNA? Couldn’t we just develop the diversity we need at will? Maybe all we need is a databank of the entire human genome to splice in with the traveler’s genetic material. We don’t have that level of understanding yet, but it seems more likely than suspended animation or FTL travel right now. Genetic manipulation is already a reality, it just hasn’t reached the required level of sophistication yet.

Perhaps we will see a cultural shift in our attitudes towards genetic manipulation and humans could be engineered to be better for long term space travel. Smaller bodies, longer lifespans and maybe even the ability to hibernate for extended periods of time.

Heath Rezabek May 31, 2014 at 22:48

Cameron, it’s great to become more aware of your work and your efforts. I imagine we’ll run into one-another as we mutually work with Icarus Interstellar.

I’ll watch your work closely for insight in my own efforts relating to very long term archival of the biological, scientific, and cultural record.

Volucris June 1, 2014 at 8:00

ljk:

About “Eating, fighting, gaining territory, and reproduction”: take a look what people are discussing here about: lifesupport, challenges of staying alive in space, colonization, and maintaining genetic diversity… :-) I think I get your point, but in the end we are working towards similar goals. Difference being on what things people hold interest in..
For me, unexplored possibilities, even if potentially very hard to reach, have always been very fascinating. I think many people here share that trait.

I wonder what children of polynesian colonizers, on some far off island were thinking about the stories their parents told about the more populated islands they came from. I’m sure the parents told those stories mostly in a way that put their decisions to positive light. Which get’s me to thinking, what if there was some sort of censorship in place at the worldship: information about the target system was public, but all records of where they came from was either destroyed and only propagated by word of mouth, fabricated, or a strictly guarded secret..

Michael June 1, 2014 at 14:30

@Craig Watkins May 31, 2014 at 13:47

‘Is genetic diversity necessary once once we’ve unlocked the secrets of DNA? Couldn’t we just develop the diversity we need at will? Maybe all we need is a databank of the entire human genome to splice in with the traveler’s genetic material.’ We don’t have that level of understanding yet’

That level of understanding I believe is 10-15 years away. It does raise some ethical questions though like if it is used to what degree and ultimately when do we cease to become human?

Ole Burde June 1, 2014 at 16:36

If you take as a working hypotesis ,that the possibility for interstellar travelling might only barely become possible , and only in a limited window of oportrunity , then the possibilities for a solution become more clear .
Genetic diversity can not be solved by supposing big numbers of live humans , but CAN be solved by existing frozen embryo tecnology.
The size of the live creew have to be limited to whats strictly necesary for maintaining the spaceship .
The smallest possible creew will be the one that concentrates and MAITAINS a great numwer of capabilities in a very small number of individuals .
Clearly no ”traditional” human culture or known antropological system will be capable of doing all this , so the real calenge lies in inventing a completely new artificial ”culture” designed to this purpose .

Rob Henry June 1, 2014 at 17:53

There seem a lot of talk here as to the problems suffered if population growth rises above replacement. Such talk defies out known experience of wealthy societies where sex is decoupled from reproduction. Over our entire planet today, every wealthy Western country suffers below replacement values, with the worst being around half that value. This tells us our only likely worry is keeping reproductive rates sufficiently high. Raising them even further at the destination will be even harder.

Freederick June 2, 2014 at 6:14

Victorian-era dreamers who envisioned flying ships used to worry about how flag or semaphore code could be used to communicate with the aerial fleets. Internal ship communications were simpler—they would be handled by long runs of voice tubes, or possibly even the hi-tech solution of internal telegraph lines.
Soon afterwards the Marconi experiments with radio transmission happened. Those who learned of them did not yet know where this development would take us, but they did know one thing: semaphore codes, voice tubes, and even telegraph lines did not really matter anymore.

We are in a similar position now with regard to genetic engineering The equivalent of Marconi’s experiments are happening around us. We don’t know where they will take us; but limited genetic pools, genetic drift, and the consequences of ongoing evolution of the human species are not a relevant problem anymore.

As Craig Watkins noted above, the ship will carry the entire planet’s genetic pool—in its databanks. Any evolution that occurs will be deliberate, controlled, and carried out in the lifespan of a single generation—possibly even faster, if gengineering advances to the point where you can reprogram an existing organism’s cells _in vivo_.
Cultural inheritance, and cultural evolution, will remain the sole concern. In the long run, memes will matter a lot more than genes.

Freederick June 2, 2014 at 6:44

Some disputants here lean toward the idea of, essentially “pregenerating” a set of social rules to govern the culture of the generational ships. This is a perilous approach even in the well-known environment of Earth, as witnessed by the blatant shortcomings of centralized decisionmaking. We are not yet capable—perhaps never will be capable—of predicting the interactions of a complex society, especially in the face of technological and social progress. We end up creating literally tons of laws and statutes, only to find them inadequate and limiting. This would only be exacerbated if we attempted to regulate by fiat the society on board a starship, of which we can predict very little.

The only adequate solution is to let them regulate themselves on a case-by-case basis. In other words, the solution is the common law, which is built from the bottom up based on precedent, rather than the arbitrary straitjacket of top-down statutory law that we are so tempted to cook up.

ljk June 2, 2014 at 9:03

Volucris said on June 1, 2014 at 8:00:

“Which get’s me to thinking, what if there was some sort of censorship in place at the worldship: information about the target system was public, but all records of where they came from was either destroyed and only propagated by word of mouth, fabricated, or a strictly guarded secret.”

I see at least some of the Worldship crew being dissatisfied with the “history” they are taught and wanting to know the truth, becoming really upset with being lied to and denied the truth in the process.

Or ending up like Orphans of the Sky, where they think the Ship is the Universe and there is no need to go anywhere since they are already everywhere. Though windows placed all over the hull should solve that problem.

In any event, trying to control such knowledge will only lead to problems if not disaster. If you think some crewmembers were unhappy before being stuck in the middle of the journey, just wait until they find out they were lied to for ages.

In addition, how do you make sure the lied is perpetuated properly over the ages? Plus, I would like to think at least a few people would be smart enough to figure out that their giant Worldship had to come from somewhere even larger and full of resources to build such a massive ark.

Harry R Ray June 2, 2014 at 9:27

No comment on this, but I just received some incredibly POSITIVE news which dramatically INCREASES the PROBABILITY of velocometrically detected super earths (EXAMPLE: Gliese 667Cc) really being earth-like,albeit more massive! HARPS North has determined the mass of Kepler 10c to be 1Mn(that’s right,”n”stands for NEPTUNE) plus or minus 2Me! Introducing the first HYPER-earth(or rock giant, if you prefer) with a density of around SEVEN, which is EVEN GREATER(by CONSIDERABLE) than the densityf Kepler 10b! I’m sure there will be a posting on this here VERY SOON, but you saw it here first! With a flood of BAD NEWS about very low density earth mass and super-earth mass planets in the Kepler pipeline, I cannot stress JUST HOW IMPORTANT THIS IS!

Al Jackson June 2, 2014 at 10:14

@ljk
“Or have I just been too long influenced by Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky?”
Many of the questions raised here have been addressed not just by Heinlein but dozens of other modern SF prose writers, in many different ways.
When ever I see an article like this , if I had the time and the inclination, I could write about dozens , maybe more, of these same themes explored by many science fiction prose writers. (I have gotten to putting ‘prose’ in a message about SF , since , alas, SF seems , badly , to be defined by media
‘SC I FI’ … to point that one wonders if the unwashed even know there is WRITTEN SF out there!
I always think of that remarkable novel by Alexei Panshin … Rite of Passage (1968).

Harry R Ray June 2, 2014 at 10:33

BACK AGAIN! Just checked some other densities of some planets in the Kepler “Discoveries” section on the official website whoes orbital perioda are greater than twenty days. REAL CRAZY STUFF! Kepler 68c: 4.8Me,0.953Re,g/cm3=28! This is right on the bubble of believeability as a PURE IRON planet. Kepler 131c: 8.25Me,0.84Re,g?cm3=77!!!??? Obviously this is a TYPO<right? Even a planet of PURE OSMIUM would NOT BE THIS DENSE!

Ron S June 2, 2014 at 11:44

ljk: “Or ending up like Orphans of the Sky, where they think the Ship is the Universe and there is no need to go anywhere since they are already everywhere. Though windows placed all over the hull should solve that problem.”

For millennia the majority of humans have looked up at night at the starry sky and were still quite convinced this planet, or just a small patch of land, is all of the universe. Or at least all that is of any importance. A window in a hull will be inadequate if this turns out to be a problem.

Alex Tolley June 2, 2014 at 12:14

Polynesian islanders must have been very small groups if their genetics is any indication. The downside has been their well established predisposition to metabolic diseases. Nevertheless, does anyone seriously argue that these small groups were not viable? Why expend more energy than needed to colonize?

The usual assumption is that a starship must carry everything for a technological civilization to continue, necessitating large, specialized crew members. It might be better to go the other way, bringing small groups of low technology people who can adapt to the target world, if it is compatible with terrestrial life. “Libraries” could provide suitable technology boosts if needed (e.g. Rezabek’s “Vessels”).

@Al Jackson. I agree with your sentiment, although good science should trump most fiction, even if the science is somewhat constrained. Where SF excels is asking good “what if?” questions and exploring them, a domain outside of the social sciences. As regards “history”, I was just re-reading “Anderson’s “Tales of the Flying Mountains” with its nice “interlude” sequences about what the starbound children should learn as their history.

ljk June 2, 2014 at 13:53
Michael June 2, 2014 at 14:59

Human crewed interstellar voyages do raise a question, do we really need to go straight to a star? why not just slowly spiral out of the solar system and use the resources in the Kuiper/Orit cloud to build new crafts/colonies? We can just reverse the process at the next star and spiral inwards and so on. It would take a long time but we would use the local resources more efficiently.

These resources are relatively easy to get to as they will orbit slowly but as a negative they have large distances between them. They also extend out a quarter the way to the next star system and then there is the target star systems outer resources.

What no light I hear some say? we might be able to create our own small star using fusion.

Paul Gilster June 2, 2014 at 19:49

Michael, this might interest you:

http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2013JBIS…66..302G

It’s a paper I wrote for JBIS called “Slow Boat to Centauri: A Millennial Journey Exploiting Resources Along the Way”

Andrew Palfreyman June 2, 2014 at 20:40

A reduction of many orders of magnitude in mass means a much faster journey, and so why stock such a craft with bodies when DNA plus pedagogical tools would suffice, given modest advances in our current genetic engineering capabilities?

In this scenario, a core team of “teachers” is placed into cryostasis, and a massive scientific and cultural database goes along – plus the DNA of perhaps millions of people. Years before projected landing time, babies are born and educated, ready for landing and colonisation.

This idea will not work, because we will still need the total mass of the people born to be carried along.

Rob Henry June 2, 2014 at 21:18

Michael, that question has been asked many times. The answer is yes we can, but the descendants of those that are less obsessed by efficient use of resources will travel direct, thus getting there and establishing high energy use societies centuries ahead of the more thrifty and energy impoverished ones.

So… its not a matter of if that can happen, but of how unlikely it is to be a relevant factor to our species spread.

Harry R Ray June 3, 2014 at 9:38

ljk. NO: http://kepler.nasa.gov! I’m so glad you asked1 FIRST:A correction. Only Kepler131c has an orbital period longer than twenty days. The other one’speriod is about 9 days, and therefore its density may be attributable to its outer layers being stripped away. NOT SO WITH Kepler131,though. NOW THE BIG NEWS1 This may NOT be a typo after all! I slept on it last night,and, I came to the INSANE CONCLUSION that what we are seeing here is a ONE EARTH MASS ROCKY PLANET nestled inside a 7.25 earth mass planet made completely of DARK MATTER, whigh happened to form first, and then, via gravity ONLY draw in one earth mass worth of rocky dust ,which would then settle at the CENTER OF GRAVITY of the dark matter planet! Before you put the straightjacket on me, I understand that there are A GREAT MANY CAVAETS HERE! Thr mass of this planet was determinrd by TTV ONLY, which is not nearly precice as radial velocity, so, untill HARPS North can VERIFY the mass, the above is ALL VERY HYPOTHETICAL! I would PRIORITIZE these observations, because there is obviously a Nobel Prize in Physics for the first absolute proff of dark matter’s existance!

Harry R Ray June 3, 2014 at 10:08

BACK AGAIN! Apparently Marcy et al attempted rv observations with Keck-HIRES and came up with a density of 78g/cm3 plus or minus 55g/cm3. BUT: Keck-hires mi MUCH LESS SENSITIVE than HARPS North, therefore the EXTREMELY HIGH ERROR BARS It may have been a mistake for the kepler team to even include these figures in their table if they are so uncertain.

Michael June 3, 2014 at 12:54

@Rob Henry June 2, 2014 at 21:18

‘…establishing high energy use societies centuries ahead of the more thrifty and energy impoverished ones.’

There is estimated to be around 10 earth masses of comets ~90% water, in the Oort cloud, that is lot of deuterium for fusion! that is more than the suns energy output for a couple of hundred years. Energy rich would be my guess.

Rob Henry June 3, 2014 at 21:56

Yes Michael, but that is a story in itself. It is an either or situation of IF deuterium only fusion if ever practicable. IF it is then sure, there will be plenty of energy till it runs out, at which point they will either fall back to their home star in a Dyson swarm or move on, but they should never set themselves up for such profligate energy use and economic instability that they exhaust their home recourses so fast that their interstellar expansion rate exceeds that of the inner system dwellers inherent expansion rates.

It a situation ever arose where these parameters came close to being met, these self same conditions would render war in the Oort Cloud highly rational by game theory, with massive profits to those who successfully wage it – and (due to population distribution) with limited chance for third party peacemaker inititaves.

Michael June 4, 2014 at 15:05

@Harry R Ray June 3, 2014 at 9:38

‘NOT SO WITH Kepler131,though. NOW THE BIG NEWS1 This may NOT be a typo after all! I slept on it last night,and, I came to the INSANE CONCLUSION that what we are seeing here is a ONE EARTH MASS ROCKY PLANET nestled inside a 7.25 earth mass planet made completely of DARK MATTER…Before you put the straightjacket on me….’

Dark matter is theorized to have the nasty tendency to annihilate itself when it comes into contact. There is one word in your paragraph that strikes me as highly probable though and the other, forming part of a sentence would be my recommendation! You also need to check that caps lock key out, it gets stuck every now and then.

It is all normal out there, so less caffeine and more sleep!

http://www.openexoplanetcatalogue.com/system.html?id=Kepler-131+c

ljk June 6, 2014 at 23:56

The Apollo 11 Mission and the Challenge of Solving the Plight of the Poor

Posted on June 6, 2014

One of the most interesting stories of the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969 is the protest led by the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, successor to Martin Luther King as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He and some 500 other protesters went to the Kennedy Space Center at the time of the Apollo 11 launch to call attention to the plight of the poor of the United States.

The protesters held an all night vigil as the countdown proceeded and then made a march with two mule-drawn wagons as a reminder that while the nation spent significant money on the Apollo program poverty ravished many Americans’ lives. As Hosea Williams said at the time, “We do not oppose the Moon shot. Our purpose is to protest America’s inability to choose human priorities.”

Full article here:

http://launiusr.wordpress.com/2014/06/06/the-apollo-11-mission-and-the-challenge-of-solving-the-plight-of-the-poor/

Alex Tolley June 7, 2014 at 9:48

“We do not oppose the Moon shot. Our purpose is to protest America’s inability to choose human priorities.”

And given the spending on Apollo plus the police action in Vietnam, they had a point. I was in university in the early 1970′s, and I well remember the backlash against this use of resources. The more commutarian you were, the more unreasonable this spending appeared.

In some senses, the slow privatization of space is a good thing, as it doesn’t look like community resources are being “allocated unfairly”. If private groups reach Mars on their own, who will complain about miss-allocated resources?

ljk June 9, 2014 at 8:46

NASA has always gotten pocket change compared to most other government programs. They were attacking the Apollo program for the same reason most people do the same to space exploration: It is a highly visible and relatively easy target to attack. They should have gone after other institutions that could have done them some real good, but then they wouldn’t have been noticed. They also knew NASA would not strike back. I thought Paine was incredibly tolerant of them.

Just this morning on Facebook I saw one of those irritating blurbs or memes or whatever they are called saying how SETI focuses so much on finding life elsewhere but neglects life on Earth. What an absolute load of BS! Whoever wrote that shows they know nothing about SETI, especially the fact that it gets so little money and resources! It is just an easy, visible target that they know most people will agree with because they too know little about SETI or how important a venture it is to their own species’ development.

This better be just a “phase” humanity is going through, because if this is how good things are going to get intellectually and socially, forget it.

Alex Tolley June 9, 2014 at 9:55

This better be just a “phase” humanity is going through, because if this is how good things are going to get intellectually and socially, forget it.

As my wife says to me – “you are really are dragging that black cloud around with you”.

At it’s peak, Nasa’s budget was 5.5% of GDP. That is not small change and is larger than the current US military budget as a %age of GDP. It is certainly arguable that had similar resources been expended to help solve poverty, perhaps with sustained public works programs aimed at employing the poor, poverty might well have been alleviated. I’m not saying that would have been a better use of resources, but the beneficiaries would have been different. Governments make spending choices, like career military personnel and weapons systems, and prisons, yet deny families in poverty medical care and food stamps and low cost education.

ljk June 9, 2014 at 17:06

Like Paine said to the reverend, and I quote from the article:

“I stated that if we could solve the problems of poverty in the United States by not pushing the button to launch men to the moon tomorrow,” Paine said, “then we would not push that button.”

The thing is, government agencies did then and do now spend far more money on poverty and other social issues than they ever do on space. The results seem to be that we have kept poverty and its related ills in check at best. However, the human population is growing, not shrinking, and I wonder how much longer money will keep the dam from bursting?

Getting rid of NASA will not solve these problems. What such an act would do is decrease our civilization and give us one less reason to hope for a better future. Sadly the teeming masses do not seem to get that, despite the decades of weather and communications satellites, to name just two of the workaday benefits of space technology.

About your wife’s dark cloud comment: I would love to have my old optimism back, and I often do get it thanks to our advances in space science and astronomy. But then the human races goes and does something stupid or vile again and I consider it nothing short of a miracle that we have gotten this far. The fact that anyone would consider getting rid of our space program to make life better for humanity is another depressing sentiment that only a short-sighted and limited species would make.

Rob Henry June 9, 2014 at 19:21

Alex Tolley, I know you were just trying to convey the way others think about expenditure on the high frontier, but you open a question that we can give a almost certain answer to with NASA v social spending. Yes, it is possible that works programmes could have alleviated poverty, but if they chose to spend that money on expanding medicine it would have been a disaster.

Despite being the richest large country ever, United states today spends more on health care as a proportion of its GDP than any other country ever, using about one of every six or seven dollars. If a huge programme had pushed that to one in every four or five dollars it would so have placed so much pressure on the rest of the economy as to destabilise it. Imagine in a recession, being forced to close hospitals – people would resist that even at the expense of cancelling all other necessary capital expenditure.

After saying that, now I have to admit that the whole western world is going the same way with the US only a decade or so ahead of us, as these costs keep rising in proportion to GDP. Perhaps it is already too late and this trend has gone so far as to only allow totalitarian states to invest in the far future as Apollo once did. Could it be that our last hope left for our current cycle of cheap oil fueled civilisation is that China doesn’t fall to democracy!

Alex Tolley June 9, 2014 at 21:21

@Rob Henry – the US could alleviate many of its problems with more progressive tax rates, a H/C system modeled on almost any other country’s, and more judicious military spending. I don’t see the path we are on as neither inevitable and nor unsteerable. But it may not change course.

As I recall, the early 1970′s anti-space sentiment was more a backlash against technology in general. Nasa did consume significant GDP once, but clearly it no longer does. As ljk says, defunding Nasa today would be pointless, although reallocation of its funding priorities might make sense.

I’m more optimistic about the future, even though we face some real existential risks. But I do not believe they are more difficult to deal with than nuclear annihilation that we worried about in the 1960′s-70′s. In the meantime, access to space looks like getting cheaper, and private organizations are looking to exploit that. We may yet thread the eye of the needle.

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