Exploration as Necessity

by Paul Gilster on July 22, 2006

“The urge to explore, the quest of the part for the whole, has been the primary force in evolution since the first water creatures began to reconnoiter the land. We humans see this impulse as the drive to self-transcendence, the unfolding of self-awareness. The need to see the larger reality — from the mountaintop, the moon, or the Archimedean points of science — is the basic imperative of consciousness, the specialty of our species. If we insist that the human quest await the healing of every sore on the body politic, we condemn ourselves to stagnation. Living systems cannot remain static; they evolve or decline. They explore or expire. The inner experience of this imperative is curiosity and awe. The sense of wonder — the need to find our place in the whole — is not only the genesis of personal growth but the very mechanism of evolution, driving us to become more than we are. Exploration, evolution, and self-transcendence are but different perspectives on the same process.”

Wyn Wachhorst, The Dream of Spaceflight: Essays on the Near Edge of Infinity (New York: Basic Books, 2000), pp. 150-151.

{ 4 comments }

Adam Crowl July 24, 2006 at 7:28

Hi Paul

There’s a branch of theology called Panentheism (All in God) which sees God’s action in the world not ruling as an absolute monarch, but as the Artful Persuader who draws forth new acts of creativity from his creations. In this view God works more effectively in beings that can respond to him in richer ways, thus God guides the world into higher levels of complexity to achieve greater creativity in the world.

There’s an animal ethologist, whose name escapes me, but who is also a high level autistic. She says that thinking verbally is something foreign to her, and she normally thinks visually, through images. In her opinion animals also think visually.

So I wonder where the vision of endless horizons, star-filled voids, new worlds, and so forth comes from to inspire us. Does God, or the Life Force, tantalise us with these profound images, and by doing so inspire us to climb out of the cradle, and to set sail on the Endless Sea? Something propelled our ancestors out of Africa 2 million years ago, before we were even finished evolving into men – ‘Homo georgicus’ is an intermediate between habilis and erectus, and is found between the old world of Africa and the new of Eurasia.

Evolutionary psychologists talk of ‘hot button’ words or ideas that cause us to take on board uncritically social group concepts, like religion, at a very early age. Well my first abstract concepts weren’t God or ritual or race, but Space itself – I remember being utterly entranced by “The Fantastic Four’s” adventure on the Moon at about age 4, then watching the BBC documentaries about Mars as Viking was about to land; my mother telling me, in reverant terms, about a show called “Star Trek”, and watching “Space 1999″.

Those were my significant early memories. One tragedy of the modern Space Age is a lack of really big firsts, but on the other hand who’d have imagined the incredible exoplanets that elementary school children can now read about.

Administrator July 24, 2006 at 9:14

Yes, I sometimes think about what it would be like growing up with an entire catalog of exoplanets at our disposal. Think, too, about how that catalog will be refined in very short order as we learn more about the exoplanets we’ve already detected and begin to find terrestrial worlds. Is there something innate that drives people outward based on a hunger for these far places and a vision of what can be found beyond our normal habitats? If so, we have, as you say, plenty of evidence here on Earth that such an impulse exists. Another analog: the populating of the Pacific in millennial migrations, navigating by ocean tide and starlight.

ljk July 24, 2006 at 10:18

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

- Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince

Paul Dietz July 24, 2006 at 13:48

“The urge to explore, the quest of the part for the whole, has been the primary force in evolution since the first water creatures began to reconnoiter the land”

Um… what? Did he run this past an actual evolutionary biologist? This is pseudoscientific claptrap. Evolution requires variation and selection. It is not directed, by putative ‘urges’ or otherwise.

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