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Spacefaring Mythologies

I became fascinated with Scandinavian mythologies in grad school and wound up doing a deep dive into early Icelandic literature. Heroic tales from a worldview long superceded proved a rich source of materials, but is myth always a thing of the past? Joseph Campbell would speak about ritual as the only way to participate in mythologies that were essentially over, but perhaps, as Nick Nielsen argues below, there is a mythology of the future that is being born right now. If humanity succeeds in expanding to the stars, how will our descendants look back upon the early age of space? Perhaps the things we do today turn into the far future’s own mythologies, particularly if waves of star travel lead to speciation or post-human outcomes. Nielsen probes cultural and philosophical aspects of an interstellar future in Grand Strategy: The View from Oregon, and Grand Strategy Annex, where as in the essay below, the outcomes of the choices we make today propel the discussion.

by J. N. Nielsen

1. Two Forms of Spacefaring Mythology
2. Two Ways of Living Mythologically
3. Origin Myths and the Beginning of History
4. Origin Myths of Spacefaring Civilizations: Three Scenarios
5. Our Hour of Need in Civilizational Crisis
6. A Naturalistic Account of Mythic Archetypes
7. Of Axial Ages and Archetypal Ages
8. Crises and Effacement in the History of Western Civilization
9. Future Crises and Effacement in Civilization
10. A New Axial Age of Spacefaring Civilization
11. A New Archetypal Age of Trans-humanity or Post-Humanity
12. Human Archetypes and Their Successors
13. The Branching Bush of Cognitive Speciation
14. Deep Cognitive Homology
15. A Naturalistic Scenario for Future Cognitive Speciation

1. Two Forms of Spacefaring Mythology

A spacefaring mythology might be the mythologized recollection of the recent past since the beginning of human spacefaring, or it might be the mythology that some future spacefaring civilization evokes in order to orientate itself in relation to the cosmos. These two distinct conceptions of spacefaring mythology are not necessarily mutually exclusive, although either could obtain in the absence of the other. Let us begin by briefly summarizing the two cases yielded by the method of isolation.

In the first of the two senses taken in isolation, the mythologization of the recent spacefaring past could be a myth for contemporary civilization only, if civilization comes to an end in the near future, or if it does not project itself into the cosmos and establish itself as a mature spacefaring civilization (in both of these cases, the early spacefaring era is followed by no consummation, no spacefaring civilization). In the latter scenario, one could even imagine a future human history in which this mythology of the early spacefaring era remains as a touchstone even after any spacefaring capability has lapsed, much as peoples of the early medieval period marveled at the great works of classical antiquity, which were far beyond their means to build. [1]

In the second of the two senses above taken in isolation, the mythology of a spacefaring civilization would be a myth or set of myths that serve several functions within spacefaring civilization, but it would not be a mythology of the early spacefaring era. That is to say, in this scenario, as a contingent matter of fact, the spacefaring civilization in question takes its mythology from some source other than its early spacefaring history. This would be easy to understand if the progenitors of such a civilization reached further back into their past for their sustaining mythology, or if they needed a mythology less directly entangled with the ordinary business of life. Since mythology often involves defamiliarization, having too familiar a mythological context could render a myth less effective in fulfilling the social functions it typically serves.

The two senses distinguished above would come together in the case of a mature spacefaring civilization that takes as at least a part of its mythology its early spacefaring era. If this were to occur in the human future, we would today be living in a mythological age, creating the myths of the early spacefaring era that would go on to inspire and to drive forward an ongoing spacefaring civilization. What does it mean to be living in a mythological age? Are we, today, equal to the challenge of establishing a heroic model that can serve as a model for a civilization much larger and much older and much more advanced than our own? What can the future take from our struggles today to project our civilization beyond Earth?

Mythology scholar Joseph Campbell once urged his listeners to “live mythologically,” and we may need to live mythologically, or, at least, attempt to live mythologically, if we are to inspire future generations. I was old enough to have watched and to have been impressed with the Bill Moyers’ interviews with Joseph Campbell (in which he made this statement about living mythologically) during their original airing on PBS (1988), and I remember how this advice was sometimes appreciated but more often misunderstood (seemingly intentionally) by the press at the time. Though Moyers was clearly out of his depth in these interviews, he at least appreciated what Campbell was saying and was inspired by it, even if he didn’t understand all of it. Moyer’s amiable incomprehension was of great value to me, however, as this served as my introduction to mythology scholarship. [2]

2. Two Ways of Living Mythologically

In regard to living mythologically, again, we have a bifurcation (as with the bifurcation between spacefaring mythologies that could be the mythologized recent past or the mythology of a mature spacefaring civilization), and, again, either of the alternatives of the bifurcation can be entertained in isolation. I will discuss this bifurcation in terms of embodiment and exemplification. Mythological embodiment in isolation is when the individual lives out a mythological role in one’s own life, modeled on past exemplars, but, in living out this role, does not (necessarily) serve as a mythological model for others to follow. [3] Mythological exemplification in isolation is when the individual lives out a mythological role based on no model other than mythological archetypes, and in so doing fashioning a myth for others to embody.

In each case the individual is living mythologically in the sense of living in reference to mythic archetypes, while one is a reenactment of the past and the other is a model to the future. Both of these cases taken in isolation are exceptions; mostly the difference between mythological embodiment and mythological exemplification is a difference of emphasis. Much of the time, the archetypal torch is passed from one age to the next, with each mythic figure both referring to the past and serving as a model to the future. An example of this is the “Golden Chain” of Platonic succession at the Academy—the more than nine hundred years of successors to Plato at the school founded by Plato in Athens.

Embodiment through participation in a myth is by far the most common way of living mythologically, not only because it requires less imagination, but also because this way of living mythologically admits of indefinite iteration, whereas mythological exemplification is much rarer. It is extraordinarily difficult to forge a new myth, or even variations on the theme of an old myth, from raw, archetypal material, but it is not impossible. Most of the time the result is a variation on the theme of a familiar myth, but sometimes this little variation makes all the difference. When an individual has the right instincts and intuitions to tap into archetypes, the likelihood is that such an individual will spontaneously produce a variation on the theme of a familiar myth, as there are only a limited number of narratives that can coherently link together the archetypal material; archetypes leave us very little wiggle room, but they are neither absolute nor absolutely incorrigible.

3. Origin Myths and the Beginning of History

One might plausibly claim that it is not easy to live mythologically in modern times, that our times, modern times, are decisively removed from the mythological times — mythological times proper being the Axial Age, as Karl Jaspers styled it  [4]— in which the great traditions of our civilizations were laid down. The origins of human civilization are long past, according to this way of understanding history, and they will not return. We have the civilizations we have because of the origin myths that made us what we are today, but the times in which the origin myths came about (no less than the mythologized events themselves, I might add) are long gone. This, however, is not my interpretation of history.

I regard the past ten thousand years as the infancy of human civilization, and we ourselves as constituting an infancy that is only now on the cusp of coming into the earliest stages of maturity. If we could be said to be located anywhere in history, I would say that we are near the end of the beginning, still working through the earliest stages of the development of civilization. I have presented this interpretation in Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? or, What it means for us to be living near the beginning of history.

Near the end of the beginning of history, there is still plenty of time to make and to participate in the origin myths of the future civilization that is to come. But what the origin myth from our times will be will depend upon the mature form of future civilization, looking back over history to find inchoate and embryonic forms of itself in the past. If the mature form of human civilization takes nothing from our era, we will be not so much forgotten as effaced from history. For in order to construct a narrative of the convergence of human civilization on a particular mature state, it will be necessary to parse the past and to preserve only those moments that contribute to the narrative.

In our own time, there are several different historical threads that might someday become the basis of the origin myth (also known as a foundation myth or etiological myth) of spacefaring civilization, if that is the mature form that our civilization eventually takes, but we cannot yet speak of the foundation myth of spacefaring civilization because nothing yet is settled. Not only is there not a single origin myth for spacefaring civilization, but if mature human civilization turns inward rather than outward, those stages in the progress of spacefaring will count as dead ends in the branching bush of civilization.

4. Origin Myths of Spacefaring Civilizations: Three Scenarios

Since I am especially interested in spacefaring civilization as the destiny of humanity, I will focus on this particular mature state of civilization. One could just as easily consider the origin myth possibilities for other forms of mature civilization. The only limitation here is that, if our present stage of civilization is close enough to the beginning of time that we are today participating in the origin myth of civilization, that civilization must be exceptionally long-lived by contemporary standards. The civilization for which we, and our activities, can provide an origin myth would be something like a million-year-old supercivilization. This may not be the destiny of human civilization, but it could be, and, if it is, this million-year-old supercivilization will have plenty of history on which to draw for its origin myths.

At the fine-grained extreme of origins myths for spacefaring civilization, we have the ongoing efforts in our time to create a space industry — the origins of rocketry, the Space Race, the contemporary privatization of space industry and technology, and so on. This sequence of events may be continued into the future with further triumphs and tragedies until the fulfillment of a spacefaring destiny allows civilization new worlds and new opportunities for human achievement. Industrialized civilization has presented us with a suite of heroic roles specific to a technological economy—the heroic financier, the heroic businessman, the heroic scientist, the heroic inventor, and the heroic engineer. All of these can be mythic figures woven together into one narrative of striving to raise humanity to its next stage of development. This is an inspiring mythology of human effort in the face of an indifferent universe, punctuated by great successes and devastating failures, all of which contribute to the poetic possibilities of mythology. The dialectic of triumph and tragedy is always great source material for mythology.

In the middle ground of history and human activity, an origins myth for spacefaring civilization might focus on the development of the political, social, and economic institutions and wherewithal that make a spacefaring industry possible. This would be a more troubling mythology than the straight-forward inspiring vision of relentless human toil as in the fine-grained account. There would be Machiavellian plotting both to bring about great enterprises, and no less in the attempt to sabotage great enterprises. In the middle ground account, there would be villains, and an encounter with malevolence, perhaps a great struggle and a great moment of decision when the turning point in the struggle is realized. Probably we have not yet even approached that moment and the turning point, which has yet to develop out of the tensions of the present.

In the most expansive vision of a spacefaring future for humanity, we would look back to the origins of civilization, the origins of humanity, and indeed the origins of the universe, and we would see these successive origins of great new possibilities as ontological novelties that are revealed in and through history. David Christian regularly presents Big History as an origins myth of contemporary civilization [5], and we could well see this tradition and method extrapolated into the future, in which our present civilization, on the cusp of true spacefaring civilization, was a threshold of this emergent complexity that we are struggling to bring into being, perhaps to be followed by no less consequential thresholds of emergent complexity as yet unknown. The cosmogonic myth of a spacefaring civilization could reach into cosmology itself as its affirmation of itself as an extension of the natural processes of the cosmos. This would be a less anthropocentric myth, but also the most comprehensive and holistic myth to which human beings could aspire, being less about the human struggle for attainment than about the universe itself giving birth to a new period of its development. (It is also interesting to note that this would constitute an origins myth for spacefaring civilization that did not explicitly evoke the early spacefaring era, as in the second of the two alternatives considered in isolation, with which we began this exposition in section 1.)

In the very long view of history — perhaps the view of history that a million-year-old supercivilization might possess — in which our ten thousand years of civilization to date is merely the preparation for the true beginning of history, when humanity is a spacefaring and multi-planetary civilization, it may be one of these three scenarios that furnishes the origins myth, or all three of them woven together, or something else yet that I have not considered. In so far as our lives and our struggles can contribute to the development of any of these narratives implicit in the present, or to all of them, we are living mythologically. To be equal to the task of living mythologically is to live up to a heroic role in laying the foundations of a future worth having—in a other words, a future worth living for, and a future worth giving one’s life to create.

5. Our Hour of Need in Civilizational Crisis

Joseph Campbell not only said to live mythologically, he also said that a ritual is an opportunity to participate in a myth. In other words, the mythological age is over (i.e., the view I rejected above in section 3 when I said we are living near the beginning of history), and our only hope to participate in the mythological age is through the ritualized reliving of a myth. [6] But if we are today creating the myth of tomorrow, we can participate in mythology in a much more robust form than a vicarious ritualized rehearsal of a long past mythology. By living mythologically today we can create a myth upon which the future will look back for the source of their being. They will seek to replicate our experiences, and in the ritualized celebration of our present as a past myth, they will participate in our world in order to participate in a myth.

We are, then, both living a myth and creating a myth as we live; we both embody and exemplify mythic archetypes. This is at least part of what it means to live mythologically. But, again, the question with which we began was whether it is possible to both live a myth and to create a myth today, in the 21st century. This, I think, is the wrong way to frame contemporary mythology. Mythology is inevitable and unavoidable because of who and what we are. It is an instinctive response of human nature to orientate itself in the world with reference to familiar myths, as myths are narrative formulations of the archetypal material we carry within ourselves by dint of our evolutionary psychology, and these narratives allow us to manage, and sometimes even to master, the forces that well up from within ourselves. No one chooses to respond to archetypal material; one responds, if one responds at all, spontaneously and instinctively. [7]

We tap into mythological archetypes in living our own lives even if we are also at the same time creating a myth based on the same archetypes. Archetypal images and stories and situations resonate almost universally among human beings; we respond to them instinctively, without any preparation or education in them. Mythological narratives offer us an intuitively accessible guide by which to navigate the storms of life when all else seems to have failed us. In our hour of need, we reach down into the depths of the mind and drawn on the deep sources of our being in order to have the strength to carry on. And the great transitions in the history of civilization are usually times of crisis when we seek for guidance at the deepest levels because ordinary precedent has failed us.

6. A Naturalistic Account of Mythic Archetypes

From a naturalistic point of view, the deep resonance of mythology is due to the fact that archetypal elements evoke central features of human evolutionary psychology. The formative period of human evolutionary psychology is what evolutionary biologists call the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, or EEA. [8] The EEA is the period in which we truly became what we are. The speciation of humanity in terms of anatomical modernity took place on the plains of Africa, which was, then, the EEA of our anatomical modernity. I argue that cognitive modernity (in contradistinction to anatomical modernity) occurred later, and that it occurred separately in different geographical regions after anatomically modern human beings had already spread themselves to the four corners of the world. [9] If I am correct, cognitive modernity in each geographical region took place in the context of a slightly different EEA in each case, which then accounts for the slight differences in the characters of the regional civilizations that eventually supervened upon these populations. [10]

Joseph Campbell wrote The Hero of a Thousand Faces to demonstrate the universality of the hero myth and the hero as archetype. This is fundamental to human evolutionary psychology, and represents a cross-cultural manifestation of an archetypal theme. However, there are also archetypal themes that are more restricted (though not completely restricted) to particular geographically regional traditions. For example, metempsychosis, or the transmigration of the soul, and the archetypes associated with this idea, is much more common in the Indian subcontinent than it is elsewhere. On the other hand, complex symbols can have different significations in different civilizations. Dragons, for example, have a different significance in East Asia than they have in Western Europe. The dragon comes from deep in our evolutionary psychology, being a patchwork of many fear- and awe-inspiring properties, but it is woven into distinct narratives in distinct cultural regions.

Some archetypes, then, are truly universal (the hero), and some are universal but interpreted in importantly different ways (the dragon), while still other archetypes resonate much more in one cultural region than another (metempsychosis). I assume that this variance follows from the differences in evolutionary psychology from cognitive modernity occurring independently in different geographical regions, each of which regions constituted the EEA of the particular occurrence of the cognitive modernity that it shaped. With these considerations in mind, I hold that, from a mythological or psychological standpoint, one might also call the EEA the Archetypal Age. The EEA is when the archetypes of the human collective unconscious were laid down (and they are with us still), and these archetypes vary slightly from region to region. Human beings ultimately have more in common with each other than they have fundamental differences, but the differences remain and they are important.

7. Of Axial Ages and Archetypal Ages

The Axial Age is to be distinguished from the Archetypal Age. While the Archetypal Age was about the formation of human nature (our psycho-social makeup, as selected by evolutionary pressures), the Axial Age was that time in human history when a macro-historical division of human experience reached a mature mythological expression, and this occurred tens of thousands of years after the Archetypal Age. The selective forces that resulted in the Axial Age were primarily social, and have not continued for a period of time sufficient to change human nature. In other words, the Axial Age was not an environment of evolutionary adaptedness for new cognitive archetypes.

The Axial Age identified by Karl Jaspers was the Axial Age of agricultural civilizations. I have speculated that there was an earlier Axial Age when our Paleolithic ancestors produced a distinctive culture that was the mature mythological expression of the Paleolithic human world (cf. Axialization of the Nomadic Paradigm), and that there could be another Axial Age (cf. The Next Axial Age) when the mythological framework of industrialized civilization is brought to its mature expression. Indeed, this axialization of industrialized civilization could coincide with the origin myth of spacefaring civilization, if the mature form that industrialized civilization takes is that of a spacefaring civilization.

The transition from hunter-gatherer nomadism to agricultural civilization involved a loss of the entirety of human prehistory—a history that only relatively recently has been recovered with the advent of scientific historiography, which reconstructed prehistory from archaeological evidence, because no human memory of it remains. Prior to the recovery of human prehistory, everything before agricultural civilization was history effaced—the slate wiped clean and humanity starting over again from scratch, except for the mute and unconscious evolutionary psychology retained from our environment of evolutionary adaptedness. [11]

It is said that nature abhors a vacuum. Whether or not this is true of nature, it certainly is true of the human mind (hence Viktor Frankl’s conception of the “existential vacuum” as a pathological condition of human consciousness [12]). The void of effaced prehistory was filled with mythologies that peopled the nothingness before civilization with meanings, values, and personalities that provided a surrogate content for an actual past than had been lost. Thus foundational myths are interpolations that fill a collective existential vacuum—the existential vacuum of effaced history.

8. Crises and Effacement in the History of Western Civilization

If we return to the foundational myths of Christian civilization, of which our civilization is the direct descendant, we find a conflicted evaluation of mythic prehistory. Before the Fall of Man, Adam and Eve found themselves in Eden, where they neither had to work nor to die. When expelled from paradise, life in agricultural civilization is made to sound harsh: “…cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” However, after Cain has killed Abel, God says to Cain, “When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.”

Thus the already hard lot of agricultural civilization outside Eden can be made even more difficult; Cain is demoted from agricultural labor, earning his bread in the sweat of his face, to being a mere vagabond—a nomad. Cain responded, “I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me.” I see in this a distant echo of our nomadic prehistory, that condition that Hobbes famously described as a war of all against all, in which life is, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” [13] and which contrasts sharply with the paradisiacal prehistory of Eden. The agricultural civilization described in the Old Testament had blotted out all but the faintest traces of the nomadic condition that had preceded agriculture, but which was lost with the advent of agriculture and settled civilization.

The next great transition in human history, the passage from agricultural civilization to industrial civilization, effected less severe absolute historical losses—the intellectual superstructure of agricultural civilization had created a system of record keeping (writing) that preserved a significant portion of the past—but the loss of human experience was almost as extreme. Most alive today would have no idea whatsoever what to do if they found themselves on a farm, or on a sailing ship, so that even if they possess an abstract knowledge of what came before, this knowledge is not internalized (i.e., it is knowledge without lived experience) and the practical link with the experience of our ancestors has been sundered as completely as the practical link between hunter-gatherer nomadism and settled agriculture.

As an industrial civilization today, in possession of a reconstructed past but cut off from the experiences of our ancestors, we may stall and stagnate, remaining a planetary civilization for hundreds or thousands of years. If at some point humanity moves beyond exclusive reliance on Earth, then this story will have further episodes; if not, planetary civilization will eventually be extinguished by the natural processes of our homeworld and our solar system. In other words, the entirety of humanity and our civilization will be wiped away by a planetary scale historical effacement, and the universe will not notice our passing from the scene. (This is the first of the two scenarios noted in the opening of this essay.)

9. Future Crises and Effacement in Civilization

In the scenario in which humanity has (or our descendents have) a cosmological destiny beyond our homeworld, we will build upon industrialized civilization and transform it into a spacefaring civilization, and the story continues, for a time at least. There will be a transition from human beings being a majority terrestrial species, to a time in the distant future when human beings are a minority terrestrial species, i.e., more human beings will reside away from Earth than on Earth, and this demographic transition will mean that the fate of human beings and our successor species will not be determined on Earth, but by hundreds or thousands of human populations maintained elsewhere, on planets, moons, generational starships, or artificial habitats.

For any species to leave its homeworld will involve a radical loss of its direct contact with its own historical antecedents, beyond that loss experienced by refugees and colonists who leave the lands and homes of their forefathers to establish themselves at distant outposts on Earth. These losses we have experienced to date from historical effacement—the destruction of humanity’s historical legacy due to war, neglect, and iconoclasm—will be small in comparison to the losses entailed by spacefaring and world-spanning civilizations, which may lose the records of entire planets.

Our descendents will have the abstract knowledge of the meaning of planetary endemism, and what it meant for our species to be entirely confined to the surface of Earth, with spacefaring a rare and prohibitively expensive undertaking. They will not have the lived experience of planetary endemism; the actual practice of planetary constraints will not define the human condition in their time. And when human beings find themselves on far-flung worlds or vessels throughout the universe, it may happen again that the past is lost, and these beings, human or otherwise, will feel cut off from their roots in the cosmos. With their natural history effaced, and unable to bear an infinitude of nothingness before themselves, they may fill the void with meanings, values, and personalities that help to sustain them in the cosmological circumstances in which they find themselves. Again there will be historical effacement, and, again, the human mind (or the post-human mind) will transform the existential vacuum into an existential plenum with mythology.

The more successful and wide the dispersion of terrestrial life in the cosmos, the more likely that some of these communities ultimately derived from Earth will forget their origins, or those origins will be otherwise effaced, and the void of their prehistory will be filled by an etiological myth that explains that people’s origin and destiny. Indeed, under the conditions of the end of cosmology there will be a greater existential void than ever before that any intelligent agent would feel the need to fill, whether these agents are our distant descendants or those of some other civilization. These mythologies to come of spacefaring civilizations may depart significantly from the mythologies of planetary endemism, but they will likely serve the same soteriological and eschatological functions, albeit under changed circumstances. [14]

10. A New Axial Age of Spacefaring Civilization

It must be emphasized that we do not yet know in what direction contemporary planetary civilization is headed, but a spacefaring civilization is among the possibilities. Industrialized civilizations following the industrial revolution are still very young in historical terms. There are some who argue that there have been two or three or even four distinct industrial revolutions. Certainly we can distinguish finer-grained periods within industrialization, but in the big picture the changes to human society and civilization since the industrial revolution is one continuous movement of change for the past two hundred years, approximately. This is, as I said, a very recent phenomenon. It took thousands of years for settled civilizations all over the planet to displace hunter-gatherer nomadism as the primary pattern of human activity. It will take at least hundreds of years more for the changes begun by the industrial revolution to be consolidated and brought to social maturity. We should not wonder at this; we should expect it.

As noted above (in section 7), the axialization of industrialized civilization could coincide with the origin myth of a mature spacefaring civilization if this is the trajectory of the development of civilization today. This would be another Axial Age and not another Archetypal Age, because we would still be bringing our hunter-gatherer evolutionary psychology with us as we make the transition to a spacefaring civilization (something that I wrote about in Hunter-Gatherers in Outer Space). Transitions from one stage in the development of civilization to another stage are messy rather than neat affairs, and we tend to bring a lot of baggage along with us from the past.

For example, we have preserved Axial Age religions into the early stages of industrialized civilization, but this cannot be satisfying to the soul of man. We see this in the nihilism and anomie (manifestations of the existential vacuum) that characterize the industrialized peoples, who feel cut off from their history and traditions, and have nothing (as yet) to replace them. It is this kind of social tension that is a catalyst for myth-making efforts, in the attempt to fill a void left by the tightly-coupled relationship between mythology and civilization in the now-lapsed paradigm of a social order that no longer exists except in cultural memory.

11. A New Archetypal Age of Trans-humanity or Post-Humanity

All of the foregoing about mythology is concerned with Axial Ages that bring our older Archetypal Age evolutionary psychology into some kind of workable relationship with the social order in which we find ourselves. All of these myths reach down into the same collective unconscious and dredge up the same (or nearly the same) archetypes. However, there could be another Archetypal Age if there were to be another environment of evolutionary adaptedness, i.e., another period during which evolutionary changes were being shaped by the environment in a decisive way, i.e., in a way that shaped a new (or, more likely, altered) human nature based on a new (or altered) evolutionary psychology, with the latter shaped by a new (or, again, altered) EEA.

Archetypal Age evolutionary psychology is incomprehensibly old on a human time scale, but according to the scale of time by which we must measure the evolution of life and mind on Earth, the Archetypal Age (understood as the most recent human EEA) was a recent development. The brain and the central nervous system (CNS) have a deep history in the biosphere as revealed in the fossil record. [15] While it might be too much to attribute consciousness to panarthropoda, at some point in the history of life on Earth, brains and CNSs became sufficiently complex that rudimentary forms of consciousness and cognition emerged. With consciousness and cognition comes the possibility of what I called cognitive speciation. [16] The cognitive speciation that is cognitive modernity also results from a distinctive period in the formation of human minds, our EEA.

Evolution, of course, continues for us following such a distinctive period—an EEA in which an Archetypal Age takes shape—but does not play the same constitutive role as it did during the Archetypal Age. Evolution has not come to an end with human beings or indeed with any species currently in existence. A species only stops evolving when it goes extinct. [17] However, the speciation and stabilizing selection of a species within a given environment constitutes a distinctive period in the evolution of an organism.

By building civilizations and growing them to planetary scale, human beings have in fact created a new environment that is selecting for fitness differently than the way in which nature prior to civilization selected for fitness. If civilization continues for long enough, and human beings live in a civilized state for a period of time during which differential survival and differential reproduction result in speciation, whether anatomical or cognitive, then civilization would be the EEA of a new species of human being or a new kind of human mind. This is already happening very slowly and gradually — but not at a rate rapid enough or consequential enough at this time to result in speciation. This could yet happen, but it is not happening now. At the current rate of human evolution within civilization, any changes to human nature as a result of civilization could still be derailed or redirected by some other force that acted more rapidly or which impacted humanity more dramatically.

If, however, we began to alter ourselves at the genetic level, becoming trans-human or post-human — i.e., becoming something other than what humanity has been to date — the environment in which this took place would then be the EEA of this new trans-human or post-human species. However, for the environment to play the role it has in the past in terms of EEA, this process of human change would have to take place over a considerable period of time so that the environment had an opportunity to act as a selective pressure on differential survival and differential reproduction. The kind of sudden and radical change made possible by technology could result in a disconnect with the environment as it is usually understood, so that the real selection pressure is the technological milieu within which these changes take place. If reproduction were to be dominated by technology (e.g., ectogenesis), differential reproduction would be a function of the technological environment narrowly conceived, and not the environment we equate with a particular ecosystem.

Here, then, is a little recognized risk of transhumanism: that the formation of both mind and body of the transhuman individual, and any group of transhuman individuals taken together, would occur under unprecedented evolutionary conditions, which could result in unprecedented selection pressures upon the human organism undergoing such change. (This is an instance of a technological scenario for future cognitive speciation; a naturalistic scenario for future cognitive speciation will be given below, in section 15.) Can the human organism be changed in this way and still retain its integrity as a living being? We do not yet know the answer to this question, and finding out the answer to this question could be unpleasant.

12. Human Archetypes and Their Successors

However the next change in humanity takes place, whether by nature or my technology, and whether it goes well or badly, this kind of change would be a change in human nature rather than a change in human culture. In other words, it would be an archetypal change and not an axial change, a biological change rather than a social change. The conditions under which an archetypal change came about — the EEA of the archetype — would shape that archetype, and the new successor species would respond to different archetypal symbols, and different narratives would resonate in the psyche of such a being.

In actual practice, it would be a little more complex than this. It is not likely that there would be a sharp break with the human archetype, but rather there would be an overlap between the human archetype and the transhuman or post-human archetype, so that some aspects of human depth psychology would carry over to our successors, some aspects would not carry over, and some aspects would be carried over but substantially modified by the transition. (This is treated in more detail in sections 13 and 14 below.) Almost certainly this is what happened when homo sapiens speciated from human ancestors, but at that time the development of the mind and the capacity of thought on behalf of the genus homo was at a much lower level than it is now, so that a change in conceptual framework would have been less in evidence. Archetypal change after cognitive modernity will be a different matter.

13. The Branching Bush of Cognitive Speciation

Cognitive modernity is a particular instance of what I call cognitive speciation. This is not the only form of cognitive speciation, however. Cognitive speciation can be found throughout the biosphere. In so far as the biological individuality that characterizes the terrestrial biosphere entails individual organisms with individual brains and central nervous systems, and, when these become sufficiently complex, individual minds and consciousness supervene upon these biological structures, to the extent that mind corresponds with these biological structures, the branching bush of species coincides with a branching bush of cognition. [18]

Both our anthropocentric conception of cognition and our human exceptionalism have, in the past, militated against recognizing mind as it has appeared in other species, but there has been a sea change in this area and it is no longer considered unspeakable, much less eccentric, to attribute mind and consciousness to other species. [19] In so far as non-human species have minds, they engage in cognition, and this implies that these other species have concepts that they employ to organize their cognition.

Needless to say, human cognition is much more advanced and abstract than that of other species in the terrestrial biosphere, especially in regard to the human ability to use grammatically structured languages to structure their thoughts and formulate their conceptual frameworks. Language is a networking tool for minds, and by networking their minds through the use of language human beings have exponentially augmented their cognitive abilities.

Even if the concepts employed by other species are impoverished in comparison to the human conceptual framework, non-human conceptual frameworks are the ultimate source and origin of later human cognition. Once we accept this, we can see that different minds would have different conceptual frameworks populated by different sets of concepts. We would expect that the set of concepts employed by human beings is absolutely larger than the set of concepts employed by other species, but we would also expect that these sets of concepts overlap and intersect with the sets of concepts employed by other species.

Where the set of concepts employed by human beings and another species overlap but to not coincide, human beings will employ concepts not employed by the other species, and vice versa. For example, there are parts of the killer whale (Orcinus orca) brain that correspond with areas of the human brain that are responsible for emotions. In the killer whale brain the cingulate gyrus of the limbic lobe has grown in structure and complexity in a way not reflected in the human brain [20], so that it is likely that killer whales experience at least some emotions that human beings do not experience. In this sense, their cognition may be richer than ours in at least one way, which points to a conceptual framework populated by emotional concepts we do not possess.

This and similar arguments would probably encounter less resistance if it were confined to more-or-less immediate human ancestors and near relatives in the human tree. I doubt many would strongly object that Neanderthals had some form of cognition, and that it differed to some degree, but not absolutely, from that of homo sapiens. The same proximity would be operable if we consider human descendants that would differ from us if we were to speciate rather than to go extinct. It would be expected that some future transhumans or post-humans would possess a conceptual framework that overlapped with the human conceptual framework but which did not perfectly coincide.

14. Deep Homology of Cognition

As any human being—or, for that matter, any biological individual with a brain in the terrestrial biosphere—is inseparably both mind and body, with each acting upon the other, cognitive speciation as represented in cognitive modernity cannot be cleanly separated from corporeal speciation, and vice versa. We see this clearly, for example, in sexual selection, when a mate is selected for reproduction on the basis of a judgment made by one or both of the parties involved. Mind can impact the development of our bodily evolution, and the body can impact the development of our minds.

And our minds are not blank slates, but are related to the previous minds that preceded it in those organisms from which we inherit that which we are, both bodily and cognitively. While the blank slate doctrine has come in for considerable criticism and is today widely viewed as untenable, I don’t think that we have fully drawn the conclusions that we need to draw if the human mind is not a blank slate.

It is a contemporary commonplace that the human brain consists of a reptilian hindbrain, a mammalian mid-brain, which includes the limbic system, and the neocortex, which in large mammals like human beings, whales, and elephants has grown exponentially, and it is this development of the neocortex that is primarily responsible for human intelligence, hence human cognition. This is, of course, a bit of an oversimplification, but it gets the point across that the brain evolves, and especially the brain grows by adding on to itself, and by adding to itself and increasing its capacities, it does not rid itself of older brain structures, which continue to be inherited by subsequent descendants. We forget, and we gloss over, past brain structures and past behaviors rooted in these brain structures, but neither the anatomical structures or the behaviors are entirely effaced.

I argue that it is not merely older brain structures that are inherited from our ancestors, but also the cognition associated with these brain structures. This is widely recognized in regard to instinctual behaviors, which we understand can be traced into the deep past of life on Earth, but it is less widely recognized when we place these behaviors in relation to conscious and explicit cognition. If we understand behaviors and cognition to be related (and this relation in itself is the hoary philosophical question of the mind-body problem), then inherited behaviors also mean inherited forms of cognition.

What evolutionary developmental biology (more commonly known as “Evo-Devo”) has taught us, inter alia, is that there is often a deep genetic homology that drives the repetitive appearance of structures in terrestrial life across apparently diverse clades. This deep genetic homology ultimate goes back to the last universal common ancestor (LUCA), which contained within it the seeds of all later life on Earth. Might this homology also extend to the cognition that supervenes upon homologous brain and CNS structures? Is there a deep cognitive homology in the terrestrial biosphere? Should there be an evolutionary developmental psychology?

15. A Naturalistic Scenario for Future Cognitive Speciation

With further changes to the human brain and CNS, humanity could experience further changes in cognition. [21] Suppose some mutation in ARHGAP11B (the human-specific gene responsible for neocortex expansion), or in some related gene, led to further neural proliferation and neocortex expansion. It is because the neurons that are responsible for our higher executive functions are in the outer layer of the neocortex that the deep convolutions of the neocortex give more surface area of the brain, hence more neocortex, within the confined space of the human skull. If some mutation allowed for a thicker and larger neocortex, or greater cortical density, or both, the brain that resulted might considerably out-perform the human brain as we know it today.

Given what we know about the inherited structures of the brain and the deep history of mind in the biosphere, we can say with some confidence that any human beings that were to inherit such a mutation, or post-human beings as the case may be, however great their executive functions in comparison to ours, would still be human, all-too-human in the sense that they would still have the drives of the reptilian hindbrain and the emotions of the limbic system. They would not be Apollonian and god-like beings, pure spirits possessing a higher form of consciousness; they would be recognizable human beings, or mostly recognizable human beings.

We could, however, formulate scenarios in which the recognition would not be so obvious or immediate. It would be possible, though not likely, that a future mutation could both expand the neocortex while shrinking or disabling the limbic system, which would result in the kind of mind of science fiction nightmares: a highly-intelligent, relentlessly rational, unemotional mind—“intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic.” There is only so much room inside our skulls, the argument could run, so that more neocortex eventually would mean less hindbrain and less limbic system. Here the cognitive speciation would be more apparent, and the conceptual frameworks of human beings and post-humans would overlap less and contrast more. However, there would still be many concepts in common, if not most concepts in common.

I have here described a naturalistic evolutionary scenario in which human beings could be cognitively surpassed and our descendants would experience cognitive descent with modification, that is to say, cognitive speciation. Further above (in section 11) I mentioned the possibility of technological interventions that could result in a new Archetypal Age. The evolutionary scenario I have described in this section could also result in a new Archetypal Age, so that the cognition of our descendants could involve novel or modified archetypal material, to which they would respond as we respond to the archetypal material within our subconscious. There would no doubt be significant overlap between human and post-human archetypal material, but the two may not perfectly coincide, and could diverge over time, exemplifying what Alfred Russel Wallace called, “The Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type.” [22] As future archetypes diverged, relevant mythologies would diverge, and each distinct species would look to separate destinies for themselves. [23]


[1] An early Anglo-Saxon poem, The Ruin, depicts the broken buildings of classical antiquity as the work of giants.

[2] I have since listened to all of Campbell’s available recorded lectures, and I can definitely say that his lectures are superior to his conversations with Moyers, as in his lectures he is free to communicate his ideas on his own terms; however, it was Moyers who made me aware of Campbell. Everyone has to start somewhere.

[3] Campbell in his lectures liked to mention how Jung had asked himself at one point in his life—“What is the myth by which I am living?”—and in asking the question Jung realized that he didn’t know the answer and that, moreover, he needed to know. This is the question of mythological embodiment.

[4] “An axis of world history, if such a thing exists, would have to be discovered empirically, as a fact capable of being accepted as such by all men, Christians included. This axis would be situated at the point in history which gave birth to everything which, since then, man has been able to be, the point most overwhelmingly fruitful in fashioning humanity; its character would have to be, if not empirically cogent and evident, yet so convincing to empirical, insight as to give rise to a common frame of historical self-comprehension for all peoples—for the West, for Asia, and for all men on earth, without regard to particular articles of faith. It would seem that this axis of history is to be found in the period around 500 B.C., in the spiritual process that occurred between 800 and 200 B.C. It is there that we meet with the most deepcut dividing line in history. Man, as we know him today, came into being. For short we may style this the ‘Axial Period’.” Karl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History, Yale University Press, 1968, p. 1.

[5] “Maps of Time attempts to assemble a coherent and accessible account of origins, a modern creation myth.” Christian, David, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, University of California Press, 2004, p. 2.

[6] In the language of Nick Bostrom’s simulation hypothesis, this is an ancestor simulation. For those who are attracted to technocentric reinterpretations of tradition, the project of mythology might be understood as an attempt to provide a simulacrum of an ancestor simulation before this is technically possible. Once it becomes technically possible, the appeal of the simulacrum of an ancestor simulation will disappear. I am not advocating this interpretation, but it is worth mentioning because it structurally resembles the idea that traditional religious belief often (though not in all traditions) offers the individual immortality prior to the technological ability to secure individual immortality. This observation is usually followed by broad hints about traditional religious belief disappearing when technological immortality becomes possible. Such an account of religious belief elides the role of mythological archetypes in religious belief.

[7] If you have been told that something is a myth, but it leaves you cold and stirs no feelings within you, then this myth has no connections to the sources of your being and the archetypes buried in your subconscious. For you, this myth is dead. But you will almost certainly find other aspects of the world, and stories about these aspects of the world, that excite and inspire you. N.B.—I feel the need to add this note because a number of those who read this essay will have a background in the sciences and technology, and they will likely see much of what I am writing here as pure “woo woo,” but this is largely because the institutionalized myths of our time are walking zombies that no longer move us, and we often fail to recognize the contemporary myths that do in fact move us. Campbell often addressed this in his lectures.

[8] I have written about this previously in Survival Beyond the EEA and Existential Threat Narratives.

[9] Cf. Multi-Regional Cognitive Modernity; I do not know of anyone else who holds this view, so the reader should understand that I am putting myself out on a limb by taking this position.

[10] This is not unlike the native ability that all human beings have for language, but many different languages of different structures are to be found in different geographical regions. Analogously, I hold that cognitive modernity was a potential in all human populations, differently realized in different regions.

[11] The loss of prehistory with the advent of agriculture is a particular instance of what I call historical effacement. I previously introduced the idea of historical effacement in History Effaced, and further developed the idea in A Brief History of the Loss of History and The Effacement of Being. This was in part inspired by Krauss and Sherrer’s thesis on the end of cosmology, which I applied to archaeology in The End of Archaeology. Effacement is an ongoing process, the result of the gnawing tooth of time. We cannot perceive historical effacement any more than we can perceive the ongoing processes of erosion or gravitational mass wasting, but it is always there in the background, slowly eroding the distant past, until that past ceases altogether to exist.

[12] “Ever more patients complain of what they call an ‘inner void,’ and that is the reason why I have termed this condition the ‘existential vacuum.’ In contradistinction to the peak-experience so aptly described by Maslow, one could conceive of the existential vacuum in terms of an ‘abyss-experience’.” Viktor Frankl, The Will to Meaning, Penguin, 1988, p. 83. Rather than employing the locution of “abyss experience,” Maslow contrasts peak experiences to nadir experiences—same idea, different terminology. Frankl also devotes a section of his Man’s Search for Meaning to the existential vacuum.

[13] Hobbes, Thomas, Of Man, Being the First Part of Leviathan, Chapter XIII, “Of the Natural Condition of Mankind as Concerning Their Felicity and Misery.”

[14] This transition in the form of religious experience from planetary endemism to spacefaring civilization is something I previously explored in Religious Experience and the Future of Civilization and Addendum on Religious Experience and the Future of Civilization, but which deserves much more careful and detailed study at some future time.

[15] I have previously discussed the deep history of the brain and the central nervous system (CNS) in How Early a Mind? and A Counterfactual on Central Nervous System Development. These posts were inspired by the discovery of early fossilized CNSs, specifically, by two papers discussing such discoveries, “Fuxianhuiid ventral nerve cord and early nervous system evolution in Panarthropoda” and “Brain and eyes of Kerygmachela reveal protocerebral ancestry of the panarthropod head.”

[16] I previously discussed cognitive speciation, which implies mechanisms of cognitive selection, in The Overview Effect over the longue durée.

[17] This can be shown by the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium. The conditions that would have to obtain in order for evolution to cease acting upon gene flow in a given population (i.e., for that population to be in equilibrium, meaning that the distribution of allele frequencies in a given generation are the same as in the previous generation) never in fact obtain in nature.

[18] I have here adopted the metaphor of the “branching bush” to describe evolution, following the use of this metaphor by Stephen Jay Gould, who was at pains to deny that evolution is a ladder of progress. Gould wrote: “…evolution is a copiously branching bush with innumerable present outcomes, not a highway or a ladder with one summit.” (Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, p. 21) I am less concerned about the conflation of evolution and progress (more on that another time), but I like the sense of proliferation in all directions that we get from the branching bush metaphor.

[19] The denial of consciousness and cognition to other species may be understood as a distinctively modern idea, probably largely due to Descartes. Medieval thought did not follow this particular research program in the philosophy of mind. Cf. “Why is the Sheep Afraid of the Wolf? Medieval Debates on Animal Passions,” by Dominik Perler, in Emotion and Cognitive Life in Medieval and Early Modern Philosophy, edited by Martin Pickavé and Lisa Shapiro, Oxford University Press, 2012.

[20] Cf. “Neuroanatomy of the killer whale (Orcinus orca) from magnetic resonance images” by Lori Marino, Chet C. Sherwood, Bradley N. Delman, Cheuk Y. Tang, Thomas P. Naidich, and Patrick R. Hof (The Anatomical Record. Part A, Discoveries in Molecular, Cellular, and Evolutionary Biology, 281, 2, 1256-63.) For an overview of this material cf. “Killer Whales are Non-Human Persons” by Lars Crawford. One of the authors of the paper, Lori Marino, said the following in an interview: “There’s some parts of the limbic system of dolphins and whales that have changed and actually gotten smaller, but there are other parts of it that are adjacent areas that are much larger and more elaborate than in the human brain. That area is called the paralimbic region. So they have like an extra lobe of tissue that sort of sits adjacent to their limbic system and their neocortex… That lobe has something to do with processing emotions, but also something to do with thinking. It’s very highly elaborated in most cetaceans and not at all or not nearly as much in humans or other mammals, so it suggests that there’s something that evolved or adapted in that brain over time that did not occur in other mammals, including humans.” Cf. Inside the mind of a killer whale: A Q+A with the neuroscientist from ‘Blackfish’

[21] A good review of neurophysiology is Evolution of the neocortex: a perspective from developmental biology by Pasko Rakic. There is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to neuroscience papers, but I will also mention the article Researchers find DNA mutation that led to change in function of gene in humans that sparked larger neocortex by Bob Yirka, which led me to the paper Human-specific gene ARHGAP11B promotes basal progenitor amplification and neocortex expansion by Marta Florio, et al., which discusses neural proliferation in primates.

[22] The title of Wallace’s “Ternate Essay” (1858) in which he independently proposed evolution by natural selection was “On The Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type.”

[23] This coupling of anatomical and cognitive speciation would result in what I have called the “Great Voluntaristic Divergence” in an earlier Centauri Dreams post, Transhumanism and Adaptive Radiation.


{ 24 comments… add one }
  • Robin Datta March 15, 2019, 22:14

    Over the past 20,000 years the human brain has shrunk in volume by the equivalent of a tennis ball for the average adult male. The same phenomenon is seen in the domesticated animals, and has been due to less of a threat to survival from environmental stresses. An increasing size of the brain would entail either changes in the female pelvis, or an increasing resort to Caesarian sections, or both.

    If the time involved in travelling interstellar distances between different cohorts of human settlers is sufficiently large, they would be a setup for speciation: 50,000 years produced the various human races.

    Accurate retention and reproduction of digitized data, with reference to time, place and content may affect the mythologies of the future.

    TLDR; scanned through it in its entirety: is quite a dense thicket.

    • Nick Nielsen March 17, 2019, 4:35

      It is interesting to note that there is already some evidence that the frequency with which caesarian sections are being used today has led to an increase in the size of heads of infants (cf. “Cliff-edge model of obstetric selection in humans” by Philipp Mitteroecker, Simon M. Huttegger, Barbara Fischer, and Mihaela Pavlicev). It seems that as soon as technology is available that influences a selection pressure, human reproduction responds to the changed evolutionary circumstances. The use of ectogenesis for reproduction would further change selection pressures on human infants.

      But, of course, one of the major adaptations of humanity to its large brain is delayed development. After a human infant is born, the skull is still soft and the brain continues to grow about fifty percent in size. This timing mechanism allows the human brain to grow to a size that would not fit through the birth canal.

      So there are at least these two mechanisms—technologically assisted reproduction, and further delayed development—that could accommodate further development of the human brain.

      Agreed both that long time periods for interstellar expansion would allow for speciation, and that our record keeping technologies will have an important influence on future mythologies.

      Best wishes,


  • Alex Tolley March 16, 2019, 14:09

    Much of this goes over my head, and the dense text does not make for clarity.

    Regarding speciation

    Species are rather loosely defined as a population that produces fertile offspring. Typically this means that the breeding populations must either be isolated in some way, or that breeding between populations cannot produce fertile offspring. We have declared H. neanderthalensis and H. sapiens separate species, even though we know through genetics that there was some interbreeding that has left the average human with 1 or 2 percent of Neanderthal genes.

    Human populations were isolated in the Americas and Australia after the end of the last ice age about 12 millennia ago. Genetic drift probably accounts for the small differences between these populations and later, Old World colonizers, but clearly, we do not, and should not, claim these populations speciated from the old world H Sapiens. Given that colonization of the Americas started about 30 millennia ago, and Australia as much as 120 millennia ago, clearly there has not been enough time for these populations to speciate.

    Unless some apocalypse occurs, the human population is on track to mix genetics more completely than at any other time in our history. Furthermore, as any genetic drift that could jump start any speciation to some sort of post-human species is going to be very slow due to the large, global population that reduces the probability of a successful selection of a new genotype (Fisher’s genetic variance theorem). Therefore I do not see any likely non-technological human speciation is time frames of less than the order of a million years.

    I also see no evidence that any environment is providing selective pressure on human beings. This pressure should be reflected in increased reproductive success as classic Darwinian evolution requires. However, populations are mostly increasing on the African continent due to traditional high birth rates while technology has greatly reduced the mortality rate. Africa is predicted to become the most populous continent by the end of this century. Reproductive success, in this case, is clearly not due to selection pressures (other than an acceptance of technological intervention). Because our post-hunter-gatherer social systems have always tended to concentrate wealth, we tend to see adverse fitness selection pressures due to wealth maintenance, leading, in extremis, to the double recessive gene lines of European monarchs. As cognitive ability tends towards the average, wealth accumulation will not result in some cognitive gain, but rather the same sort of genetic problems we have seen in hereditary aristocracies.

    There are some interesting ideas in genetic manipulation that might start speciation, but I suspect the sheer diversity of options will prevent populations from speciating, but rather any major changes will just result in sterile offspring. Minor changes might be more like selective animal breeding, primarily to ensure that some alleles are eliminated from this socially self-selecting population’s gene pool.

    The only way I see speciation happening is if small colonies on other planets or moons are soon cut off from the Earth’s population. The small colony populations, affected by genetic drift and unique environmental factors such as low gravity, higher radiation exposure, and lack of a ubiquitous microbial biosphere, may speciate over many tens of millennia. Over millions of years, they would become true species, unable to reproduce with fertile offspring with Earth people.

    Regarding human versus machine myth making

    Your essay has deliberately confined itself to humans. However, it is just as likely that our technological descendants will be the true colonizers of the solar system and galaxy. Such artificial beings will perhaps have cognitive features that are rather different from ours, although with considerable overlap in functionality. These beings may well be likely to have their own creation myths after a time, especially as populations lose touch with the homeworld.

    This might be the subject of another essay.

    • Robin Datta March 16, 2019, 16:34

      If biological lineages derived from humans were spread out sufficiently so that they were no more looking to a home world earth than humans now look to Africa as home continent, or perhaps with intergalactic travel, the temporospatial separation amongst settler cohorts could almost force speciation.

      • Alex Tolley March 16, 2019, 17:35

        You are arguing for the [geographical] separation of populations. That is the same as my planetary colony argument. How long it would take to speciate will depend on the population size and any specific drivers to select for individual survival and reproductive success. An O’Neill style worldship with, e.g., 1 million crew/passengers may take a long time. If a large genetic library is used to ensure genetic diversity, and there are fixed family sizes, this would extend the time to speciate. OTOH, a small group of 100 settlers (like KSM “The First One Hundred” on Red Mars) on an alien world might well speciate much faster.

        The key point, which we agree on, is the forced isolation of populations that will allow some gene drift and differential selection. For such populations, technologically assisted speciation may occur, where, e.g., all participants on a worldship or in a colony are required to have the same genetic modifications that would automatically make their population unable to successfully reproduce with any Earth people. That might include adding extra chromosomes with novel genes and changing the genetic code. If each worldship or colony made different decisions, there would be rapid radiation of [post]human species.

    • Patient Observer March 16, 2019, 21:39

      Just a humorous comment – speciation in computer software happens every few years.

    • Nick Nielsen March 17, 2019, 4:51

      Thanks for your detailed comments.

      You wrote, inter alia: “The only way I see speciation happening is if small colonies on other planets or moons are soon cut off from the Earth’s population.”

      Reproductive isolation, however it comes about, can result in speciation if the selection pressure is sufficiently strong. As can be shown by the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium, evolution is always ongoing, though whether it is mico-evolution or macro-evolution will depend on the selection pressures. There could be separated human populations in which only micro-evolutionary changes take place over thousands, tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of years, but given the human tendency to live on the edge, my money is on speciation occurring in a lot less than a million years. There are cases of speciation occurring in as little as 250 years (if memory serves, there is a lake in Africa where the fish have repeatedly speciated over relatively short time scales).

      You also wrote: “Your essay has deliberately confined itself to humans…”

      If technological successors to humanity are conscious, yes, they will have an unconscious, and that unconscious will have its own archetypes. As you imply, the evolutionary history of human beings would be so different from the evolutionary history of conscious machines that could be our successors that I suspect that there will be very little overlap in the archetypes of biological and technological minds. I am assuming a naturalistic account of archetypes that find their origins in evolutionary psychology. Given this assumption, and the absence of a deep evolutionary history of machines, there would be no reason for machine minds to share the archetypes of human minds.

      No doubt you have seen Battlestar Galactica, which extensively explores the idea of the religious lives of post-human technological successors.

      • Alex Tolley March 17, 2019, 15:26

        As can be shown by the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium, evolution is always ongoing

        The H-W equilibrium actually prevents evolution by maintaining allele frequencies. It is selection pressures that change allele frequencies that cause evolution. (I thought your note about known deviations from the HW Law was intended to emphasize this point. Or did you mean “as shown by deviations from the H-W eqm….”?)

        There could be separated human populations in which only micro-evolutionary changes take place over thousands, tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of years, but given the human tendency to live on the edge, my money is on speciation occurring in a lot less than a million years.

        The evidence as I have pointed out that only micro-evolution has occurred, for the last 10,000 or so, and maybe even for much longer. Humans today live a lot less “on the edge” than they used to, as evidenced by the increasing frequencies of the population with genetic diseases and other non-lethal alleles that would result in elimination from the gene pool in harsher (more selective) environments. The other evidence, as noted by Robin Datta, is the reduced brain size (vs body mass) of contemporary humans compared to our pre-agricultural ancestors, a sign of domestication and reduced need for cognition to survive. There have been evolutionary changes due to technology, most notably the invention of fire and cooking. This reduced the size of our guts, the size of our jaws and jaw muscles, and allowed our brains to become larger. Subsequent technological advance has not had such an evolutionary impact, other than the domestication of milk animals that resulted in some populations to develop lactases while others did not. The development of animal laborers and later machines has not yet had any selective pressure for more gracile humans AFAICS (so far).

        There are cases of speciation occurring in as little as 250 years (if memory serves, there is a lake in Africa where the fish have repeatedly speciated over relatively short time scales).

        You are referring to Cichlid fishes in L. Victoria. These are known to be very plastic. However, it important to note that rates of evolution through heredity is dependent on reproductive rates. Humans generations are 15-25 years. Most other animals are far faster, with many insects reproducing within weeks and small mammals within months. (That is why they are used for genetic experiments).

        Modern humans appeared about 300,000 years ago, about the time when we separated from the Neanderthal line. This was when populations were very small and selection pressures would have been stronger. And as I have noted, the genetic evidence suggests that modern humans did breed with Neanderthals producing fertile offspring which indicates that the morphology differences that have classified Neanderthals as a distinct species mean that the definition of species is rather fuzzy. At one point there were a number of contemporary hominid species, but we do not have any evidence that they ever interbred.
        Putting together long generation times and humans fitting environments to themselves, not the other way around, to reduce selective pressures, the evolution of humans without design so that true speciation occurs, is likely to be very slow. That isn’t to say that evolution has stopped, or that selection pressures have been reduced. Sex selection may become more dominant, to influence allele frequencies, if differential reproductive success ensues. Institutions such as monogamy reduce differential reproductive success, and as I noted, Africans now lead in reproductive success by reducing selective pressures.

        • Patient Observer March 17, 2019, 20:46

          The other evidence, as noted by Robin Datta, is the reduced brain size (vs body mass) of contemporary humans compared to our pre-agricultural ancestors, a sign of domestication and reduced need for cognition to survive.

          As less than a novice in these matters, I do find it counter-intuitive to consider human intelligence (if that is what cognition means) is decreasing. Also, brain size alone does not necessarily indicated the level of cognition. Certainly, brain structure is in play. Also, many animals have brains larger than the human brain but do not appear to have intelligence/cognition comparable to humans. Of course, cognition does not necessarily need to express itself in the form of language, tool making, etc. which is an entirely different ball of wax.

          • Alex Tolley March 17, 2019, 22:30

            Also, brain size alone does not necessarily indicated the level of cognition


            Indeed. That is why I added (vs body mass). Bear in mind that how we use are brains changes with the environment. E.g. memorization when there was no writing. The illusion of increasing IQ – The Flynn Effect – is probably due to more people now educating their brains to do tasks that are on IQ tests, rather than truly indicating increasing IQ.

            The relative lack of stress – less predation and violence, and no need to hunt for food, is contributing to lowered cognition, even as we use our brains for different tasks. Bear in mind we use technology to reduce cognitive load. Books and databases are now our memory storage. Machines do tasks that learned skills were once needed. And so forth. Think of all these technologies as extending our minds. [Personally, I feel like I have been partially lobotomized if I lose my internet connection. ]

      • Alex Tolley March 17, 2019, 22:35

        As you imply, the evolutionary history of human beings would be so different from the evolutionary history of conscious machines that could be our successors that I suspect that there will be very little overlap in the archetypes of biological and technological minds.

        Should it even prove possible to upload human minds into machine bodies, then the overlap in archetypes might be very high. Similarly, if we build machine minds that closely mimic human ones. I tend to think that will not happen, and that machine minds will be very different from human ones. They will almost certainly arrive before close analogs to human minds appear.

  • Patient Observer March 17, 2019, 15:15

    Slightly off topic. One thousand years from now, what event will be considered the dawn of the Space Age (assuming that space exploration and development continues):
    – First human in space
    – First human to set foot on the moon
    – First human to set foot on Mars (assuming it happens)
    – (something else)
    I suggest “First human in space” as subsequent events represent engineering and technology advances although undoubtedly heroism and mythological symbols were in play as well.

    • Alex Tolley March 17, 2019, 17:28

      I would plump for the Gagarin as the first to reach orbit for these reasons:

      1. Historically we remember successful expeditions. Thus we don’t remember people who put to sea, but rather the likes of Henry the Navigator, Columbus, etc., who successfully managed long sea voyages. In the air age, we remember the Wright brothers (first successful heavier than air flight), Bleriot (first successful cross English Channel flight), Lindbergh (first successful solo Atlantic flight), Yeager (the first successful Mach 1+ flight). I think that the Wright brothers first successful powered flight is considered the start of the air age, although arguably the first successful zeppelins might be the real start of that age.
      2. While The Moon landings made the biggest impression on me, and arguably the public around the world, I think that Gagarin’s successful orbital flight can be considered the start of the space age. The Moon landings will probably be remembered as the start of the age of interplanetary flight, much as Lindbergh’s first successful solo flight of the Atlantic can be considered the initiation of intercontinental civil aviation (even though Alcock and Brown had flown across the Atlantic in 1919, and an airship was the first to make a return flight in 1929). Lindbergh’s flight seems to have captured the public’s imagination as the most important step in that direction.
      Having said all that, the Eagle LM will still be on the Moon, perhaps protected as a historic site, and will ensure that this expedition is remembered as a major step near the start of the space age.

    • Doug Loss March 17, 2019, 17:48

      I think it more likely that (assuming space exploration and development continues) the “dawn of the Space Age” would be considered when viable living environments are created in space where humans can survive and live permanently, or at least for very long (multi-year) periods with no permanent physiological adversity.

      • Patient Observer March 17, 2019, 21:00

        Would the ISS approach that definition? Despite its numerous detractors, the ISS has shown the viability of long term human habitation in space albeit not in a very glamorous/heroic manner; rather just a series of incremental improvements in technology and human factors.

        • Doug Loss March 18, 2019, 14:28

          I don’t think ISS qualifies, as the “with no permanent physiological adversity” qualification is definitely not met by it.

    • Erik Landahl March 17, 2019, 19:59

      I suggest “First human to set foot on Mars” as it will involve humans exploring an alien world, taming a deadly physical environment, and creating human homes on a planet that has never felt the weight of intelligence. That seems rich fodder for the dawn story.

    • Patient Observer March 17, 2019, 20:36

      Another possibility:
      – Discovery of extraterrestrial life (ideally with a separate origin)

      • ljk March 18, 2019, 9:24

        Discovering alien life, intelligent or otherwise, is a good choice. It would certainly be a monumental one for humanity, which is why I am happy that SETI and astrobiology are finally starting to get the respect, attention, resources, and finances they have long been due.

        As for other key moments in the start of the human Space Age, my vote is for the first artifact to leave the Sol system, Pioneer 10, which I have referred to as our first Galactic Ambassador:


        If you want, we could lump in all of the first few deep space probes that are escaping our star’s gravitational pull: Pioneer 11, Voyager 1 and 2, and even New Horizons although it came decades later and carries really weak interstellar “gifts”.

  • Andrew Palfreyman March 17, 2019, 18:28

    The next batch of “heroes” will be the future inhabitants of self-sustaining O’Neill Cylinders of sufficient size. Some of these will undertake long journeys to other systems, in what can only be described as Odysseys.

  • ole burde March 18, 2019, 5:08

    Not too much mythology has been created by tourists flying on first class….if our decendants on distant worlds will create a mythology from the first exodous from earth , it will be rooted in the great suffering , sacrifice , tragedy which the first pioneers somehow mannaged to survive ….a much too small starship crew strugling for many generations to maintain both themselves and their much too smal and very far form perfect survival-machine

    • ljk March 18, 2019, 9:38

      My first real exposure to the multigenerational starship concept was Robert Heinlein’s SF novel Orphans of the Sky.

      Due to a mutiny during their colonization mission to Alpha Centauri aboard a five-mile long WorldShip, most of the crew were killed and the two warring factions split off. The mutineer half underwent genetic changes due to living in parts of the Ship, as it became known, which had more exposure to cosmic radiation.

      Over time the last few people who remembered the real reason for their mission died off and the rest of the population thought their Ship was the entire universe (why no one installed any windows in the hull I do not know).

      They created quite a mythology from this rather unique isolation, with clever explanations for just about every aspect of their existence. They even believed in an afterlife where they would travel to a place called Far Centaurus.

      Some details on their culture and views are written here:


      This has always fascinated me. What would happen with a population aboard a multigenerational starship? Would they forget their true, original purpose over time? Or is that a myth in itself born from the need to tell a contemporary exciting adventure tale?

  • Abelard Lindsey March 18, 2019, 13:29

    It seems to me we’re putting the cart before the horse here. We need to GET into space in a sustainable manner before anything else. Not only does this require low cost space transportation (something that SpaceX and Blue Origin are trying rectify), but also the development of mining space resources (asteroid mining), processing those materials into useable form, the fabrication of large scale space structures (O’neill style habitats), and the development of the biome for those structures. We’re looking at a 50-70 year timeline to develop all of these capabilities such that we can actually go to space and live there in comfort and style.

    Then we can start talking about a spacefaring mythology.

  • jim March 18, 2019, 14:43

    Given the enormous ecological destruction our current society is causing, if human society still exists in the future they will mythologize this era as monstrously evil and space travel as part of that evil.

    Our Necro-civilization powered by long dead organisms, engaged in a massive global orgy of death and destruction , wants to transform the living world into a dead machine that it can control. Pluto’s cursed treasure (of fossil fuels) was found and is being plundered but now, the curse it carries is apparent.

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