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Remembering Ben Finney (1933-2017)

Ben Finney, the editor (along with Eric Jones) of Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience, has died at age 83. A professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii, Finney died quietly at a nursing home in Kaimuki, according to this obituary in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. There is much to be said about this visionary man, but I begin for our purposes with his contribution to deep space studies and interstellar thinking.


For Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience, which I bought not long after it came out in 1986, turned out to be one of those key texts, and I am hardly the only person who was transformed by the ideas in its pages. I bought it purely on the basis of its title. Not yet aware of the serious studies into interstellar flight that were then being published in the journals, I marveled that here was a text that put human movement to the stars into a serious scientific and historical context and saw it as an apotheosis of the species.

Image: Anthropologist and author Ben Finney. Credit: Polynesian Voyaging Society.

Paging through the book, I quickly realized that it was a series of papers from a conference of the same name that had taken place at Los Alamos in May of 1983. The conference was a multidisciplinary event ranging from astrophysics to anthropology, looking into societal migration, emerging technologies, resource acquisition and the critical human factors underlying all exploration. Finney’s own contributions emphasized not just the technically possible but the emotionally resonant, stressing exploration as an imperative of the species.

Thus we come to the peopling of the Pacific islands. Finney had an ear for language and a sense of deep time. Here he’s talking about exploration over long time-frames:

The whole history of Hominidae has been one of expansion from an East African homeland over the globe and of developing technological means to spread into habitats for which we are not biologically adapted. Various peoples in successive epochs have taken the lead in this expansion, among them the Polynesians and their ancestors. During successive bursts lasting a few hundred years, punctuated by long pauses of a thousand or more years, these seafarers seem to have become intoxicated with the discovery of new lands, with using a voyaging technology they alone possessed to sail where no one had ever been before.

Before reading Interstellar Migration, I had given little thought to historical corollaries that could prepare us for a possible future among the stars. These days, thanks to Finney’s work, we’re used to seeing the analogy with the Pacific islands made, to the point that its strengths and weaknesses have been debated frequently in the literature (and certainly in the comments sections on this site over the years). But it was Finney’s unique background that made it possible for him to develop the Polynesian experience in deep space terms:

Once their attempts to cope with the rising sea levels of the Holocene committed them to sea, the first pioneers of this lineage of seafarers had good reasons to keep going. The continental mindset of their distant ancestors would have faded as successive generations pushed farther and farther east, to be eventually replaced by the more accurate view that the world was covered with water through which bits of land were scattered. They therefore knew that in pushing into the open ocean they were entering not a vast empty region but one teeming with islands. What is more, after leaving the Bismarck Archipelago and outdistancing their less sea-adapted rivals, they would have realized that before them lay an ocean of islands accessible to themselves alone. What more invitation did they need?

An invitation indeed. Now, as to Finney’s background: He was an anthropologist, a Harvard Ph.D who taught for thirty years at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where his courses included Human Adaptation to the Sea and Human Adaptation to Living in Space. It was back in the 1950s that his exposure to a book by Andrew Sharp raised his hackles, arguing as it did that Polynesians had populated the Pacific islands more or less by chance, driven by the vagaries of wind and tide. Finney decided it was a theory that could be contested.

To do so, he built a Polynesian sailing canoe christened Nalehia, followed by a larger craft, the Hōkūleʻa, which Finney sailed with a small crew from Hawaii to Tahiti. A founder and first president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, Finney was convinced that the Polynesians had been capable of extraordinary feats of navigation and deep ocean voyages in open craft. That he proved such voyages were possible is attested to by the fact that some 25 similar canoes are now making voyages in the Pacific islands. Hokule’a itself is finishing up a three-year circumnavigation of the Earth, with return to Hawaii slated for some time in June.


Image: Hokule’a arrival in Honolulu from Tahiti in 1976. Credit: Phil Uhl/Wikimedia Commons.

Space was never far from Ben Finney’s thinking. He was a research associate at NASA Ames on SETI issues in the 1990s and held a faculty appointment at the International Space University, in addition to his other appointments at UC-Santa Barbara and the University of French Polynesia. His career was wide-ranging enough to take in nuclear waste disposal (working with Sandia National Laboratories) and robotics. But for most people, it will be the Polynesian experience in one way or another that will always define Ben Finney.

Moreover, the future he envisioned was one of endless speciation, given the distances to the stars. Let me wrap up with the conclusion to his “The Exploring Animal,” written with Eric Jones and the lead-off paper in Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience:

Human evolution in space will hardly be limited to the birth of a new species. Space is not a single environment but an Earthcentric residual category for everything outside our atmosphere. There are innumerable environments out there providing countless niches to exploit, first by humans and then by the multitudinous descendant species. By expanding through space we will be embarking on an adventure that will spread an explosive speciation of intelligent life as far as technology or limits placed by any competing life forms originating elsewhere will allow. Could the radiation of evolving intelligent life through space be the galactic destiny of this Earth creature we have called the exploring animal?

Addendum: Savage Minds, an excellent venue for discussion of anthropology, has a detailed article on Ben Finney that I highly recommend. Thanks to Randy McDonald for the tip.


{ 18 comments… add one }
  • xcalibur May 31, 2017, 16:54


    As for the Polynesians, they’ve long been one of my areas of interest. There is much evidence that they succeeded in navigating the Pacific Ocean using pre-modern technology, rather than drifting at random. If they had drifted to the islands and become stranded, you would expect the culture and language of each island to diverge from the others. Instead, there is a high degree of cultural and linguistic commonality between widely separated Pacific islands, which only makes sense if there were regular traffic and trade between them; which leads to the conclusion that the Polynesians were expert navigators.

    I’d like to quote one of my favorite passages from Toynbee:

    It was by responding boldly and successfully to this challenge of the estranging sea — by achieving, with their rudimentary means of navigation, the tour de force of establishing a regular maritime traffic across the open waters between island and island — that the Polynesian pioneers won their footing on the specks of dry land which are scattered through the vast watery wilderness of the Pacific Ocean almost as rarely as the stars are scattered through the depths of Space.

    The analogy between colonization of Pacific Islands and habitable planets in space has also occurred to me. It will be a significant challenge, but one that I think we are capable of meeting. It will increase redundancy of human civilization, as well as prevent homogenization — both of which are important for our survival and prosperity.

  • Adam May 31, 2017, 18:47

    Hi Paul
    It’s an intriguing analogy. Polynesian navigators were applied astronomers and that’s something the Pacific nations should take to heart. If they set sail in a vaster sea they’ll be following a deepening groove in their cultural psyche.

  • Ron S. May 31, 2017, 22:13

    To my knowledge the best book that captures the depth and sophistication of Polynesian ocean navigation and the culture it is part of is “The Last Navigator” by Steve Thomas. I read it many years ago and it made a lasting impression. The book says quite a bit about how they do (did) it, and it’s about a lot more than stars. After all, the stars can only direct you when you know where you’re going, not how to find new islands or correct course errors.


    • xcalibur June 1, 2017, 19:17

      That’s true. I’ve read that in addition to the stars, they used clouds, wind patterns, ocean currents, and flight-paths of birds to navigate.

      • Ron S. June 1, 2017, 22:21

        Yes, and even more, such as the behavior of currents and animals due to weather and time of year. When they decided to send a party to search out a new island and live there it was carefully planned and led by their best navigators. It was almost never a blind gamble. There was inevitable loss of life, though from all accounts far less than most of us would guess. Especially since they had no written language, relying on oral instruction and memory (and many mnemonic tricks). Navigation was also necessary to broaden the gene pool. There was much marriage between islands and, of course, the occasional war party. They were a sophisticated people.

        • ljk June 2, 2017, 8:42

          It is amazing what people can accomplish when they are not distracted by largely mind-numbing social media or coddled and pampered by technology.

          • Alex Tolley June 2, 2017, 11:30

            I’m sure the Polynesians had plenty of mind-numbing distractions to occupy their time. As Finney notes in his section on the Polynesian diaspora in the book, their ocean-going canoes were a technology that other cultures did not have. I see no difference between those canoes and the hot transport technologies of the industrial era – trains, airplanes, and rockets. Most of us will sit at home and indulge in social media whilst the explorers utilize these technologies. “I’ll have another okolehao while you watch the canoe launch. `Okole maluna.”

            • ljk June 5, 2017, 9:28

              Reading engages your brain far more than watching television, or a computer monitor displaying cat videos.

              I know what you are getting at and yes everyone wants and needs to take a mental/emotional break now and then. What worries me are the numbers of people who prefer it or just do not know any better. Today’s media makes it even easier to get distracted than at any other time in history – and it will no doubt only get worse as VR and robotics improve.

              I just learned about this new book so I have not read it yet, but it may be relevant to this conversation:


              Another thought: VR may actually be useful if we end up sending humans on multigenerational interstellar voyages. Would it be cruel or a kindness to have the crew think they are living on Earth in a place of their choice when in fact they are somewhere in the void between the stars? I am thinking especially of those generations which will never see another world in their lifetimes outside the WorldShip.

              Of course as a planet dweller I am thinking such folks would crave being on a planet, when in fact if they were on a space vessel their entire lives – especially if it is a massive one – that may in fact be the only home they know or want. I can recall several multigenerational starship stories where the crew looked upon visiting a planet as equivalent to wallowing in a trash heap and only went to such places when necessary.

              • Alexander Tolley June 5, 2017, 12:32

                VR has been posited as a potential simulation future where minds all live in a simulation on a “computronium” platform constructed from the planets of the solar system. It is also one possible solution for the Fermi question, although why all ETIs would go this route seems problematic.

                While I agree there seems more to be distracted with today, kids seem to complain “I’m bored!” just as much as we did back in the pre-computer era. I suspect distraction is whatever is available. As the saying about country life goes, “watching the traffic lights change…”.

                I have Homo Deus on my future reading list possibilities. I have found that to cut my book pile that if I put a book on a list and then come back to a purchase decision after 6-12 months, very often I find that it no longer interests me. The books on my pile then are more likely to be of sustainable, rather than transient, interest. It will be interesting to see what happens with this book given the rave reviews of his first book.

  • ljk June 1, 2017, 9:48

    It is ironic to note that when Ferdinand Magellan sailed through the Pacific Ocean during his circumnavigation of Earth (which he would not live to see the completion of), he and his crew missed every major island until they reached the Philippines.

    An excellent Web site on Magellan’s expedition, which can be used as an analogy for what future interstellar explorers may encounter. This could include mutiny and fatal misinterpretations of any natives:


  • Randy F McDonald June 1, 2017, 10:34

    Everyone here might be interested in how anthropology blog Savage Minds remembered Finney.


  • ljk June 1, 2017, 11:01

    Let us not forget the famous Kon-Tiki expedition, although ironically it was done to test the theory that natives from South America populated the Pacific islands:


    I distinctly recall the day I found Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience in a used book store (another dying aspect of modern culture?) circa 1986. I thought I had found gold in that primitive Internet era when online resources were uncommon.

    Some relevant articles on the subject of humanity’s vital need for expanding into the Universe I happened to find while searching for Finney’s tome online:




  • Alex Tolley June 1, 2017, 12:31

    The analogy with Pacific Islanders is romantic, but perhaps not as relevant as we think.

    During their exploration phase, they were probably just lucky to reach certain islands. Probably many voyagers got lost and died. Their expertise grew when they created navigation maps to get to islands they had already discovered.

    In contrast, we will know the location and conditions of any planets we voyage to before we go. Robotic probes will even have done the work for the nearer stars, and will continue to do so as the interstellar expansion continues. Unlike the Polynesians, we won’t tolerate human lives lost, so trips will be planned to ensure survival. lastly, we can expect Earth to remain the favored habitat for humans until we have terraformed our own worlds. Almost all destinations will be less hospitable than bare volcanic rocks. There will be no suitable island or atoll to colonize on a one-way voyage unless we make them so in advance.

    O’Neills might well prove the best way to colonize – take your city/planetoid-sized world ships wherever you go, using local resources to build new ones. Start terraforming dead worlds for [far] future colonists if desired, although I suspect a Dyson swarm might be a better use of resources. If so, I expect the human expansion to remain mostly within the solar system, breaking up planets to build vast numbers of diverse habitats for trillions of humans, all within a reasonable communication distance to bootstrap technological and economic growth within a set of political entities.

    • ljk June 1, 2017, 13:34

      Alex, your comment about O’Neill Colonies: It is ironic how in the 2014 film Interstellar they went to so much trouble (and plot time) to rescue parts of humanity by using an artificial wormhole (provided by future humans) to attempt the colonization of distant worlds in another galaxy – circling a black hole no less – only to end up living in O’Neill habitats around Saturn by the end of the film. Nolan tried to be Kubrick but fell far short of that goal.


      Yes, I can see most of humanity staying in the cradle, but our machines will be another matter. Their relatively primitive antecedents have done quite well in deep space and on harsh alien worlds, so I can only imagine what their much improved descendants will accomplish out there in the rest of the galaxy.

    • Hemi Edwards July 11, 2017, 3:37

      Actually Alex you’re incorrect. The analogy is in fact very relevant. My Polynesian ancestors did indeed know that what to expect before they ventured out into the vast oceans. Do you expect that a people would commit such tremendous amounts of resources to an endeavour and take incredible risks based purely on blind hope that they’ll make landfall. For sure they didn’t not have the massive resources or advanced technologies that NASA scientists, but this does not make them ignorant or foolhardy. These voyages into the great expanses of the ocean weren’t taken lightly and were planned and prepared for generations in advance. They had sophisticated methods to identify landforms miles away based on their intimate knowledge of swells, currents, and cloud formations. The feats performed by my ancestors were every bit analogous to those performed by NASA scientists considering their technological limitations and lacking the legacy of mathematics and knowledge they inherited from antiquity.



  • ProjectStudio June 5, 2017, 11:19

    One has simply to walk along the beach and scan the linear horizon where the sea meets the sky to understand the analogy. The ocean is so vast, and unpredictable, and man is so small. It is an awe inspiring and at the same time a chilling perception. Yet the Polynesia’s developed an organic seafaring culture spanning thousands of years and traveling inconceivable distances by developing the tools and techniques within their reach. It became a way of life for a hundred generations.

  • ljk July 7, 2017, 9:52

    Space colonization, faith, and Pascal’s Wager

    The idea of space settlement, some have argued, is reminiscent of religion in the idea that it may represent the salvation of humanity. Sylvia Engdahl argues that faith in space colonization isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

    Monday, July 3, 2017


  • ljk July 18, 2017, 12:59

    Creating a spacefaring civilization: What is more important, means or motivation?

    Those who remember the Apollo program may be disappointed by the lack of progress in human spaceflight in the decades since. Stephen Kostes sees promise in the growing capabilities available today to enable new, sustainable space applications.


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