Humans have landed on the moon. We also have a permanent presence on the International Space Station (ISS) in low-earth orbit. However, compared to our robots, the human presence in space is fairly unimpressive. Our robots have landed on asteroids, Mars, and Titan; they have circled Jupiter and Saturn; and New Horizons is currently en route to Pluto. Two of our robots, Voyager 1 and 2, are approaching the edge of our solar system.
Will we ever join our robots? Will humans ever step foot on an alien planet? Will we ever leave our solar system?
In December, I wrote about Mars One and Space X, and their attempts to lead pioneering colonization missions to Mars. As someone that embraces the two-planet philosophy of Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking, I completely support these attempts. I think a human mission to Mars poses incredible challenges and dangers, but it is also imperative for our continued survival, and therefore it is the prudent long-term decision.
Colonizing Mars would represent the most daunting adaptive challenge in the history of our species. We evolved on the savannas of East Africa. With great ingenuity, we were able to adapt to foreign terrain and hostile environments. Within a period of approximately 50,000 years we had expanded from a niche smaller than modern-day Eritrea to inhabit nearly every available landmass on the planet. Our species has a long-history of successful adaptations to new environments.
With each successive migration into a new landscape, we changed. But adaptation to new landscapes on Earth only required cultural and technological change. We didn’t need to change as a species. Earth is a pale blue dot on which we can survive biologically. However, permanently leaving our planet will require a new type of evolution.
If humans leave Earth they cannot expect to take the Earth’s environment with them. Neurophysiologist Manfred Clynes realized this in the 1960’s. He compared this colonization approach to “a fish taking a small quantity of water along with [it] to live on land.” We must adapt to our new environments.
The main reason we have multiple robots on Mars, but no humans, is because our biological systems cannot withstand long-term existence in space (even with significant technological assistance). Our evolution did not prepare us for a vacuum.
Becoming cyborgs, or replacing our biological systems altogether, is not as far-fetched as you would think. Humans have already started to merge with technology. It has been clearly demonstrated that technological and biological systems can merge and cooperate together. Even our nervous system can adapt and successfully interact with machines. In fact, the majority of futurists predict that we will see the complete merger of technological systems and human biological systems this century. This merger should enable us to adapt to different environments off of our own home planet.
Need to exist in zero-gravity? There will be an app for that.
So when will this happen? Mars One is planning for a 2023 colonization of Mars, and it is possible that they will achieve this goal. However, life on Mars for these first pioneers will not be easy and the environment of Mars will pose considerable dangers and challenges. And any hope of terraforming the planet to meet our evolved biological needs is unrealistic in the short-term.
If our species first Martian pioneers are to live psychologically healthy lives, they will have to either fundamentally change their own biology, or start to merge with machines that can better enable them to exist. Luckily, massive advances in synthetic biology and nanotechnology are less than two decades away, and may prove to be vital components of a successful mission.
On a final note, I agree with Davies that becoming post-biological is a necessary evolutionary process for any species capable of leaving its home planet. It is the logical and perhaps the inevitable next evolutionary process for a species at that level of development. Therefore it is my prediction that when we do colonize Mars (and beyond), we will do so by augmenting our biological nature.
This punctuated equilibrium-like transformation will be the next step of our evolution, and the birth of a Type 1 civilization.