Addendum on Extraterrestrialization

7 June 2010

Monday


A tripartite periodization of integral history, a scheme of history that comprehends both the historical and the prehistorical.

Recently I explained my conception of extraterrestrialization as a potential demographic shift comparable to previous transformative punctuations of the equilibrium of integral history, such that humanity and our civilization(s) could become a primarily off-planet presence, and therefore a spacefaring species. To date, I see only two other demographic shifts of similar magnitude: the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution.

This post on extraterrestrialization generated a particularly interesting response from T. Greer of the Scholar’s Stage blog, who wrote:

As a final thought –- how ‘transformative’ do you think extraterrestrialization will be? Go back with me, if you will, to 1656, when the city of St. Augustine began construction. It was the first true European settlement in the New World, and it was the start of a centuries long process resulting in a global economic shift away from Europe and towards the West. How different will be our space pioneers and these Europeans sailing off the coast of Florida? Few people consider the discovery, conquest, and settlement of the New World the onset of a new age of civilization itself –- and for good reason; for the most part, the lives of the settlers and the societies they created were not radically different than what they had in the Old World. The New World was home to a large network of farmers held together by a universal religious tradition and a political structure known as the state. The dynamics of the New World were no different than the dynamics of the old, even if the background was a bit different.

So my question, then, is this: does expanding across the galaxy fundamentally change our civilization’s dynamics, or does it simply change the background?

Other than the minor quibble that St. Augustine was not the first European settlement in the New World, but rather the first semi-permanent European settlement in North America (there are cities in the Caribbean and South America that predate it by a hundred years), I couldn’t have received a better question in regard to my exposition of extraterrestrialization if I had written it myself. I will try to give something in the way of an answer, however inadequate.

St. Augustine, FL, is one of the oldest European settlements in the North America.

While it may be that, “Few people consider the discovery, conquest, and settlement of the New World the onset of a new age of civilization itself,” I would be one of those few. I consider it one of the few punctuations in integral history that merit top drawer consideration. Here we have two inter-connected but fundamentally different landmasses (in his Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond emphasizes the climatological importance of the east-west orientation of the Old World and the north-south orientation of the New World) that have hosted fundamentally different yet internally inter-connected histories of human civilization. The encounter and conflict between the Old World and the New World is among the greatest ruptures in the history of civilization. But I will leave that aside for today and not consider it further here.

Santo Domingo was founded by Bartholomew Columbus in 1496 and is the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the Americas.

The real issue, the meat of the question from Mr. Greer, is whether the expansion of the scope of a civilization can change, has changed, or will change the nature of the civilization. The particular case given is the expansion of human civilization to extraterrestrial dimensions, but the question can be generalized to include any civilization whatever, and any kind of expansion whatever. I dealt with this issue, admittedly somewhat obliquely, in Civilization in the Wilderness, where I considered some of the changes that occur to a tradition of civilization when it is moved into a New World and a new context. Thus, while I just said above that I wouldn’t return today to the encounter of the Old World and the New World, I find myself back again in the very next paragraph, for the transplantation of European civilization into the New World is a paradigmatic case of how civilization changes when it migrates to a new biome and grafts itself onto a distinct (and, up to the time, unknown) history.

The kind of changes that have occurred to European civilization transplanted into the New World are distinct from the kind of changes that have occurred in the unbroken tradition of European civilization in Europe. European history in Europe has remained European history, but in the new world, it became, and is still becoming, something entirely different. On the basis of this observation alone, I would say that the expansion, growth, and extrapolation of a civilization can in fact change the dynamic of a civilization. I don’t think that anyone would disagree with me on this if we consider the fine details of civilization. But Mr. Greer’s question can be taken to a more radical level, concerned with the largest dynamics of civilization and not merely the differences between saying “Hello” in the New World and saying “Hello” in the Old World, for such latter trivialities of the ordinary business of life might well drift in unpredictable ways even while the overall structure of civilization remains unchanged.

If we adopt a sufficiently abstract perspective, there is no social change that cannot be forced into the background. Mr. Greer cites, “large networks of farmers held together by a universal religious tradition and a political structure known as the state,” and at this level of abstraction and generality we cannot distinguish a great many changes that affect the development of civilizations, though I will note that the conditions he cites belong to a agricultural paradigm that has already given way to industrialized civilization that does not privilege farmers, that does not have a universal religious tradition, and whose modern nation-state is distinct from pre-modern state structures.

If we further narrow our focus to the facts of human biology, than any one age and its civilization (or lack thereof) can be shown to be rigorously identical to any other age or civilization (or lack of civilization). This is as much as to say that if we abstract from civilization, nothing is changed in the dynamic of human life by a change in the dynamic of civilization, because we are essentially no longer speaking of civilization. But this is a mere tautology and tells us nothing. We need to find a conceptual mid-point between the details of human biology, which only change on an evolutionary time scale, and the details of civilization, which change every time an adolescent coins a new term that is picked up by associates and goes on to become a part of contemporary language.

I have tried to define integral history as something like a conceptual mid-point between biology and civilization by taking it as the synthesis of humanistic and scientific history, both of which consider human biology and human civilization, but each from its own point of view. The power of the conception lies in the synthesis that sees the inter-connections of biology and civilization as a whole. Instead of two points of view, then, the humanistic and the scientific, there is one point of view — the point of view of integral history — and this point of view draws jointly on biology and civilization to produce a unified conception of man in the universe.

It is man’s place in the universe that is precisely the point at which extraterrestrialization reveals distinct forces that will act upon civilization at a level nearly indistinguishable from that of natural history, and therefore constituting integral history. There is at least one sense in which extraterrestrialization does not merely change the background of human civilization but actually changes the overall dynamic of civilization, and this is the possibility of historical viability offered by extraterrestrialization. A civilization that confines itself to the finite surface of a single planet has an inevitably finite destiny. Extraterrestrialization changes the finite dynamic of a quasi-organic cycle of birth, growth, decay, and death into a potentially infinite dynamic in which civilization is no longer bound to a cyclical history, no longer bound to a finite vehicle, and no longer bound to organic limits. The limits of a spacefaring civilization are cosmological rather than organic.

If we are able to make the transition to being a spacefaring civilization, by the time we have established ourselves securely in the Milky Way our conception of ourselves and of the civilization that we bring with us may have changed so dramatically that we would not recognize ourselves in our future descendants, and we would not recognize their social organization and aesthetic achievements as civilization. But, as I have elsewhere observed in relation to historical viability, only those entities that can survive a change even of their essential nature possess authentic historical viability.

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3 Responses to “Addendum on Extraterrestrialization”

  1. T. Greer said

    An able reply!

    Two thoughts:

    You make a good case for the inclusion of extraterrestrialization among the most important of events of integral history. I submit, however, that extraterrestrialization is a fundamentally different sort of integral shift than the neolithic and industrial revolutions. Both of those revolutions radically transformed the actual material condition of mankind. Extraterrestrialization does not do this. It is not so much an actual shift in human civilization as it is a potential one. It is revolutionary not in that it actually changes man (say, as transhumanism would), but because it alters the potential scope of human endeavor.

    My next comment reflects the book I am currently working my way through — Vaclav Smil’s Energy in Nature and Society: The General Energetics of Complex Systems. Smil goes to great pains to demonstrate that every single energy flow humans (and nearly every other biological creature) tap into can be sourced back to the sun. We are a solar species, says he. And this I think is largely true. Even those who escape the Earth remain dependent on the sun. And currently, we lack the technology to send living beings out of its orbit.

    This leads me to suggest that the true change from finite to infinite comes not when human beings settle permanently orbit of this planet, but when they can settle permanently outside this solar system.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Greer,

      Many thanks for your comment!

      We are a solar species indeed. I have not thought about it in these terms previously, but once so formulated I cannot withhold my assert. We came into being dependent upon the sun and we remain to this day utterly dependent upon the sun. It would surely be an event of the greatest magnitude in integral history if we were to free ourselves from dependence upon the sun, or from the dependence upon any sun whatsoever. That I do not dispute.

      I have chosen to focus upon the most radical consequences of extraterrestrialization. While establishing our independence from the sun would truly be a radical change in the material conditions of human life, apart from this something very special happens when we establish a viable population off the surface of the earth: we go from being utterly at the mercy of the next asteroid impact or the next catastrophic climate change to being relatively secure in so far as we no longer have all our eggs in one basket. An off-planet present means the difference between survival and extinction. Until we establish ourselves more securely in the universe, we are no different from the dinosaurs.

      It may be that life on earth is unique in the universe; it may also be that life on earth is not unique. We do not know, and we must remain agnostic on the question for the time being because we do not have the resources or the technology at present to give this question a decisive answer. If life on earth is unique, we possess something of immeasurable value — not just for us, but for the universe on the whole. In the Afterword to my Political Economy of Globalization, in which I attempted to make an explicitly moral argument for manned space flight, I tried to point out that the value of the earth’s biosphere transcends our particular place in that biosphere. I have not seen this discussed anywhere else.

      If, again, life on earth is unique, and apart from our planet the universe is sterile, then extraterrestrialization is not merely about the survival of human civilization or the survival or the human species, it is, more importantly, about the propagation of the earth’s biosphere beyond the earth, so that it is no longer a biosphere dependent upon the earth (and upon a single sun, I might add), but becomes a feature of the universe. We human beings are merely potentially the instrument for this greening of the universe. Our vision of spaceflight usually comprises human beings alone inside a metal container, but ultimately the only form of successful expansion into space will look more like a greenhouse, a zoo, or an ark. Because we must eat, we must bring with us the biosphere that produced us, from which we sprang and to which we will return. While this may seem incidental or even inconvenient to us, from the perspective of integral history this is the main event. Human exploration is a manifestation of the invisible hand that will propagate the earth’s biosphere beyond the limits of the earth. We have been, are being, and will be exapted by the biosphere.

      If life on earth is not unique, then our expansion into space will ultimately issue in an extraterrestrial equivalent of the “Wallace line” that runs through the Indonesian islands and roughly demarcates the species that expanded into the archipelago from continental Asia from the species that expanded into the archipelago from Australia. Only this extraterrestrial line with run through the Milky Way, or through the local cluster of galaxies.

      Since I have focused on this transformative and “big picture” impact of extraterrestrialization I have not written much (or, honestly, thought much) about the changed material conditions of human beings that would be a consequence of extraterrestrialization. I strongly suspect that these consequences would be easily as profound as those of the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution or the Industrial Revolution. When I have given this further thought, perhaps I will post on this topic again.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

      Wallace's Line in Indonesia.

  2. […] from the perspective of the natural history of civilization, it makes little difference whether the extraterrestrialization of humanity as a spacefaring species occurs at our present stage of development, or ten thousand […]

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