22 May 2016
Some time ago in Humanity as One I considered the unity of the human species, and, perhaps as significantly, how we discovered that unity. Beyond the woolly thinking and feel-good platitudes that tend to swamp any discussion of human unity, we know now from the genetic evidence contained within each and every human being that humanity constitutes a single species. But while it has become a stubborn problem in the philosophy of biology of how exactly to define species, the real message of the Darwinian conception of species is that of species anti-realism (for lack of a better term). Nature is continuous, and dividing up the natural world into biological taxa — species, genus, family, order, class, phylum, kingdom — is a convenience of human knowledge but ought not to be conceived as a Platonic form in biology, i.e., a template imposed upon nature, and not nature itself. So it is with the human species: we are a convenience of taxonomy, not a natural kind.
Given species anti-realism, it should surprise no one that all species are not alike; it may be a mistake to seek a single definition for what constitutes a species, though it is a habit of the Platonic frame of mind to settle on an essentialist definition. In biology specifically, for example, there is a long-standing tension between taxonomies based on some structural criterion or criteria (as in the Linnaean system) and taxonomies based on descent (evolutionary biology since Darwin). Marc Ereshefsky in his book The Poverty of the Linnaean Hierarchy advocates completely abandoning the Linnaean taxonomy and offers as an alternative “species pluralism,” asking whether, “Given the theoretical and pragmatic problems facing the Linnaean system, should biologists continue using that system?” With our contemporary naturalistic conception of human beings as one biological species among others, any change in our conception of species becomes a change in our conception of ourselves as a biological species. Might we define the human species in several different but equally valid ways?
In saying that humanity constitutes a single species we could express this comparatively in relation to other species. Because all species are not alike, a given species might, for example, represent more or less genetic diversity. (If we defined species by their genetic diversity, we would have a rather different taxonomy than that which we currently employ.) Geneticists discuss diversity in terms of nucleotide distance and heterozygosity; I will consider the latter as a measure for human genetic diversity. For example, human genetic diversity is lower than C. brenneri, a “bacteria-eating, 1-millimeter-long worm” (cf. The most genetically diverse animal; C. brenneri has been called “hyperdiverse” with a heterozygosity of around 40%, cf. Molecular hyperdiversity defines populations of the nematode Caenorhabditis brenneri), and higher than the San Nicolas population of island foxes off the coast of California (cf. Foxes on one of California’s Channel Islands have least genetic variation of all wild animals and Genomic Flatlining in the Endangered Island Fox). As I have sometimes cited the cheetah as a mammal population with very low genetic diversity (cf. Multiregional Cognitive Modernity), it is interesting to read that, the San Nicolas island fox, “has nearly an order of magnitude less genetic variation than any other low-diversity species, including the severely endangered African cheetah, Mountain gorilla, and Tasmanian devil.” (cf. Foxes on one of California’s Channel Islands have least genetic variation of all wild animals).
Now, I will admit that the first comparison with a little-known worm is not very enlightening, as we human beings, being part of the explosive adaptive radiation of mammals after the extinction of the dinosaurs, better understand comparisons with other mammals (cf. A Sentience-Rich Biosphere), and so a better comparison would be the mammal with the greatest genetic diversity. For a non-specialist like myself it is difficult to extract the relevant numbers from the context of scientific papers, but there seem to be mammal populations with significantly higher genetic diversity than human beings, just as there are mammal populations with significantly lower genetic diversity than human beings (on human genetic diversity generally cf. Human heterozygosity: A new estimate). The striped-mouse, Rhabdomys pumilio, has a heterozygosity (in some populations) of 7.3 %, significantly higher than the mammalian mean (there is an established mean heterozygosity for mammals of about 3.6 %, or H = 0.036; cf. Genetic variation in Rhabdomys pumilio (Sparrman 1784) — an allozyme study). The house mouse Mus musculus has populations with a genetic diversity of 8.9 % (H = 0.089). The extremely endangered Rhinoceros unicornis has a heterozygosity of nearly 10%, which may be the highest of any vertebrate (cf. Molecular Markers, Natural History and Evolution by J. C. Avise, p. 366).
It would be an oversimplification to rely exclusively on heterozygosity as a measure of genetic diversity, but at least it is a measure, and having a quantifiable measure gives us a different way to think about the human species, and a way to think about our species in relation to other species. The intellectual superstructure of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, which our industrial-technological civilization has inherited but not yet overcome, gave us the scala naturae, also known as the great chain of being (cf. my post Parsimony and Emergent Complexity). This conception also placed human beings in a context, and near the middle: higher than the animals, but lower than the angels. Genetic diversity places human beings in a naturalistic context that can (or, at least, could, with the proper motivation) be studied scientifically.
Are human beings being studied scientifically today? Yes and no. If you search Google for “highest genetic diversity” and “lowest genetic diversity” the top search results are all related to the perennially troubling question of human races (which I discussed in Against Natural History, Right and Left). On this point contemporary thought is so compromised that objective scientific research is impossible. This is unfortunate. More than 150 years after Darwin, the biology of human beings is still controversial. This ought to make any rational person wince.
What Freud once said of religion — “Where questions of religion are concerned, people are guilty of every possible sort of dishonesty and intellectual misdemeanour” — now appears to be true of humanity, which suggests that, despite Comte’s failed attempt to explicitly formulate a religion of humanity, an implicit religion of humanity has grown up almost unnoticed around the idea. This quasi-religious conception of humanity — which Francis Fukuyama expressed by saying, “we have drawn a red line around the human being and said that it is sacrosanct” (cf. Human Exceptionalism) — militates against any scientific self-understanding by humanity. This suggests an interesting possibility for defining a scientific civilization: a scientific civilization is a civilization in which the intelligent agent responsible for the civilization reflexively applies scientific understanding to itself. Scientific medicine studies human beings scientifically in order to keep them healthy and alive, but, with a few exceptions, human beings are not yet understood in a fully scientific context.
The scientific revolution set the stage for the possibility of a scientific civilization and for studying human beings in a fully scientific context. Neither of these possibilities have yet come to full fruition, and science itself has continued to develop and evolve, so that any scientific civilization or any conception of humanity based on contemporaneous science would have continually developed in parallel with the development of science. It is interesting to note that the scientific revolution begins about the same time as the Columbian Exchange, which latter essentially unified the human species again after our global diaspora (this was the theme of my earlier Humanity as One), in which populations had become separated and did not know themselves to be one species. The sense of humanity as one that emerges from the global unification of the Columbian Exchange and the sense of humanity as one that emerges from science both give us a planetary conception of humanity that might well be called the overview effect as applied specifically to humanity. I would call this “The Human Overview,” except that I have already used this to indicate the comprehensive impression we derive from meeting with and speaking to another.
I would argue now that we are capable of transcending even this planetary conception of humanity because of the recent extrapolation of biology as astrobiology. Science from the scientific revolution to the middle of the twentieth century was the science of a species exclusively subject to planetary endemism, and even though we overcame geocentrism in a narrow sense, our conceptions of the world and of ourselves often remained subject to geocentrism in an extended sense; the intellectual equivalent of geocentrism is the projection of the assumptions of planetary endemism onto our categories of thought. With the first glimpse of the Earth from space (i.e., the overview effect) and a growing awareness of the cosmological context of our planetary system, we began to transcend this intellectual equivalent of geocentrism. One of the consequences of this has been astrobiology, which places biology in a cosmological context, and, in so far as we understand humanity scientifically, places humanity also in a cosmological context.
Astrobiology would be impossible without both contemporary cosmology and biology; cosmology gives the scope of the conception, and biology the depth. With our increasing knowledge of cosmology and growing sophistication in biology, we have the intellectual resources now to formulate the human condition in a cosmological context and hence to understand ourselves scientifically — if only we have the strength of mind to do so. While such a conception of humanity would be “mere humanity” without the overlay of theological, soteriological, eschatological and teleological concepts that have been used in the past to develop a more comprehensive conception of humanity — what I elsewhere called, “the hopeless tangle of rationalization and cognitive bias that we have painstakingly erected around the idea of humanity” — this “mere humanity” is far more noble and edifying in its simplicity than past attempts to guild the lily.
As a species we have a long and painful history of perverting the ideals we have chosen for ourselves and making the human condition much worse than it was before any such ideals were conceived. As Montaigne noted, men, in seeking to become angels, transformed themselves into beasts (cf. Transcendental Humors). Among these brutal ideals I would count all the theological, soteriological, eschatological and teleological concepts that have been used to flesh out the concept of humanity, while the “darkling aspiration” (“dunklen Drange”) of a Faust has proved not to be our undoing, but rather to be what is best in humanity. In the past, our aspiration to embody perverted ideals in our own lives resulted in raising up as false idols fragmented and partial conceptions of humanity; individuals sought to become some particular kind of humanity (rather than “Mere Humanity”), and accounted this striving as a form of virtue, when it is, in fact, the spirit of ethnic cleansing. The planetary conception of humanity, and indeed the astrobiological conception of humanity, gives the lie to all of this. Soon it will be vain to aspire to be anything other than merely human, and soon after that it will be vain to aspire to be human (i.e., exclusively human). But the way to this understanding is through science and a rigorously scientific conception of humanity.
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Air Force Space Command General John E. Hyten has announced the release of a new “Commander’s Strategic Intent” document (Commander’s Strategic Intent), which is a 17-page PDF file. Once you take away the front and back covers, and subtract for the photographs inside, there are only a few pages of content. Much of this content, moreover, is the worst kind of contemporary management-speak (the sort of writing that Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times takes a particular delight in skewering). In terms of strategic content, the document is rather thin, but with a few interesting hints here and there. In a strange way, reading this strategic document from the Air Force Space Command is not unlike the Taliban annual statements formerly issued under Mullah Omar’s name (cf. 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015). One must read between the lines and past the rhetoric in an attempt to discern the reality beneath and behind the appearances. But strategic thought has always been like this.
After a one page Forward by General Hyten, there follows a page each on a summary of the contemporary strategic situation, priorities, mission, vision, Commander’s Intent, Strategy — Four Lines of Effort, and two and a half pages on “Reconnect as Airmen and Embrace Airmindedness,” then several pages with bureaucratic titles but interesting strategic content, “Preserve the Space and Cyberspace Environments for Future Generations,” “Deliver Integrated Multi-Domain Combat Effects in, from and through Space and Cyberspace,” and “Fight through Contested, Degraded and Operationally-Limited Environments,” eith a final page on “You Make a Difference, Today and Tomorrow.”
This section rapidly reviews the improving capabilities of adversaries, who are responding to technological and tactical innovations continually introduced by US armed forces in the field. While the document never explicitly mentions hybrid warfare, this is the threat that is clearly on the minds of those formulating this document. While noting the continued dominance of US forces in the global arena, the document mentions that this is, “an era marked by the rapid proliferation of game-changing technologies and growing opportunities to use them,” which is a central problem that will be further discussed below, and for which the document offers no strategic or systematic response (other than the commander’s overall strategic intent).
This survey of the strategic situation also mentions, “new international norms,” which I assume is an internal reference to the central strategic idea of this document discussed below in terms of norms of behavior intended to discourage adventurism that could compromise the global flow of commerce and information. If any new idea about norms of behavior are intended to be a part of the commander’s strategic intent, they are not formulated in this document. I would have left out these references to norms of behavior unless the idea were further developed in an independent section of the document.
The priorities listed are three:
Win today’s fight
Prepare for tomorrow’s fight
Take care of our Airmen and our Families
A paragraph is devoted to each priority. The first two are sufficiently obvious. The last introduces a theme that is dominant in this document: the social context of the soldier. One way to look at this is that, in a political context in which it is not possible to raise the wages of soldiers to equal those of the professional class, one benefit that the institutional military can confer on the solider in lieu of higher pay is institutional support for the soldier and his family. An equally plausible interpretation, and perhaps an equally valid explanation, is that, given the technological focus of the Air Force, and especially Space Command, it would be easy to prioritize machinery over soldiers, or to give the impression that machinery has been prioritized over soldiers. Sending the explicit message that, “Airmen — not machines — deliver effects,” is to unambiguously prioritize the soldier over the machinery. (All of this is delivered in the nauseating language of social science and management-speak, but the meaning is clear enough regardless.) And with suicides among returning veterans as high as they are, the military knows that it must do better or it risks losing the trust of its warfighters.
The mission statement is predictable and uninspiring:
Provide Resilient and Affordable Space and Cyberspace Capabilities for the Joint Force and the Nation.
There is, however, one interesting thing on this page, which is the idea that “Resilience Capacity” is to be used as a metric for combat power. I have written about similar matters in Combat Power and Battle Ecology and Metaphysical Ecology Reformulated, especially as these concerns relate to the social context of the soldier (in the present case, the airman). One hint is given for how this is to be quantified: “Any capability that cannot survive when facing the threats of today and the future is worthless in conflict.” Certainly this is true, but how rigorously this principle can be applied in practice is another question. If everything that failed when exposed to actual combat conditions were to be ruthlessly rooted out, the military would be radically different institution than it is today. Is the Space Command ready for radical application of resilience capacity? I doubt it; it cannot alone defy the weight of institutional inertia possessed by all bureaucracies.
The vision statement is as lackluster as the mission statement:
One Team—Innovative Airmen Fighting and Delivering Integrated Multi-Domain Combat Effects across the Globe.
This is the kind of management-speak rhetoric that brings documents like this into ill repute, and deservedly so. Moreover, this page makes the claim that, “The three strategic effects of Airpower — Global Vigilance, Global Reach, and Global Power — have not changed.” This is exactly backward. Global vigilance, global reach, and global power are not effects of airpower, but causes of airpower. Such an elementary conceptual failure is inexcusable, but in this context I think it stems more from a desire to employ management-speak in a military context than from pure conceptual confusion. Despite these problems, this page introduces the phrase “aerospace nation,” which is a way to collectively refer to the soldiers and support staff who make aerospace operations possible (presumably also private contractors), and again drives home the message of the social context of the soldier and the institutional support for this social context.
It is a little surprising to read here about the need to, “reconnect with our profession of arms,” which is as much as to admit that there has been a failure to maintain a robust connection with the profession of arms. This is a theme that connects with the support for the social context of the soldier. Part of this social context is home and family, part of this is support staff, and part of it is those directly involved in the profession of arms (i.e., the human ecology of the soldier). Reconnecting with the profession of arms is one method of strengthening the social context of the soldier and therefore the whole of the “aerospace nation.”
Strategy — Four Lines of Effort
So here are the four lines of effort:
• Reconnect as Airmen and Embrace Airmindedness
• Preserve the Space and Cyberspace Environments for Future Generations
• Deliver Integrated Multi-Domain Combat Effects in, from, and through Space and Cyberspace
• Fight through Contested, Degraded, and Operationally-Limited Environments
These themes occur throughout the document, but one can’t call this a strategy. It does, however, qualify as guidance for shaping the policy of Air Force Space Command. But policy must not be mistaken for strategy. Any bureaucrat can make policy, but bureaucrats don’t fight and win wars.
Reconnect as Airmen and Embrace Airmindedness
Now “airmindedness” is an awkward neologism, but it does represent an attempt to represent the qualities needed for the “aerospace nation.” These qualities are difficult to define; this document defines them awkwardly (like its neologisms), but at least it makes an attempt to define them. That is to say, this document makes an attempt to define the distinctive institutional culture of the Air Force Space Command. There is a value in this effort. This is what, if anything, distinguishes the Air Force Space Command from the other branches of the armed services. The need to reconnect with the profession of arms and at the same time to foster the distinctive qualities necessary to aerospace operations, which means pushing the boundaries of technology, constitute a unique challenge for a large, bureaucratic institution (which is what the peacetime military is).
If I had written this I would emphasized the need to continually update and revise any conception of what it means to engage in aerospace operations, hence “airmindedness.” This document focuses on “airmindedness” by emphasizing “shared core values,” innovation, the self-image of the airman as a combatant, development of expertise, resilience capacity (which in this context seems to mean taking care of the individual airman), and supporting the families of airmen while the latter are deployed. While these are all admirable aims, even essential aims, it is astonishing how many of these strategic statements read like social science documents of a Carl Rogers person-centered kind. I would have aimed at conceptually surprising the target audience of this document so that they could see these challenges in a new light, rather than through the lens of boilerplate management-speak.
Preserve the Space and Cyberspace Environments for Future Generations
Strategically, this is perhaps the most important part of the document. In four admirably short paragraphs, this page systematically lays out the the large-scale vision of deterring the outbreak of war, or triumphing in the event that war breaks out. Here, finally, we have a strategy: free flow of commerce and information, deterring adventurism that would compromise the free flow of commerce and information, influencing international norms of behavior in order to deter adventurism, “dissuade and deter conflict” by fielding “forces and capabilities that deny our adversaries the ability to achieve their objectives by imposing costs and/or denying the benefits of hostile actions…” I would have put this section front and center in the document, and connected all the other themes to this central strategy.
Deliver Integrated Multi-Domain Combat Effects in, from and through Space and Cyberspace
This section of the document addresses the technological underpinnings of the strategy announced in the previous section, and so can be considered its tactical implementation on a technological level. Such an emphasis fits in well with the idea of “airmindedness” as a distinctively innovative approach to combat power. But hiding this on page 12 under a section title that is all but incomprehensible is not helpful. The reference to “agility of thought” is belied by the management-speak of the entire document. This agility of thought should extend to the conceptual formulation of what is being done, and how it is being presented.
Fight through Contested, Degraded and Operationally-Limited Environments
This section of the document specifies “four critical activities” that would allow the Air Force Space Command to fight in “Contested, Degraded and Operationally-Limited Environments.” In other words, this is the contemporary approach taken by Space Command to the perennial problem of warfighting that Clausewitz called the “fog of war” (“Nebel des Krieges” — Clausewitz himself used the term “friction,” but this has popularly come to be know as “fog of war”). The document defines these four critical activities intended to mitigate the fog of war as follows:
1. Train to threat scenarios — endeavor to discover the boundaries of our capabilities and constantly reassess those boundaries as threats and blue force capabilities evolve.
2. Identify the timelines and authorities required to successfully defend, fight, and provide effects in today’s and tomorrow’s environments with Operations Centers capable of executing them.
3. Establish the right authorities. For those authorities we control, push the right authorities as far down as possible to ensure timely response.
4. Establish and foster a joint, combined, and multidomain warrior culture that embraces pushing and breaking our operational boundaries and adapting and innovating new doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership, personnel, facilities, and policy (DOTMLPF-P) solutions.
The friction of combat environments is a real and serious problem for the contemporary technologically-sophisticated warfighting effort — perhaps more of a problem than in the pre-technological age of war. The most sophisticated uses of technology are networked, and sophisticated technology requires continual maintenance and repair. If the first thing that happens in the battlespace is for the network to fail, any battle plan based upon that network will have become irrelevant. How to take advantage of networked information flow while not being captive to the vulnerabilities of such a network is a central problem for warfighting in the technological era. In so far as the Air Force Space Command presents itself as being a uniquely technological capable and competent, this is perhaps the overwhelming challenge to this branch of the military.
Given the centrality of the problem, not surprisingly the document details another seven explicit steps toward attaining the goal of mitigating friction in the technological battlespace. Prefatory to these seven principles the document states, “Our Space Enterprise Vision will capture the key principles needed to guide how we will design and build a space architecture suitable for operations in a contested environment.” No doubt volumes of study have been devoted to this problem internally, and it is admirable that this has been condensed down into seven principles.
As this is intended to be strategic document, I would go a bit farther into the high concept aspect of this problem, and how it could be tackled on the strategic level. What we have seen in recent history is that domains of human endeavor (including warfighting) are utterly transformed when technology becomes cheap and widely available. Adversaries have used this fact asymmetrically against institutionalized armed forces. The strategic approach to being wrong-footed in this way, it seems to me, would be to turn precisely this emerging historical dynamic against asymmetrical forces exploiting this opportunity. How can this be done? A strategy is needed. None is enunciated.
You Make a Difference, Today and Tomorrow
The document closes with a directive to carefully re-read the document and to discuss and to think critically about carrying out the commander’s intent formulated in this statement of principles. There is even an assurance that those who act most fully and faithfully in carrying out this intent will not be punished or put their careers in jeopardy by getting too far out ahead. This observation points to the fundamental tension between the continuous innovation required to keep up with the pace of technological innovation and the inherent friction of any bureaucratic institution. This, too, like the problem of friction in the technological battlespace, is a central problem for the Air Force Space Command, and deserves close and careful study. The definitive strategy to address these two central problems has not yet been formulated.
If I had written this document, I would have had a one paragraph introduction from the general, put the last sections of crucial strategic content first, and reformulated the initial sections so that each section was shown to contribute to and to derive from the central strategic ideas. Beyond that, I would suggest that the institutional challenges faced by Air Force Space Command, recognized in the phase “agility of thought,” points to the need for continual conceptual innovation in parallel with continual technological innovation. The Air Force needs to hire some philosophers.
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9 May 2016
Recently in The Biological Conception of Civilization I defined civilization as a tightly coupled cohort of coevolving species. In proposing this definition, I openly acknowledged its limitations. This biological conception of civilization defines a biocentric civilization, and if civilization continues in its technological development, it may eventually pass from being a biocentric civilization, dependent upon intelligent organic species originating on planetary surfaces, to being a technocentric civilization, no longer dependent in this sense.
Even given these limitations of the biological conception of civilization, we need not abandon a biological framework entirely to converge upon a yet more comprehensive conception of civilization, beyond the biocentric, but still roughly characterized by conditions that we have learned from our tenure on Earth. Being ourselves an intelligent organic species existing on the surface of a planet, biological modes of thought can be made especially effective for minds such as ours, and it is in our cognitive interest to cultivate a mode of thought for which we are specially adapted.
Let us, then, go a little beyond a strictly biological conception of civilization and formulate an ecological conception of civilization. To make this conception immediately explicit, here is a first formulation…
The Ecological Conception of Civilization:
Civilization is niche construction by an intelligent species.
This formulation of the ecological conception of civilization could be amended to read, “by an intelligent species or by several intelligent species,” in order to anticipate the possibility of intelligence-rich biospheres that give rise to civilizations constituted by multiple intelligent species.
What is niche construction? Here is a sketch of the idea from a book on niche construction:
“…organisms… interact with environments, take energy and resources from environments, make micro- and macrohabitat choices with respect to environments, construct artifacts, emit detritus and die in environments, and by doing all these things, modify at least some of the natural selection pressures present in their own, and in each other’s, local environments.”
Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution, F. John Odling-Smee, Kevin N. Laland, and Marcus W. Feldman, Monographs in Population Biology 37, Princeton University Press, 2003, p. 1
The authors go on to say:
“All living creatures, through their metabolism, their activities, and their choices, partly create and partly destroy their own niches, on scales ranging from the extremely local to the global.”
Human interaction with the terrestrial environment is an obvious example of taking energy and resources from the environment on a global scale, altering the selection pressures on our own evolution as a species by both creating and destroying a niche for ourselves. We are not the first terrestrial organisms to act upon the planet globally; when stromatolites (microbial mats composed of cyanobacteria) were the dominant life form on Earth, their photosynthetic processes ultimately produced the Great Oxygenation Event and catastrophically changed the biosphere. Had it not been for that global catastrophic change of the biosphere, oxygen-breathing organisms such as ourselves could not have evolved.
Though we are not the first terrestrial organism to shape the biosphere entire, we are the first intelligent terrestrial agents to shape the biosphere, and it has been the application of human intelligence to the problem of human survival that has resulted in human beings adapting their activity to every terrestrial biome and so eventually constructing civilization. At the stage of the initial emergence of civilization, the biological and ecological conceptions of civilizations coincide, as niche construction takes the form of engineering a coevolving cohort of species beneficial to the intelligent agent intervening in the biosphere. In later stages in the development of civilization, the ecological conception is shown to be more comprehensive than the biological conception of civilization, and subsumes the biological conception of civilization.
Not any cohort of coevolving species constitutes a civilization. Pollinating insects (bees) and flowers are involved in what might be called a tightly-coupled cohort of coevolving species, but we could not call bees and flowers together a civilization. Perhaps on other worlds the distinction between what we call civilization and coevolution in the natural world would not be so evident, and we could not as confidently make the distinction. For us, however, this distinction seems obvious. Why? At least one difference between civilization and naturally occurring coevolution is that the tightly-coupled cohort of coevolving species that we call civilization has been purposefully engineered for the benefit of the intelligent species that has demonstrated its agency through this engineering of a niche for itself. Moreover, the engineered niche is entirely dependent upon ongoing intervention to maintain this engineered niche. In the absence of civilization, the tightly-coupled cohort(s) of coveolving species would unravel, while naturally occurring instances of coevolution would continue unchanged, i.e., they would continue to coevolve. (I leave it as an exercise to the reader to compare this observation to Schrödinger’s definition of life in thermodynamic terms.)
The necessary role of an intelligent agent in maintaining a coevolutionary cohort of species points beyond the biological conception of civilization to the ecological conception of civilization, which in term points beyond civilizations constructed by biological agents to the possibility of niches constructed by any intelligent agent whatsoever. This makes the ecological conception of civilization more comprehensive than the biological conception of civilization, as the intelligent agents involved in niche construction need not be biological beings. However, biological beings are likely to be the intelligent agents with which civilization begins.
In the kind of universe we inhabit, during the Stelliferous Era biology represents the first possible emergence of intelligent agency, hence the first possibility of intelligent niche construction. (I could hedge a bit on this and instead assert that biological agents are the first likely emergence of intelligent agents, as Abraham Loeb has posited the possibility of life in the very early universe — cf. “The Habitable Epoch of the Early Universe” — but I consider this scenario to be unlikely, and the possibility of such life yielding civilization even less likely.) This biocentric possibility of intelligent niche construction can later be supplemented or replaced by later forms of emergent complexity consistent with intelligent agency and capable of niche construction (which latter could involve either building on existing forms of intelligent niche construction or innovating new forms of intelligent niche construction transcending what we today understand as civilization).
The biological conception of civilization — an engineered coevolving cohort of species — constitutes one possible form of niche construction. That is to say, in managing an ecosystem so that it produces a disproportionate number of the plants and animals consumed as food or other products for the use of the directing intelligent agent (human beings in our case), human beings have attained the first possible stage of intelligent niche construction, which is essentially a delineation of biocentric civilization, but the ecological conception of civilization can be adapted to the understanding of non-biocentric civilizations, as, for example, in the case the technocentric civilizations. The various kinds of civilization that we have seen on Earth — including but not limited to agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization and industrial-technological civilization — represent distinct forms of intelligent niche construction, and therefore all fall within the ecological conception of civilization. Civilizations constructed by post-biological agents in the form of technological beings may build upon these constructed niches or construct niches more distinctly adapted to post-biological agents (which may be technological agents).
The ecological conception of civilization lends itself to technocentric extrapolation in so far as the ecological recognition of the biology of planetary endemism being dependent on solar flux is readily adapted to conceptions of civilization that have emerged from the work of Dyson and Kardashev. Dyson famously imagined stars so surrounded by the productions of a technological civilization that only the waste heat of these civilizations would be visible to us in the infrared spectrum, and Kardashev equally famously translated this idea into a formalism representing civilization types in terms of total energy resources commanded by a civilization. Even these distant extrapolations of the possibility of our technological civilization are still recognizably dependent upon stellar flux, no less than the biomass of our terrestrial environment is dependent upon solar flux, as stellar flux represents the primary source of readily available energy during the Stelliferous Era. In this way, even technocentric civilizations constructed by post-biological intelligent agents are continuous with the civilizations of planetary endemism emerging from the biology of planetary surfaces, and both are describable in ecological terms.
It could be said that the ecological conception of civilization presupposes the biological conception, because ecological systems supervene on biological systems (or, at least, ecological systems have supervened upon biological systems to date, but this is not a necessary relationship and may be superseded in the fullness of time), and an ecological perspective provides a conceptual framework placing civilization in the context of the natural world from which it emerged and upon which it depends, as well as placing any given civilization in the context of other civilizations. This latter function — providing a systematic framework for the interaction of civilizations — ultimately may be the most valuable aspect of the ecological conception of civilization, but one that can only be suggested at present. The ecological relationships familiar to us from the study of living organisms — mutualism (or symbiosis), commensalism, predation, and parasitism — may hold for civilizations also, but this kind of parallelism cannot be assumed. The ecological relationships among civilizations — i.e., among intelligent species that have engaged in niche construction — may well be more complex than the ecological relationships among organisms, but this is a matter for further study that I will not attempt to elaborate at present.
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2 May 2016
Darwin’s Thesis on the Origin of Civilization
and its extrapolation to exocivilizations
In the scientific study of civilization we are beginning at the beginning because there is no established body of scientific knowledge about civilization — much historical knowledge, to be sure, but no science of civilization, sensu stricto, and therefore no scientific knowledge sensu stricto — and this demands that we begin with the simplest and most obvious propositions about civilization. The simplest and most obvious propositions about civilization are such as most discussions of civilization would simply pass over in silence as necessary presuppositions, or which would be dismissed by hand-waving and the assertion, “It is obvious that…” We will take a different point of view. Only a mathematician would think that the Jordan curve theorem was an idea in need of proof, and only someone engaged in attempting to formulate a science of civilization would think asserting that civilization originates in a pre-civilized condition was a condition of civilization that requires discussion.
Our point of departure in this discussion will be what I call Darwin’s Thesis on the origins of civilization, or, more simply, Darwin’s Thesis. I call this Darwin’s Thesis (and called it such in my presentation “What kind of civilizations build starships?”) because of the following passage from Darwin about the origins of civilization:
“The arguments recently advanced… in favour of the belief that man came into the world as a civilised being and that all savages have since undergone degradation, seem to me weak in comparison with those advanced on the other side. Many nations, no doubt, have fallen away in civilisation, and some may have lapsed into utter barbarism, though on this latter head I have not met with any evidence… The evidence that all civilised nations are the descendants of barbarians, consists, on the one side, of clear traces of their former low condition in still-existing customs, beliefs, language, &c.; and on the other side, of proofs that savages are independently able to raise themselves a few steps in the scale of civilisation, and have actually thus risen.”
Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, Chapter V (I have left Darwin’s spelling in its Anglicized form.)
Darwin was here taking the same naturalistic stance in regard to civilization that he had earlier taken in regard to biology. Darwin made biology scientific by making it a domain of research approached by way of methodological naturalism; prior to Darwin there was biology of a kind, but not any study of biology that could be reconciled with methodological naturalism. Darwin applied this same reasoning to civilization, and this is the reasoning we must apply to civilization if we are to formulate a science of civilization that can be reconciled with methodological naturalism.
As far as ideas about civilization go, this is extremely basic. However, I will again stress the need to begin a science of civilization with the most basic and rudimentary propositions possible. While this is a proposition so rudimentary as to be mundane, there can be no more interesting question for the science of civilization than that of the origin of civilization (the question of the end of civilization is equally interesting, but I wouldn’t say it is more interesting).
While the simplest theses on civilization seem so mundane as to be uninteresting, they can nevertheless be deductively powerful in their application. We can only address the longevity of a civilization, for example, once we have established a point in time at which civilization begins, and counting forward in whatever temporal units we care to employ up to its demise (which also must be defined, if the civilization in question has come to an end), or up to the present day (if the civilization in question is still in existence).
According to Darwin’s Thesis, then, civilization is descended from a prior savage or barbaric condition (not terms we would likely employ today, but certainly terms we still understand). How are we to characterize this pre-civilized condition of humanity? What constitutes the non-civilization that preceded civilization?
A somewhat discerning distinction, albeit one with moral overtones, was made between savagery, barbarism, and civilization. Like the “three age” system of prehistory — stone age, bronze age, iron age — we still find traces of these distinctions in contemporary thought. Here is how I described it previously:
“Edward Burnett Tylor proposed that human cultures developed through three basic stages consisting of savagery, barbarism, and civilization. The leading proponent of this savagery-barbarism-civilization scale came to be Lewis Henry Morgan, who gave a detailed exposition of it in his 1877 book Ancient Society… A quick sketch of the typology can be found at Anthropological Theories: Cross-Cultural Analysis. One of the interesting features of Morgan’s elaboration of Tylor’s idea is his concern to define his stages in terms of technology. From the ‘lower status of savagery’ with its initial use of fire, through a middle stage at which the bow and arrow is introduced, to the ‘upper status of savagery’ which includes pottery, each stage of human development is marked by a definite technological achievement. Similarly with barbarism, which moves through the domestication of animals, irrigation, metal working, and a phonetic alphabet.”
Elsewhere I suggested that the non-civilization prior to civilization could be called proto-civilization. I just re-read my post on proto-civilization and now I find it inadequate, but I still endorse at least this much of what I said there:
“In the case of civilization, a state-of-affairs existed long before the idea of civilization was made explicit. But in projecting the idea of civilization backward in history, we already have the idea suggested by a particular cultural milieu, and the question becomes whether this idea can be applied further than the context in which it was initially proposed.”
This would be one methodology to employ: take the concept of civilization as it has been elaborated and seek to apply it to past social structures; determining at what point this concept no longer applies gives a point in time for the origin of civilization. This could be called the “retroactive method.”
Given the far greater archaeological data we possess than we possessed at the time the concept of civilization was first formulated, this method has new information to work with that it did not have at the time of its formulation. This is one of the points that I attempted to make, however poorly I did so, in my post on proto-civilization: we have an enormous amount of archaeological data on the Upper Paleolithic and Early Neolithic in the Old World, which is usually described in terms of “cultures” rather than “civilizations.” But when European explorers of the Early Modern period came to the New World, they encountered peoples that had social institutions that we today call civilizations, though these civilizations were closer to the “Stone Age” of the Old World than to the early civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia (to take to paradigm cases of civilization).
An alternative to the retroactive method would be to study the artifacts of the past on their own merits, to construct a definition of civilization on the basis of the earliest known human societies (on the basis of their material culture), and then apply this conception of civilization forward in time (for lack of a better term I will call this the proactive method, simply to contrast it to the retroactive method). It is arguable that some archaeologists do in fact follow this method, but I don’t know of anyone who has explicitly advanced this procedure as desirable (much less as necessary), although it does bear some resemblance to the implicit formalism of the cultural processual school in archaeological thought.
Both retroactive and proactive methods incorporate obvious problems that derive from parachronic distortions of evidence (the most obvious parachronism is the familiar idea of an anachronism, i.e., a survival from the past preserved into the present, where it is obviously out of place; the contrary parachronic distortion is that of projecting the present into the past).
To pull back from the provincial considerations of civilization studied by archaeology to date — that is to say, exclusively terrestrial civilizations — we can further develop the idea of Darwin’s Thesis in a cosmological context. Once we do this, we immediately understand that we have been asking questions focused on a particular set of conditions that are characteristic of civilizations during the Stelliferous Era, and our ideas worked out for terrestrial civilization (civilizations of planetary endemism during the Stelliferous Era) may not apply more generally to the largest scales of civilization achieved (or which may yet be achieved) in the cosmos.
Civilizations during the Degenerate Era may possess a different character due to their need to derive energy flows from sources other than stellar flux, which latter defines the conditions of the origins of civilization from intelligent biological agents during the Stelliferous Era, which might also be called the Age of Planetary Endemism. If the Degenerate Era begins with the universe having been exhaustively settled or inhabited by life and civilization, this densely inhabited universe not only would prevent the emergence of new civilizations, but also would mean an end to this living cosmos of starlight. In this case the Degenerate Era begins with what I have called the End-Stelliferous Mass Extinction Event (ESMEE), when widely distributed life and civilization of the Stelliferous Era, primarily supported by energy flows from stellar flux (and concentrated on planetary surfaces), comes to an end as the stars wink out one by one.
The cohort of emergent complexity that survives this transition is likely to be a post-civilization successor institution that is (by this time in the evolution of the universe) further removed from the origins of civilization than we are today removed from the origin of the universe. At this point, the origins of emergent complexity will be a distant question, largely inapplicable to contemporaneous concerns, and the central question will be what of the Stelliferous Era can survive into the Degenerate Era, and how it can perpetuate itself in a universe converging on heat death.
Would these civilizations of the Degenerate Era be newly originating civilizations, or would they be derivative from civilizations of the Stelliferous Era? The obvious answer would seem to be that these civilizations would be derivative, except that over such cosmological spans of time the concept of civilization (and the threshold of what constitutes a civilization) is likely to evolve as much as, if not more than, civilization itself. As civilization develops, and a greater degree of science, technology, and intellectual achievement is believed to be indispensable to what constitutes civilization, civilization may be redefined as something close to prevailing conditions, and everything prior to this is redefined as proto-civilization. For example, civilization today might be considered unimaginable without the conveniences of modern life, and everything prior is consigned to barbarism. This reasoning can be extended to hold that civilization is unimaginable without fusion energy, without strong AI, without interstellar travel, and so on. All of this is entirely consistent with Darwin’s Thesis, which holds regardless of whether we consider the Upper Paleolithic to be utter savagery, or 2016 to be utter savagery.
If we consciously make an effort to formulate and to retain a comprehensive conception of civilization, that is not continually revised forward in time in the light of the later developments of civilization, we can avoid the above problem, and it is this approach that gives us longer ages for our civilization today. I have often mentioned that it was once commonplace, and perhaps still commonplace, to fix the origins of civilization with the origins of written languages (i.e., the origins of the “historical period” sensu stricto), but scientific historiography has been slowly chipping away at the distinction between history and prehistory until it is no longer tenable. Hence I identify the origins of civilization with the emergence of cities during or shortly after the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, which makes our civilization about ten thousand years old, rather than five thousand years old.
As our archaeological knowledge of the past improves, we may be able to set quantifiable conditions for the origins of civilization (say, a number of cities with a given population size, or a particular degree of sophistication in metallurgy, which latter seems to me to mark the ultimate origins of technological civilization). Again, Darwin’s Thesis is entirely in accord with this method also. Moreover, I think that this method gives a greater degree of independence to the determination of the origins of civilization, as it would also give us metrics by which we could determine the independent origin of a new civilization, say, even in the Degenerate Era, if this were to prove possible (which we really don’t know at present).
Beyond these concerns, and beyond the immediate scope of this post, we may need to posit a condition for the continuity of civilization — say, e.g., that metallurgical technological never lapses below a certain threshold — so that once given Darwin’s Thesis and some definition of civilization, we can determine when a civilization has originated de novo, and when a civilization is an evolutionary mutation of an earlier civilization, or a developmental achievement of an earlier civilization, rather than something new in history. This applies whether we take the threshold of achievement to be the smelting of copper or the building of starships. For example, if a civilization can smelt copper (or better), and never loses this technological capacity, it retains a minimal degree of continuity with the first civilization capable of this achievement, when an unbroken continuity of this capacity can be shown from the origins of this technology forward to some arbitrary date in the future.
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10 April 2016
What happens when you take a being whose mind was shaped by hunting and gathering in Africa over the past five million years or so, dress that individual in a spacesuit, and put that individual into a spaceship, sending them beyond the planet from which they evolved? What happens to hunter-gatherers in outer space?
As I pointed out in The Homeworld Effect and the Hunter-Gatherer Weltanschauung, the human environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA) shapes a worldview based on the standpoint of a planetary surface. Moreover, because the hunter-gatherer lives (or dies) by his attentiveness to his immediate environment, his immediate experience of leaving his planet of origin will make a disproportionate impact upon him. Whereas the hunter-gatherer may intellectually prepare himself, and may know on an intellectual level what to expect, the actual first person experience of leaving his planet of origin and seeing it whole — what Frank Drake calls the overview effect — may have an immediate and transformative impact.
The impact of the overview effect would force the hunter-gatherer to re-examine a number of ideas previously unquestioned, but his reactions, his instincts, would, for the time being, remain untouched. Of course, for a hunter-gatherer to have experienced the overview effect, he will have had to have achieved at least an orbital standpoint, and to achieve an orbital standpoint requires that the hunter-gatherer will have passed through a period of technological development that takes place over a civilizational scale of time — far longer than the scale of time of the individual life, but far shorter than the scale of biological time that could have modified the evolutionary psychology of the hunter-gatherer.
In the particular case of human beings, this period of technological development meant about ten thousand years of agricultural civilization, followed by a short burst of industrialized civilization that made the achievement of an orbital standpoint possible. While it is obvious that the short period of industrialized civilization will have left almost no trace of influence on human behavior, it is possible that the ten thousand years of acculturation to agricultural civilization (and the coevolution with a tightly-coupled cohort of species, as entailed by the biological conception of civilization) did leave some kind of imprint on the human psyche. Thus we might also inquire into the fate of agriculturalists in outer space, and how this might differ from the fate of hunter-gatherers in outer space. It is at least arguable that our interest in finding another planet to inhabit, or even terraforming other planets in our planetary system, is a function of our development of agricultural instincts, which are stronger in some than in others. Some individuals feel a very close connection to the soil, and have a special relationship to farming and food to be had by farming. However, the argument could be made equally well that our search for an “Earth twin” is a function of the homeworld effect more than a specifically agricultural outlook.
The principles to which I am appealing can be extrapolated, and we might consider what could happen in the event of a civilization with a very different history and its relationship to spacefaring, and how it makes the transition to a spacefaring civilization if that civilization is going to survival for cosmologically significant periods of time. Recently in Late-Adopter Spacefaring Civilizations: The Preemption That Didn’t Happen I suggested that terrestrial civilization might have been preempted in the second half of the twentieth century by the sudden emergence of a spacefaring civilization, though this did not in fact happen. Late-adopter spacefaring civilizations might indefinitely postpone the threshold presented by spacefaring, which is difficult, dangerous, and expensive — but also an intellectual challenge, and therefore a stimulus. It is entirely conceivable that, on a planet that remains habitable for a cosmologically significant period of time, that an intelligent species might choose to forgo the challenge and the stimulus of a spacefaring breakout from their homeworld, continuing to embody the homeworld effect even after the means to transcend the homeworld effect are available. What would the consequences be for civilization in this case?
In The Waiting Gambit I discussed the rationalizations and justifications employed to make excuses for waiting for the right moment to initiate a new undertaking, and especially waiting until conditions are “right” for making the transition from a planetary civilization to a spacefaring civilization. These justifications are typically formulated in moral terms, e.g., that we must “get things right” on Earth first before we can make the transition to spacefaring civilization, or, more insidiously, that we don’t deserve to become a spacefaring civlization (as though the Earth deserves to suffer from our presence for a few more million years). It would be easy to dismiss the waiting gambit as a relatively harmless cognitive bias favoring the status quo (a special case of status quo bias), except that there are real biological and civilizational consequences to waiting without limit.
The most obvious consequence of playing along with the waiting gambit is that civilization, or even the whole of humanity, might be wiped out on Earth before we ever achieve the promised moment when we can legitimately expand beyond Earth. This is the existential risk of the waiting gambit as a strategy for human history. But even if we could be assured of the survival of humanity on Earth for the foreseeable future (although no such assurance could be given that was not purely illusory), the waiting gambit still has profound consequences. In so far as civilization is a process of domestication (and in Transhumanism and Adaptive Radiation I suggested a biological conception of civilization based on a cohort of co-evolving species, which I elaborated in The Biological Conception of Civilization), the longer that human beings live in a planetary-bound, biocentric civilization the more domesticated we become. In other words, we are changed by remaining on Earth in the circumstances of civilization, because civilization itself is selective.
If the time between the advent of civilization and the advent of spacefaring is too short to be selective, then the hunter-gatherer mind is maintained because the genome on which this mind supervenes is essentially unchanged. But if the elapsed time between the advent of civilization and the advent of spacefaring is sufficiently extended so that civilizational selection of the intelligent species takes place, the mind is changed along with the genome upon which it supervenes. At some point, neither known nor knowable today, we will have self-selected ourselves (although not knowingly) for settled planetary endemism and we will lose the capacity to live as nomadic hunter-gatherers. This is an here-to-fore unrecognized consequence of long-lived planetary civilizations. If, on the other hand, human beings do make the transition to spacefaring civilization while retaining the evolutionary psychology of hunter-gatherers, the temporary phase of settled civilization (ten thousand years, more or less) will be seen as a temporary aberration, during which historical period the bulk of humanity lived in circumstances greatly at variance with the human EEA.
One aspect of the homeworld effect is acculturation to planetary endemism. This acculturation to planetary endemism helps to explain the waiting gambit and status quo bias, and if perpetuated it would explain the possibility of an advanced technological civilization that remains endemic to a single planet, attaining a full transition from biocentric to technocentric civilization without however making the transition to spacefaring civilization. This would present a radical break from the past, and thus presents us with the difficulty of conceiving a radically different human way of life — a way of life radically disconnected from the biocentric paradigm — but this is a radical difference from the biocentric paradigm that would in turn be radically different from a nomadic civilization with the entirety of the universe in which to roam. In both cases, traces of the biocentric paradigm are preserved, but different traces in each case. The planetary civilization would preserve continuity with the planet and thus a robust continuity with the homeworld effect; a spacefaring nomadic civilization would preserve continuity with the evolutionary psychology of our long hunter-gatherer past. A successor species to humanity, adapted to life in space, and choosing to live in space rather than upon planetary surfaces, would experience the overview effect exclusively, the overview effect supplanting the homeworld effect, and the homeworld effect might experience historical effacement, disappearing from human (or, rather, post-human) experience altogether.
If nomads were to go into space — that is to say, hunter-gatherers in outer space — they probably wouldn’t speak of “settling” a planet, because they would not assume that they would adopt a planetary mode of life for the sake of settling in one place. Perhaps they would speak of the “pastoralization” of a world (cf. Pastoralization, The Argument for Pastoralization, and The Pastoralist Challenge to Agriculturalism), or they might use some other term. The particular term doesn’t really matter, but the concept that the term is used to indicate does matter. Nomadic peoples have very different conceptions of private property, governmental institutions, social hierarchy, soteriology, and eschatology than do settled peoples; the transplantation (note the agricultural language here) of nomadic and settled conceptions to a spacefaring civilization would yield fascinating differences, and the universe is large enough for the embodiment of both conceptions in concrete institutions of spacefaring civilization — whereas Earth alone is not large enough.
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Late Adopter Spacefaring Civilizations:
The Preemption that Didn’t Happen
Generalizing the Preemption Hypothesis
In The Preemption Hypothesis I advanced the idea that civilizations are sometimes suddenly preempted and rapidly supplanted by another kind of civilization. The paradigm case of this is the industrial revolution, which preempted a gradually emerging scientific civilization — a civilization I sometimes call Modernism without Industrialism — in favor of a radically different kind of civilization that changed the basic structure of life wherever the industrial revolution arrived.
A generalization of the preemption hypothesis suggests that any civilization is vulnerable to sudden preemption and rapid supplanting, should historical circumstances happen to line up — i.e., the ground is prepared for an innovation that arrives, which in the case of the industrial revolution meant that the legal and institutional framework of a commercial society was in place when the steam engine was invented, allowing this invention to be rapidly exploited, which in turn drove rapid social change.
If the generalization of the preemption hypothesis holds good, we would expect to be able to identify unfulfilled preemptions in history, and while any such judgment is inherently open to question, past preemptions that did not occur are not unfamiliar. On several occasions I have written about how Hero’s steam turbine did not trigger an industrial revolution in classical antiquity, nor did Taqi al-Din’s turbine trigger an industrial revolution in medieval Islamic civilization (cf. The Industrial Revolution and Scientific Civilization, Historical Disruption, and Hero’s Steam Engine and the Apollo Space Program).
In more recent history I would argue that an unfulfilled preemption occurred in the second half of the twentieth century. The industrial-technological civilization of the middle of the twentieth century (itself the consequence of preemption of the industrial revolution) might have been preempted by the sudden emergence of a spacefaring civilization. The technology was present, the ideas were in circulation, and even the economic basis of such an effort was in place. Nevertheless, this did not happen.
Often in the case of unfulfilled preemptions we find that a technology was present, but it is not yet fully exploited because a comprehensive conception of its use simply did not exist. I previously pointed this out in relation to the cluster of technologies that rapidly came into use during the Second World War (cf. Counter-factual Weapons Systems), when, during a period of five years, ballistic missiles, digital encryption, digital computers, radar, nuclear weapons, and jet propulsion all became available. While these technologies were individually put into use, the full comprehensive vision of how these technologies would function in concert was lacking, and it took several subsequent decades to draw out the consequences of these discoveries.
Another historical analogy: the first heavier-than-air powered human flight took place in 1903; the First World War began a decade later. The development of aircraft technology during the less than five year period of the First World War was in some ways as rapid as the technological developments that characterized the Second World War, and, moreover, by the end of the war the idea of strategic bombing had emerged, large fleets of airplanes communicating by radio were launching coordinated attacks on targets across national borders. It is arguable, on this basis, that the technologies available during the First World War reached a greater level of integration, and achieved that integration earlier, as compared to comparable technological innovations of the Second World War.
What makes the transition to spacefaring civilization so fraught?
Spacefaring, as we know, is difficult. It is also dangerous and expensive. But it is not more dangerous or expensive than any number of routine human activities — though it may well be intellectually and technically more difficult than just about anything else accomplished by human civilization. If we had experienced a spacefaring preemption in the second half of the twentieth century, it is almost certain that many lives would have been lost in the effort to establish a demographically significant human presence in space. But we must place these casualties in context. We routinely accept automobile casualties in the tens of thousands every year (in the United States alone; global figures are much higher). A major spacefaring effort would have involved an increase in the loss of life, but it is unlikely that this figure would have even approached the 40,000 or so highway fatalities experienced every year, year on year. The commercial spacefaring industry is likely to mirror the commercial aviation industry, which does experience catastrophic failures and loss of life, but is statistically far safer than travel on any highway.
Similar arguments to those above could be made regarding the expense of a major spacefaring effort: it would have been expensive, but not radically more expensive than any number of other initiatives undertaken in human history. It would be difficult to argue that funding the space program at a level that would have made a spacefaring preemption possible would have “broken” the economy of either the US or the USSR, though this is often suggested. I would suggest, on the contrary, that if significant funding had followed the Apollo Program, rather than collapsing after the “space race” was won, that the unintended and unexpected technological spin-offs of a major space program would have transformed the terrestrial economy. However, counter-factuals are difficult if not impossible to prove, so I doubt I would convince anyone who did not want to be convinced on this score.
Probably among the least likely factors to be cited regarding the difficulty of the transition to spacefaring civilization would be the intellectual forces that shape history, but I think in the case of the spacefaring preemption that did not happen that it was the intellectual infrastructure that was the decisive element that derailed this potential historical disruption. Humanity was not ready to become a spacefaring species in the second half of the twentieth century; our concerns remained overwhelmingly terrestrial concerns, and those who tried to get their fellow Earth-bound human beings (Earth-bound in mind as well as in body) to see the possibilities for humanity beyond Earth were largely ignored. It was and still is routine to dismiss large-scale spacefaring as an impossible dream, notwithstanding proven technology and numerous space exploration successes, including human spaceflight.
Crossing the Spacefaring Chasm
The absence of a relatively rapid spacefaring preemption of industrial-technological civilization in the recent past does not mean that terrestrial civilization will never make the transition to spacefaring civilization. This transition could come about as the result of a later preemption — perhaps as the result of new newly available technology that drastically reduces the cost of transport to Earth orbit — or as the result of a gradual and incremental transition that involves no preemption incident. In the latter case, it is entirely possible that planetary industrial-technological civilization might continue for hundreds or thousands of years, and hundreds or thousands of years of gradual transition would characterize the eventual emergence of a spacefaring civilization.
In several contexts (e.g., Getting to Starships and The Zoo Hypothesis as Thought Experiment) I have emphasized that human terrestrial civilization cannot be thought of as an “early adopter” spacefaring civilization. An early adopter spacefaring civilization would be a spacefaring civilization that came about as a result of a preemption episode in the early history of space travel. In the case of spacefaring, this did not happen; we did not widely adopt spacefaring technologies as soon as they were available and employ them to begin a human diaspora in the cosmos.
If our civilization does become a spacefaring civilization (we cannot yet say if that will happen), it will do so decades or centuries after having possessed the technological capability to do this, and so must be considered a late-adopter spacefaring civilization, if it is (or will become) any kind of spacefaring civilization at all. Spacefaring civilization has experienced is symbolic firsts, but it has not experienced its horizon — at least, not for human civilization (if there are other civilizations in the cosmos, there may be a civilization or civilizations that have experienced a spacefaring preemption). The temporal distance between spaceflight symbolic firsts and a spaceflight horizon is yet to be determined.
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31 March 2016
Red Planet Perspectives
It is difficult to discuss human habitation of Mars scientifically because Mars has for so long played an disproportionate role in fiction, and any future human habitation of Mars will take place against this imaginative background. Future human inhabitants of Mars will themselves read this cultural legacy of fiction centered on Mars, and while some of it will be laughable, there are also likely to be passages that start heads nodding, however dated and inaccurate the portrayal of human life on Mars. And this human future on Mars is seeming increasingly likely as private space enterprises vie with national space agencies, and both public and private space programs are publicly discussing the possibility of sending human beings to Mars.
A human population on Mars would eventually come to identify as Martians, even though entirely human — Ray Bradbury already said as much decades ago — and it would be expected that the Martian perspective would be different in detail from the terrestrial perspective, though scientifically literate persons in both communities would share the Copernican perspective. There would be countless small differences — Martians would come to number their lives both in Terrestrial years and Martian years, for example — that would cumulatively and over time come to constitute a distinctively Martian way of looking at the world. There would also be unavoidably important differences — being separated from the bulk of humanity, having no large cities at first, not being able to go outside without protective gear, and so on — that would define the lives of Martian human beings.
At what point will Martians come to understand themselves as Martians? At what point will Mars become a homeworld? There will be a first human being to set foot on Mars, a first human being born on Mars, a first human being to die on Mars and be buried in its red soil, a first crime committed on Mars, and so on. Any of these “firsts” might come to be identified as a crucial turning point, the moment at which a distinctively Martian consciousness emerges among Mars residents, but any such symbolic turning point can only come about against the background of the countless small differences that accumulate over time. Given human settlement on Mars, this Martian consciousness will surely emerge in time, but the Martian conscious that perceives Mars as a homeworld will differ from the sense in which Earth is perceived as our homeworld.
Human beings lived on Earth for more than a hundred thousand years without knowing that we lived on a planet among planets. We have only known ourselves as a planetary species for two or three thousand years, and it is only in the past century that we have learned what it means, in a scientific sense, to be a planet among countless planets in the universe. A consequence of our terrestrial endemism is that we as a species can only transcend our homeworld once. Once and once only we ascend into the cosmos at large; every other celestial body we visit thereafter we will see first from afar, and we will descend to its surface after having first seen that celestial body as a planet among planets. Thus when we arrive at Mars, we will arrive at Mars knowing that we arrive at a planet, and knowing that, if we settle there, we settle on a planet among planets — and not even the most hospitable planet for life in our planetary system. In the case of Mars, our knowledge of our circumstances will precede our experience, whereas on Earth our experience of our circumstances preceded our knowledge. This reversal in the order of experience and knowledge follows from planetary endemism — that civilizations during the Stelliferous Era emerge on planetary surfaces, and only if they become spacefaring civilizations do they leave these planetary surfaces to visit other celestial bodies.
What is it like, or what will it be like, to be a Martian? The question immediately reminds us of Thomas Nagel’s well known paper, “What is it like to be a bat?” (I have previously discussed this famous philosophical paper in What is it like to be a serpent? and Computational Omniscience, inter alia.) Nagel holds that, “…the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism.” A generalization of Nagel’s contention that there is something that it is like to be a bat suggests that there is something that it is like to be a conscious being that perceives the world. If we narrow our conception somewhat from this pure generalization, we arrive at level of generality at which there is something that it is like to be a Terrestrial being. That there is something that it is like to be a bat, or a human being, are further constrictions on the conception of being a consciousness being that perceives the world. But at the same level of generality that there is something that it is like to be a Terrestrial being, there is also something that it is like to be a Martian. Let us call this the Martian standpoint.
To stand on the surface of Mars would be to experience the Martian standpoint. I am here adopting the term “standpoint” to refer to the actual physical point of view of an intelligent being capable of looking out into the world and understanding themselves as a part of the world in which they find themselves. Every intelligent being emergent from life as we know it has such a standpoint as a consequence of being embodied. Being an embodied mind that acquires knowledge through particular senses means that our evolutionary history has furnished us with the particular sensory endowments with which we view the world. Being an embodied intelligence also means having a particular spatio-temporal location and having a perspective on the world determined by this location and the sensory locus of embodiment. The perspective we have in virtue of being a being on the surface of a planet at the bottom of a gravity well might be understood as a yet deeper level of cosmological evolution than the terrestrial evolutionary process that resulted in our particular suite of sensory endowments, because all life as we know it during the Stelliferous Era originates on planetary surfaces, and this precedes in evolutionary order the evolution of particular senses.
Mars, like Earth, will offer a planetary perspective. Someday there may be great cities and extensive industries on the moon, supporting a burgeoning population, but, even with cities and industries, the moon will not be a world like Earth, with an atmosphere, and therefore a sky and a landscape in which a human being can feel at home. For those native to Mars — for eventually there will be human beings native to Mars — Mars will be their homeworld. As such, Mars will have a certain homeworld effect, though limited in comparison to Earth. Even those born on Mars will carry a genome that is the result of natural selection on Earth; they will have a body created by the selection pressures of Earth, and their minds will function according to an inherited evolutionary psychology formed on Earth. Mars will be a homeworld, then, but it will not produce a homeworld effect — or, at least, no homeworld effect equivalent to that experienced due to the origins of humanity on Earth. The homeworld effect of Mars, then, will be ontogenic and not phylogenic.
If, however, human beings were to reside on Mars for an evolutionarily significant period of time, the ontogenic homeworld effect of individual development on Mars would be transformed into a phylogenic homeworld effect as Mars became an environment of evolutionary adaptedness. As the idea of million-year-old or even billion-year-old civilizations is a familiar theme of SETI, we should not reject this possibility out of hand. If human civilization comes to maturity within our planetary system and conforms to the SETI paradigm (i.e., that civilizations are trapped within their planetary systems and communicate rather than travel), we should expect such an eventuality, though over these time scales we will probably change Mars more than Mars will change us. At this point, Mars would become a homeworld among homeworlds — one of many for humanity. But it would still be a homeworld absent the homeworld effect specific to human origins on Earth — unless human beings settled Mars, civilization utterly collapsed, resulting in a total ellipsis of knowledge, and humanity had to rediscover itself as a species living on a planetary surface. For this to happen, Mars would have to be Terraformed in order for human beings to live on Mars without the preservation of knowledge sufficient to maintain an advanced technology, and this, too, is possible over time scales of a million years or more. Thus Mars could eventually be a homeworld for humanity in a sense parallel to Earth being a homeworld, though for civilization to continue its development based on cumulative knowledge implies consciousness of only a single homeworld, which we might call the singular homeworld thesis.
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26 March 2016
It was until recently uncontroversial that civilization begins with settled agriculturalism. The excavations at Göbekli Tepe have shown an unexpected light on some of the earliest human communities. The structures at Göbekli Tepe seem to have been been ritual spaces — perhaps the world’s earliest example of monumental architecture, one of the sure markers of civilization — but evidence suggests that the peoples who gathered at Göbekli Tepe neither cultivated grains nor actively engaged in pastoralism. If Göbekli Tepe provides an alternative to the agricultural model of what civilization might have been, it was not a model that was widely adopted; indeed, the site seems to have been not only abandoned, but purposefully covered over, and does not seem to have served as a social model for any other society except for the other hills in the immediate area that probably contain similar remains. An obvious alternative hypothesis is that Göbekli Tepe represents a transitional stage on the way to the development of settled agricultural civilization.
Thus while settled agriculturalism might not be the earliest or only model for the origins of civilization, it is unquestionably the most pervasive and the most successful. Independently in widely separated geographical regions peoples settled in communities and engaged in the production of staple crops. From these communities cities grew, and a network of such cities has meant civilization. Just as there were likely alternative paths to civilization that were abandoned in favor of the most robust path, so there have been alternative forms of the development of civilization. Several thousand years after the breakthrough to settled agriculturalism as a form of large-scale social organization, an alternative form emerged in Central Asia: pastoralism, in which the large-scale domestication and herding of animals substituted for the large-scale domestication of staple crops. This is not commonly recognized as a distinct form of civilization, because nomadic herders have rarely developed written languages, whereas settled agriculturalists did invent written languages, wrote histories, and called the nomadic pastoralists “barbarians” — a cultural slander that has endured to the present day.
Common to both settled agriculturalism and nomadic pastoralism as large-scale forms of social organization is the coupling of the fate of other species with human beings. Domestication, whether of plants or animals, lies at the basis of civilization as we know it. This suggests what I call the biological conception of civilization. I first explicitly formulated the biological conception of civilization in my Centauri Dreams post Transhumanism and Adaptive Radiation:
“Each biome into which human beings inserted themselves during our planetary diaspora out of our African origins has made available a unique cohort of species, some of which have been domesticated and the fates of which have thus become tied to human beings and their civilization (no less than our fate is joined to theirs). Terrestrial food production involves this tightly-coupled cohort of co-evolving species dependent upon one another as a consequence of domestication (which latter formulation would constitute a biologically minimalist conception of civilization). This species cohort varies according to endemic species, topography, and climatic conditions… Thus each region of Earth not only possesses a cultural diversity of civilizations, but also a biological diversity of civilizations, each of which may be defined in terms of the unique cohort of tightly-coupled co-evolving species. To date, this process has been an exclusively terrestrial one, but when cohorts of species representative of terrestrial civilizations leave Earth and establish themselves in other environments, the same principles will be iterated at higher orders of magnitude.”
Occasionally I refer to civilizations as “biocentric” (as, for example, in From Biocentric Civilization to Post-biological Post-Civilization). Biocentric civilization can defined in terms of the biological conception of civilization: a biocentric civilization is a civilization that can be exhaustively described by the biological conception of civilization. As a civilization begins to transcend its biocentric origins, the biological conception of civilization becomes less adequate for the description of that civilization. If a civilization were ever to wholly transcend its biocentric origins, the biological conception of civilization would be wholly inadequate and would at that point fail to capture the meaning of civilization. Yet as long as civilization continues to be associated with the biological beings from which it originated, it will continue to have recognizably biocentric features.
One consequence of the biocentric origins of civilization as we know it (which I recently formulated in Another Way to Think about Civilization), is that the human control of the reproduction of plants and animals has led to a radical change in the biology of our homeworld. One way to understand this radical change in the terrestrial biosphere due to civilization would be to identify the advent of civilization with initiating the process of creating an artificial biosphere in which naturally occurring ecosystems are progressively supplanted by artificial ecosystems constructed for the purpose of meeting the needs of civilization.
The interpolation of artificially maintained ecosystems within a wild ecosystem would simply disappear if it were not sustained by the agents who originated it. But as the artificial ecosystem of civilization expands and supplants the wild ecosystem of the planet, its expansion becomes a selection event that selects for domesticated species (as well as a range of parasitical species) and selects against non-domesticated species. As civilization has expanded, wild ecosystems have been pushed to the margins of the civilized world and the greater part of the planet has become dominated by human activities that have shaped the biosphere in a distinctive way. Non-agricultural peoples have also been pushed to the margins. When artificial ecosystems were first introduced by human beings, almost all of the world was the province of nomadic hunter-gathers who wandered freely through a wild landscape. Now the entire surface of our homeworld has been meticulously divided up among nation-states that all have their origins in the states or empires of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.
On Earth, the artificial biosphere created and maintained by biocentric civilization supplants a wild biosphere, but biocentric civilization could continue its development, facilitated by the resources of emergent technocentric civilization, through the extension of civilization’s artificial biospheres to other worlds or to artificial habitats. If the artificial biosphere of civilization is transitioned into artificial habitats, artificial ecosystems can be expanded without limit under controlled conditions that will allow for an even greater precision in the management artificial ecosystems. In so far as the initial creation of artificial ecosystems has aimed at greater human control over agricultural outcomes, we can regard this as the telos of agriculture, evident since the earliest stirrings of civilization, and the only context in which the implications of artificial ecosystems can be fully explored. Thus the departures from a strictly biological conception of civilization that point to a nascent technocentric civilization becomes another form of exaptation of coevolution, in which technology coevolves with biology by providing new scope to biocentric civilization.
The biological conception of civilization outlined above is neither anthropocentric nor necessarily tied to terrestrial forms of life, although we must express the concept by means of life as we know it; the biological conception of civilization is generalizable to any biota. Any biosphere that is sufficiently complex for the emergence of intelligent life will embody a high degree of biodiversity, i.e., a large number of distinct species forming complex biological communities, and we can furthermore expect that species will be grouped in the biomes to which they are endemic. Thus the same conditions as are found on Earth, and which have been exapted by human intelligence to produce civilization in the form of a cohort of coevolving species, will likely be present on any world with an intelligent species, and equally available for exaptation in the civilizing process.
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It cannot be pointed out too often that by far the most extensive period of human history is prehistory. In the past it was possible to evade this fact and its problematic consequences for conventional historiography, because prehistory could be safely set aside as not being history at all. The subsequent rise of scientific historiography, which allows us to read texts other than written language — geological texts, genetic texts, the texts of material culture uncovered by archaeologists, and so on — have been progressively chipping away at the facile distinction between history and prehistory, so that boundary between the two can no longer be maintained and any distinction between history and prehistory must be merely conventional, such as the convention of identifying history sensu stricto with the advent of written language.
The evolutionary psychology of human beings carries the imprint of this long past until recently unknown to us, lost to us, its loss during the earliest period of civilization being a function of history effaced as the events of more recent history wipe clean the slate of the earlier history that preceded it. Scientific historiography provides us with the ability to recover lost histories once effaced, and, like a recovered memory, we recognize ourselves in this recovered past because it is true to what we are, still today.
From the perspective of illuminating contemporary human society, we may begin with the historical recovery of relatively complex societies that emerged from the Upper Paleolithic, which communities were the context from which the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution emerged. But from the perspective of the evolutionary psychology that shaped our minds, we must go back to the origins of the brain in natural history, and follow it forward in time, for each stage in the evolution of the brain left its traces in our behavior. The brainstem that we share with reptiles governs autonomous functions and the most rudimentary drives, the limbic system that we share with other mammals and which is implicated in our sentience-rich biosphere is responsible for our emotions and a higher grade of consciousness than the brainstem alone can support, and the cerebral cortex enables more advanced cognitive functions that include reflexive self-awareness and historical consciousness (awareness of the past and the future in relation to the immediacy of the present).
Each of these developments in terrestrial brain evolution carries with it its own suite of behaviors, with each new set of behaviors superimposed on previous behaviors much as each new layer of the brain is superimposed upon older layers. Over the longue durée of evolution these developments in brain evolution were also coupled with the evolution of our bodies, which enact the behaviors in question. As we descended from the trees and hunted and killed for food, our stomachs shrank and our brains grew. We have the record of this transition preserved in the bones of our ancestors; we can still see today the cone-shaped ribcage of a gorilla, over the large stomach of a species that has remained primarily vegetarian; we can see in almost every other mammal, almost every other vertebrate, the flat skull with nothing above the eyes, compared to which the domed cranium of hominids seems strange and out of place.
As I wrote in Survival Beyond the EEA, “Evolution means that human beings are (or were) optimized for survival and reproduction in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA).” (Also on the EEA cf. Existential Threat Narratives) The long history of the formation of our cognitive abilities has refined and modified survival and reproduction behaviors, but it has not replaced them. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors of the Upper Paleolithic were already endowed with the full cognitive power that we continue to enjoy today, though admittedly without the concepts we have formulated over the past hundred thousand years, which have allowed us to make better use of our cognitive endowment in the context of civilization. Everything essential to the human mind was in place long before the advent of civilization, and civilization has not endured for a period of time sufficient to make any essential change to the constitution of the human mind.
The most difficult aspects of the human point of view to grasp objectively are those that have been perfectly consistent and unchanging over the history of our species. And so it is that we do not know ourselves as dwellers on the surface of a planet, shaped by the perspective afforded by a planetary surface, looking up to the stars through the distorting lens of the atmosphere, and held tight to the ground beneath our feet by gravity. At least, we have not known ourselves as such until very recently, and this knowledge has endured for a much shorter period of time than civilization, and hence has had even less impact on the constitution of our minds than has civilization, however much impact it has had upon our thoughts. Our conceptualization of ourselves as beings situated in the universe as understood by contemporary cosmology takes place against the background of the EEA, which is a product of our evolutionary psychology.
To understand ourselves aright, then, we need to understand ourselves as beings with the minds of hunter-gatherers who have come into a wealth of scientific knowledge and technological power over an historically insignificant period of time. How did hunter-gatherers conceive and experience their world? What was the Weltanschauung of hunter-gatherers? Or, if you prefer, what was the worldview of hunter-gatherers?
Living in nature as a part of nature, only differentiated in the slightest degree from the condition of prehuman prehistory, the hunter-gatherer lives always in the presence of the sublime, overwhelmed by an environment of a scale that early human beings had no concepts to articulate. And yet the hunter-gatherer learns to bring down sublimely large game — an empowering experience that must have contributed to a belief in human efficacy and agency in spite of vulnerability to a variable food supply, not yet under human control. Always passing through this sublime setting for early human life, moving on to find water, to locate game, to gather nuts and berries, or to escape the depredations of some other band of hunter-gatherers, our ancestor’s way of life was rooted in the landscape without being settled. The hunter-gatherer is rewarded for his curiosity, which occasionally reveals new sources of food, as he is rewarded for his technological innovations that allow him to more easily hunt or to build a fire. The band never has more children than can be carried by the adults, until the children can themselves escape, by running or hiding, the many dangers the band faces.
As settled agriculturalism began to displace hunter-gatherers, first from the fertile lowlands and river valleys were riparian civilizations emerged, new behaviors emerged that were entirely dependent upon the historical consciousness enabled by the cerebral cortex (that is to say, enabled by the ability to explicitly remember the past and to plan for the future). Here we find fatalism in the vulnerability of agriculture to the weather, humanism in this new found power over life, a conscious of human power in its the command of productive forces, and the emergence of soteriology and eschatology, the propitiation of fickle gods, as human compensations for the insecurity inherent in the unknowns and uncertainties of integrating human life cycles with the life cycles of domesticated plants and animals and the establishment of cities, with their social differentiation and political hierarchies, all unprecedented in the history of the world.
The Weltanschauung of hunter-gatherers, which laid the foundations for the emergence of agrarian and pastoral civilizations, I call the homeworld effect in contradistinction to what Frank White has called the overview effect. The homeworld effect is our understanding of ourselves and of our world before we have experienced the overview effect, and before the overview effect has transformed our understanding of ourselves and our world, as it surely will if human beings are able to realize a spacefaring civilization.
The homeworld effect — that our species emerged on a planetary surface and knows the cosmos initially only from this standpoint — allows us to assert the uniqueness of the overview effect for human beings. The overview effect is an unprecedented historical event that cannot be repeated in the history of a civilization. (If a civilization disappears and all memory of its having attained the overview effect is effaced, then the overview effect can be repeated for a species, but only in the context of a distinct civilization.) A corollary of this is that each and every intelligent species originating on a planetary surface (which I assume fulfills the principle of mediocrity for intelligent species during the Stelliferous Era) experiences a unique overview effect upon the advent of spacefaring, should the cohort of emergent complexities on the planet in question include a technologically competent civilization.
The homeworld effect is a consequence of planetary surfaces being a locus of material resources and energy flows where emergent complexities can appear during the Stelliferous Era (this is an idea I have been exploring in my series on planetary endemism, on which cf. Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V). We can say that the homeworld effect follows from this planetary standpoint of intelligent beings emerging on the surface of a planet, subject to planetary constraints, just as the overview effect follows from an extraterrestrial standpoint.
We can generalize from this observation and arrive at the principle that an effect such as the overview effect or the homeworld effect is contingent upon the experience of some standpoint (or, if you prefer, some perspective) that an embodied being experiences in the first person (and in virtue of being embodied). This first level of generalization makes it obvious that there are many standpoints and many effects that result from standpoints. Standing on the surface of a planet is a standpoint, and it yields the homeworld effect, which when formulated theoretically becomes something like Ptolemaic cosmology — A Weltanschauung or worldview that was implicit and informal for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, but which was explicitly formulated and formalized after the advent of civilization. A standpoint in orbit yields a planetary overview effect, with the standpoint being the conditio sine qua non of the effect, and this converges upon a generalization of Copernican cosmology — what Frank White has called the Copernican Perspective. (We could, in which same spirit, posit a Terrestrial Perspective that is an outgrowth of the homeworld effect.) If a demographically significant population attains a particular standpoint and experiences an effect as a result of this standpoint, and the perspective becomes the perspective of a community, a worldview emerges from the community.
Further extrapolation yields classes of standpoints, classes of effects, classes of perspectives, and classes of worldviews, each member of a class possessing an essential property in common. The classes of planetary worldviews and spacefaring worldviews will be different in detail, but all will share important properties. Civilization(s) emerging on planetary surfaces at the bottom of a gravity well constitute a class of homeworld standpoints. Although each homeworld is different in detail, the homeworld effect and the perspective it engenders will be essentially the same. Initial spacefaring efforts by any civilization will yield a class of orbital standpoints, again, each different in detail, but yielding an overview effect and a Copernican perspective. Further overview effects will eventually (if a civilization does not stagnate or collapse) converge upon a worldview of a spacefaring civilization, but this has yet to take shape for human civilization.
A distinctive aspect of the overview effect, which follows from an orbital standpoint, is the suddenness of the revelation. It takes a rocket only a few minutes to travel from the surface of Earth, the home of our species since its inception, into orbit, which no human being saw until the advent of spacefaring. The suddenness of the revelation not only furnishes a visceral counter-example to what our senses have been telling us all throughout our lives, but also stands in stark contrast to the slow and gradual accumulation of knowledge that today makes it possible to understand our position in the universe before we experience this position viscerally by having attained an orbital standpoint, i.e., an extraterrestrial perspective on all things terrestrial.
With the sudden emergence in history of the overview effect (no less suddenly than it emerges in the experience of the individual), we find ourselves faced with a novel sublime, the sublime represented by the cosmos primeval, a wilderness on a far grander scale than any wilderness we once faced on our planet, and, once again, as with our ancestors before the vastness of the world, the thundering thousands of game animals on the hoof, oceans that could not be crossed and horizons that could not be reached, we lack the conceptual infrastructure at present to fully make sense of what we have seen. The experience is sublime, it moves us, precisely because we do not fully understand it. The human experience of the homeworld effect eventually culminated in the emergence of scientific civilization, which in turn made it possible for human beings to understand their world, if not fully, at least adequately. Further extrapolation suggests that the human experience of the overview effect could someday culminate in an adequate understanding of the cosmos, as our hunter-gatherer drives for locating and exploiting resources wherever they can be found, and the reward for technological innovations that serve this end, continue to serve us as a spacefaring species.
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I am indebted to my recent correspondence with Frank White and David Beaver, which has influenced the development and formulation of the ideas above. Much of the material above appeared first in this correspondence.
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12 March 2016
It is a convention of historiography to refer to the formative period of early modern science as “the scientific revolution” (with the definite article), and this is justified in so far as the definitive features of experimental science began to take shape in the period from Copernicus and Galileo to Newton. But in addition to the scientific revolution understood in this sense as a one-time historical process that would not be repeated, there is also the sense of revolutions in science, and there are many such revolutions in science. This sense of a revolution in scientific knowledge has become familiar through the influence of Thomas Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn made a now-famous distinction between normal science, which involves the patient elaboration of a scientific research program, and revolutionary science, which involves the shift (a paradigm shift) from an established scientific research program to a new and often unprecedented scientific research program.
Some revolutions in science happen rather rapidly, and some unfold over decades or even centuries. The revolution in earth science represented by geomorphology and plate tectonics was a slow-moving scientific revolution. As long as we have had accurate maps, many have noticed how the coastlines of Africa and South America fit together (a sea captain pointed this out to my maternal grandmother when she was a young girl). When Alfred Wegener put first put forth his theory of plate tectonics in 1912 he had a great deal of evidence demonstrating the geological relationship between the west coast of Africa and the east coast of South America, but he had no mechanism by which to explain the movement of continental plates. The theory was widely dismissed among geologists, but in the second half of the twentieth century more evidence and a plausible mechanism made plate tectonics the central scientific research program in the earth sciences. I have observed elsewhere that Benjamin Franklin anticipated plate tectonics, and he did so for the right reasons, so if we push the origins of the idea of plate tectonics back into the Enlightenment, this is a scientific revolution that unfolded over hundreds of years.
In the past, when knowledge was disseminated much more slowly than it is today, we are not surprised to learn that the full impact of the Copernican revolution unfolded over centuries, while today we expect the dissemination of major scientific paradigm shifts to occur much more rapidly. Indeed, we have the recent example of the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe as a perfect instance of a major and unexpected scientific discovery that was disseminated and accepted by most cosmologists within a year or so.
The facility with which the accelerating expansion of the universe was assimilated into contemporary cosmology could be used to argue that this was no revolution in science (or it could be said that it was not a “true” revolution in science, which would suggest an application of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy — what Imre Lakatos called “monster barring” — to scientific revolutions). The discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe may be understood as an extension of the revolution precipitated by Hubble, who demonstrated by observational astronomy that the universe is expanding. Since Hubble’s discovery of the expansion of the universe it has assumed that the expansion of the universe was slowing down (a rate of deceleration already given the name of the “Hubble constant” even before the value of that constant had been determined). Hubble’s work was rapidly accepted, but its acceptance was the culmination of decades of debate over the size of the universe, including the Shapley–Curtis Debate, so we can treat this as a slow revolution or as a rapid revolution, depending upon the historical perspective we bring to science.
While general relatively came to be widely and rapidly adopted by the scientific community after the 1919 eclipse observed by Sir Arthur Eddington, I have noted in Radical Theories, Modest Formulations that Einstein presented general relativity in a fairly conservative form, and even in this conservative form the theory remained radical and difficult to accept, due to ideas such as the curvature of space and time dilation. After the initial acceptance of general relativity as a scientific research program, the subsequent century has seen a slow and gradual unfolding of some of the more radical consequences of general relativity, which became easier to accept once the essential core of the theory had been accepted.
It might be hypothesized that radical theories are accepted more rapidly when a crucial experiment fails to falsify the theory, and the more radical consequences of the theory are fudged a bit so that they do not play a role in galvanizing initial resistance to the theory. If Einstein had been talking about black holes and the expansion of the universe in 1915 he probably would have been dismissed as a crackpot. Another way to think about this is that general relativity appeared as a rigorous, mathematically formalized theory with specific predictions that admitted of crucial experiments within the scope of science at that time. But such a fundamental theory as general relativity was bound to continue to revolutionize cosmology as long as later theoreticians could elaborate the theory initially formulated by Einstein.
This discussion of slow-moving revolutions in cosmology brings us to the slow moving revolution that is coming to a head in our time. The recognition of dark matter, i.e., of something that accounts for the gravitational anomalies brought to attention by observational astronomy, has been slow to unfold over the last several decades. Two Dutch astronomers, Jacobus Kapteyn and Jan Oort (known for the eponymously-named Oort Cloud, suggested the possibility of dark matter in the early part of the twentieth century. Fritz Zwicky may have been the first person to use the term “dark matter” (“dunkle Materie“) in 1933. Further observations confirmed and extended these earlier observations, but it was not until the 1980s that the “missing” dark matter came to be widely recognized as a major unsolved problem in astrophysics. It remains an unsolved problem, with the best guess for its resolution being the theoretically conservative idea of an as-yet unobserved subatomic particle or particles that can be located within the standard model of particle physics with a minimum of disturbance to contemporary scientific theory.
There are two interesting observations to be made about this brief narrative of dark matter:
1) The idea of dark matter emerged from observational astronomy, and not as a matter of a theoretical innovation. Established theoretical ideas were applied to observations, and these ideas failed to explain the phenomena. The discovery of the expansion of the universe was also a product of observational astronomy, but it was preceded by Einstein’s theoretical work, which was already accepted at that time. Thus a number of diverse elements of scientific thought came together in a scientific research program for cosmology — a program the pursuit of which has revealed the anomaly of dark matter. There is, at present, no widely accepted physical theory that can account for dark matter, so that what we know of dark matter to date is what we know from observational astronomy.
2) No one has a strong desire to shake up the established theoretical framework either for cosmology or for fundamental physics. In other words, a radical theoretical breakthrough would upset the applecart of contemporary science, and this is not a desired outcome. The focus on dark matter as an undiscovered fundamental particle banks on the retention of the standard model in physics. Much as been invested in the standard model, and science would be more than a little out to sea if major changes had to be made to this model, so the hope is that the model can be tweaked and revised without greatly changing it. One approach to such change would be via what Quine called the “web of belief,” according to which we prefer to revise the outer edges of the web, since changing the center of the web ripples outward and changes everything else. The scientific research program at stake — which is practically the whole of big science today, with fundamental physics just as significant to astrophysics as observational astronomy — is an enormous web of belief, and if you got down to a fine-grained account of it, you would probably find that scientists would disagree as to what is the center of the web of belief and what is the periphery.
I suspect that it may be the case that, the more mature science becomes, the more difficult it will be for a major scientific revolution to occur. Any new theory to replace an old theory must not only explain observations that cannot be explained by the old theory, but the new theory must also fully account for all of the experiments and observations explained by the established theory. Quantum theory and general relativity are the best-confirmed theories in the history of physical science, and for any replacement theory to supplant them, it would have to be similarly precise and well confirmed, as well as being more comprehensive. This is a tall order. Early science picked the low-hanging fruit of scientific knowledge; the more we accumulate scientific knowledge, the more difficult it is to obtain more distant and elusive scientific knowledge. Today we have to build enormous and expensive instruments like the LHC in order to obtain new observations, so each round of expansion of scientific knowledge must wait for the newest scientific instrument to come on line, and building such instruments is becoming extremely expensive and can take decades to complete.
Partly in response to this slowing of the discovery of fundamental scientific principles as science matures, we can seen a parallel change in the use of the term “revolutionary” to identify changes in science. It is somewhat predictable that if a new particle is discovered that can account for dark matter observations, this discovery will be called “revolutionary” even if it can be formulated within the overall theoretical context of the standard model, rather than overturning the standard model. In other words, less is required today for a discovery to be perceived as revolutionary, but, at the same time, it is becoming ever more difficult even to achieve this lower standard of revolutionary change in science. It is extremely unlikely that the macroscopic features of the contemporary astrophysical research program will change, even if the standard model were overturned by a discovery related to dark matter. We will continue to use telescopes and colliders to observe the universe and use computers to run through simulations of incredibly complex models of the universe, so that both observational and theoretical astrophysicists will have a job for the foreseeable future.
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