3 February 2017
A Conceptual Overview
What is the relationship between planetary endemism and the overview effect? This is the sort of question that might be given a definitive formulation, once once we have gotten sufficiently clear in our understanding of these ideas and their ramifications. I’m not yet at the point of formulating a definitive expression of this relationship, but I’m getting closer to it, so this post will be about formulating relationships among these and related concepts in a way that is hopefully clear and illuminating, while avoiding the ambiguities inherent in novel concepts.
This post is itself a kind of overview, attempting to show in brief compass how a number of interrelated concepts neatly dovetail and provide us with a rough outline of a conceptual overview for understanding the origins, development, distribution, and destiny of civilization (or some other form of emergent complexity) in the universe.
The Stelliferous Era
The Stelliferous Era is that period of cosmological history after the formation of the first stars and before the last stars burn out and leave a cold and dark universe. In the cosmological periodization formulated by Fred Adams and Greg Laughlin, the Stelliferous Era is preceded by the Primordial Era and followed by the Degenerate Era. During the Primordial Era stars have not yet formed, but matter condenses out of the primordial soup; during the Degenerate Era, the degenerate remains of stars, black holes, and some exotic cosmological objects are to the found, but the era of brightly burning stars is over.
What typifies the Stelliferous Era is its many stars, radiating light and heat, and whose nucleosynthesis and supernova explosions forge heavier forms of matter, and therefore the chemical and minerological complexity from which later generations of (high metallicity) stars and planets will form. (A Brief History of the Stelliferous Era is an older post about the Stelliferous Era that needs to be revised and updated.)
In comparison to the later Degenerate Era, Black Hole Era, and Dark Era of cosmological history, the Stelliferous Era is rather brief, extending from 106 to 1014 years from the origins of the universe, and almost everything that concerns us can be further reduced to the eleventh cosmological decade (from 10 billion to 100 billion years since the origin of the universe). Since this cosmological periodization is logarithmic, the later periods are even longer in duration than they initially appear to be.
Our interest in the Stelliferous Era, and, more narrowly, our interest in the eleventh decade of the Stelliferous Era, does not rule out interesting cosmological events in other eras of cosmological history, and it is possible that civilizations and other forms of emergent complexity that appear during the Stelliferous Era may be able to make the transition to survive into the Degenerate Era (cf. Addendum on Degenerate Era Civilization), but this brief period of starlight in cosmological history is the Stelliferous Era window in which it is possible for peer planetary systems, peer species, and peer civilization to exist.
Planetary Endemism is the condition of life during the Stelliferous Era as being unique to planetary surfaces and their biospheres. Given the parameters of the Stelliferous Era — a universe with planets, stars, and galaxies, in which both water (cf. The Solar System and Beyond is Awash in Water) and carbon-based organic molecules (cf. Mixed aromatic–aliphatic organic nanoparticles as carriers of unidentified infrared emission features by Sun Kwok and Yong Zhang) are common — planetary surfaces are a “sweet spot” for emergent complexities, as it is on planetary surfaces that energy from stellar insolation can drive chemical processes on mineral- and chemical-rich surfaces. The chemical and geological complexity of the interface between atmosphere, ocean, and land surfaces provide an opportunity for further emergent complexities to arise, and so it is on planetary surfaces that life has its best opportunity during the Stelliferous Era.
Planetary endemism does not rule out exotic forms of life not derived from water and organic macro-molecules, nor does it rule out life arising in locations other than planetary surfaces, but the nature of the Stelliferous Era and the conditions of the universe we observe points to planetary surfaces being the most common locations for life during the Stelliferous Era. Also, the “planetary” in “planetary endemism” should not be construed too narrowly: moons, planetesimals, asteroids, comets and other bodies within a planetary system are also chemically complex loci where stellar insolation can drive further chemical processes, with the possibility of emergent complexities arising in these contexts as well.
The Homeworld Effect
The homeworld effect is the perspective of intelligent agents still subject to planetary endemism. When the emergent complexities fostered by planetary endemism rise to the level of biological complexity necessary to the emergence of consciousness, there are then biological beings with a point of view, i.e., there is something that it is like to be such a biological being (to draw on Nagel’s formulation from “What is it like to be a bat?”). The first being on Earth to open its eyes and look out onto the world possessed the physical and optical perspective dictated by planetary endemism. As biological beings develop in complexity, adding cognitive faculties, and eventually giving rise to further emergent complexities, such as art, technology, and civilization, embedded in these activities and institutions is a perspective rooted in the homeworld effect.
The emergent complexities arising from the action of intelligent agents are, like the biological beings who create them, derived from the biosphere in which the intelligent agent acts. Thus civilization begins as a biocentric institution, embodying the biophilia that is the cognitive expression of biocentrism, which is, in turn, an expression of planetary endemism and the nature of the intelligent agents of planetary endemism being biological beings among other biological beings.
The homeworld effect does not rule out the possibility of exotic forms of life or unusual physical dispositions for life that would not evolve with the homeworld effect as a selection pressure, but given that planetary endemism is the most likely existential condition of biological beings during the Stelliferous Era, it is to be expected that the greater part of biological beings during the Stelliferous Era are products of planetary endemism and so will be subject to the homeworld effect.
The Overview Effect
The overview effect is a consequence of transcending planetary endemism. As biocentric civilizations increase in complexity and sophistication, deriving ever more energy from their homeworld biosphere, biocentric institutions and practices begin to be incrementally replaced by technocentric institutions and practices and civilization starts to approximate a technocentric institution. The turning point in this development is the industrial revolution.
Within two hundred years of the industrial revolution, human beings had set foot on a neighboring body of our planetary system. If a civilization experiences an industrial revolution, it will do so on the basis of already advancing scientific knowledge, and within an historically short period of time that civilization will experience the overview effect. But the unfolding of the overview effect is likely to be a long-term historical process, like the scientific revolution. Transcending planetary endemism means transcending the homeworld effect, but as the homeworld effect has shaped the biology and evolutionary psychology of biological beings subject to planetary endemism, the homeworld effect cannot be transcended as easily as the homeworld itself can be transcended.
For biological beings of planetary endemism, the overview effect occurs only once, though its impact may be gradual and spread out over an extended period of time. An intelligent agent that has evolved on the surface of its homeworld leaves that homeworld only once; every subsequent world studied, explored, or appropriated (or expropriated) by such beings will be first encountered from afar, over astronomical distances, and known to be a planet among planets. A homeworld is transcended only once, and is not initially experienced as a planet among planets, but rather as the ground of all being.
The uniqueness of the overview effect to the homeworld of biological beings of planetary endemism does not rule out further overview effects that could be experienced by a spacefaring civilization, as it eventually is able to see its planetary system, its home galaxy, and its supercluster as isolated wholes. However, following the same line of argument above — stars and their planetary systems being common during the Stelliferous Era, emergent complexities appearing on planetary surfaces characterizing planetary endemism, organisms and minds evolving under the selection pressure of the homeworld effect embodying geocentrism in their sinews and their ideas — it is to be expected that the overview effect of an intelligent agent first understanding, and then actually seeing, its homeworld as a planet among other planets, is the decisive intellectual turning point.
Bifurcation of Planetary and Spacefaring Civilizations
What I have tried to explain here is the tightly-coupled nature of these concepts, each of which implicates the others. Indeed, the four concepts outlined above — the Stelliferous Era, planetary endemism, the homeworld effect, and the overview effect — could be used as the basis of a periodization that should, within certain limits, characterize the emergence of intelligence and civilization in any universe such as ours. Peer civlizations would emerge during the Stelliferous Era subject to planetary endemism, and passing from the homeworld effect to the overview effect.
If such a civilization continues to develop, fully conscious of the overview effect, it would develop as a spacefaring civilization evolving under the (intellectual) selection pressure of the overview effect, and such a civilization would birfurcate significantly from civilizations of planetary endemism still exclusively planetary and still subject to the homeworld effect. These two circumstances represent radically different selection pressures, so that we would expect spacefaring civilizations to rapidly speciate and adaptively radiate once exposed to these novel selection pressures. I have previously called this speciation and adaptive radiation the great voluntaristic divergence.
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● The Scientific Imperative of Human Spaceflight
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6 August 2016
Can there be folk concepts in (and of) recent and sophisticated scientific thought, such as astrobiology? Astrobiology is a recent discipline, and as such is a beneficiary of a long history of the development of scientific disciplines; in other words, astrobiology stands on the shoulders of giants. In From an Astrobiological Point of View I characterized astrobiology as the fourth and latest of four revolutions in the life sciences, preceded by Darwinism, genetics, and evolutionary developmental biology (i.e., evo-devo). Can there be folk concepts that influence such a recent scientific discipline?
In Folk Concepts and Scientific Progress and Folk Concepts of Scientific Civilization I considered the possibility of folk concepts unique to a scientific civilization, and the folk concepts of recent sciences like astrobiology constitute paradigmatic examples of folk concepts unique to scientific civilization. The concepts of folk astrobiology, far being being rare, have proliferated as science fiction has proliferated and made a place for itself in contemporary culture, especially in film and television.
One idea of folk astrobiology that is familiar from countless science fiction films is that of planets the biosphere of which is dominated by a single biome. Both Frank Herbert’s planet Arrakis from the novel Dune and the planets Tatooine and Jakku from Star Wars are primarily desert planets, whereas the Star Wars planet Dagobah is primarily swamp, the planet Kamino is a global ocean, and the planet Hoth is primarily arctic. Two worlds that appear in the Alien films, Zeta Reticuli exomoon LV-426 in Alien and Aliens and LV-223 in Prometheus, are both desolate, rocky, and barren, like the landscapes we have come to expect from the robotic exploration of the other worlds in our own solar system.
The knowledge we have assembled of the long-term history of the biosphere of Earth, that our planet has passed through “hothouse” and “icehouse” stages, suggest it is reasonable to suppose that we will find similar conditions elsewhere in the universe, though Earth today has a wide variety of biomes that make up its biosphere. We should expect to find worlds both with diverse biospheres and with biospheres primarily constituted by a single biome. Perhaps this idea of folk astrobiology will someday be formalized, when we know more about the evolution of biospheres of multiple worlds, and we have the data to plot a bell curve of small, rocky, wet planets in the habitable zone of their star. This bell curve almost certainly exists, we just don’t know as yet where Earth falls on the curve and what kinds of worlds populate the remainder of the curve.
Biosphere diversity is thus a familiar concept of folk astrobiology. But let me backtrack a bit and try to formulate more clearly an explication of folk astrobiology.
In an earlier post I quoted the following definition of folk biology:
Folk biology is the cognitive study of how people classify and reason about the organic world. Humans everywhere classify animals and plants into species-like groups as obvious to a modern scientist as to a Maya Indian. Such groups are primary loci for thinking about biological causes and relations (Mayr 1969). Historically, they provided a transtheoretical base for scientific biology in that different theories — including evolutionary theory — have sought to account for the apparent constancy of “common species” and the organic processes centering on them. In addition, these preferred groups have “from the most remote period… been classed in groups under groups” (Darwin 1859: 431). This taxonomic array provides a natural framework for inference, and an inductive compendium of information, about organic categories and properties. It is not as conventional or arbitrary in structure and content, nor as variable across cultures, as the assembly of entities into cosmologies, materials, or social groups. From the vantage of EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY, such natural systems are arguably routine “habits of mind,” in part a natural selection for grasping relevant and recurrent “habits of the world.”
Robert Andrew Wilson and Frank C. Keil, The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences
And here is a NASA definition of astrobiology that I have previously quoted:
“Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. This multidisciplinary field encompasses the search for habitable environments in our Solar System and habitable planets outside our Solar System, the search for evidence of prebiotic chemistry and life on Mars and other bodies in our Solar System, laboratory and field research into the origins and early evolution of life on Earth, and studies of the potential for life to adapt to challenges on Earth and in space.”
Drawing on both of these definitions — “Folk biology is the cognitive study of how people classify and reason about the organic world” and “Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe” — we can formulate a fairly succinct definition of folk astrobiology:
Folk astrobiology is the cognitive study of how people classify and reason about the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe.
I hope that the reader immediately sees how common this exercise is, both in scientific and non-scientific thought. On the scientific side, folk astrobiology is pervasively present in the background assumptions of SETI, while on the non-scientific side, as we have seen above in examples drawn from scientific fiction films, folk astrobiology informs our depiction of other worlds and their inhabitants. These concepts of folk astrobiology are underdetermined by astrobiology, but well grounded in common sense and scientific knowledge as far as it extends today. We will only be able to fully redeem these ideas for science when we have empirical data from many worlds. We will begin to accumulate this data when, in the near future, we are able to get spectroscopic readings from exoplanet atmospheres, but that is only the thin edge of the wedge. Robust data sets for the evolution of multiple independent biospheres will have to await interstellar travel. (This is one reason that I suggested that a starship would be the ultimate scientific instrument; cf. The Interstellar Imperative.)
Folk astrobiology remains “folk” until its concepts are fully formalized as part of a rigorous scientific discipline. As few disciplines ever attain complete rigor (logic and mathematics have come closest to converging on that goal), there is always a trace of folk thought that survives in, and is even propagated along with, scientific thought. Folk concepts and scientific concepts, then, are not mutually exclusive, but rather they overlap and intersect in a Wittgensteinian fashion. However, the legacy of positivism has often encouraged us to see folk concepts and scientific concepts as mutually exclusive, and if one adopts the principle that scientific concepts must be reductionist, therefore no non-reductionist concepts are not scientific, then it follows that most folk concepts are eliminated when a body of knowledge is made scientifically rigorous (I will not further develop this idea at present, but I hope to return to it when I can formulate it with greater precision).
We have a sophisticated contemporary biological science, and thus scientific biological concepts are ready to hand to employ in astrobiology, so that astrobiology has an early advantage in converging upon scientific rigor. But if a science aspires to transcend its origins and to establish itself as a new science co-equal with its progenitors, it must be prepared to go beyond familiar concepts, and in this case this means going beyond the sophisticated concepts of contemporary biology in order to establish truly astrobiological scientific concepts, i.e., uniquely astrobiological concepts, and these distinctive and novel concepts must then, in their turn, converge on scientific rigor. In the case of astrobiology, this may mean formulating a “natural history” where “nature” is construed as to include the whole of the universe, and this idea transcends the familiar idea of natural history, forcing the astrobiologist to account for cosmology as well as biology.
As an example of an uniquely astrobiology concept I above suggested the idea of biosphere diversity. Biosphere diversity, in turn, is related to ideas of biosphere evolution, developmental stages on planets with later emergent complexities, and so on. The several posts I have written to date on planetary endemism (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, and more to come) may be considered expositions of the folk astrobiological idea of planetary endemism. Similarly, the homeworld concept is both a folk concept of astrobiology and scientific civilization (cf. The Homeworld Effect and the Hunter-Gatherer Weltanschauung, Hunter-Gatherers in Outer Space, and The Martian Standpoint).
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30 January 2016
During the Stelliferous Era planetary surfaces are uniquely suited for emergent complexity such as life and civilization. Planetary surfaces are by their nature complex, being the interface between planet and planetary atmosphere. Planetary surfaces are moreover a “Goldilocks” zone for energy flows during the Stelliferous Era; energy flows on stars themselves are too great for life, while energy flows in space (in the clouds of gas and dust that surround a star) are too little for life. Planetary surfaces, then, provide “just right” energy flows at the interface of atmospheric gases and the minerals constituting the planet. If emergent complexity is going to arise during the Stelliferous, it is going arise here, hence civilizations begin on planets.
That civilizations begin on planets during the Stelliferous Era has certain consequences. Civilizations originate at the bottom of a gravity well, and if they are to expand beyond a planetary surface, they must reach a level of technological sophistication adequate to lift off from its homeworld a demographically significant proportion of its population of the intelligent organism upon which the civilization supervenes. This is the first and the most significant of the horizons of spacefaring civilization, and the spacefaring horizon that provides the initial overview effect of the civilization’s homeworld.
What this means is that there is thus a natural tendency to planetary endemism among civilizations of the Stelliferous Era. In my posts on planetary constraints I outlined the limitations imposed upon a civilization the development of which is limited to the surface of a planet. These constraints include: 1. the spatial constraint, 2. the temporal constraint, 3. the gravitational constraint, 4. the agrarian constraint, 5. the population constraint, 6. the energy constraint, 7. the material constraint, 8. the ontic constraint, and 9. the endemic constraint. These constraints define the scope of the civilizations of planetary endemism.
A planetary civilization is the limit (and, some might argue, the telos) of planetary endemism. Let us define a planetary civilization as a single civilization uniquely determined by the biosphere of a single planet, which means that, for planetary civilizations, there is a one-to-one correspondence between civilizations and their homeworlds. (Here “planet” is to be understood in the broadest possible sense, including dwarf planets, moons, and so on.) In my post Origins of Globalization I argued that terrestrial civilization today is a planetary civilization (and I further commented on this in Civilization and Uniformity).
In the particular case of terrestrial civilization, a single planetary civilization has emerged from the concrescence of multiple civilizations formerly geographically isolated. Once we think of civilization in this schematic and formal way, at least some alternatives to the particular pattern of terrestrial development become obvious. For example, civilization might begin at a single geographical locus on a planet, and spread outward from there, rather than originating independently on multiple occasions. Even given these alternative pathways to planetary civilization, from the most formal perspective these are variations on a theme of planetary civilization, and the big picture distinctions we can make, and which we can expect to be exemplified in the case of other civilizations (if there are other civilizations), can be narrowed to a few classes. If we think of planetary civilization as a classification in a developmental account of civilization, other classifications naturally grow out of this idea. For example:
● Nascent Civilization What I have also called proto-civilization, are cultures on the verge of producing civilization, i.e., intelligent species at a level of social organization immediately anterior to the threshold of civilization. The Human World of the Upper Paleolithic frequently approximated nascent civilization.
● Developing Sub-planetary Civilization Before a civilization or civilizations reach their planetary limit, they may be called sub-planetary. A sub-planetary civilization still undergoing development, and retaining the capability to expanding to its planetary limit, is a developing sub-planetary civilization. As noted above, developing sub-planetary civilizations may be one or many prior to converging upon a planetary civilization.
● Arrested Sub-planetary Civilization A less-than-planetary civilization that has ceased in its development and so no longer retains the capability of expanding to its planetary limit may be called an arrested sub-planetary civilization. Arrested sub-planetary civilizations, which constitute instances of suboptimal civilization, and will eventually become extinct when planetary conditions eventually change beyond the ability of the civilization to adapt. A sub-planetary civilization is, by definition, a geographically regional civilization, so it is a civilization predicated upon the ecological conditions of a particular region of a planet, and is probably limited to inhabiting one or two biomes of its homeworld. This makes an arrested sub-planetary civilization especially vulnerable to extinction, and, in fact, many local civilizations in terrestrial history have gone extinct leaving no successor civilization (e.g., Minoan civilization, Nazca civilization, etc.).
● Developing Planetary Civilization A civilization that has reached the limits of its homeworld, and yet continues in its development, is a planetary civilization on the cusp of making the transition to becoming a spacefaring civilization. While such development might be cut short by the realization of some existential risk, there is nevertheless a distinction to be made between a planetary civilization in possession of the resources (potentially) to make the transition to spacefaring civilization, and a civilization that happens to reach the limits of its homeworld, but which has no hope of making the transition to spacefaring civilization.
● Arrested Planetary Civilization Arrested planetary civilizations, like arrested sub-planetary civilizations, are also a species of suboptimal civilization, and are also subject to inevitable extinction. However, arrested planetary civilizations are somewhat less vulnerable and more robust than arrested sub-planetary civilizations, since the ability to establish a planetary civilization means that transportation and communication networks unify the homeworld and the civilization in possession of such an infrastructure can compensate for regional ecological changes that could mean the end for a geographically regional civilization. Thus, in general, it is to be expected that arrested planetary civilizations can endure for a longer period of time than arrested sub-planetary civilizations, though a planetary civilization is, in turn, likely to endure for a shorter period of time than a spacefaring civilization, which latter possesses access to far greater resources and can achieve redundancy on a scale than no planetary civilization can achieve.
It is interesting to observe that a sub-planetary civilization might seek existential risk mitigation through redundancy by “seeding” copies of itself in different regions of its homeworld. How would we distinguish between such a project and more familiar categories of civilizational expansion or colonization? I will not attempt to answer this question at present. However, I will make the further observation that this approach to redundancy is closed off to any planetary civilization, whether arrested or still in the process of development.
Several of the terms I have employed here are admittedly rather awkward; my point is to try to capture the most general, “big picture” features of a civilization as we might observe its development from outside. For if SETI, in any of its forms, is eventually successful, we will be scientists of civilization looking from the outside in, and if there are many civilizations to be discovered, they will be roughly sortable into a handful of varieties. The varieties of civilization outlined above are based on the root idea of a planetary civilization, which is in turn based on the idea of the planetary endemism of civilizations, which is likely to be a feature of the Stellierous Era.
The argument implied in the above classification is that this classification possesses a certain conceptual naturalness as a consequence of its being rooted in structural features of the universe in which we happen to find ourselves. A different universe, or a different kind of universe, or a universe with a different natural history, might demand a scheme for the classification of any civilizations it hosted which differed from the above, which is an artifact of particular conditions. Thus if we depart sufficiently from the Stellierous Era, a different taxonomy for the classification of civilization may be necessary. For example, in the case of Degenerate Era civilizations, which would probably consist of civilizations descended with modification from civilizations of the Stellierous Era, the above scheme of classification would not likely be very helpful.
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20 January 2016
Our first view of Earth was from its surface; every other planet human beings eventually visit will be first perceived by a human being at a great distance, then from orbit, and last of all from its surface. We will descend from orbit to visit a new world, rather than, as on Earth, emerging from the surface of that world and, only later, much later, seeing it from orbit, and then as a pale blue dot, from a great distance.
With our homeworld, the effect of looking up from the surface of our planet precedes the overview effect; with every other world, the overview effect precedes the surface standpoint. We might call this the homeworld effect, which is a consequence of what I now call planetary endemism (and which, when I was first exploring the concept, I called planetary constraint). We have already initiated this process when human beings visited the moon, and for the first time in human history descended to a new world, never before visited by human beings. With this first tentative experience of spacefaring, humanity knows one world from its surface (Earth) and one world from above (the moon). Every subsequent planetary visit will increase the relative proportion of the overview effect in contradistinction to the homeworld effect.
In the fullness of time, our normative assumptions about originating on a plant and leaving it by ascending in to orbit will be displaced by a “new normal” of approaching worlds from a great distance, worlds perhaps first perceived as a pale blue dot, and then only later descending to familiarize ourselves with surface features. If we endure for a period of time sufficient for further human evolution under the selection pressure of spacefaring civilization, this new normal will eventually replace the instincts formed in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA) when humanity as a species branched off from other primates. The EEA of our successor species will be spacefaring civilization and the many worlds to which we travel, and this experience will shape our minds as well, producing an evolutionary psychology adapted not to survival on the surface of a planet, but to survival on any planet whatever, or no planet at all.
The Copernican principle is the first hint we have of the mind of a species adapted to spacefaring. It is a characteristic of Copernicanism to call the perspective borne of planetary endemism, the homeworld effect, into question. We have learned that the Copernican principle continually unfolds, always offering more comprehensive perspectives that place humanity and our world in a context that subsumes our previous perspective. Similarly, the overview effect will unfold over the development of spacefaring civilization that takes human beings progressively farther into space, providing ever more distant overviews of our world, until that world becomes lost among countless other worlds.
In my Centauri Dreams post The Scientific Imperative of Human Spaceflight, I discussed the possibility of further overview effects resulting from attaining ever more distant perspectives on our cosmic home — thus attaining an ever more rigorous Copernican perspective. For example, although it is far beyond contemporary technology, it is possible to imagine we might someday have the ability to go so far outside the Milky Way that we could see our own galaxy in overview, and point out the location of the sun in the Orion Spur of the Milky Way.
There is, however, another sense in which additional overview effects may manifest themselves in human experience, and this would be due less to greater technical abilities that would allow for further first person human perspectives on our homeworld and on our universe, and rather due more to cumulative human experience in space as a spacefaring civilization. With accumulated experience comes “know how,” expertise, practical skill, and intuitive mastery — perhaps what might be thought of as the physical equivalent of acculturation.
We achieve this physical acculturation to the world through our bodies, and we express it through a steadily improving facility in accomplishing practical tasks. One such practical task is the ability to estimate sizes, distances, and movements of other bodies in relation to our own body. An astronaut floating in space in orbit around a planet or a moon (i.e., on a spacewalk) would naturally (i.e., intuitively) compare himself as a body floating in space with the planet or moon, also a body floating in space. Frank White has pointed out to me that, in interviews with astronauts, the astronauts themselves have noted the difference between being inside a spacecraft and being outside on a spacewalk, when one is essentially a satellite of Earth, on a par with other satellites.
The human body is an imperfectly uniform, imperfectly “standard” standard ruler that we use to judge the comparative sizes of the objects around us. Despite its imperfection as a measuring instrument, the human body has the advantage of being more intimately familiar to us than any other measuring device, which makes it possible to achieve a visceral understanding of quantities measured in comparison to our own body. At first perceptions of comparative sizes of bodies in space would be highly inaccurate and subject to optical illusions and cognitive biases, but with time and accumulated experience an astronaut would develop a more-or-less accurate “feel” for the size of the planetary body about which he is orbiting. With accumulated experience one would gain an ability to judge distance in space by eye, estimate how rapidly one was orbiting the celestial body in question, and perhaps even familiarize oneself with minute differences in microgravity environments, perceptible only on an intuitive level below the threshold of explicit consciousness — like the reflexes one acquires in learning how to ride a bicycle.
This idea came to me recently as I was reading a NASA article about Saturn, Saturn the Mighty, and I was struck by the opening sentences:
“It is easy to forget just how large Saturn is, at around 10 times the diameter of Earth. And with a diameter of about 72,400 miles (116,500 kilometers), the planet simply dwarfs its retinue of moons.”
How large is Saturn? We can approach the question scientifically and familiarize ourselves with the facts of matter, expressed quantitatively, and we learn that Saturn has an equatorial radius of 60,268 ± 4 km (or 9.4492 Earths), a polar radius of 54,364 ± 10 km (or 8.5521 Earths), a flattening of 0.09796 ± 0.00018, a surface area of 4.27 × 1010 km2 (or 83.703 Earths), a volume of 8.2713 × 1014 km3 (or 763.59 Earths), and a mass of 5.6836 × 1026 kg (or 95.159 Earths) — all figures that I have taken from the Wikipedia entry on Saturn. We could follow up on this scientific knowledge by refining our measurements and by going more deeply in to planetary science, and this gives us a certain kind of knowledge of how large Saturn is.
Notice that the figures I have taken from Wikipedia for the size of Saturn notes Earth equivalents where relevant: this points to another way of “knowing” how large Saturn is: by way of comparative concepts, in contradistinction to quantitative concepts. When I read the sentence quoted above about Saturn I instantly imagined an astronaut floating above Saturn who had also floated above the Earth, feeling on a visceral level the enormous size of the planet below. In the same way, an astronaut floating above the moon or Mars would feel the smallness of both in comparison to Earth. This is significant because the comparative judgement is exactly what a photograph does not communicate. A picture of the Earth as “blue marble” may be presented to us in the same size format as a picture of Mars or Saturn, but the immediate experience of seeing these planets from orbit would be perceived very differently by an orbiting astronaut because the human body always has itself to compare to its ambient environment.
This is kind of experience could only come about once a spacefaring civilization had developed to the point that individuals could acquire diverse experiences of sufficient duration to build up a background knowledge that is distinct from the initial “Aha!” moment of first experiencing a new perspective, so one might think of the example I have given above as a “long term” overview effect, in contradistinction to the immediate impact of the overview effect for those who see Earth from orbit for the first time.
The overview effect over the longue durée, then, will continually transform our perceptions both by progressively greater overviews resulting from greater distances, and by cumulative experience as a spacefaring species that becomes accustomed to viewing worlds from an overview, and immediately grasps the salient features of worlds seen first from without and from above. In transforming our perceptions, our minds will also be transformed, and new forms of consciousness will become possible. This alone ought to be reason enough to justify human spaceflight.
The possibility of new forms of consciousness unprecedented in the history of terrestrial life poses an interesting question: suppose a species — for the sake of simplicity, let us say that this species is us, i.e., humanity — achieves forms of consciousness through the overview effect cultivated in the way I have described here, and that these forms of consciousness are unattainable prior to the broad and deep experience of the overview effect that would characterize a spacefaring civilization. Suppose also, for the sake of the argument, that the species that attains these forms of consciousness is sufficiently biologically continuous that there has been no speciation in the biological sense. There would be a gulf between earlier and later iterations of the same species, but could we call this gulf speciation? Another way to pose this question is to ask whether there can be cognitive speciation. Can a species at least partly defined in terms of its cognitive functions be said to speciate on a cognitive level, even when no strictly biological speciation has taken place?
I will not attempt to answer this question at present — I consider the question entirely open — but I would like to suggest that the idea of cognitive speciation, i.e., a form of speciation unique to conscious beings, is deserving of further inquiry, and should be of special interest to the field of cognitive astrobiology.
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The Overview Effect
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