(By Tina Sjogren) "The picture's pretty bleak, gentlemen...the world's climate is changing, the mammals are taking over and we all have brains the size of walnuts."
After 200 million years of pretty cushy reign, the Stegosaurus addressing his fellow dinosaurs in a famous Far Side cartoon wasn't kidding.
Now, it's the human species running for dear life.
Earth counting 4,5 billion birthdays, the 200 000 years or so homo sapiens have been around amounts to a percentage of … yeah. So much for our importance in the Grand Scheme Of Things (14 billion Cosmos years). To boot, at around 6000 years old civilization is a very new experience for humanity. Mostly we've roamed the crust as foraging bands.
Here's what we accomplished during this sliver of time:
In South Asia, about 88% of the rain forests have been lost. In Central America, two-thirds of lowland tropical forests have been turned into pasture since 1950. In the last 100 years there has been a 40% reduction in oceanic phytoplankton (feeding everything else) with every fishery discovered in the last 500 years systematically fished to the brink of collapse.
Genus homo does not need the meteorites that in one of their regular life extinction rounds took out the dinosaurs. We are pretty good at total destruction all by ourselves.
Why the empires fell
Thus far on Earth, every prior human civilization has collapsed. Each collapse came as a surprise to its members. It's not that they all died out.
Following a millennium of astronomical observation - sophisticated enough to predict eclipses - the Maya people are still around. They work the fields of Yucatan amid ruins of the magnificent pyramids and palaces their ancestors once built.
Sometimes our empires fell slowly, sometimes over a few fast decades. Usually the ancient civilizations went out by war, corruption, mismanagement of power, depletion of ecology, or just general disintegration when the cost of maintaining the system outweighed the benefits. With today's interconnection and technologies the next collapse could be global.
All facts combined prominent thinkers give humanity somewhere between 25-50% chance of extinction in the next 100 years. Some even worse than that. The good news is that the same cleverness that made us almost wipe out the globe and each other in record speed is enough to make everything right. And then some.
Emigrating Beyond Earth: a voyage through our existence
Describing some of the above scenarios in Emigrating Beyond Earth, futurist anthropologists Cameron Smith and Evan Davies take us on a voyage through our entire existence. We get to see the future in a new light, derived from the study of evolutionary adaption.
In earth exploration the trend is moving away from the elite in favor of the every day man. This is true also for space. Information is free and abundant, prototyping increasingly easy and online manufacturers do the rest. Rock climbers build inflatable space habitats, citizen scientists discover the bulk of new planets, and e-commerce entrepreneurs are ordering space ship parts from the internet.
Only 500 years after the first book was printed; a mere century since we learned our galaxy holds 400 billion stars; and less than twenty years since we found out that our planet is not alone in the Milky Way; the internet seemingly arrived just yesterday and some crazy stuff is about to happen now, significantly if the law of accelerating returns is anywhere right.
Smith and Davies put this development in an intriguing context. Armed with a full arsenal of biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, technology, history and philosophy - they go all out demonstrating beyond doubt that "Emigrating Beyond Earth" is not a choice but a necessity. After all, up to 99% of life on Earth has become extinct.
We are proactive
The book lays out the case for human space emigration in convincing detail informed by 14 billion years of evolution. What is life exactly? How did it get here? What has worked out and what has failed? How can we survive?
Physical anthropology shows that brain size is not enough, the Neanderthals had the bigger brains and still they died out. And it's not just about evolution. Except for different pigment and fat distribution we look about the same but developed quite unique ways of survival in Africa versus the high Arctics.
In the past 100 000 years human adaption has been not biological, but cultural.
Having the technology is not enough: archeology shows that in addition to possessing the tools needed to survive human cultures must value changes and adaption to new circumstances.
And it's not just about resources. "Materially the Greenland Norse could have survived but culturally they enacted courses of action that drove them to extinction," the anthropologists found.
The authors stress that where evolution is reactive; a purposeless (but not random) consequence of replication, variation and selection of the fittest - humans are uniquely different. We are proactive.
We can affect outcomes like no other species and our survival has been not only by matter but also by mind. As humanity has evolved, it has continually expanded outward, finding new places to live.
"Acceptance of variation aligns us with the reality of the Universe which is change," the authors note.
Creativity is key
Writers making science accessible and interesting for the layman are rare finds. Portland State University professor Cameron Smith manages the task without thinning the subject, it's a fantastic read. And a wild ride.
By the time one is past the first quarks, the ensuing fog, the emerging stars, the planets, the supercontinents, the DNAs, the fossils, the lichens, the lemurs, the bi-pedals, the African foragers, the Chinese eunuchs, the Arab mathematicians, the European Romans, the South American Mayans and finally the NASA bureaucrats - one is ready to accept just about any conclusion the authors propose.
Exodus. To Space. But how?
"Humanity relies on invention to survive - not physical adaption such as wooly fur, but on inventions, such as sealskin boots in the Arctic," Smith and Davies pass on from their evolutionary files. This creativity is driven by cognitive fluidity. "The most creative people are those most able to connect thoughts from different fields," the researchers found.
It doesn't take many to change a world
Homo Sapiens dispersal out of Africa involved a group of only a few hundred individuals. Genetically minimum viable population (MVP) is about 500 people for the human genome to propagate in health. No species of complex life has existed more than a small fraction of the history of life, but widespread species have proved hard to kill.
Our survival lies not in luck or capability but in our willingness to expand.
It took only a handful of souls to bring down the dark ages: Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler and Galileo defined the mechanics of the cosmos in the short space of 250 years. Emigrating Beyond Earth is dedicated to those Renaissance astronomers; regular folks armed with curiosity, dedication, and courage.
An equally small number of explorers blazed the path (born in 1254 Marco Polo was followed by Columbus in 1451 and Vasco da Gama in 1460. Copernicus was born in 1473, Brahe in 1546, Galileo in 1564 and Kepler in 1571).
"In biology, migration is one of the most significant drivers of evolution of any species," the book reflects, "it has been shown that encountering new conditions can stimulate cultural innovation."
What we need is around us
The book investigates Polynesian Lapita who explored the vast and violent Pacific ocean navigating by the color of the waters, the speed of objects passing by, the birds coming and going, and by the positions of the stars above. They travelled on light, ingenious ships built out of what was available to them then and there.
For space travel we only have to look around, the way our ancestors did. Solutions are everywhere. Coaches from our past speak to us through fossils. Natural sciences are packed with tricks derived from billions of years of engineering trials. Biomimicry already guides genetic algorithm computing and robots designed on templates of animals, the anthropologists point out.
In their monumental compilation, Smith and Davies mention many lessons of successful adaptations: by way of ecological opportunities, observing nature's way, collaboration, and long-term thinking.
Associative shifts in reasoning need to move from "the right stuff/pro" to "everyman/do it yourself". From "technical mystery/inconceivable" to "demystified/under the hood" and so on.
"Space travel is a right, not a privilege of an elite few," the writers assert. Furthermore, technology must be intuitive: It's not about manning machines but about augmenting man.
Above all, we must want it. "Clearly while technologies are important, they go nowhere without human interest, imagination or will," the anthropologists found.
So what is it going to be? Cheng Ho's fleet rotting at the docks; the library in Alexandria burned to the ground; the last blueprints and plans for Saturn 5 donated to a Boy Scout paper drive?
Or the main characteristics of evolution: innovation and exploration for no other reason than change itself.
Previously featured at ExplorersWeb for his pulkasled and more, Cameron Smith was recently covered by Wired magazine for building his own space suit. Tired of new popes and modern dinosaurs the scientist by education, engineer by practice and explorer at heart belongs to a new generation ready to take destiny into their own hands.
Right up there with Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity Is Near and alongside useful accounts in the genre such as latest Makers by Chris Anderson - Emigrating Beyond Earth is one of the greatest books I've read.
Cameron Smith's website