Column: Heading for the stars? (Part One)
“Mankind will conquer the stars. It is his destiny.” — Isaac Asimov
“We are the way the universe understands itself.” “Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.” — Carl Sagan
“Let us make adam in our own image, as our likeness… Let him have dominion over … earth and all the creeping things that creepeth thereon.” Genesis, c. I, v. 18 (KJV)
But trying to defend our profound interest in exploration this way is to sidestep the fact that evolution has built into our natures our wish to learn something new. And sure, you could point out that there’s obvious survival value … But the fact that such interest is hard-wired into our primate brains shouldn’t cheapen its value, any more than finding an evolutionary explanation for music somehow makes it less worthwhile. — from S.E.T.I. website, https://www.seti.org/why-look-extraterrestrial-life
“…we should take advantage of this brief window of opening, where we can transfer life, transport life to make life multi-planetary and humanity is essentially the agent of life in this process. And I think we almost have an obligation to ensure that the creatures of Earth continue even if there was a calamity on Earth, which as I said, could be man-made or it could be some natural calamity as if you look at the fossil record there’s, there are many mass extinctions.” — Elon Musk
The news has been full of items about missions to Mars and outer space lately. I am moved to some observations about how history, our recorded human past, might relate to the future our species may make in our solar system.
This essay might be an investigation into misanthropy; I hope not. I honestly do not feel hostile to my species. But I am going to reach some harsh conclusions.
Promised Planet for a Dominant Species
To begin with the obvious, homo sapiens is a recently-evolved animal, a primate descended from arboreal animals, who learned to walk upright and free our hands for marvellous action. We lived socially, we hunted, and this life necessitated rapid unparalleled development of our cerebral neo-cortex and then unprecedented speech capacities. Our bodies are rather feeble, we lack weapons in teeth or claw or armor or speed. Speech drove mental sophistication and conscious mind drove thinking.
Our talents lie in our intelligence, our communication, the weapons we make, the social nature of our actions. We are also territorial animals with a sense of what surface is appropriated for us, land that our own tribe will forage exclusively; we’re co-operative animals absolutely dependent on one another for security and psychological well-being. We live in many kinds of habitat, we strive to keep competitors off our turf, we feel close bonds with our kin (cooperation) and fearful antipathy toward the stranger (competition). This is basic human raw material.
There were eras in prehistory our species nearly went extinct, according to evidence. Our numbers were reduced to under 10,000. [“Some believe that the human breeding population shrank down to only 600 people.” see:
We survived. Never since have we been so near becoming an evolutionary “failed species”. But, between being the species that rules all others and our planetary habitat, as we so obviously do now — and being just one among many living in some measure of harmony, as we so obviously do not — there are worlds of difference.
Please accompany me in this essay and confront assumptions about your affection for humanity. Hari Kunzru recently wrote in Harper’s about our “unearned position as the measure of all things” and that is what I intend to challenge.
Humanism begins with that premise, that we are such a measure of all. I discover I want to deny this.
What a piece of work is a man!
How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable!
In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals.
And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me. — William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Homo sapiens sapiens: what’s in a name?
The name our scientists have chosen for us, homo sapiens sapiens, is sheer hubris; it’s the quality ancient Greeks said condemns an individual by arrogance, an excess of pride and ego. The label means “human knowing it knows” — claiming to name the most-significant quality about our species, that we know we are aware.
As John Kabat-Zinn, molecular scientist and teacher of meditation, said in an interview, “it is a little premature to name ourselves that.”
[Kabat-Zinn added we “might begin” to work on being aware now; hear his interview in a podcast at
If constant consciousness of our unusual species-being were the truth of the human condition, humans would have evidenced capacity for self-understanding in the history we have made. I defy anyone to make the case from our history that our species has demonstrated conscious awareness of our species’ mind distinction.
How would history afford evidence of human consciousness of acting aware-in-life?
Conscious life: subjectivity and objectivity in the language of Science
I suggest that constantly raising humans’ quality of life with the empathy learned from collective experience, is a proof.
To make societies where humans live within equal justice — and the lives of other species are balanced with human populations: as this ideal is ever more-fully realized, I would discern evidence our species is conscious of the unique potentiality of our being, a conscious life not possible for other species. Kabat-Zinn calls conscious living “our deepest and best.”
But I say this as a layman, not a scientist imbued with the dogma of what science must be, and how its truths must be objective, without “values” interfering in the evidence. I will not accept this. I assert that humanity can live consciously, with intention, and intention matters. An intention toward justice matters.
My judgment of what constitutes good is, human behaviour evolving in a direction of justice, but that is a subjective pollution of the data. The objective science of evolutionary biology has no place for justice. There is only what is. Evolution is blind to my intentions, purposes, meanings, or direction. It is not part of reality that one quality of living or being is “better” than another, as I just asserted; it is a delusion.
Reality isn’t purposive or moral, but is comprehensible. This is the scientific creed.
Science and the taint of human emotion
Selfishness and cooperation are two sides of a Darwinian coin. Each gene promotes its own selfish welfare, by cooperating with other genes in the sexually stirred gene pool which is the gene’s environment, to build shared bodies. — Richard Dawkins
This classic statement of what humans do as a species is the argument of Richard Dawkins, the celebrated scientist and militant atheist, in his book, The Selfish Gene. He is also famous for a later book, The God Delusion. Our species is successful because we dominate our planet, we reproduce in vast numbers to ensure we cannot be extinguished by the environment, and our genes are designed to do this: ensure their replication. A person serves his genes.
There is no such thing as “progress” for humanity, only surviving and reproducing. My pious wish, that we be conscious of our gifts and be in balance with other lives and compassionate toward all humans, is meaningless in evolutionary biology. Biology isn’t linear progress. Charles Darwin struggled with this, as a man who had a conventional Christian upbringing, and whose wife was devout. His theory of natural selection has no purpose or meaning for humankind. Darwinism as an ideology propagates the notion of random, purposeless survival instinct among species. Certain kinds of scientists celebrate this “victory” over religion.
Julie Payette, famous Canadian astronaut, infamous ex-Governor General, is such a person, as she so clearly revealed in public comments: “We are still debating and still questioning whether life was a divine intervention,” Payette went on, “or whether it was coming out of a natural process, let alone, oh my goodness!a random process.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn is scientifically-trained, a molecular biologist, yet makes assertions about human life while still identified as a scientist. Rupert Sheldrake, prize-winning botanist, is a unique voice on the subject of the dogma of scientists — that he calls scientism — which dictates that scientists keep emotional impulses and irrational feelings about the meaning of life separated from the physical, observable, measurable, mathematical, experimental, factual evidence that science studies. You can delve more deeply into his ideas in his book The Science Delusion.
I say, the mind of humanity has not so far as I can make out from our history and prehistory developed in the direction of conscious, awake living. Dominion over others, other humans and other species, driven by survival instincts, seems to have distinguished us, as per Dawkins’ formula. For me, this is unconscious life.
All through recorded history, rare voices have indeed pointed to some higher path of development (judged on values), but the general lot of humans have not taken the well-intentioned advice of sages, prophets, and saints. The low road of mere gene-driven survival success, is ours. The only judgement Reality makes is life or death; good or bad, forward or backward, ascent or debasement? – that’s subjective error.
So, onward to the past, to an historical appreciation of human accomplishments.
The First Promised Land: an ancient Narrative of Chosen People
“Ea created mankind/On whom he imposed the service of the gods, and set the gods free” (Tablet VI.33-34).
A well-known text, called the Tanakh by Jews, and the Old Testament of the Holy Bible by Christians, (the most published book in history) has an origin story to explain why humans exist, what our purpose is, and how we are created to relate to the rest of the habitat in which we live, this planet we call earth.
This is of course not the only creation story of humankind. It happens to be the cultural narrative of a significant fraction of the species whose homelands were in Europe, whose dominion over the globe was manifest by the year 1900, by which time humans had a recorded history of about 5,000 years, or back to 3,100 BCE.
The Creation myth I cite is basic to Canada as a nation, for which reason our nation’s Constitution refers to the “supremacy of God” in the preamble. The mythos refers to the first human, adam [from adamah, “land”] and the divine statement that the man is made in the image and likeness of the God. The tale offers explanations for one People being chosen by their God — called Elohim, or Eloah, or YHWH in the Genesis story — and the Land Promised to this chosen people known as Israel [“struggles with God”] to be their own and no other people’s. Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Moses, David: these are the iconic names of the Chosen People’s descent from Adam. The fallen condition of man is tendentiously explained by a tale of original sin. God also indulged his regret for making us by sending a Flood to rid the earth of his creation, but for reasons unexplained, Noah was spared, life went on.
To take possession of the Promised Land entails a long and bloody history of the Israelites/ Judeans / Jews’ wars with other peoples, and in times after their holy book ceased to have new additions, the People in fact were eradicated from that land and exiled all over Europe and the mid-East and North Africa in what is called the Diaspora or Dispersion. Their state was gone from the land for about 1800 years.
Power and Promised Land
The Jews of course returned to their Promised Land under the aegis of the British Empire, the American quasi-empire, the League of Nations, and the United Nations in a fairly brief and recent period of colonization, purchasing real estate, or Return.
The word one chooses from the three matters a great deal to your perspective on all subsequent history of this state. Was the Israeli state a colony, legally-purchased property, or the morally-rightful place of habitation, home for any and all Jews?
The new state became populated by Jews arriving from outside, from about 1885 to 1950, and the world has never since been unaware of the intense challenges to international peace posed by that… return. This single territorial expanse upon the planet is where Europe, Asia, and Africa meet, where Arab, Turk, Persian, Muslim, Christian, Jew, and “heterodox” forms of all three faiths, and five secular military powers, plus economic potentates of great oil wealth in the world, all meet.
This crucible of geopolitics with the state of Israel in the crosshairs is one of the most probable sites for the cause of a local nuclear war and possibly a global one. Israel has nuclear weapons. One of its Muslim neighbours, Pakistan, does too, and others are capable of getting such awful arms if the global community allows. Russian and China have land borders much closer to Israel than the USA.
No one can be unaware of the geopolitical centrality of this land and its peril of war.
The Second Promised Land: the New World of the Western Hemisphere
I alluded to the problematic aspect of calling Israel a colony, because the word and its derivatives, decolonization and anti–colonialism, are freighted with connotations of disapproval and moral condemnation, judged by 21st-century progressivist, liberal, democratic internationalist doctrine. The UN is against colonialism and imperialism — an irony because the UN and the League of Nations before it are organizations impossible to imagine without the foundational support of America, Britain, and France, the great imperial powers dominating the 19th and early 20th centuries.
America, the present superpower was born from 13 colonies in rebellion against Britain; the USA began with a mythos of a “ shining city on a hill” — a moral and spiritual exemplar to humanity. In God We Trust, Americans say; God is YHWH.
Because today the so-called New World or western hemisphere has two continents where the nation-states are all consequences of colonial European history, of Spanish, French, English, Dutch, and Portuguese empires, the indigenous peoples there are in a state of awakening to the loss of their past by “cultural genocides.” Canadians are acutely aware of our native peoples and their political and legal challenges to the status quo. The land we say we own is on “stolen continents.”
So, if you choose to call Israel a colony, Israel becomes another place where progressivists exercise moral condemnation of the very fact and foundation of the state. Colonies, thanks to what was done to the native, indigenous peoples who were subjugated by Europeans, are very much incorrect political baggage. I am descended from Europeans, the settler-invaders. On my hands and my peers’ lies the political, economic, legal, and moral responsibility to make restitution to natives and bring about reconciliation of the two vastly-diverse civilizations. What is the just and moral course to set historic wrongs to right? Can the two histories be reconciled?
This had to be said to set up the next section, the imagined future of humankind as colonizers of planets beyond earth. Do we intend to, for example, colonize Mars?
END PART ONE