Mars astronaut station artist's impression

Destination somewhere out there…

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If humans are to survive into the next millennium, we need to to work out how adapt to living in a different star system. And we need to do it now, argues Christopher Mason in his latest book.

The fifth word of Christopher E Mason’s new book outlining a roadmap for the survival of the human species is ‘engineering’. Given that ‘The Next 500 Years’ is on the surface primarily a discussion centred on genetics and biology, futurology and space travel, it’s probably worth starting with what the author means by the term, which he goes on to use frequently and which is so familiar to readers of E&T.

It’s important, says Mason, to recognise that “engineering as a discipline has finally moved into the biological space. Evolution has always been the greatest accidental engineer. But now we can actually have evolution occur with planning. Instead of being unguided, it can now be guided, which is the definition of engineering. We can now build or modify a system in biology and predict what will happen, much like an engineer will.”

The concept of engineering the biology of our future is fundamental to Mason’s outlook on nothing less than the long-range survival of the human species, and of all life. Mason, who is professor of genetics and physiology at Weill Cornell Medicine, New York, says that as we are the only species (we know of) with the self-awareness to think deep into the future and also to be aware of the potential for our own extinction, we have a moral duty not just to make ourselves safe, but to ensure the survival of all other life.

To do this, he argues in ‘The Next 500 Years,’ we have no option but to leave Earth and set up camp elsewhere, initially in our own solar system, but looking further ahead, by travelling in the interstellar mode. This is because it’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ our world will end. To those who think that this is somehow so distant in the future, or so laden with inevitability that it’s not worth bothering about, Mason piles on cogent and irrefutable arguments taken from his seemingly inexhaustible armoury of ethics, philosophy and common sense. We have a duty to survive, says Mason, and for him it is axiomatic that this will involve some sort of migration to another star system sooner rather than later.

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‘The Next 500 Years: Engineering Life to Reach New Worlds’

Life on Earth will inevitably come to an end. Whether this is caused by climate disaster, war or the death of the sun in a few billion years, to avoid extinction humans will need to find a new home planet, almost certainly in a different solar system. In his extraordinary and thought-provoking new book, Christopher Mason argues that we have a moral duty to do just that. But, as the only species aware that life on Earth has an expiry date, we have a responsibility to act as the guardian of all life-forms.

Mason argues that the same innate capacity for technology innovation that has enabled us to build rockets and land on other planets can be applied to redesigning biology so that we can sustainably inhabit those planets. This is his remarkable 500-year plan for creating the massively ambitious project of re-engineering human genetics for life on other worlds.

Before we can leave our planet for a destination ‘somewhere out there’ we need to examine two fundamental approaches to resolving the issue. And for a task that seems so huge, the ideas are relatively simple: either we find an alternative environment that is capable of sustaining the kind of life-form that we currently are, or we utilise our knowledge of genetic modification and synthetic biology to anticipate the changes that need to be made for us to survive in environments that currently don’t suit us. Mason says that while both arguments offer logical pathways, we will probably find ourselves combining elements of the two.

The first of these two options requires a knowledge of physics and engineering that Mason feels –with the exception of the energy systems required to propel spacecraft across distances measured in light years – is already mature or will be soon. What hasn’t been established, he argues, is what will happen in terms of our ability as humans to adapt in the biological sense to the unknown conditions that await us outside of our home solar system.

At the core of his position is that making discoveries in the field of biological adaptability is part of the aforementioned moral duty, creating an intersection of the science and philosophy magisteria. Unlike other duties, the survival duty is not one we have elected to follow. We voluntarily choose the level at which we accept our duty to, say, Queen and country, Manchester United or our pets. But the duty to survive is in Mason’s view uniquely innate in that it is pre-loaded, creating the unavoidable imperative for survival, which by logical extension means that, whether we like it or not, we must leave planet Earth to ensure we don’t become extinct. We will do this, not so much because we don’t want to be here when Armageddon happens, but because we are hard-wired to do so. As Mason says, “we need a plan.”

Christopher E Mason author - inline

Image credit: Pershing Square Sohn Cancer Research Alliance / Melanie Einzig

The problem with the future, as any futurologist will tell you, is that it has a nasty habit of not arriving on time. So, does that mean that the timeframe of the book’s title is arbitrary? Mason thinks that it is as good as any: “I’ve come as close as I can to a decent prediction, but of course we don’t know.” The plan to leave Earth in search of a new home will change with time. If you look back a hundred years, he contends, aeroplanes were very rare, only accessible by the military and specialist, and now they are ubiquitous, “with some people predicting that in the next hundred years travel to the Moon and back will become more common, and in three hundred years it is possible that it will become like air travel today. So five hundred to get out of the solar system seems reasonable enough.”

Everything in ‘The Next 500 Years’, says Mason, is based on science as we know it today, with all of his predictions “predicated on something that already exists.” While we might not know the nuances of what will change over the next half-millennium, we know that change is inevitable because “we know the amount of data will increase and so will the bandwidth.”

For those doubting just how fast the future can arrive, early in his book Mason invites the reader to conduct a thought experiment. “Examine your surroundings. Imagine a world exactly 100 years ahead of you.” The point of the exercise is to gain insight into the sheer scale of what could happen, rather than the detail. “In terms of immediacy, this moment may be more comfortable than any point in the future. You may be startled by the knowledge that so much will change. But this is good.”

‘The Next 500 Years: Engineering Life to Reach New Worlds’ by Christopher E Mason is from the MIT Press, £25


Planning for survival

The inherent duty of humanity – to preserve life – is as natural as one cell dividing into two. Right now, all humanity is as fragile as an embryo at the single-cell stage. We are an embryo full of extraordinary potential, but only on the primordial beginning step of our home planet. Our next step is to get to a nearby planet (e.g. Mars) and set up a sustainable habitat to ensure we have a backup plan for all life, including humanity. This would be a point of celebration. At long last, we would have two planets to call home around the same sun.

After decades of physical and biotechnological development, we will be able to call many different celestial bodies within our own solar system home. Through this advancement and capability of testing theories across multiple different worlds, we will acquire the ability to launch toward a second sun by 2500. Once we are an interstellar species, we will effectively have a “solar-system backup plan,” drastically decreasing the chances of life’s extinction. However, this raises inevitable questions: How many stars would we go to? How many galaxies? How far? Indeed, given enough time, fundamental philosophical questions emerge about the heat death or implosion of the universe, and whether or how humanity should alter the structure of the universe as an extension of this duty.

When given the choice between engineering life or facing inevitable death, there is clearly only one path. The right thing to do, in order to survive extinction, is to engineer at a genetic, cellular, planetary and interstellar scale. This ensures preservation of humanity and also of all other life, which may not arise in the next universe or ever again. Our species’ unique moral duty is a duty to the universe and to life itself. To protect the universe, we must alter the universe.

To do this, we need a long-term plan.

Edited extract from ‘The Next 500 Years: Engineering Life to Reach New Worlds’ by Christopher E Mason, reproduced with permission


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