Thursday, June 15, 2006

What's with all the Hawking haters?

A few days ago, physicist Stephen Hawking suggested that it is important that the human race begin moving out into space, in order to ensure the long-term survival of the species:

"It is important for the human race to spread out into space for the survival of the species," Hawking said. "Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers we have not yet thought of."

Suddenly, he's being attacked on all sides.

Chris Clarke asks "Who the hell does Stephen Hawking think he is anyway?". He starts with an attack on Hawking's prediction that we "could" have a permanent moon base within 20 years:

...the sheer hubris-laden assumption that within twenty years we'll be able to build artificial ecosystems, sustainable over the very long term, that can support human life at population levels necessary to preserve a worthwhile percentage of human genetic, intellectual, and cultural diversity.

That's not what Hawking said. That's some major strawman kicking going on. Hawking isn't predicting self-sustaining colonies in space within twenty years. He's saying that, if we try, in twenty years we could have a dozen astronauts living for months at a time on the moon.

Clarke goes on to describe the fiasco that was Biosphere, and entirely misses the point that Biosphere merely shows us the job is hard and we don't know how to create a self-sustaining ecosystem from scratch, not that it can't be done. The Wright Brothers couldn't build a faster-than-sound airplane either. It is no surprise that the Biosphere failed, and it will be no surprise when the next ten or thirty experiments fail too. But with every failure, we will learn more about ecology until one day we will be able to create self-sustaining ecosystems.

Clarke's argument is simply the argument from ignorance: we don't understand ecologies today, so we will never understand ecologies.

Clarke goes on:

I'm looking at the list of dangers Hawking cites: genetic engineering turning the biosphere into gray goo, climate change from burning of fossil fuels, nuclear war-- and a certain commonality among them strikes me. [...] we're not talking comet impact or flood basalt here. Every threat, every looming disaster Hawking's talking about here is human generated.
(Emphasis in original.)

It's moments like this I wonder about the intelligence of supposedly intelligent human beings. Hawking is interviewed by a mainstream newspaper, the SF Gate. Does Clarke think that the average newspaper reader would have the foggiest clue what flood basalt is? What are the clearest and most obvious dangers to the survival of the entire human race that ordinary newspaper readers with limited science education will know about?

Nuclear war. Viruses. Global warming.

Exactly the things Hawking mentions. If he had talked about flood basalts, chances are 98% of the readers would have just scratched their collective heads and filed it in the "what is he talking about?" basket. In fact, he may have mentioned flood basalts, and the paper simply edited it out as too technical for their readership.

This isn't rocket science here folks. It doesn't take a genius to realise that even if three of the four threats Hawking mentions are preventable, there are a whole lot more which aren't. Clarke mentions two of them: comet impact or flood basalt. Climate change driven by non-human activity (e.g. solar activity). Ordinary, non-genetically engineered viruses. A nearby supernova (those gamma rays could be coming straight for us right now, and we would have no way of knowing until they hit). There are many ways the world could end, and Hawking's argument holds regardless of whether they are human generated or not.

Clarke also goes on to make the analogy of human beings with cockroaches: the Earth is a home infested with cockroaches, and he's distressed at the suggestion we should allow those cockroaches to go to our neighbour's home as well. What an ... interesting ... argument that is. If we human beings are the cockroaches, who is there to get upset at the cockroach infestation? Does the house care that it is filled with cockroaches? A thinking, emotional house. Hmmm.

If there is no owner to get upset, who will care? Has Clarke perhaps considered that the Earth is troubled by that disgusting infestation of green plants pumping out billions of tonnes of toxic, corrosive oxygen gas? If not, why does he think the Earth is troubled by that disgusting infestation of mammals? There is some seriously wooly thinking going on here -- and I can't help but think of those accusations that environmentalism is the last politically correct refuge of racism. "There are too many people on the Earth -- they aren't like me!" That sinking feeling of racism would possibly go away -- or be supported -- if folks like Clarke who think people are the problem would come clean and tell us just which people they think should be allowed to live.

Amanda Marcotte writes "Stephen Hawking is a tool" and compares his suggestion to neo-Fundamentalist Christian belief in The Rapture. She goes on to say:

Now Stephen Hawking has just put his authority behind an escape fantasy that allows wingnuts who aren't Rapture fanatics to ignore the fact that we're destroying our planet and very soon going to make in uninhabitable.
The idea of starting over with a small group of people on another planet is the same racist, classist superiority complex-driven fantasy that fuels the mythology of the Rapture, where it's assumed an elite group of "Christians" (imagined as mostly white Americans) will get sucked away while the rest of us inferior humans died in the cesspool that is Earth.

How strange. What part of Hawking's statement "It is important for the human race" does Marcotte think means "It is important for white Americans"? The woman has issues. For all her furious rage at the elites who flit from mansion to mansion, fantasizing about the "inferior humans" dying in droves, the last paragraph gives a hint at Marcotte's real motives:

If I seem angry, it's because I am. I'm only 28 years old, and with the rapid degradation of the planet, if things don't slow down, there's a solid chance my "golden" years will be pretty horrible.

Frightened and terrified and striking out and anything that she thinks will spoil her life. Who cares about our great-grandchildren in ten thousand years? (Well, Hawking for one.) What's important is that Marcotte has a comfortable retirement.

Hey, I'm cool with her having a nice life. I'd like a nice life too. And I'd like to think that when -- not if -- the next "dinosaur killer" asteroid strikes, our cultural decendents will be spread all over the solar system so they can continue having nice lives too.

Marcotte inadvertently demonstrates why Hawking is right. She writes:

If you don't believe that, let me remind you that this planet had previous inhabitants

and shows a picture of a dinosaur fossil. Well yes, and that's precisely the sort of thing Hawking is thinking about. The dinosaurs didn't wipe themselves out, they were wiped out by a disaster they couldn't prevent. If Mad King George pushes the red button and wipes us all out in nuclear winter, it won't be my fault, and it won't be Marcotte's either. We'll be just as much victims of disaster as the dinosaurs. Doesn't it make sense to plan ahead for the day when we can stop putting all our eggs in one basket?

And what's with the digs about Hawking's use of the passive voice? There is something strange when both Marcotte and Clarke feel it is necessary to sarcastically say "nice passive construction". Is the passive voice the new Fascism or something?

P.Z. Myers is less hysterical than Marcotte and Clarke, but he too criticises Hawking:

Emigrating to some other world doesn't save us; under the best of circumstances, only a miniscule elite few would escape, and as Chris [Clarke] points out, the technological problems are so great (Guess what? We have no idea how to build a home on another planet that won't require continual resupply and that will last more than a few years) that even that would only be a temporary reprieve. Flicking a few gametes into the sky isn't any kind of salvation--it's desperate and sad and futile.

Myers is wrong. Under the best of circumstances (his words) disaster won't strike at all; but if it does, it won't happen until there are thriving colonies of millions or billions of people spread all over the solar system. As a biologist, Myers should know that in almost every case of a species moving into a new environment, it is a only "a few gametes" that make that first step. They don't stay a few gametes for long.

Myers too gets confused by the fact that today we don't know how to build a home on another planet, and assumes that it must therefore be impossible. Of course any moon base we build now will require continual resupply. But after there have been continuous human populations on the moon for a century? What then? How self-sufficient can they get with skill and experience?

The first priority is to put our own house in order: we need stable, sustainable human cultures that know how to maintain a healthy environment (if we can't prevent ourselves from trashing a whole planet, how are we going to ever maintain a viable home in the more limited and hostile confines of a habitat elsewhere?).

Myer's is right on that point, but that's hardly disagreeing with Hawking, who allowed that his scenario depended on humanity avoiding killing themselves off in the next 100 years. That's just common sense: if we cause massive ecological disaster and kill ourselves off on a relatively comfortable, safe planet, of course we won't be able to survive in more hostile environments.

Consider the impact of those few photos of the Earth taken from orbit or from the moon, and how they changed the mental perceptions of millions of people. How much greater effect will the struggle to build self-sufficient space colonies be? When you've just come back from a six-month work assignment on the L-5 colony, you'll never take breathable air and drinkable water for granted again.

Myers also wants to have his cake and eat it too: we can't build self-sustaining space colonies, but if we could, we'll just be creating biological competitors:

In the long run, I don't think that any of our progeny that we spin off into space will be human for long, and I don't think we can predict what a post-human race would want, or how it would interact with us.
But do we really want to create a competing race of naked mole apes?

He's right, as such: in the long term, humans on Titan and humans on Earth will become different species. (The long term might be millions of years.) But will they be competitors? Highly unlikely -- if they are as different as Myers fears they may become, naked mole apes, they are almost certainly not going to want to come back and live on Earth, or have sex with us, or even make illegal copies of our movies. There will be economic competition for resources -- they'll want oxygen, just as we will, but it isn't clear that they will want it from the same source.

Myers' argument is really as nonsensical as the argument that individuals shouldn't have children, because they might grow up to be serial killers. Sure they might. And they might grow up to be wonderful people. Saint or sinner, we can't predict before hand, and we can't possibly imagine what our descendents on Titan a hundred thousand years from now will be like. But I can't imagine what my descendents on Earth will be like in a hundred thousand years either -- will they be Scientologists or atheists, vegetarian or live-kitten-brain eaters, collectivists or anarchists?

We are the first species on the planet that can guide our evolutionary children, both genetically and culturally. Eventually, of course, just as English culture in the American colonies mutated into American culture, our children on Titan and Mars will create their own biology and culture. But in the meantime, we have the ability (and hopefully the will) to instill in them values that we will approve of, so they don't become naked mole apes.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hawking got flamed because he spoke about hope. The fact that Hawking's message of hope can draw such a reaction is a measure of how much our governments rely on a general feeling of hopelessness to maintain power, and how much people rely on a general feeling of hopelessness to justify their own inaction - hopelessness about the future, hopelessness about the environment, hopelessness about anything getting any better.

Anyone who challenges this moribund safety net can sadly expect a violent reaction.

But I have a hope that life will not always be this way. If not us, then sooner or later our Asian or African successors on the world stage will lead the way to a better age.