Sunday, 30 March 2014

How long will humanity survive?

Most of us at some time or another consider our mortality. Many science fiction authors concern themselves with the broader picture of how long humanity itself will endure. Subjectively, as a species, it might seem we’ve been around a long time: a couple of million years as a biologically defined species (homo sapiens), and our collective memory via recorded history goes back five or more thousand years. But from a galactic perspective, that’s barely a blink of an eye. Will we last another thousand years? A million? And if we did, would we recognise ourselves? Or would our progeny be so advanced that they would consider us 20th century folk as cavemen?

How about a hundred years?
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves: there could be many reasons we don’t make it to 2100. In the early sixties, via the Cuban Missile Crisis, we nearly suffered global thermonuclear war. It’s not clear we’d have come though (nuclear winter; post-apocalyptic disease; genetic damage; etc.). Every now and again international tensions spike, and conditions begin to look like we’re heading downward again. Today it’s the Crimea (formerly Ukraine, now Russia again). Could it really escalate? What about Iran, North Korea, Israel? Hopefully, if we don’t get too many dangerous leaders on both sides of a conflict, it won’t go nuclear, and if it does, it won’t go global. But many SF authors assume there will be a major nuclear war at some point. In the Eden Paradox I did, but it was contained, although it caused an irrecoverable climate shift that meant 2100 was going to be hellishly hot.

What about disease, either a mutation of an existing virus (e.g. avian flu) or one concocted in a lab, or one that drops in from outer space, as in my favorite Michael Crichton book? That to me sounds like a more serious threat. Again, in the Eden Paradox I assumed there would be at least one major new viral disease in the first half of this century, along with a man-made one related to nanotechnology. A friend of a friend works in a nanotech lab, and does worry about the tech one day getting out of control. But hopefully, it won’t wipe out the entire population, so we’d survive collectively, even if millions didn’t. However, we are more at risk these days, because so many people travel, whereas in former times outbreaks would stay local. Climate change could also be a real problem, and could lead to global food shortages, for example, but again it would be unlikely to destroy us as a species unless there was a major step change in climate.

So, a hundred years seems plausible, though it has quite a few risks.

What about a thousand years?
Assuming the previous causes still don’t wipe us out, we start to look outside, i.e. offworld. Something could strike the planet and cause massive damage and the equivalent of a nuclear winter. But in a thousand years, we are likely to be at buzzing around our solar system, probably with some types of colonies on the moon, Mars and Io, so even with such a cataclysmic event, enough could live to ensure species survival.

The next thousand years is the most likely timeframe for us to find alien life – or for them to find us – as we start to search beyond our back yard. Of course, we may be alone. But if not, then the list of scenarios runs long and wild, especially if such aliens are not friendly, and are more advanced than us (this is at the heart of the entire Eden Paradox series). They could wipe us out, steal our resources (e.g. water), house-clean the planet and just move in, enslave us, etc. They might destroy us for reasons we’ll never know or understand, as in Greg Bear’s terrific Forg of God / Anvil of Stars duology.

So, while the threats in the first hundred are more internal/local, those in the next thousand are likely to be more external.

What about the next ten thousand years?
By then we should be travelling to other star systems, and either engaging in alien society or spreading humanity onto other worlds, creating new colonies. In the former case, interactions with aliens could go either way. We could end up at war, or we could interbreed and create new strands of hybrid humanity, some of which might have longer term survival success factors. Interbreeding might also cement relationships with alien species, fixing us into a larger societal structure. Nevertheless, this would be a dangerous phase for humanity, because we can’t presume most alien species to be friendly, vocal-speaking air-breathing bipeds. We tend to be a bit xenophobic, so let’s not discount the possibility that we end up trying to subjugate other species we run across, meaning we become the inter-galactic bad guys (in the name of survival of course). Not a very noble prospect, for sure, though it has survival advantages, except that other species will always be looking for a way to topple us from our perch (I explore this aspect of humanity in my Sphericon stories Sylvian Gambit and Executive Decision).

Even without alien conflict, our own history suggests that inter-colonial conflict is inevitable, and SF authors and TV series writers explore this a lot, whether rivalries between Earth and Mars (e.g. Babylon 5) or wider inter-stellar conflicts. This could limit out growth and expansion, or could accelerate it as saner individuals headed for the inter-stellar equivalent of the hills, again ensuring species survival on a limited level.

How about a hundred thousand?
If we’ve made it this far, probably we’ll have built an empire, and it will already be in decline, unless we’ve managed to change our emotional intelligence palette. But there would be humans spread out further across the galaxy by such a time. Exploration, which has at its source an innate curiosity, is a survival success factor. Perhaps by this time, people will be considering how to reach new galaxies, sending seed ships across extraordinary distances. One way to survive is to re-invent oneself, and starting again on a fresh planet or a new galaxy (!) is always going to be challenging. It’s tempting to hope that by this stage humanity has matured and either by experience or by genetic manipulation gotten rid of some of our self-destructive habits. If not, I think we’d have winked out of the cosmos a long time earlier, and be the subject of curiosity for alien historians who would consider that we ‘showed promise’, but that, all things considered, the galaxy is better off without us.

A million?
Some SF authors do consider the very far future. Would we still possess or even want physical form? Maybe by then we exist in some kind of ‘cloud’, able to ‘live’ for very long periods. The danger here is what is sometimes called the Methuselah Complex. Most of us think it could be good to live a thousand years, but would it? Somebody once said the point of life was death. Authors such as Asimov considered that humans would end up living two or three hundred years, but no longer, and even then they might ‘lose focus.’ SF authors sometimes assume very ancient civilisations will decline and then fade into obsolescence, literally losing the will to live, a collective ‘old age’ when everything has been done and experienced, again and again. Is this pessimistic? It depends. By then we might be very different – unrecognizable – in both physical and socio-intellectual form.

In summary, each epoch has its fair share of risks, though I personally think the most acute stage is the next hundred years. After that, we will start to spread out, and so we're more likely to survive in one form or another. Whether that is a good thing for the galaxy is another question entirely.

As a final thought, in one particular novel I've read and can't seem to place (one of Arthur C. Clarke’s?), humanity does make it beyond the million year mark, old enough to witness the demise of its old home planet as the sun’s power diminishes, but despite travelling the stars, we have found no other intelligent life. We are alone, and have remained so. For me, there was a sense of loneliness about the book, as if humanity throughout its entire history was a small group of people on a desert island, hoping a ship would pass. As a SF writer, I actually hope there is other life out there. Though other alien species might well prove to be a threat, one way or another, in the long run, they might give us something to live for.        

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