Humanity’s Next Adventure — Trek Three

There’s no blogable news out there about The Controversy between evolution and creationism, so your Curmudgeon will take advantage of the lull to indulge in a bit of — well, call it what you will. Here it comes:

When we think of humanity’s eventual journey to the stars, we often think in terms of Star Trek, but it’s unlikely to be anything like that. It’s important to understand that we’ve had treks before. Trek One was the so-called Out of Africa migration of humans from the place where we evolved. Estimates vary, but it began at least 70,000 years ago, and it lasted for thousands of years, eventually resulting in human occupation of all the habitable places on Earth.

It took a long time because our ancestors had virtually no technology. They probably had fire, stone tools, possibly also spears and such, but that was all. They had no wheeled carts. All their movements were on foot, and they had to carry their limited possessions. After traveling into unknown territory, they probably established a settlement where they stayed, gradually increasing in number. Then some would move on even further into unknown territory and start a new settlement. Communication was limited to face-to-face conversation, so distant groups lost contact with each other. They sometimes encountered Neanderthals and other evolutionary cousins, but they were often the first to go where they went.

Eventually the entire globe was inhabited by humans — well, the habitable parts. Lacking communications and written records, people in distant areas forgot their origins. Trek One, the first great human adventure, was never recorded — it doesn’t even appear in myth. All over the world, humans have conjured up a great variety of origin stories, but the true story — the best of all — was forgotten. Now that it’s been discovered, we realize that it was essential, because it protected us from extinction. By living everywhere they could, humans were immune from being wiped out by a local geological disaster.

Things remained like that for thousands of generations, which was not enough time for speciation to occur. Then one group — the Europeans — developed a vastly superior method of transportation. Starting with people like Columbus, what historians call the Age of Discovery began. We consider this to be Trek Two.

European explorers encountered and often conquered their distant relatives all over the world, taking home news of their accomplishments, along with the riches they plundered. It was a time of great adventure — thrilling for the discoverers, but not so good for those whom they discovered. The result is the world we know today, with humans in contact, trading and sometimes fighting with each other, all over the world.

Sooner or later — preferably sooner — we’ll begin Trek Three. We’ve already described it in Evolution and the Conquest of the Galaxy. The interesting thing about it (aside from the fun and adventure) is that it will be more like Trek One than Trek Two. There are a few reasons for this:

Trek Three, like the first great trek out of Africa, is essential to assure our survival. When humans are living on several different planets orbiting other stars, we can’t be exterminated by a planetary disaster like the dinosaurs were, or by the eventual death of the Sun.

It will also be at least somewhat like Trek One because of time. Even traveling at 50% of lightspeed, voyages will take years. Columbus and the other European explorers were lucky — their voyages took only months.

Another similarity to Trek One is that we’re unlikely to discover other civilizations, as did the European explorers (think about Cortés and the fall of the Aztec Empire). In that sense, Trek Three won’t be anything like Star Trek. There probably are aliens out there, and some will have a technological civilization, but those aren’t likely to be in our immediate galactic neighborhood — otherwise we’d already know about them, and they might be running the show here. We’re likely to encounter them eventually. The later the better, because we’ll be better prepared to defend ourselves, if necessary. Perhaps we won’t be exploiters. In any event, history teaches us that in such things, it’s better to be the discover-or than the discover-ee.

Another similarity to Trek One will be communications. The Out of Africa adventurers quickly lost communications with their place of origin. So it will be with interstellar settlers. Even in the case of planetary systems that are only five light years apart, two-way communications require ten years. As the sphere of human-occupied space increases, communications between distant worlds will take longer and longer. Unlike our ancestors, our far-flung descendants probably won’t forget their origins; but distant worlds will be be centuries out of touch.

Although most of us want to be part of the next great adventure, it’s likely to be a long, hard slog, like Trek One was. But we’ve done it before, and like humanity’s original trek, it’ll be worth the effort.

Copyright © 2016. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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28 responses to “Humanity’s Next Adventure — Trek Three

  1. So now I’m thinking it’s time to dig out Fleet of Worlds for a reread.

  2. Unfortunately, it seems likely that Trek Three is impossible for good theoretical reasons: unless we can develop technologies that violate all known physics, like faster-than-light travel or matter transmission or wormhole spelunking, the job of transporting humans to the stars simply cannot be done . . . for biological reasons. The population of a generation starship would be wiped out the first time a new and lethal viral or bacterial variation came along; while suspended animation over periods of decades or centuries seems an impossible dream, again because of them pesky microorganisms.

    There’s a good essay on the subject by Kim Stanley Robinson: http://boingboing.net/2015/11/16/our-generation-ships-will-sink.html

    Even if we could get there, the likelihood of any extrasolar planet being habitable, in practical terms, by humans is approximately zero. If it’s habitable, it’ll be already inhabited — forget the large-scale organisms, just think of the micro-organisms against which our bodies will have no defense. Of course, there’s always the possibility of terraforming . . . for those doughty explorers happy enough to wait a millennium or three or maybe far longer for the process to complete itself.

    So, while obviously we should continue to dedicate resources to space exploration, imagining that we’ll eventually populate the galaxy is probably quite delusional. Our machine descendants, yes; that‘s feasible. But, if we want to continue the line of squishy organic humans, we need very rapidly to get our act together on conserving the world we already do have.

    Oh, wait, no, climate change is just a Chinese hoax so we’re okay after all.

  3. Curmy–a good and well-written article.

    Realthog–You take a pessimistic, or perhaps realistic, approach in your comment. And you may be right. I prefer, however, to take an optimistic, and perhaps unrealistic, approach.

    Part of this is from my study of human nature, and part is from my exposure to classic science fiction at an early age (and ever since, for that matter).

    This leads me to believe that humankind can either look to the future and the frontiers, or stagnate. We see stagnation in Europe and much of Africa, as well as elsewhere. In Africa most of the current population did not experience, and is not descended from, that First Trek that Curmy mentioned. In Europe, most of the population did not experience, and is not descended from, the Second Trek that Curmy mentioned.

    There is that old saying, which probably fits to some degree here: “The cowards never started and the weak died along the way.” Or, expressed in other ways, there is the “diaspora” of humankind that ran through much of Heinlein’s later science fiction works. Each successive wave outward carried the best and the brightest and the misfits, while the comfortable and the satisfied stayed behind. There is some truth in this.

    There is also truth that those best, brightest, and misfits will eventually get off this planet and start spreading out through our solar system. There will be huge problems to overcome, but my optimistic approach leads me to believe that in time those problems will be overcome. And once people are loose in space, there will be an endless frontier.

  4. “Agent Smith: I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species, and I realised that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment; but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply, and multiply, until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer on this planet, you are a plague, and we…are the cure.”
    The Matrix.

    And now we strive through the solar system and beyond. Are we Captain Kirks or viruses?

  5. @Coyote

    Um, I’d say that’s the faith-based response.

    I would love to believe in the future as portrayed in those classic sf novels, of which I too was an addict. (The addiction eventually led to my devoting some years to work on the 2nd edition of the Clute/Nicholls Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, and to various other career aspects.) Alas, I think Stan Robinson’s right: we may well find other means of survival elsewhere in the solar system, but we’re unlikely ever to reach the stars.

    But I’m not so sure I’m pessimistic. As I say, our machine descendants — and who’s to say they won’t be a further step in human evolution? — may very well go there.

  6. realthog says: “Unfortunately, it seems likely that Trek Three is impossible for good theoretical reasons: unless we can develop technologies that violate all known physics”

    It’ll happen, and it won’t require faster-than-light travel, suspended animation, or generation ships. All we need is a new propulsion system that can travel at maybe 30% of light speed. 50% would be better. If there’s a habitable planetary system within 4, 5, or maybe 6 light years, a ten or twelve year voyage is possible, if the ship is big enough. There will be plenty to do during the trip to keep the settlers busy. For one thing, they’ll have to be educating their kids.

  7. @SC

    Have you bothered to read the Kim Stanley Robinson piece?

  8. Yes, realthog, I read it. I’m not that pessimistic. If we have a good propulsion system that can drive the ship at least 30% of lightspeed, and habitable planets within reach (of each other, not all within reach of Earth), we can do it. Two big ifs, of course.

  9. At the moment we can dream of maybe ~1%. Given another century, perhaps we might attain technologies capable of that “good propulsion system” you talk of that could “drive the ship at least 30% of lightspeed”; but at the moment it doesn’t seem likely our current level of technological civilization will last more than a few more decades.

    And, even if 30% lightspeed were attainable, that’d be a max velocity for the mid-part of the journey; much of the voyage time would be taken up by accelerating to that velocity and, at the other end, decelerating from it. So to get from here to Proxima you’d be talking about not just say 15 years but more like 30 or 50 or 100 . . . all to discover the “habitable” planet there is completely hostile to human life. And then what?

    What we have to do first is to ensure the future of our technological civilization. This involves various measures, the most urgent of which is countering catastrophic climate change — an effort that should have started decades ago and, failing that, has to start right now (no self-indulgent assumptions that a Trump presidency wouldn’t matter, for example). Once/if we can make sure there’s a stable future for our technological civilization, then we can start talking about the possibilities of interstellar colonization.

    Which I’d love to do!

    That said, unless we work bloody hard over the next few years (we don’t have the leeway for longer than that) to somehow ameliorate the climate sh*tst*rm that’s coming down the pike straight at us, the whole possibility of going to the stars is a joke.

    As it probably is, anyway. But, through our unwillingness to face inconvenient facts, we seem to be determined to make absolutely cast-iron completely sure that the effort is doomed.

  10. “Then one group — the Europeans — developed a vastly superior method of transportation. Starting with people like Columbus…”

    Shouldn’t that be “Starting with people like the Vikings,” or possibly the Chinese?

  11. Dave Luckett

    I remember the joy and the triumph – it was the year that I turned eighteen –
    That a man spoke a word in the silence of a world words had never been.
    Forty-seven years, and somehow silence no longer seems to call,
    And so this is the last filksong, the very last filk of all.

    I thought I would see, if I lived long, lights in the dark where the fires showed
    The ships headed out for the darkness, on our last and our longest road.
    Forty-seven years, and I know now, lights can go out, and the darkness fall,
    And so this is the last filksong, the very last filk of all.

    Fade into silence; let the notes dwindle and die.
    Whatever happened to Harbors and Hope?
    Tell me, when did we kiss the Dream good-bye?

    Oh, I know that it won’t be forever. Someday the miracles will return,
    And there will be lights in the darkness, where only the far stars burn.
    But all of those years is too many; I’ll never see those lights at all,
    And so this is the last filksong, the very last filk of all,
    The very last filk of all.

  12. Cyano de Bacteregerac

    We must learn from Nature what is theoretically possible and what is not. Fusion energy is possible—it is output by the Sun every microsecond. Renewable energy will never yield high power without an unforeseen breakthrough. Machine intelligence is possible—we ourselves are thinking [molecular] machines. Faster-than-light travel is not possible.

    We need fusion energy to get rid of fossil fuels and thereby save the climate. Regressing to the 16th century with enery quotas, carbon credits and slowcoach (as in “slow as a Wild West stagecoach”) solar transportation isn’t going to cut it. And we’ll need this virtually unlimited form of energy production for our successors, the machines.

    Our carbon-organic bodies are too fragile. It’s almost a certainty our race will die when the Sun becomes a red giant, if not before. Like Agent Smith said, but not in his treacherous way, silicon-based machine life is the next step in our evolution. Self-aware machines will be able to endure the lengths of time and inhospitable environments of deep space. Far from going by the order “Man may not be replaced” of Dune’s Butlerian Jihad, an Imperium of worlds can only be reached and inhabited by our mechanical successors.

    We’re Earth creatures. Space belongs to a race with the requisite fitness to handle it. It’s time to leave behind the fear of AI fed by flicks such as the Terminator and work on our only possible successors.

  13. You people are depressing. I agree that we need to make some adjustments regarding energy sources — but there’s no need to revert to a low-energy society. Nuclear power is safe enough and cheap enough to replace our petroleum energy sources here on Earth. For leaving the Earth, everyone knows that chemical-fueled rockets are far too limited. I don’t know what will power our ships to the stars, but there’s no law of nature that says we can’t find a propulsion system far superior to anything we have now. As for machines replacing humans, all I can say is that it’s not my preferred vision of humanity’s future.

  14. Cyano de Bacteregerac

    Curm, as someone who accepts evolution you should know quite well that we can’t adapt to fit such radically different environments as are found in space. Terraforming might be a way around this, but it has its own set of problems. I like the vision of humanity expanding into space as much as you do, but every vision needs to be tempered by the cold shower of realism, no matter how displeasing this might be. It’s just, from the evolutionary point of view, that machines look like a much better candidate for survival of the fittest outside Earth than we organics do.

    As for the bit about energy sources, I was addressing those (maybe not posting here, but there’s far too many of them on the Interwebs) who think climate change can be stopped only by going to solar and wind power and reducing our technological profile. I say no, quite the opposite, climate change can only be tackled by more technology, new technology, the same way fossil fuels cut down on killing whales for their fatty fuels for oil lamps.

  15. Love the article, love the comments. The Trek conceptual model here reminds me of James Michener novels, which often emphasized human migrations driven by religious and societal pressures or survival and simply curiosity. In “Hawaii” polynesian exiles from Bora Bora follow ancient navigation myths in outrigger canoes across thousands of miles of open ocean to a new land in the north central Pacific, Havaiki, ( Hawaii).This migration in SC’s scheme could be late stage Trek One maybe. In “Chesapeake”, native americans arrive escaping war and conflict with other american indian groups. Then the Trek Two Europeans begin arriving, driven by religion and economics to escape Europe. Trek One Malay ancestors moved along the SE Asian archipelagos and eventually to Polynesia, Australia, New Zealand. The physical differences between aborigine in Australia, polynesian, malay or an asian inhabitant of say manchuria are so striking it suggests to me that there are many pieces of that puzzle still to be unearthed. Where’s that National Geographic subscription ! Lots of good stuff on all this in there !
    Trek Two makes sense to me because the early explorers were the first truly global expeditionaries and their discoveries changed the global map. Truly enjoyed realthog and Coyote’s thought provoking comments regarding mankind’s potential to finish advancing to Trek Three status on this model..
    Personally, I hope mankind and civilization survive long enough to be able to advance to earth based deep space travel . I have a lot of fears that we will destroy each other and our planet before we get there. The threat of nuclear disaster is so huge, and so precarious, and environmental pressures so great, that mankind’s technological base is extremely threatened right now. We have the capability to completely destroy civilization and organized human society on our planet and to take ourselves at best back to the fire and wheel stage., and at worst, extinction. The geologic record shows us countless species that thrive and then disappear completely when either unable to adapt to change or competition.(Uh oh I’m in realthog paleontology territory here so tie to zip it).
    For me, this nuclear holocaust threat is the biggest factor that might prevent achieving our curmudgeon’s Trek Three. I hope for all our sakes, that I’m wrong.

  16. “Flying Mother Nature’s silver seed, to a new place in the sun”
    Neil Young lyric.

  17. @Cyano

    As for the bit about energy sources, I was addressing those (maybe not posting here, but there’s far too many of them on the Interwebs) who think climate change can be stopped only by going to solar and wind power and reducing our technological profile.

    I’m not sure why you think that developing renewable power sources is going to be a matter of “[r]egressing to the 16th century.” A combination of solar, hydro, wind, geo and fission, plus judicious use of other fuels (e.g., for launching spaceships) would seem to me to necessitate no loss of technological ability. Electricity generated by solar cells works every bit as well as any other form of electricity.

    Fusion would be great, but we’ve no idea when/if it’s going to become practicable.

  18. “Then one group — the Europeans — developed a vastly superior method of transportation.”
    If you’re thinking of the wheel you’re right. But if you’re thinking of ships you aren’t.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zheng_He

    Before we start with Trek Three we better figure out how to deal with stuff like

    http://www.cbsnews.com/news/mars-bound-astronauts-face-chronic-dementia-risk/

    “You people are depressing.”
    On short term yes.
    On long term no.

    “Sooner or later — preferably sooner”
    It’s the second part I disagree with.
    One thing I’m pretty sure of – just like Columbus’ Voyage was the result of (human, not divine) Design (no matter how poor) and not of an Invisible Hand an eventual Trek Three will as well, especially if you want it to happen sooner.
    No company will invest money in a journey that won’t return with benefit.

  19. Interesting…But a few quibbles, natch.

    First off, there’s more than a dollop of Whiggish faith here in ‘the March of Progress’ and a heaping helping of ‘American Exceptionalism’ thrown in for good measure–neither of which are unchallengable foundations for projections about the future of our species, but that to one side.

    More to the point: It seems to me that we are no more able meaningfully to imagine the technology of 1,000 years from now than William the Conquerer could have imagined cell phones or microwavable popcorn.

    And we can probably make better stabs at how technology may develop over such a span than we can about future social and political structures–which takes us back to the perils of Whiggish narratives of our own history. For neither could William the Conquerer have ever imagined the rise of democracy even though it was first developed in antiquity. We can and do go backwards, and there is no guarantee that the next set of Dark Ages isn’t just around the corner. There are–as readers of this blog know all to well–no shortage of advocates of just such a theocratic regression.

    But I, too, prefer optimism, if only because that is more likely to inspire and bring forth the fruits of our better natures. But even assuming that we are indeed able to develop the technology for Curmy’s Trek III, I still think it far harder to imagine the kinds of social/political development that would also have to occur if we are to survive as a species. I do not see that any of our political thinking of the 21st century is likely to resemble that of the 31st. Will there really still be things like nation-states in the future? What will ‘work’ or ‘wealth’ mean then, if anything at all? Who knows? We’re mediaeval serfs trying to imagine credit cards and budget airlines…

  20. Coyote asserts

    humankind can either look to the future and the frontiers, or stagnate. We see stagnation in Europe–

    Whoa right there! That may be a commonplace claim in places like ‘Free Republic’, but it really does need some elaboration/evidence! So what do you mean by ‘stagnation’, please, and what are its symptoms?

  21. @Megalonyx

    I think Coyote means it’s a long time since Europe won a World Series.

  22. I’ve been trying to fit in major movements of humans into the model of “treks”, but I don’t understand how that works. There are the prehistoric movements into unpopulated lands out of Africa into Europe and South Asia, and into Australia and into the Pacific, and the from Asia into the Americas. Are each of these quite different and separate movements, over many millenia, somehow phases of one unified trek? Then there are the expansions into previously occupied territories, like the Bantus into southern Africa, the Indo-Europeans into India and Europe, the Mongols, the Arabs, etc. The aborted Apollo program is a minor forgettable incident, I’m sorry to say.

  23. realthog:
    “And, even if 30% lightspeed were attainable, that’d be a max velocity for the mid-part of the journey; much of the voyage time would be taken up by accelerating to that velocity and, at the other end, decelerating from it. So to get from here to Proxima you’d be talking about not just say 15 years but more like 30 or 50 or 100 . . . all to discover the “habitable” planet there is completely hostile to human life. And then what?”

    It wouldn’t take that long — accelerating at 1 G (10m/sec/sec) we’d reach 1/3 light speed in just four months; same for decceleration. So accelerating and deccellerating would only take 2/3 of a year. Of course, that still leaves the problem of figuring out how to accelerate at 1 G for months at a time, not just a few seconds or minutes. we won’t see it in our lifetimes. Shirley McLaine might, but not you or me.

    But you are right — we get there and discover there is no room in the inn. “And then what?” Well, we either turn around and go home, or press on. Captain’s decision.

  24. Thanks for the correction, retiredsciguy. I was indeed thinking of a gentler acceleration, assuming something like a laser sail or (although I gather the theoretical problems are now deemed insuperable) a ramjet. Any spaceship design that requires taking the fuel with you seems to me a non-starter.

    You reminded me, too, that the crew’s flight time would be shortened a bit through time dilation — and think of the savings the investors would make on the crew’s wages!

  25. realthog, the effect of time dilation at even 50% of lightspeed is fairly trivial.

  26. @SC

    I know. I was joking.

  27. @realthog: You were thinking of what might be possible for propulsion; I was thinking of what rate of acceleration the human body can certainly withstand, since we have no idea what future technology may bring for propulsion.. Since we’ve been subjected to an accelerative force of 9.8 meters per second per second all of our lives, I figured that would be a safe bet. (I rounded that up to 10 m/s/s for easy calculation.)

    Note that it takes just 1/3 of a year to reach 1/3 of light speed at 1 G acceleration, so theoretically we would reach light speed in just one year. Of course, we could never reach light speed; as we get close, our mass would increase at a hyperbolic rate. Thus, we would need a hyperbolically increasing rate of power to continue accelerating, and that would take an infinite amount of energy. But we could get close — if we could figure out how to build a propulsion system that would be able to deliver 1 G acceleration continuously.