The Next 500 Years by Christopher Mason: review

A bold new book by geneticist and biologist Christopher Mason, The Next 500 Years,  has a big vision for humanity’s purpose and place in the universe.  He says it is to take care of life, including other species.  He worries about the sun turning into a red giant (in about 5 billion years), and therefore (even sooner) humans will eventually have an imperative of going to other planets, solar systems, and even galaxies, starting with Mars.  For Mason, the next 500 years will be jam packed with science experiments about how to genetically modify humans to be better equipped for long term space travel.  He also loves tardigrades, those spooky micro-animal “water bears” that have some properties that allow them to survive in the vacuum of space.  Mason has tardigrade-envy.  And if you offered to insert some tardigrade genes into his genome, I suspect he might just say yes.

Mason’s science-based worldview takes him into the realm of ethics, where he proposes what he calls “Deontogenic Ethics.” I am therefore I can think, so survival comes first.  I first saw Mason give a presentation as part of a Smithsonian Associates lecture, and was fascinated by how seriously he took some sci-fi concepts, and applied up-to-date science and futuristic extrapolation.  It made me think, wow, we could actually do this (colonize other planets).

…But I had some qualms, and reading his book reinforced them.  So the rest of this review is me hashing through some of my struggles and worries about his ideas.

First on my list, and for other FEASTA members I presume as well, is that if you are really concerned with humanity surviving for the next 500 years, let alone the next 50, your book should be on reforming the economic system to allow for sustainability and to address climate change.  Mason seems to be fine leaving that to someone else to figure out.  Mason has a lot of brainpower, which he is directing out away from Earth, but we need to save Earth first, before we can start thinking about planets 2, 3, etc.

Deontogenic ethics also takes us in what I consider strange directions.  Do we need to destroy the culture of uncontacted natives in the Amazon right now, in order to prevent them from being incinerated 5 billion years from now when the sun becomes a red giant?  No, right?

Image source: https://www.freeimages.com/photo/dna-1165401
He believes the ethical use of CRISPR technologies can create genetically manipulated humans who could withstand space travel.  Reading that, I subconsciously inserted the words “become superior,” which recalls eugenics.  In sci-fi terms, the Replicants would be treated differently, eventually rebelling and taking over.  Many of my favorite sci-fi dystopias explore this topic.  Not just Blade Runner, but also Planet of the Apes, I, Robot, etc.

Thankfully, Mason raises the eugenics issue later in the book, but I wish I didn’t have to read an additional 200 pages to get to that section.  And I wasn’t completely satisfied with that section either.  Mason has already staked out his view, that yes, we are ethically compelled to engineer our way “off planet” (to quote Blade Runner, not Mason), and we need to build in some mitigations to prevent the worst abuses of early 20th century eugenics-based genocidal totalitarianism (I’m paraphrasing here).

How would deontogenic ethics deal with overpopulation, if it was shown to endanger the human race in the next 30 years?  The past racism of genetically modifying people to be “superior” (and/or purging those deemed less superior) and private space travel being only for the wealthy elite, bring worrying race and class baggage that is difficult to wave away in just a few paragraphs.

Mason might think me a technophobe for my reaction to his description of what he calls the “exowomb,” a robotic uterus and placenta removing women from the procreation process and replacing them with a gizmo.  Mason justifies it with breast cancer risk statistics, but what problem is he trying to solve?  It is just reducing childbirth-related mortality to assist the future humans living on a generation space ship for thousands of years, or is it something else?  I am all for advances in reproductive medicine, and I like Teslas as much as the next guy, but this technological approach to procreation made me a bit squeamish.  Now let’s see if Elon Musk launches a new start up next week to prove me wrong.

He touches on the de-extinction debate  (yes, Jurassic Park, bringing back woolly mammoths and dinosaurs).  But my climate change-obsessed brain related it to how carbon sequestration is used as an excuse to keep on emitting, if you can bury the emissions later.  Would de-extinction provide cover for global capitalism to keep on driving extinction, if we can bioengineer those species back again later?

Now I feel like a Luddite after raising all these questions of Mason’s faith in technology in the last two paragraphs.  I enjoy sci-fi stories of space faring civilizations.  I have read many a Kim Stanley Robinson novel (whose Mars Trilogy is the blueprint for terraforming our red neighbor), including 2312, where the protagonist often tweets like a bird, and it turns out it’s because she had some bird genes inserted into her DNA. The Expanse, a book series by James S.A. Corey and also a TV show on Amazon, also touches on the physiological changes we can expect in low gravity and being exposed to higher radiation levels over the generations.  The skinny Belters (who live in the Asteroid Belt and beyond) have their own dialect, hand signals, and political systems.  And by the way, the Mars Trilogy and The Expanse both feature transplanetary, solar-system-wide wars.

Yet Mason thinks we can go to space peacefully and without colonial intent. But wouldn’t we have to decolonize Earth First? And wouldn’t that mean deconstructing capitalism, creating equality and abundance for all?  Here’s where I can plug the FEASTA climate group’s preferred solution: CapGlobalCarbon, and FEASTA’s upcoming partnership with World Basic Income.  Let’s implement that first, and then we can discuss our species’ next move.

Space colonialism, um sorry, capitalism, is currently intertwined with billionaires’ egos. Their agenda is different from Mason’s survivalist ethics.  The billionaires seem to want to leave the unwashed masses behind for a more space-age gated community.  I am guessing they will welcome Mason’s book as a fig leaf so they can justify the persisting inequalities “for the greater good.”  And they can provide some token goodwill to the lucky lottery winner who gets to go “off world.”  Maybe they could run the Hunger Games so the lower classes in the movie Elysium can fight it out for the chance to join the 1%.

My qualms arise from my worry that when all these technologies are unleashed, will people act in a positive way? The next book I am starting is Rutger Bregman’s Humankind.  I consider myself an optimist, but watching the United States 2016-2020 and last January 6 has negatively affected my view of humanity.  Maybe Rutger can change my mind about that, but my current feeling is that, before we can embrace Mason’s 500 year agenda (which is, by the way, very interesting to read, even if I spent most of my review here critiquing it), we need abundance instead of scarcity, and economic institutions that value equity.  In other words, we need FEASTA’s programs.

Featured image: Astronaut Bruce McCandless II during EVA in 1984. Source https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bruce_McCandless_II_during_EVA_in_1984.jpg

Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members. 

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