Stephen Hawking is in the news again as an advocate for space colonization. He raised the issue in a recent interview with the Canadian Press, and will apparently include it as a theme of his new TV series, Brave New World with Stephen Hawking, which debuts on Discovery World HD on Saturday. There are a number of interesting aspects to the story this time around. One that most people won’t even notice is Hawking’s reference to human nature. Here’s what he had to say.
Our population and our use of the finite resources of planet Earth are growing exponentially, along with our technical ability to change the environment for good or ill. But our genetic code still carries the selfish and aggressive instincts that were of survival advantage in the past. It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand or million.
The fact that Hawking can matter-of-factly assert something like that about innate behavior in humans as if it were a matter of common knowledge speaks volumes about the amazing transformation in public consciousness that’s taken place in just the last 10 or 15 years. If he’d said something like that about “selfish and aggressive instincts” 50 years ago, the entire community of experts in the behavioral sciences would have dismissed him as an ignoramus at best, and a fascist and right wing nut case at worst. It’s astounding, really. I’ve watched this whole story unfold in my lifetime. It’s just as stunning as the paradigm shift from an earth-centric to a heliocentric solar system, only this time around, Copernicus and Galileo are unpersons, swept under the rug by an academic and professional community too ashamed of their own past collective imbecility to mention their names. Look in any textbook on Sociology, Anthropology, or Evolutionary Psychology, and you’ll see what the sounds of silence look like in black and white. Aside from a few obscure references, the whole thing is treated as if it never happened. Be grateful, dear reader. At last we can say the obvious without being shouted down by the “experts.” There is such a thing as human nature.
Now look at the comments after the story in the Winnipeg Free Press I linked above. Here are some of them.
“Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain lurking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.” If that is the case, perhaps we don’t deserve to survive. If we bring destruction to our planet, would it not be in the greater interest to destroy the virus, or simply let it expire, instead of spreading its virulence throughout the galaxy?
And who would decide who gets to go? Also, “Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain lurking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.” What a stupid thing to say: if we can’t survive ‘lurking’ on planet Earth then who’s to say humans wouldn’t ruin things off of planet Earth?
I will not go through any of this as I will be dead by then and gone to a better place as all those who remain and go through whatever happenings in the Future,will also do!
I’ve written a lot about morality on this blog. These comments speak to the reasons why getting it right about morality, why understanding its real nature, and why it exists, are important. All of them are morally loaded. As is the case with virtually all morally loaded comments, their authors couldn’t give you a coherent explanation of why they have those opinions. They just feel that way. I don’t doubt that they’re entirely sincere about what they say. The genetic programming that manifests itself as human moral behavior evolved many millennia ago in creatures who couldn’t conceive of themselves as members of a worldwide species, or imagine travel into space. What these comments demonstrate is something that’s really been obvious for a long time. In the environment that now exists, vastly different as it is from the one in which our moral predispositions evolved, they can manifest themselves in ways that are, by any reasonable definition of the word, pathological. In other words, they can manifest themselves in ways that no longer promote our survival, but rather the opposite.
As can be seen from the first comment, for example, thanks to our expanded consciousness of the world we live in, we can conceive of such an entity as “all mankind.” Our moral programming predisposes us to categorize our fellow creatures into ingroups and outgroups. In this case, “all mankind” has become an outgroup or, as the commenter puts it, a “virus.” The demise, not only of the individual commenter, but of all mankind, has become a positive Good. More or less the same thing can be said about the second comment. This commenter apparently believes that it would be better for humans to become extinct than to “mess things up.” For whom?
As for the third commenter, survival in this world is unimportant to him because he believes in eternal survival in a future imaginary world under the proprietership of an imaginary supernatural being. It is unlikely that this attitude is more conducive to our real genetic survival than those of the first two commenters. I submit that if these commenters had an accurate knowledge of the real nature of human morality in the first place, and were free of delusions about supernatural beings in the second, the tone of their comments would be rather different.
And what of my opinion on the matter? In my opinion, morality is the manifestation of genetically programmed traits that evolved because they happened to promote our survival. No doubt because I understand morality in this way, I have a subjective emotional tendency to perceive the Good as my own genetic survival, the survival of my species, and the survival of life as it has evolved on earth, not necessarily in that order. Objectively, my version of the Good is no more legitimate or objectively valid that those of the three commenters. In some sense, you might say it’s just a whim. I do, however, think that my subjective feelings on the matter are reasonable. I want to pursue as a “purpose” that which the evolution of morality happened to promote; survival. It seems to me that an evolved, conscious biological entity that doesn’t want to survive is dysfunctional – it is sick. I would find the realization that I am sick and dysfunctional distasteful. Therefore, I choose to survive. In fact, I am quite passionate about it. I believe that, if others finally grasp the truth about what morality really is, they are likely to share my point of view. If we agree, then we can help each other. That is why I write about it.
By all means, then, let us colonize space, and not just our solar system, but the stars. We can start now. We lack sources of energy capable of carrying humans to even the nearest stars, but we can send life, even if only single-celled life. Let us begin.