Spaceflight and evolution

There was an interesting article at Space.com concerning whether or not our expanding into space should be a series of incremental steps or be done in sweeping bold moves. This is analogous (and overlaps) the debate on whether or not space exploration should be done by machines or humans. I am of the opinion that this should not be an “either or” question. Let’s do both. Keep an ongoing background of steady incremental moves occasionally punctuated by something big. Globally, we have the resources. For the U.S., all the money going into Iraq, part of our bloated defense budget, and all the waste are resources we can use. Robotics and AI development will increase how much and how quickly we can obtain information about extraterrestrial locales using only machines and continued human exploration will continue to inspire (an excellent feedback loop) and present new challenges from which we can learn. Each can provide feedback to the other.

One question for many would be, why bother expanding our presence off the Earth? Yes, there are resources in space (asteroid mining, etc.), but the costs of getting there do, for the present, outweigh those benefits. As Arthur C. Clark, and lately Stephen Hawking Earth is only one fragile basket in which we are keeping all our eggs at present. If we (or our evolved descendants) are to survive long term, we need to get out of this gravity well. According to Hawking from the previously linked article:

“Robotic missions are much cheaper and may provide more scientific information, but they don’t catch the public imagination in the same way, and they don’t spread the human race into space, which I’m arguing should be our long-term strategy,” Hawking said. “If the human race is to continue for another million years, we will have to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

We Homo Sapiens have evolved to be short term thinkers. Where do we get the next meal? Where do we sleep without getting eaten? Going beyond possible evolutionary pressures: When do I plant the wheat? What policies will get results that will get me reelected in 4 years? It is time to collectively move to the next level. Otherwise, the long term will be here and our descendants will not have the background and infrastructure in place to do what needs to be done to survive.

Now what I thought the originally linked article was going to discuss was possible directions of human evolution if we were to become a space faring species. The title of the article, “Human Spaceflight Should Drive Evolution” seems to have been derived from a quote by Dr. Kai Multhaup, a physicist working at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster in Germany.

“Human spaceflight is not just about science,” says Multhaup. “I see it as a driver for evolution. We are an exploratory species, and when we have the technology to go somewhere, we do. It’s about culture and the human desire to evolve and expand, and to protect ourselves against catastrophes which can erase life on planets and end civilizations.”

In principle, I agree with him, but one must also remember that the human exploration which did occur in the past was driven by economic gains. Space must provide economic gains to provide the impetus. One way for this to occur and to help with our energy needs on Earth is the use of solar powered satellites, an idea I think the Obama administration should be pursuing with more vigor. One of the pieces which could help to make this viable would be permanent maintenance space stations. This would be a bold move establishing a more lasting foothold in space and helping immensely with our energy needs here on Earth. It would simultaneously be an incremental step as we start climbing out of this gravity well.

How does this tie in with evolution? I imagine that a large permanent facility would largely mimic Earth conditions so that a space environment would probably have little effect on the reproductive success of humans in terms of adaptive traits, neglecting radiation effects for the moment (a well built station will try to minimize radiation exposure). But what if the conditions were slightly different (more weighlessness, etc.)? Going back to thinking long term, there could be an interesting experiment to try, using mammals to try to approximate us as closely as possible. Keep in mind that I’m not a biologist, so I’m just thinking out loud here. Have rat colony (in careful isolation, of course) on the space station. Keep it supplied with food or whatever it needs to survive and keep the colony alive without interfering with breeding patterns for 100-200 years. Rats can have grandkids in a matter of months, so 100 years would be time for about 3600 generations (assuming 3 generations in 1 month for simplicity. As a physicist, not a biologist, I’ll also assume the rats are spherical.). I’m assuming this might be enough to detect some evolutionary changes. As we have seen evolution in lizards in about 30-40 years, it should probably work. Keep a parallel experiment running on Earth for control, using the exact foods, etc. Observe how they are starting to diverge. This may provide some clues as to what directions we humans may take, should we ever become the space faring species I think we must.

Of course, this assumes that we will be able to have such a long lasting station and that we would be able to keep an experiment running on this time scale. If we can achieve enough economic success and prosperity to think in terms of such long range goals, I think we’ll be well on our way.

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