A digital interview in the ASU Interplanetary Community in a Box project
Building sustainable off-world communities will require every ounce of our collective knowledge, expertise, creativity, and imagination. This is part of a series of Q&A with people from a wide range of disciplines and expertise that challenges them to think about what they would put in a metaphorical “community-in-a-box” to help kick-start an extraterrestrial community, and why.
Who are you?
I am a prehistorian with particular interests in human adaptation, the evolution of modern cognition and the global dispersal of the genus Homo. I have studied all periods of human evolution, from stone tools and fossils of early Homo in Africa, to the traditional ways of life in North America just before the arrival of Europeans. While this research in the distant human past is very rewarding, I also investigate the possibilities of the distant human future, specifically the human settlement of our solar system. I’ve served as an adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Portland State University since 1999. Recently I completed a Scientific American interview about how space might shape our evolution and I have spoken about human space settlement at many venues worldwide, including McGill University and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada.
What does your particular expertise bring to establishing vibrant and sustainable communities in space?
My work in the field is characterized in the titles of two of my books on human space settlement. The first, published by Springer in 2012, was Emigrating Beyond Earth: Human Adaptation and Space Colonization. In that book my coauthor and I explored what evolution and adaptation are and gave human space settlement a clearly evolutionary context. My new book (Springer 2019) is much more technical. In Principles of Space Anthropology: Establishing a Science of Human Space Settlement, I provide paving stones in the path to human space settlement, building the foundation of a science specifically tailored to the goal of making human space settlement succeed. The anthropological approach in both of these books highlights biological and cultural means of adaptation in our species, means that will allow our species to disperse through our solar system. My goal is to apply all that we know of our biological and cultural adaptive processes to space settlement planning, giving space settlement an adaptive, multi-generational character from the beginning. This is vital for survival.
What, in your opinion, are some of the most important things that a group of people would need to know in order to set up an off-Earth community?
First, people should be aware that life will change when we make a community off-Earth. We should not expect to replicate Earth-type lives. Changes we make to our culture, beliefs and so on will themselves be evidence of adaptation. I think the first two generations, about 60 years, of settlement beyond Earth will be the generations of the most cultural change and in fact the most ‘disturbance’ to our normal ways of life. But, after a second generation is underway in habitats beyond our planet, they will simply be growing up in their world. Earth will be the exotic locale, the place these future settlers might visit one day and find unusual. People that live beyond Earth should be prepared for hardship, and change — but also that they will have the distinction of establishing a new branch of our species and civilization.
Second, people should know that relatively small, isolated communities have existed on Earth and succeeded for millennia. My own studies in human global prehistory (forthcoming in Principles of Space Anthropology and an article in Acta Futura, journal of the European Space Agency’s Advanced Concepts Team) shows that early farming villages, worldwide, were somewhat isolated, had populations on the order of 100 to 1,000 people and had a rather domestic economy (e.g. production and consumption on the scales of households and communities rather than for global markets). These and many other features of early farming villages will be very similar to conditions in early beyond-Earth settlements, and we can learn a lot from them.
Finally, I would suggest that people keep in mind that multi-generational success, both biologically and culturally, will be the goal. Beyond Earth (no matter where) many resources will be scarce for quite a long time. Multi-generational success will require managing these resources wisely to provide for and protect future generations. The diagram below indicates the human life-course, showing that both biology and culture are required for human survival through multiple generations. In short, early settlers beyond Earth will have to be much more aware about their choices and how they wish to live, than we often are here on Earth.
What are the top three things you would put in an Interplanetary Community in a Box, and why?
Imagine a scenario where 100 people are going to another planetary body in our solar system (e.g. Mars, or the Moon). Now imagine they are taking a “box” with them that contains all the knowledge they will need to build a vibrant and sustainable community — a kick-starter “Community-in-a-Box”.
- I would put in a “super-memory iPad-like device’’ that contains a library of the human experience to date. It would record human prehistory and history. Humanity has solved many problems in the past with great ingenuity, and these adaptive roots can be of tremendous inspirational value. The great Polynesian voyagers, for example, settled the Pacific with small fleets of large sailing canoes, each carrying multiple families, and they have a lot to teach about courage and persistence. The device would also contain a library of humanity’s art, literature and philosophy. After all, space settlement could be one way to ensure that these are not lost due to some terrible Earth catastrophe. In this way, early space settlers will have the great responsibility of curating humanity’s collective thought as it occurred on our home planet. And, of course, art and philosophy are essential for enriching life, not ‘icing on the cake’.
- Second would be art supplies. While I value the past and what we can learn from it, just as important is to step away from the past and explore the outer limits of concepts and expression through the arts. I think the settlement of space will result in both artistic and philosophical renaissances. The efforts required to settle space beyond Earth will be worth it for the art alone.
- I think third would be an actual artifact of the ancient world, a reminder of where we’ve come from that could help motivate people about where we are going. Years ago I went all the way to Berlin to see a single artifact, the bust of the Egyptian queen, Nefertiti. Relics like this are important for our species, and it’s different to see the real thing than just a picture on a screen, or a replica. A real object from the ancient past almost reaches out and grabs you, and forces a reckoning with time and space. I would be sure to transport the bust of Nefertiti to a museum on Mars.
For more from the ASU Interplanetary Initiative Community In A Box Project, check out our Medium Publication