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Artist, Heather Oliver             

The Charlatan-Haunted World

In the larger context of how sciency blather shapes culture, including speculative literature, it’s interesting to juxtapose two movement gurus, Ray Kurzweil and Deepak Chopra. Many consider them very different but in fact they’re extremely similar. Essentially, both are prophet-wannabes who are attempting to gain legitimacy by distorting science to fit a cynically self-aggrandizing agenda.

Chopra goes the faux grand unification route; Kurzweil belongs to the millenarian camp, including his habit of setting goals that ever recede: the year we become optimized by nanobots… the year we upload our minds to silicon frames… the year we welcome our AI overlords. The Singularity and the complete reverse-engineering of the human brain were slated for 2010; now the magic year is 2045. Sound familiar?

Both men are embodiments of Maslow’s dictum that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Chopra’s hammer is power of mind over matter; Kurzweil’s, Moore’s Law with “exponential” as its abracadabra. It’s easy to laugh at Chopra’s blatant misuse of quantum mechanics and his idea that we can destroy tumors with sheer thought power. Most of the biocentrist vaporings of Chopra, Lanza et al can be dealt with by one word: decoherence. Conversely, Kurzweil’s ignorance of basics is so obvious to a biologist that seeing him being taken seriously makes you feel you’re in a parallel universe. For the rest of this article, I will focus on transhumanism (TH) and just briefly linger on salient points many of which I’ve covered before in detail.

I’ve often said that cyberpunk is the fiction arm of TH, but upon reflection I think it would be more accurate to say TH is a branch of cyberpunk SF if not fantasy – and not a particularly original one, at that. At the same time, even its own adherents are starting to publicly admit that TH is a religion. After all, its wish list consists of the same things humans have wanted since time immemorial: immortality and eternal youth. Eternally perky breasts and even perkier penises. Those lucky enough to attain these attributes will frolic in Elysium Fields of silicon or in gated communities like today’s Dubai or tomorrow’s seasteads. Followers of other religions have to wait patiently for paradise; transhumanists can gain instant bliss by thronging to Second Life. Or as that famous Sad Children cartoon says, “In the future, being rich and white will be even more awesome.”

Transhumanists posit several items as articles of faith. All these items require technology indistinguishable from magic – and in some cases, technology that will never come to pass because of intrinsic limitations. Transhumanists call unbelievers Luddites — funny, given that many who object to the cult approach are working scientists or engineers. Among the TH tenets:

1. Perfectibility: “optimization” of humans is not only possible but also desirable.

1a. Genes determine high-order behavior: intelligence, musical talent, niceness. This has gone so far that there is a formal TH proposal by Mark Walker to implement a Genetic Virtue Program; in cyberpunk SF you see it in such laughable items as Emiko having “dog loyalty genes” in the inexplicably lauded Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. Basing a genetic program on the concept that genes determine high-order behavior is like planning an expedition to Mars based on the Ptolemaic system. Genomes act as highly networked ensembles and organisms are jury-rigged. Furthermore, optimization for one function in biological systems (across scales) makes for suboptimality at all else.

1b. There’s one-to-one mapping between hormones or evolutionary specifics and behavior. Most of these generalizations  come from research on non-humans (mice for hormones; various primates for evolution) and lead to conclusions like: people can become lovesome by judicious applications of oxytocin or murderous by extra helpings of testosterone; and to the evopsycho nonsense of “alpha male rape genes” and “female wired-for-coyness brains”. This is equally endemic in what I call grittygrotty fantasy, but it seems to be at odds with TH’s willingness to entertain the concepts of gender fluidity and sculpting-at-will.

1c. Designer genetic engineering will come to pass, including nanotech that will patrol us internally. Genetic engineering is already with us, but it will take time to fine-tune it for routine “vanity” use. Of course, we already have nanites – they’re called enzymes. However, cells are not this amorphous soup into which nanoships can sail at whim. They’re highly organized semi-solid assemblages with very specific compartments and boundaries.  The danger for cell and organ damage shown in the cheesy but oddly prescient Fantastic Voyage is in fact quite real.

2. Dualism: biological processes can be uncoupled from their physical substrates.

2a. Emotions are distinct from thoughts (and the former are often equated with the non-cortical Four Fs). This aligns with such items as the TH obsession with sexbots and proxy relationships through various avatars — and the movement’s general fear and dislike of the body. Of course, our bodies are not passive appendages but an integral part of our sensor feedback network and our sense of identity.

2b. It is possible to achieve immortality and continuity of consciousness by uploading, which might as well be called by its real name: soul – as Battlestar Galumphica at least had the courage to do. It should go without saying that uploading, even if a non-destructive implementation ever became possible, would create an autonomous copy.  I still boggle at Stross’ pronouncement that “Uploading … is not obviously impossible unless you are a crude mind/body dualist. // Uploading refutes the doctrine of the existence of an immortal soul.”

3. Dogma: invalid equivalences and models for complexity.

3a. The brain is a computer. This leads to fantasies that “expansion of capabilities” (however defined) and such things as uploading or “stigmata” (that is, leakage between VR and reality) are possible. The fundamental point is that the brain is not a computer in any way that is useful to either biology or computer science, starting with the fact that a brain is never a blank chassis that passively accepts software. Also, it’s one thing to observe that the cerebellum contains four types of neurons, another to talk of stacks. The black noise on this has reached such a level that I cringe whenever I hear people discuss the brain using terms like “Kolmogorov complexity”.

3b. Sentient AI and animal uplift will not only come to pass, but will also produce entities that are remarkably similar to us. Connected to this are the messianic ravings of the extropians, who envision themselves as essentially overseers in plantations, as well as David Pearce’s “imperative” that any issues will be ironed out with such things as contraceptives for sentient rabbits and aversion therapy for sentient cats that will turn them into happy vegans. However, cat intestines are formed in such a way that they need meat to survive. If they must be medicated non-stop (let alone mangy from malnutrition), much better to design a species de novo. Crowley’s Leos and Linebarger’s Underpeople were both more realistic and more humane than the equivalent TH constructs.

Like all religions, TH has its sects and rifts, its evangelicals and reformists. Overall, however, the shiny if mostly pie-in-the-sky tech covers a regressive interior: TH hews to triumphalism, determinism and hierarchies. Interestingly, several SF authors (most notably Iain Banks) see TH applications as positive feedback loops for a terminal era of plenty: infinite resources courtesy of nanites, infinite flexibility in identities and lifestyles. However, I think that we’re likelier to see some of this technology become real in two contexts: an earth running out of resources… and people in long-generation starships and quasi-terrestrial exoplanets.

In both cases, we may have to implement radical changes not for some nebulous arbitrary perfection, or as a game of trust/hedge fund playboys, but when we’re in extremis and/or for a specific context. For example, the need to hibernate on an ice-bound planet or survive on toxic foodstuffs. Because TH is essentially a futuristic version of Manifest Destiny, it’s an unsuitable framework for exploring low-key sustainability alternatives. But TH does itself even fewer favors by harnessing stale pseudoscience to its chariots of the gods.  People like Kurzweil have the education and intelligence to know better, which makes them far more culpable than brain-dead ignorant haters like Akin.

Note: This article is an adaptation of the talk I gave to Readercon 2012 this July.  A panel discussion followed the talk; the other participants were John Edward Lawson, Anil Menon, Luc Reid and Alison Sinclair.

Related articles:

Equalizer or Terminator?
Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome
Ghost in the Shell: Why Our Brains Will Never Live in the Matrix
“Are We Not (as Good as) Men?”
Won’t Anyone Think of the Sexbots?!
That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle

Images: 1st, Mike Myers as Maurice Pitka in The Love Guru; 2nd, flowchart from The Talking Squid, who adapted an original by Wellington Grey; 3rd, The Transhumanist by movement member Sandberg — appropriately enough, part of a Tarot card set.

56 Responses to “The Charlatan-Haunted World”

  1. Christopher Phoenix says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Athena!! I first confronted TH tenets 1a-1c in a series of taped lectures for a general science course. Several lectures touched upon the ethics of genetically modifying humans, probably because this topic was seen as one of that might interest non-science majors. At one point, the lecturer discussed the idea that a viral nose spray could give someone musical talent. This was in a wider discussion on the ethics of the “optimization” of humans, at the end of which I reached two conclusions.

    One, the people who propose “optimization” have a really limited view of desirable human characteristics. The lecturer correctly noted that there are many different kinds of intelligence when the topic of “increasing” human intelligence comes up. Mathematical ability and sensitivity to the feelings of those around you are both different kinds of intelligence, and who can say which is “superior”? Two, this discussion is rather pointless, as higher order behaviors are not controlled by genes. Mozart did not become a musical genius only because of his genetic makeup, and I can’t become Mozart by just taking a nose spray!!

    All the same, I have seen numerous individuals taking TH articles of faith as gospel at Centauri Dreams, going so far as to claim that progress on mind uploading with progress faster than the development of propulsion systems, so the first interstellar astronauts will be “uploads”, or even commentators discussing plans for spacecraft crewed by “genetically superior” people who are repeatedly cloned or other proposals that only serve to demonstrate their ignorance of basic science.

    My favorite quote from this whole article: “Basing a genetic program on the concept that genes determine high-order behavior is like planning an expedition to Mars based on the Ptolemaic system.” 😀

  2. Athena says:

    Agreed on all counts, Christopher.

    One reason I stopped following Centauri Dreams (despite Paul Gilster’s courtliness and erudition and the intrinsic interest of the topics he discusses) was the stubborn refusal of the commenters to really face biology. Of course, several of them are TH members, which explains part of the problem. At the same time, I think that genetic engineering is/will be more feasible than FTL propulsion.

    I’m glad you liked that phrase. I’m kinda proud of it — but the analogy is exact! *laughs*

  3. Caliban says:

    One of the great ironies is that in some ways the 20th century was the “century of limits.” Four of the great discoveries in physics and mathematics — relativity, quantum mechanics, chaos theory, and Goedel’s theorems — implied that there are fundamental and implacable limits on what we can know and how we can know it. And on what we can do.

    Furthermore, although it is arcane, many of the great technical advances in physics were accomplished by embracing limitations, even and especially non-intuitive limitations. To give you an example, the Bardeen-Cooper-Schrieffer (BCS) model of superconductivity worked by dropping the requirement that the number of electrons is fixed; instead only the average number of electrons is “correct” but the BCS solution is a superposition of different systems with different numbers of electrons. This is unphysical, as the number of electrons is indeed fixed, but this kind of assumption actually simplifies the calculation that allows other kinds of important physics to be properly modeled.

    So when I do my calculations, I fully keep in mind that I may have to give up something, but with luck I will gain some other important advantage. This is really my philosophy of research, and I think trying to “have it all” is foolish.

    And I try to apply it to life: instead of dreaming of living forever, why not just enjoy life now? Okay, I don’t always succeed at that, but I think it is a better way to proceed.

  4. Athena says:

    That’s en excellent point, Calvin!

  5. Zarpaulus says:

    “Uploading … is not obviously impossible unless you are a crude mind/body dualist.”

    I’m certain the problem is that people latch onto the idea that only the “pattern” matters since the atoms that make up our bodies are continually cycling in and out as we metabolize and replace cells. What they fail to realize is that the neurons of the CNS are very rarely replaced and that the “pattern” is continually changing as well.

    It shouldn’t be too surprising that there are transhumanists who are (admittedly) religious, and that the majority of those are Buddhists. Western reincarnation-sounds-awesome Buddhists granted.

  6. Christopher Phoenix says:

    Hi, Athena!! I still follow the Centauri Dreams blog, although I know exactly what you meant. It isn’t just biology that the commentators are ignorant of- they are ignorant of basic physics and astronautics as well. I stopped discussing topics with them because of this.

    I think it is worth investigating FTL travel and the like, even if these ideas are unlikely to work. For many, many decades SF writers have known that if we want to travel between the stars on a timely basis, we will need a solution that is based on a deeper understanding of physics. We face three main problems with rapid interstellar travel, the travel time problem, the propellant mass problem, and the energy problem. The travel time problem is well known, but the others are more subtle.

    Launching a space shuttle sized payload on a 900 year trip to Alpha Centauri with chemical rockets would require more propellant than is in the visible universe. Even more powerful nuclear and ion rockets just require too much propellant. Don’t forget that we didn’t bring any propellant to slow down with, and that doubling the delta-V capacity of a rocket squares the amount of propellant.

    Many major technological developments like nuclear reactors, lasers, superconductivity, etc. (many of which have bearing on advanced space propulsion), were based on breakthroughs in physics. The electrical power grid had to wait for Faraday’s discover that moving copper wires through magnetic fields induces electrical current, but now much of our electrical power is generated this way. Without the discover that light has a small amount of momentum, and thus exerts pressure, the light-sails NASA is experimenting with would be unimaginable. New ideas, theories, and experiments could lead to some sort of propulsion breakthrough, a loophole that has remained hidden to modern physics in much the same way as Newton’s laws had no concept of time dilation or warped space.

    If we don’t invent a fantastic “star drive”, we’ll have to explore the galaxy in a much slower and more tedious manner, flying in rocket-propelled craft that travel slower than light. These ships need not be multi-generational, though, if they can travel at a significant fraction of C to reach a nearby star in mere years or decades. In the meantime, people like me keep dreaming of stabilizing wormholes or rendering starships inertialess- I think this sort of thing has a draw on students who grew up with “warp drives” and such imprinted on their consciousness since early childhood.

    At the same time, we must be ready to accept answers we don’t want. In the long run, though, we will either find a propulsion breakthrough or gain a deeper understanding of physics from the effort, so either way we win something. In the name of honesty, I must admit that a negative answer will disappoint me. It is like being told you won a pink plush unicorn when you really wanted a jet fighter… 🙂

  7. Athena says:

    Paul, what you described is kin to the blatherings of “quantum consciousness” — atoms and molecules are interchangeable in this context; neurons and their synapses are not, neither is the dynamic (and body-dependent) pattern these networks create.

    As for religion, we’re not talking of buddhism-at-a-safe-distance. Several TH members (including the obviously not brightest of bulbs Giulio Prisco) have specifically stated that TH itself is a religion; which, of course, it is, from dogma to associated holy relics.

  8. Zarpaulus says:

    A couple months ago I tried to explain to a Christian fundamentalist why someone who doesn’t believe in souls should be opposed to brain uploading. He didn’t seem to get the concept that “the body is you, regardless of whether its composition has changed from when you were born”. He got pretty easily that a copy of a person was not the same person as the template, but only if there was some kind of immaterial thing that couldn’t be duplicated, it was bizarre.

  9. Athena says:

    I agree that we should investigate all avenues, Christopher, but with finite resources at hand we have to set priorities. I’d love to have stable wormholes or warp drive capabilities, myself — for one, you can’t have serious space opera without them — but the chances of their existence are close to nil. So it will have to be the slow boat to Proxima and points beyond — and that dictates what we should work on: the prerequisites for long-generation starships.

  10. Jim Fehlinger says:

    Kurzweil’s ignorance of basics is so obvious to a biologist that seeing him being taken seriously makes you feel you’re in a parallel universe.

    I got the same feeling that I (a **somewhat** educated layman) simply wasn’t reading the same books as the >Hists when I spent some time perusing (and even participating on, briefly) the Extropians’ mailing list around the turn of the century. The brain-as-computer dogma, for example, was sacrosanct by then; nobody wanted to hear about, for example, Gerald Edelman (I’d read his _Bright Air, Brilliant Fire_ back in ’92).

    I discovered a few years after I stopped participating on that list that it had not, in fact, always been that way, even on the Extropians’. Prior to ’95 or so, there had been list participants both better educated and more in touch with what I, at least, saw as contemporary (**contemporary**, not stuck in the 60s or 70s with “information-processing” models of cognitive psychology) scientific views about such things as, oh, biological brains, for example. But by the time I got there the discourse had already hardened into the >Hist dogma we know today. I might blame a lot of this on one loud voice who arrived in the mid-90’s, whose mission was to shame everybody into getting off their asses and **doing** something about this Singularity thing, dad gummit! — and who brooked no disagreement (or even agreement, for that matter — he’s a prickly fellow!)

    (And I don’t mean Kurzweil — he got into the act a few years later, and stole the thunder from a few of the less-well-known “earlier adopters”, much to their dismay. ;-> )

  11. Christopher Phoenix says:

    Well, since we are pretty far away from launching a starship right now, we have time to investigate all avenues of approach. A flexible approach is best- we should focus our attentions on the prerequisites for deep space travel and various propulsion options instead of arguing over which idea is “best”. Maybe we need a really good salesperson to sell the idea of investing on “Star Trek space technology” to the public…

    Multi-generational craft have several main difficulties- we must develop a propulsion system capable of accelerating them to a useful velocity, probably about 5% C or thereabouts, at which speed Alpha C is about 100 years away. Crucially, we must also have some means to slow down- perhaps a magnetic sail. All the ship’s systems must work reliably during the century long flight, or be easily reparable. The inhabitants must grow their own food and maintain life support for over a century. But the most important issues may not be technological, but social- how will a small community handle a century long isolation between the stars, stuck in a tiny shell of metal cast between the stars by people long since dead?

    I mentioned relativistic ships- with them, a crew could be sent out to a nearby star and return within a single human lifetime as seen by everyone involved. A fascinating recent proposal, VARIES (Vacuum-to Antimatter Interstellar Explorer System), could even produce its own antimatter fuel at the target system for a round trip. Slow, yes, but I’m sure some extraordinary astronauts could handle such a voyage. I, for one, would agree to go. Ultimately, there are probably many ways to travel between the stars, but whether we go will depend more on social trends then whether we can imagine ways to do it or not.

  12. shagggz says:

    TH is a religion in the same way that Space Age technology is religious in that it allowed us to reach the “heavens“ or modern communications tech allows us to magically send our thoughts to one another through the ether. Achieving goals that were once solely the province of religion by reducing them to engineering problems does not make such a pursuit itself religious, unless you define religion as having to do with the goals pursued and not the supernatural ontology, which I find useless and specious. And when did Kurzweil say we would have achieved singularity by 2010?

  13. Athena says:

    Wrong on all counts. Space Age technology was based on real physics and engineering. They didn’t make stuff up to fit their fantasies; when they did, Challenger ensued. Also, TH does not reduce anything to engineering problems — it uses jargon to fit them into invalid paradigms.

    In the larger picture, do not ever attempt to play the religion card with me, especially in this Argument 101 manner.

  14. Dylan Fox says:

    Just a quick question… what do scientists mean when they talk about animals being ‘sentient’? I searched for a technical definition a while ago, but my Google-fu failed me. The best I could find was something along the lines of ‘sentience’ being a short-hand used by SF-types for ‘enough like me to have a meaningful conversation with’.

    Also, a world of sentient animals would look strangely like a Loony Toons cartoon…

  15. Athena says:

    Animals are already sentient along a gradient: they’re obviously able to perceive, feel, interpret. I’m not sure if there is a strict scientific definition of sentience, but I think the most common attribute requirement is self-awareness. For example, recognizing one’s self in a mirror.

  16. Jim Fehlinger says:

    > what do scientists mean when they talk about animals being
    > ‘sentient’? I searched for a technical definition a while ago, but. . .
    > [t]he best I could find was. . . ‘sentience’ being a short-hand
    > used by SF-types for ‘enough like me to have a meaningful conversation with’.

    I don’t think it’s a word much used in the scientific literature; rather,
    as you discovered, it’s a word borrowed by the >Hists from
    the SF “megatext”. Such as (among many possible examples) this quote
    from the epilog of Iain M. Banks’ _Consider Phlebas_:
    “Total casualties, including machines (reckoned on logarithmic
    sentience scale), medjel and non-combatants: 851.4 billion (± .3%).”

    Variant terms exist in SF too — e.g., David Brin’s “sophonts” (sentient
    aliens) or John C. Wright’s “sophotechs” (sentient AIs).

    There is a well-known >Hist who has used for many years as his public e-mail
    address “”). (One might think the implication
    of such an address comes across as rather arrogant, as in
    “Yes, ladies and gentlemen, **I** am sentient. I’m not so
    sure about the rest of you.” Well, after all, they’re mostly Ayn Rand
    acolytes, those >Hists. ;-> ).

  17. Athena says:

    Actually, a small but important correction: “sophonts” was a term first used by Poul Anderson. John C. Wright I won’t touch with a pole of any length.

  18. Jim Fehlinger says:

    > John C. Wright I won’t touch with a pole of any length.

    ;-> ;-> ;->

    There are other cases of terms in SF that have diverged from
    their usage in technical fields, or or which may once have
    been parallel to “real world” usage but persisted in SF long
    after the term in the real world became obsolete.

    One that comes to mind is “memory bank”. Robots and androids
    and AIs to this day (especially, I suppose, in the “lower orders”
    of SF like TV shows and comic books) have “memory banks”.
    I have yet, in my now decades-long career as a computer programmer,
    to come across a “memory bank”. (There was once “bank switching”,
    as with older machine with **really** severe address limits
    like the PDP-8, but that’s long gone.)

    Also, the use of the word “core”. I’ll admit that “computer core”
    sounds very portentous, but in the real world it never meant
    “heart” or “guts” or “inner sanctum”, it just meant a little ferrous
    donut strung on a grid of wires, long long since replaced by
    electronics on a chip. But hey, core still sounds cool —
    cooler than CPU.

  19. Athena says:

    It’s common to have slippage of meaning between real life and science and real life and literature. To give an example from my field, “splicing” has a different meaning in real life versus biology, though the two meanings are quasi-congruent. “Core” for computers always meant CPU, regardless of its specifics.

  20. Jim Fehlinger says:

    > “Core” for computers always meant CPU, regardless of its specifics.

    Ah yes, I’d forgotten the more recent usage of the term, now
    that multiple CPUs can be on the same physical silicon die
    (or similarly, now that CPUs can be plonked in special-purpose

    So now we have “dual-core” or “quad-core” Intel processors,
    or a portable music player with an SOIC “system on a chip”
    containing an “ARM core”, or whatever.

    But back in the 70’s, when Gene Wolfe wrote (in _The Fifth
    Head of Cerberus_) that Mr. Million’s AI mind had been
    “core imaged” from a once-living human, the real world
    usage was core memory (with those little magnetic donuts).

  21. Christopher Phoenix says:

    Science fiction always often uses terms that were current when the story was written, which often makes the story sound dated later. For instance, a nuclear reactor aboard a spaceship is often called an atomic “pile” in SF from the 50’s, referencing Enrico Fermi’s original reactor, which was indeed a pile of graphite and uranium blocks. A real spaceship’s reactor will probably not resemble a “pile” in any way. The fuel might not even be solid, as in a nuclear gas core rocket.

    I notice that you mention modifying humans to survive in an alien environment, Athena- but can we be sure that that is really the best way to survive on an alien world? We are better off sending expeditions to worlds habitable to humans, not only to ice worms, and we would probably import crops that we can eat rather than modify humans to survive on toxic local organisms. Even if we have to modify crops to survive in in strange soils under alien suns, it is easier to modify plants than to redesign humans from the ground up.

    Even if the technology to modify humans is available, it is of little use to first-generation settlers fresh off of the starship, and they may not have the resources to start a program to drastically modify humans. it is more likely that they would apply the same techniques they used to survive the interstellar journey to surviving at the destination planet. They can bring hydroponic gardens from the ship, use portable stoves and insulating clothing to survive harsh weather conditions, build settlements, etc. In other words, we would survive and adapt the way we have always survived and adapted, by using technology, not by growing fur.

  22. Jim Fehlinger says:

    > [A] nuclear reactor aboard a spaceship is often called
    > an atomic “pile” in SF from the 50’s. . .

    Or even later. Like in a _Star Trek_ script from 1966.

    “Charlie X” explaining what happened to the cargo vessel

    “There was a warped baffle-plate on the shield of their
    energy pile. I made it go away. It would have blown up

  23. Athena says:

    Ok you guys, enough swapping of Star Trek relic dialogue!

    Christopher, you seem to make a distinction between technology and genetic engineering and you also limit genetic engineering to apply only to humans. Gene-eng is technology as well, and has moral dilemmas and implications like all technology (although, granted, it cuts closer to the bone than, say, damming a river). Modification of terrestrial lifeforms to fit a new planet falls squarely under the genetic engineering category — and includes humans. The other side of this coin is that if we find worlds habitable by humans, they will have their own ecosystems. Introducing terrestrial flora and fauna could decimate the native lifeforms. It’s also likelier that human newcomers to a planet would have small-scale tech (genetic tinkering) than large-scale tech like solar mirrors and the like.

    Mind you, I’m not saying it would be easy or palatable. What I am saying is that this is a context in which such drastic measures might be necessary to employ.

  24. zarpaulus says:

    Indeed, it would be easier to haul a few colonists, gene-sequencers, and greenhouses across multiple light-years than all the equipment to fully terraform a planet. Of course there may be a few issues if the adapted second generation colonists are unable to have physical contact with their parents. It might be better to have a generation ship and slowly alter the internal environment and the colonists’ biology over centuries.

  25. Athena says:

    Paul, exactly: long-generation ships would be de facto isolated. This means they would recreate the founder effect — and serve as means of speciation of all lifeforms on them, including humans. This is something I bring up in all my discussions about this topic; it’s both disquieting and fascinating. Long-generation starships would afford the opportunity of gradual adaptation, provided its occupants had a glimpse of foreknowledge about the specifics of the planet ahead. I gave a fictional version of this scenario in my story Planetfall; its first section reads like fantasy — but it isn’t.

  26. Christopher Phoenix says:

    I made not such distinction, Athena, I simply said that I think colonists are more likely to use external tools like hydroponics, modified plants, atomic blasters, etc. to survive on an alien planet instead of drastically modifying their children to survive in one alien environment only. Humans have succeeded in settling most of the planet- and visiting quite hostile environments- by using external technology to compensate for our own physical limitations.

    Genetic engineering of humans is a huge technical and ethical challenge. Who wants to see their progeny experimented on, modified, perhaps discarded as a failure? On the other hand, genetically modifying plants and other terrestrial organisms to survive in difficult conditions or resist alien pests would make plenty of sense and raises no such ethical difficulties.

    I notice mention of space mirrors and terraforming, but I did not advocate terraforming alien planets. After reading about the inherent difficulty of terraforming Mars or Venus, I have concluded that it would probably be easier to use sealed domes, space habitats, and to seek out habitable planets orbiting other stars than to attempt to terraform a planet.

    A habitable planet must have indigenous photosynthetic plants to create a breathable atmosphere, obviously, but can we be so sure that planets that are inhabitable to humans have no ecosystems? Think of the lifeforms in the deep oceans, or the extremophile bacteria who live in hot springs. We can’t assume that only Earth-like planets support life.

    If space travelers do modify themselves, I suggest that they should focus on useful modifications for space travel. Enhanced cell-repair to combat radiation damage for cosmic rays, eyes capable of withstanding much brighter glare or seeing clearly in dimmer light conditions, and muscles and bones adapted to long stays in unusual gravities would be useful. On a more SF note, if we ever have fleets of FTL starships, colonists probably won’t want to cut themselves off from Earth by modifying themselves so extensively that it is difficult for them to live in quasi-Earth-normal conditions.

  27. Zarpaulus says:

    I guess I should have gotten around to reading that sooner (my idea came from Orion’s Arm).

    Anyways on the Ridiculously Human Robots and Uplifts subject I suspect it’s partially a lack of imagination, authors and transhumanists fail to conceive of non-anthropomorphic sapience, even C.J. Cherryh’s hani and atevi weren’t too far off from human ways of thinking.

    Last I read one of Pearce’s blogs he made it seem like the uplifted carnivores in his Utopia would have their digestive systems re-designed to digest vegetation. I suspect that would change a species’ way of thinking at least as much as the uplift would.

  28. Athena says:

    Christopher, I do agree that genetic engineering is fraught with challenges; I said so in my previous reply to you and whenever the issue enters the discussion. On your side, you define technology as “external”. As for adapting to one environment only, you are thinking of exoplanets as monocultures (which is often the case in SF — planets are often one climate, one culture, one language). At any rate, we don’t disagree overall. So let’s not get caught in semantics.

    Paul, it’s true: even “outlandish” aliens in SF have human motivations (to break my own rule about Star Trek relics: even the silicon-based Horta in The Devil in the Dark has maternal emotions). It’s not surprising — we’re bound by our perceptions and can visualize or empathize beyond them with a great effort. There are a few SF authors who managed to portray something truly alien: Lem in Solaris, Le Guin in Vaster than Empires and More Slow, Tiptree in A Momentary Taste of Being. I also agree that changing digestive systems would be as formative of mindset as uplift, which speaks to the importance of the rest of the body in shaping the brain/mind.

  29. Jim Fehlinger says:

    > [W]e’re bound by our perceptions and can visualize or empathize
    > beyond them with a great effort. There are a few SF authors who managed
    > to portray something truly alien: . . . Tiptree in A Momentary
    > Taste of Being.

    I have a friend (a very smart guy) who once complained to me that SF
    authors never seem to be able to adopt a truly alien point of view.

    So I gave him Tiptree’s “Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death”.

    And he came back to me, “I couldn’t read it.”

    Some people you just can’t please. ;->

    (As I say, he’s a smart guy, but his taste runs to straight-up
    50’s SF. He’s managed Egan’s _Distress_, but _Diaspora_ only
    with great difficulty, after considerable prodding from me.
    William Gibson is completely outside his orbit. So is
    Tiptree, let alone “New Wave” quasi-SF authors like J. G. Ballard.
    Iain M Banks’ “Culture” novels he would consider fantasy, not
    SF — and he’s right of course; it’s only by convention
    we say FTL is SF, whereas Elves and crystal balls are Fantasy.
    He liked Vinge’s recent _Rainbows End_, but something like
    _A Fire Upon the Deep_ would be out. Oh, well.)

  30. Athena says:

    I call such people the Leaden Era Devotees (aka Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club). Yes, FTL, warp drives and stable wormholes are (alas!) fantasy — I wish it weren’t so.

  31. Jim Fehlinger says:

    > [T]o break my own rule about Star Trek relics. . .

    Everybody of a certain age and inclination got stewed in that marinade.

    It’s kind of fun, actually. Alas, my IQuote only encompasses TOS.
    By TNG, I’d lost the cerebral plasticity. And DS9, Voyager, etc.?

  32. Athena says:

    The delivery of the TNG cast reminded me of Pharaonic statues: stiffly facing forward, arms on sides. Plus the paternalistic attributes of orotund-voiced Picard. DS9 was my favorite (except for the Ferengi caricature), primarily because they couldn’t run away from trouble — they were on a station and had to face whatever music played. Voyager I should have loved, as it finally had women in the positions of Captain, Engineer and Science Officer. But the heavy-duty new age nonsense and the derivative adversaries drained the pleasure out of that one.

  33. Christopher Phoenix says:

    I searched for but did not find a better word than “technology” for the use of external tools, but there is a difference between genetically modifying humans to withstand cold temperatures and wearing a parka. Genetic engineering is technology. The question is if it is a technology we want to use on ourselves. Certainly, it makes more sense to consider such drastic adaptions if you are in extreme conditions on an exoplanet than for recreational “vanity” purposes.

    I was not thinking in monocultures, but in general planetary environments. If we find a planet with an atmosphere containing chlorine, and we adapt some humans to survive here but they can no longer survive in an oxygen atmosphere, will they not be adapted for one type of planet only? I am aware that planets with chlorine atmospheres are probably rare if they exist at all, this is merely as an example. I see your point, though- surviving in a high desert on an exoplanet would not be the same as surviving in an alien jungle on that same planet.

    Surely, in real space warfare, being on a thin-walled station with no ability to move or even jinx to avoid incoming fire would be utter suicide when a fleet of space warships bore down on you. Asteroid fortresses and outposts dug under the surfaces of planets and moons would be popular during space war. Even then, these fortifications probably won’t be helpful against a mobile foe traveling faster than light- they might just fly right past them like the Hittites driving their chariots past the Egyptian’s forts.

    “Fixed fortifications are monuments to man’s stupidity,” -General George S. Patton on the Siegried Line

  34. Zarpaulus says:

    Even today when people can travel from one continent to another in a matter of hours the majority of people never settle down far from where they were born. Unless you get planet-based wormholes with similar passage rates to current bus fares it is extremely likely the same will apply to interplanetary travel.

    Athena has said elsewhere that interstellar colonization is likely to have more similarity to the spread of the ancient Polynesians across the Pacific on catamarans than the European conquest of the Americas.

    I think Orson Scott Card stated in one of his “Ender” novels that even with sub-light star travel static defenses are useless against an exosolar enemey, hence the massive counter-invasion against the Formics.

  35. Athena says:

    My point exactly: each starship will be a self-contained microcosm for future speciation. There will be no intermingling of these descendants because the interstellar distances are too vast — they will diverge, the shift accelerated by any tinkering necessary to survive on their new planetary home.

    As for moving star fortresses, death stars and the like — they’d better have lots of fuel that’s not lethal to the occupants.

  36. Christopher Phoenix says:

    True- even if we have huge interstellar or even intergalactic spacecraft arriving and departing from Earth constantly in a truly space-opera style future, most people probably won’t travel far from their home planet or even set foot on one of those formidable interstellar craft. Maybe that is why space travelers are so isolated in the SF stories- the vast majority of people just don’t share their experiences, outlook, or training.

    I have a question, Athena- how much will intermingling affect speciation if we have rapid interstellar travel? If starships take hundreds of years to travel between stars, the settlers will be isolated, but if ships take only decades at high sub-light speeds or can travel faster than light, the settlers might not be so isolated after all. Some settlements may become cut off even with rapid interstellar travel, which will lead to speciation whether we like it or not…

    Mobile space fortresses and death stars are not really “fortresses”, but giant starships with immense firepower and defense capabilities. Any mobile space fortress- like most space opera tech- will need immense amounts of energy, probably supplied by fission, fusion, antimatter, Kerr-Newman black holes, mass convertors, etc. The crew had better have some shielding if the engine is radioactive. It generally isn’t safe to handle nuclear fuels, black holes, or antimatter, so we’d better isolate the fuel tanks from the crew…

  37. Foxessa says:

    … though it is arcane, many of the great technical advances in physics were accomplished by embracing limitations, even and especially non-intuitive limitations.

    This is wonderful. It translates into composition in the arts beautifully too. Generally, an artist in whichever form — poetry, plays, painting, music, etc. — will do much better, particularly when starting as a new wannabe artist, and / or a new project, to have a plan, a structure, a comprehension of the traditions and the manners, as well as the methods. These aren’t limits. They are outlines that make coherent what you put inside.

    Later, whether as a mature, experienced artist, or as the current piece emerges out of the imaginative vacuum, the artist can then, positively become more free-form, following where the creation directs.

    It’s like improvisation with jazz and other kinds of music. Most people don’t understand what improvisation in that context actually is. The musicians all know the “book.” They know each other’s instruments’ places in the book’s works. They know when its right for a rhythm section to charge, and when it should lay low or lay out all together, and so on. Improvisation isn’t in any way a throwing away of the ‘rules,’ but such a deep comprehension and mastery of the ‘rules,’ — and each others’ strengths and weaknesses — that they can make it up on the spot as they go along coherently and adventurously, by working together — because they KNOW what they are doing!

    Love, C,

  38. Athena says:

    C, what you discussed speaks directly to expertise: once you know “the book” you also know how to tinker with it — how to bend and reshape, how to break and rebuild. Starting with knowing nothing doth not a paradigm-shifter make. As Dale Carrico put it “…it remains true that for every maverick dismissed as crank there are countless cranks who fancy themselves mavericks.”

  39. Caliban says:

    I totally agree.

    Of course.

    — the other “C”

    PS – this reminds me–and so do the ignorantly optimistic transnarcissicists Athena writes about– physics students who come to me and intimate they want to become the next Einstein, and solve the riddle of quantum gravity. Okay, I say, but you’re math skills are a little weak. You should bolster them. This usually gets waved away with some mumbling that the math isn’t important, they are really good at the physics. Only I happen to know they are weak in physics, too, and don’t understand basic principles and get basic facts wrong. Somehow this all gets dismissed and I’m just a fuddy-duddy professor who can’t see their intuitive genius.

  40. Walden2 says:

    Caliban, you might get a kick out of reading (or not) Margaret Wertheim’s recent book Physics on the Fringe:

    Sounds like you have a few contenders in your class for the next fringe physicists.

  41. Zarpaulus says:

    Chris P:
    I find this site to be a great resource on realistic space travel, especially warfare:
    You’re not going to have star dreadnoughts slinging slow-moving multi-colored blobs at one another and fighters duking it out like it’s 1914. It’s going to be hide-and-seek with nuclear missiles. Any reaction drive big enough to move a “space fortress” is going to light up the tac screens of every ship, station, and unmanned missile platform in the system. And an immobile space station that doesn’t need to worry about having enough fuel to haul a ton of mass across the solar system has a lot more room for armor, turrets, fighter (or more likely unmanned drone) bays, and of course can be surrounded 24/7 by a swarm of early detection and point defense satellites.

  42. Caliban says:

    Thanks, Larry. I actually get quite a few fringe types wandering through my door, or sending me e-mails, complete with misspellings and angry tirades.

  43. Athena says:

    Have I told you the story of the guy who called me claiming to have discovered black holes — and got irate when I told him that, unfortunately, they had been already discovered?

    That review was interesting, Larry. I had no idea Dyson was this soft on Velikovsky, but he has proposed some bizarre stuff himself — trees growing in space vacuum, for example.

  44. Caliban says:

    Ha, no, you hadn’t told me that one!

  45. Alex Tolley says:

    “Uploading…even if a non-destructive implementation ever became possible, would create an autonomous copy. ”

    I don’t understand your point here. If you are saying that when uploaded, there would be the original you still inhabiting your body and the uploaded version thinking that the upload was successful, then I agree. Clearly the uploaded version is still a version of the original and will have its ‘immortality’.

    To me, a more important issue is whether the upload copy could be a high fidelity copy of your mind, or a crippled version that would be a pale shadow. I suspect that the copy quality could improve, but what would be teh reasons (and ethics) or trying for low fidelity copies?

  46. Athena says:

    Alex, I discussed this in detail in my article Ghost in the Shell: Why Our Brains Will Never Live in the Matrix. Briefly: if the uploading were destructive, the original would die and feel the death; if the uploading were not destructive, the “copy” would be a new unique person from moment one. So if the original were trying for “immortality” neither version would achieve it.

  47. Walden2 says:

    Athena, about that black hole guy – he didn’t even come across something about them on the Internet, not even once? Ten seconds with Wikipedia would have done the trick.

  48. Athena says:

    This was in 2000 or 2001… so, yeah. But he was truly irate. He kept saying “So what am I supposed to do with my ‘discovery’?”

    People are gaga.

  49. Steve Bowers says:

    ” Briefly: if the uploading were destructive, the original would die and feel the death; if the uploading were not destructive, the “copy” would be a new unique person from moment one. So if the original were trying for “immortality” neither version would achieve it.”

    I agree in the second case, but not necessarily the first. Gradual uploading could, in theory, slowly replace each neuron and all its characteristics with an artificial replacement. Of course the ‘replacement devices would need t have additional characteristics, or it isn’t worth doing.

    If the replacement devices are suitably compatible with the original body, then the process could be stopped at any point; you would have fully functioning people who are 5% replaced, 50% replaced, or 90% replaced. At which point do you expect such a person to ‘feel’ their death?

    Note that I don’t expect such ‘replacement devices’ to be developed for several hundred years or more; I do not believe in the imminent ‘rapture of the nerds’. But I can’t rule them out on physical grounds. They are almost certainly much more likely than faster-than-light spaceships, or even relativistic spacecraft that can accelerate without melting.

  50. Athena says:

    What you’re describing falls by definition under the non-destructive category, so my points stand. This without delving into what such replacement would entail.