Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/08/04/hawking_regrets_being_human/

People still too human for Stephen Hawking

Damned biological units...

By Thomas C Greene

Posted in Science, 4th August 2006 06:02 GMT

"Did you have fun with your robot buddy?"
--Homer Simpson to Lisa Simpson, on Stephen Hawking's departure

"How can the human race survive the next hundred years?" Stephen Hawking wants to know. So much so that he posted the question on line, in quest of enlightenment from the Netizen masses and their collective wisdom.

At the heart of Hawking's quest is a profound pessimism, and a tremendous ignorance of history. "Before the 1940s, the main threat to our survival came from collisions with asteroids," he writes. He is thinking of nuclear weapons, and their collective capacity to render the Earth virtually sterile, just as a bad encounter with, say, 200-km-diameter asteroid could do.

The nuclear threat is substantial, but let's be realistic: it's only one self-inflicted way, among numerous natural ways, for our species to meet its end. Admittedly, it would be regrettable if we should become the architects our demise, but we shall be just as dead if famine, disease, natural climate change, or geological catastrophe spirits us all away.

Hawking frets also about man-made global warming, and the possibility that we will "pass a tipping point at which the temperature rise becomes self sustaining."

Now, it's absolutely certain that the Earth's temperature has been rising of late, and it's absolutely certain that human activity is contributing to that rise. The problem is, no one knows the portion of global warming that our incontinent release of carbon into the atmosphere represents. The true figure is somewhere between "hardly any of it" and "nearly all of it."1

Again, it would be unfortunate if we were to die as a species by our own hand. But climate change happens, and the human race has already survived a natural, and quite radical, one: it's called the Ice Age. Our ancestors were here before it; no doubt millions perished during it; and yet we are here after it.

No doubt it cost us collectively. It's entirely possible that, during the Ice Age, there were advanced civilizations in the coastal regions of all the continents that have been lost - swallowed by the rising seas and buried under yards of silt - whose remains, invisible to us, lie but a few miles off shore in scores of locations around the globe.

Of course, it's entirely possible that there were no such civilizations. But if there were, the wisdom that we lost might never be recovered; and yet, here we all are. We certainly lost a lot of people: some genetic studies suggest that the human population might have fallen to merely tens of thousands at the worst point of the Ice Age, poised to eliminate itself with a few bad decisions (a point Hawking imagines to have arrived only in the 1940's); and yet, here we all are.

"There are other dangers, such as the accidental or intentional release of a genetically engineered virus," Hawking says. Note the presumption that a genetically engineered pathogen would be more deadly than the Black Death, the Spanish flu, or HIV. Mankind has seen its deadly pandemics, and yet, mysteriously, we continue to draw breath.

When Europeans arrived in the Americas, they landed in a world with few deadly communicable pathogens, perhaps owing to the savages' queer habit of not sleeping with their livestock, as their more advanced conquerors had been doing for millennia. In any event, tens of millions perished. Meanwhile, back in Europe, the Black Death returned numerous times, threatening what had become, and what remains, the world's most advanced civilization. And yet, here we all are.

As for geological catastrophes, there is a caldera in the islands of Santorini from a volcano that erupted in the Bronze Age, and may well have caused a flood that destroyed the Minoans - then the world's most advanced civilization - and spawned the legends of Atlantis and the great flood described in Genesis. And there is a caldera in North America - called the Yellowstone - from a volcano so massive that, when it blows, it will make the worst nuclear war we can mount today look like a garden party. And it looks as much like blowing tomorrow as in half a million years.

And yet we manage to go on.

Poor Stephen; he ought to read more and spend less time thinking on his own. There is a serious danger, when one is surrounded by flatterers and apple polishers, and is permitted to think in isolation, of going mad. One's thoughts must perpetually be challenged, tested, and pollinated by others to be kept healthy. One gets the sense of a man whose ideas have not been challenged in decades, and are stagnating, even putrefying.

We see this most clearly as Hawking goes Star Trek on us, and suggests that "the long-term survival of the human race will be safe only if we spread out into space, and then to other stars".

Look, the human race will not be saved by space colonization. There are many reasons why not, but here are two: First, diverting the resources needed to prepare, launch, and maintain a growing (or "viable" in the illiterate language of technology) extra-terrestrial colony would cost the lives of billions of humans here on Earth.

We might send explorers to other places in the solar system to return, or to die there, relatively cheaply; but providing for their eventual self-sufficiency will exceed the resources we can spare, plus the available resources of the host place, which will necessarily offer little useful to humans because we didn't evolve there.

Second, like all living things, we are partly a product of our environment: there is a definite "somewhereness" about us - so much so that it is impossible to speak intelligently about humanity outside the context of planet Earth. If we adapt to some radically different world, we will cease to be human.

So, Hawking's imaginary colonists will either die at great expense to those left behind, or miraculously mutate into something so radically different that the word "human" becomes meaningless.

Hawking's final hope is that we can (and should) breed the very humanity out of human beings, in some pathetic quest of immortality. "Perhaps we must hope that genetic engineering will make us wise and less aggressive," he writes.

Genetic engineering will make us better. Not long ago, there was an influential group of folks who shared that belief, although they used the name "eugenics" in place of "genetic engineering" back in those days. A number of those folks were hanged in a German city called Nuremberg.

But the deeper suggestion here, that we humans, as nature made us, are bad and stupid and should be ashamed of ourselves, is the suggestion of a colossal ignoramus.

We are mortal, both individually and as a species, and we know that we're mortal. And that makes us greater than anything in nature, and anything that Man has yet conceived. Mortality makes us superior even to the gods that we have proposed. They can't die; we can, and we do. And we know it. When we act, we know that it might be final. Nothing the gods do can't be undone; they risk nothing, but we risk everything. We have courage; the gods do not.

Yes, we are passionate, and foolish, and violent. And courageous, and artistic, and creative. We've survived numerous close calls, some of our making, some not. We might yet destroy ourselves, or be destroyed by some natural phenomenon. Death has been our close companion and a constant reminder of our frailty for as long as we've been human. But to be disturbed by that is to be disturbed by the very idea of humanity - to suggest that we're too human. And that requires an almost inhuman blend of cowardice and ignorance. ®

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1. I should add that it's irresponsible to do nothing about global warming merely because it might not be our fault. If an unoccupied car rolls down a hill toward you, you step out of the way, at least if you're sane. You don't stand in its path complaining that someone else failed to set the brake. Just so, we should do all we can to alleviate global warming, even if our activities have little effect one way or the other. We don't know that we can't improve the situation; therefore, we're obliged to try.

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