A prominent British cosmologist offered a Vancouver audience a surprising glimpse into a future that could include “posthuman” species living on asteroids and other planets. In the annual fall Wall Exchange free public lecture at the Vogue Theatre on October 15, Sir Martin Rees said he expects a “bumpy ride” for humanity over the next century.
“I think there will be setbacks, like a nuclear war or something as bad as a nuclear war,” Rees, a former president of the Royal Society, said. “We’ll try hard to avoid that.”
However, he cited a possibility that over the next several centuries communities will live away from Earth. According to Rees, a former director of Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy, this would mean that humanity would have a future regardless of what happened on this planet.
“I think those people out there will develop into new species because they will use genetic modification to redesign themselves to match the alien environment,” he declared. “I think a few hundred years from now, we’ll start having the posthuman era of different species.”
He added that there will also be “silicon-based intelligences”, which will be created artificially. “The question is whether the future lies with them or with organic intelligence,” Rees stated. “We don’t have the answer to that.”
At that point, the moderator of the event, CBC science journalist Bob McDonald, quipped: “Those new people will be known as homo spaceians.”
UBC’s Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies hosted Rees’s often-amusing lecture, which touched on the history of space travel, how the Big Bang expanded the universe, possible other universes, and the likelihood of the sun running out of fuel in six billion years.
“It then flares up, engulfing the inner planets,” he said. “And the expanding universe will continue, perhaps forever, destined to become ever colder, ever emptier. To quote Woody Allen, eternity is very long, especially towards the end.”
He also predicted that there will be accelerated evolution as a result of machines playing a much bigger role in society.
In a subsequent question-and-answer session, Rees derided high-profile atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, for attacking organized religion. Rees maintained that scientists do not help themselves when they criticize religious moderates for their belief in God.
He pointed out that the Archbishop of Canterbury, for example, is “quite relaxed” about the possibility of a parallel universe.
“I have no religious belief myself, but I don’t think we should fight about it,” Rees stated. “In particular, I think that we should not rubbish moderate religious leaders like the Archbishop of Canterbury because I think we all agree that extreme fundamentalism is a threat, and we need all the allies we can muster against it. I would regard the leaders of the mainstream churches as being on our side.”
Rees, who has published more than 500 scientific papers, focused a great deal of attention on what might unfold on Earth in the 21st century. He characterized this as the first time in history when a single species—human beings—have the power to determine its future. This new geological era, which he called the Anthropocene, began with the advent of nuclear weapons.
“Devastation could arise insidiously, rather than suddenly, through unsustainable pressure on energy supplies, food, water, and other natural resources,” he said. “Indeed, these pressures are the prime ‘threats without enemies’ that confront us.”
Rees estimated that there will be 8.5 to 10 billion people by 2050, adding that the planet could not sustain itself if all of them lived like present-day Americans. “On the other hand,” he noted, “20 billion people could live sustainably, with a high quality of life, if all adopted a vegetarian diet, travelling little, but interacting via a super-Internet and virtual reality.”
Therefore, he suggested that it’s “naive” to speak of the world’s carrying capacity. On the upside, he mentioned that most experts say that modern engineering and agricultural practices could provide sufficient food and energy for nine billion people. The downside is that the same technologies that give room to optimism are vulnerable to attack by criminals and hostile nations.
“Advances in genetics offer huge potential for medicine and agriculture,” Rees acknowledged. “But already the genomes for some viruses—polio, Spanish flu, and SARS—have been synthesized. Expertise in such techniques will become widespread, posting a manifest risk of bioerror or bioterror.”
He closed his lecture by saying the future is up to all of us. “We need to broaden our sympathies both in space and time—and perceive ourselves as part of a long heritage, and stewards for an immense future,” Rees stated, “and to be guided by the best science, but also by values that science itself can never provide.”