Communities in Space and Time #40 #cong19


Eventually, when we voyage to the stars we will be sending, in effect, small communities. The questions are, what sort of communities will they be?  And how will they be constituted? Also, what kind of belief systems will they have to subscribe to that will bind together a multi-generational mission.

4 Key Takeaways:

  1. Can a community be designed from near enough scratch?
  2. If so, then who gets to do the designing?
  3. Human bonds go beyond present relationships and travel across time.
  4. Human meaning is possible, even in the void.

About Tom Murphy:

Classics and Philosophy student at NUI Galway

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By Tom Murphy

The nearest star to us in the galaxy, Proxima Centauri, is thought to have orbiting planets that contain the possibility for human habitation and colonisation. The only problem is that with the current state of space engineering it will take 6,300 years to get there. Therefore, an expedition to Proxima Centauri will have to be a multi-generational project. Mathematically, there exists a possibility that more people will die getting there than will actually arrive. The interesting idea is; how many people do you have at the start? The second interesting idea is; what sort of community they will form?

To answer the first question, Frédéric Marin and Camille Beluffi, both of whom are based in France, crunched some numbers. Allowing for possible disasters that might afflict the crew along the way, they came up with the result that, at the minimum, 98 unrelated breeding partners would be needed to initialise the expedition. This number takes into account the avoidance of the hazards of in-breeding and allows for natural catastrophes such as plagues that may occur.

At the beginning this would make for a quite unnatural community of human beings. There would not be anyone involved in the first part of the endeavour who would be too young to breed nor too old to actively reproduce and care for children. But this would change in just two generations. The first generation would have the young to care for, and the second generation would have the elderly to care for. Forty or fifty years into the project we would have a community that would look like just any human community back on earth that has ever naturally existed.

The children born in space, unlike the initial cohort of adults, will never not know what it is like not to be in space. The spaceship will have to serve as a microcosm of planet Earth.  But with a difference; the community will have to have a framework for its fabrication. This is the opportunity offered to the mission designers whose it is to decide what constitutes a community.

This community will not emerge naturally as the original communities did on the savannah and in the rain forests. They will have to construct from the ground up a community that will operate on what has been known to work best for communities and to avoid factionalisation and other self-destructive behaviours. It is a design issue with manifold implications for whether the mission will arrive at its goal intact and in a coherent form or fail dejectedly in the void of space.

The goal of the mission for most of the participants is for their far flung offspring to reach a, hopefully, inhabitable planet in Proxima Centauri. But will that be enough of a motivating force adhering to the goal or provide a deep enough existential reason for existing?

One could easily reduce these astronaut’s roles to that of reproductive automatons. But you can imagine a young voyager coming to the age of reason and asking themselves in a very human way; is that it? Is this all there is to my life?

So, how would the designers of the community constitute the mission’s values so that the negative consequences of nihilistic thinking could be avoided? How could they make the over-riding purpose of the mission so powerful a motivating force, and so compelling an idea, that legions of the yet unborn will buy into it?

It is to our present communities that the nominal designers of this notional mission will have to look. Albeit, that while we reside on planet Earth we are still travellers through space and time.

The first consideration they ought to make is to observe that we are very much our history. We know from Greek and Roman thinkers that our own present day mind-sets and dispositions are barely different from theirs, if in fact, they differ at all. There is a direct line of communication through time to our forebears. Not only biological information but traditions, rites and folklore too.

So, the designers will have to make sure that materials are present on the ship that will educate little ones across thousands of generations of who they are and where they came from. Hopefully, the knowledge that they are continuing the human race, if in very unique circumstances, will give them a background of understanding that will situate them properly in the context of human history.

Care would be the next idea that I would advocate to the design committee. In a normal human life there is really very little time between being someone who is cared for to being someone who does the caring. One would hope that caring would come naturally to our galactic voyagers. But in the reductionist, atomistic world of a major engineering project one can see how something so elemental could either be taken for granted or over-looked completely.

As humans we all hope for better things for our children than we had ourselves. Progress is contingent on the belief that what we have now is better than what we had before and that things will inevitably get better in the future. But on a mission that is designed to last thousands of years the major resource is the ship itself. There can only be so much progress without self-cannibalisation. That is an argument that sounds familiar when assessing the resources of our own planet.

If the human race is to become a space-faring community it is going to have to think long and hard about what constitutes a valid, healthy association of beings that can live together harmoniously over almost unimaginable periods of times. Those of our descendants that will cast off the bonds of earth and who will depart for distant stars and far off planets will have to be more like us than we are ourselves.


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