There’s no resting place for the human race
- 19 December 2013
- New Scientist
This year, many fixed points in the human condition have begun to look distinctly movable
Read more: “2014 preview: 10 ideas that will matter next year“
THE Chinese robot now roving the moon’s surface – Yutu, the Jade Rabbit – is humanity’s first emissary there for nearly 40 years. It is named after the companion of the moon goddess Chang’e. More such explorers will follow over the next decade, but few, if any, will bear names from the Greek and Russian traditions associated with the first space race.
Rather, they are beginning a new tradition. As one scientist puts it, the moon is “the eighth continent”, a chunk torn off Earth aeons ago. That’s not just a hypothesis for our satellite’s origins: the latest space racers want to build a lunar staging post for exploration, and settlement, of the solar system (see “China lands on moon, kicks off next lunar space race“).
This is not a new dream, but the urge to leave Earth is getting easier to envisage in a world of limited resources and ambitious billionaires. But do we have the right to spread to other worlds before putting our own in order? How will humanity define and locate itself when it lives on more than one planet?
This is just one of many developments challenging how we see our place in the universe. It is customary at this time of year to reflect on the past 12 months. In that spirit, let’s consider a couple more advances and see if we can get a sense of where we might soon find ourselves.
Consider humanity itself. Sequencing the genome of the Denisovans, a mysterious group of prehistoric hominins, suggests that interbreeding between Neanderthals, Denisovans and humans seems to have been common, rather than the rarity previously assumed – which further drives home the idea that we are the sole survivors of a precarious evolutionary process, rather than the end of a neat line of descent. That deals yet another blow to the hubristic assumption that humanity’s place is at the apex of the natural world.
Intriguingly, here at our end of the human timeline, we are beginning to engineer our own genome. Next year is likely to see the conception of a child with DNA from three parents (see “2014 Preview: Three-parent babies close to conception“). The modification is life-changing – it will prevent certain inherited diseases – but minor. Nonetheless, the introduction of genetic material that could be passed down the generations represents a watershed. How far should we go in compensating for shortcomings in our genetic inheritance? What conditions would merit such tinkering?
We need not journey into space, or history, to find ourselves rethinking our place in the world. Smartphones provide us with unprecedented context about our surroundings, allowing us to seek out everything from a cold drink to a hot date. They also let us detach ourselves from those around us, as we look at screens rather than our neighbours’ faces.
So the line between physical here and online there is becoming increasingly blurred. Devices such as Glass, Google’s augmented reality spectacles, and advances in robotics and remote control will only accelerate that trend (see “Mind-reading light helps you stay in the zone” and “The mystery behind Google’s sudden robotics splurge“). Our experiences of the world, and our sense of our place in it, may soon be very different – not just from how we perceive it now, but also from how our neighbours do. Will sharing our thoughts and experiences bring us together? Or will we end up living in worlds of our own?
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Many fields, from climatology to neuroscience, raise questions about who we are and where we fit in. But that’s nothing new. Science and technology have always posed challenges, and we have always assimilated them – eventually. That drive has got us where we are today. Perhaps that’s the only real constant here: to be human is to continually seek out a new place in the world.
This article appeared in print under the headline “Perpetual motion”