Maybe Common Assumptions Are Wrong

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 10, 2019

We make a lot of assumptions that we believe are true. That life will get better. That our children will have more than we did. That every kid should go to college and achieve all their dreams. That technology will solve our ecological problems. That humanity is destined to spread across space and colonize the galaxy. Overall, we think positive and assume we have unlimited potential. But what if these are false assumptions?

Today on Mike Brotherton’s Facebook page he linked to “Humans will not ‘migrate’ to other planets, Nobel winner says.” Brotherton is a professor of science and a science fiction author and he didn’t like what Michel Mayor said about our chances of interstellar travel. Whenever scientists, including some science fiction fans, question our final frontier destiny, many science fiction fans will quote Arthur C. Clarke’s famous Three Laws:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

It’s their trump card to play against any skepticism about an unlimited future. The common assumption among science fiction fans is we’re destined to colonize the galaxy and we’ll overcome all the obstacles of physics to do so. There are no limits to our hubris. I had faith in that space travel destiny when I was young but I’m losing it in my old age.

What if belief in a Star Trek destiny is delusional? What if our species is destined to always live on Earth, or maybe colonize Mars, a few moons, and build some space habitats? Why is it so important to believe we’ll eventually create a galactic civilization? Why is it so important to believe humans have unlimited potential when everything in this reality has limitations? Are science fiction fans behaving like the faithful believing in miracles?

The more we study the problems of space travel the more it seems an unlikely enterprise for biological creatures. However, space seems perfect for robots with artificial intelligence. Maybe our children won’t colonize space, but our digital descendants will.

If you study history it’s obvious that things constantly change. Even in my life much has changed. It’s hard to predict anything. I replied to Brotherton that I thought the odds are 99.99999% we won’t colonize exoplanets. He said, show my work. I wish I could. I’m not like Mayor, I’m not saying it won’t happen, but my hunch is it’s very unlikely. I’m not good at math, but I think my reply suggests 1 chance in 100,000,000. One in a hundred million events happen. It’s like winning a big lottery. So maybe, I was being overly optimistic. I probably should have added two or three more nines. All I can say is after a lifetime of reading about how hard interstellar travel will be, and how hard it is for the human body to adapt to an environment that it wasn’t designed for, my gut hunch is our species is destined to live out its entire existence on Earth. That means most space opera is no more scientific than Tolkien.

I feel that’s a crushing thought to science fiction fans. I assume it’s like Christians hearing from atheists that God and heaven don’t exist. I didn’t take to Christianity when growing up but embraced science fiction as my religion. I’m now becoming an atheist to my religion. However, I am getting old, and skepticism clouds my thoughts. I no longer believe free-market capitalism is sustainable. I no longer believe every kid should go to college. I no longer believe our children should be bigger consumers than we were. Our species is very adaptable. I think whatever changes increased CO2 brings we’ll adapt. I also believe our human nature doesn’t change, so I also expect we’ll keep consuming everything in sight even though it will lead to our self-destruction.

We’re about to reach the limits of growth by our current methods of growing. That doesn’t mean we won’t adapt to a new way of growing. If the world doesn’t need seven billion people with college degrees we’ll find out what it does need. If Earth can’t handle seven billion people all living the American standard of living, we’ll adapt to something new too. Humans might even adapt to living in microgravity or in lower and higher 1G gravity. We might even create life extension or cold sleep allowing for slow travel to the stars. It’s technically possible to get humans to another star system, but the odds are going to be tremendous. It’s not a given. I don’t think Mike Brotherton realized a 99.99999% chance is like a person winning a billion-dollar Lotto jackpot. It has happened.

Quoting Clarke’s Third law is no more valid than saying “Believing in Jesus will get you to heaven.” Faith does not change reality. Clarke’s laws aren’t science, but hunches, like my figure of doubt. From everything we know now, migrating to other planets is an extreme long shot. We can’t calculate the odds, but any figure we give should be daunting. Anyone assuming it’s 100% to happen is in just as much scientific statistical trouble as saying it’s a 100% chance it won’t happen.

I’m just a doubter. In my old age, I realize now that if science fiction wanted to be more positive, more enlightened, and more encouraging, it should imagine how our species could live on Earth without going anywhere. Even if a few of us go to the stars, most of us will stay here. Dreaming of greener pastures on the far side of Orion might not be our ultimate destiny. Maybe our final frontier is figuring out how to live on Earth.

JWH

 

Retelling Space History in 1080i

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 9, 2019

50th anniversaries are big deals. This month is the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s trip to the Moon. I started following NASA’s space program on May 5, 1961, when my 4th-grade class listened to Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight broadcast over the classroom speaker. I was living Hollywood, Florida, just down the coast from Cape Canaveral. After that, I convinced my parents to let me stay home from school whenever there was a space launch so I could watch it on TV. I watched all the Project Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo launches with Walter Cronkite – except for Apollo 8. That I got to see live.

Over the years and decades, I have read countless books and watched countless documentaries about the space program, and the history of rocketry. Last night, PBS began a 3-part series commemorating the first moon landing called Chasing the Moon. I almost didn’t watch it because I figured I had seen and heard everything. But, boy am I glad I did tune in.

PBS has dug up films and facts I hadn’t seen or heard. And it was spectacular seeing these old film clips on my 65″ Sony high definition TV. I know the Apollo 11 event was filmed by dozens of news outlets, so why shouldn’t they have different films to show? But I could swear the take-off of Apollo 11 from the NASA’s cameras seemed new to me. I’m sure they had cameras from every angle possible, so why shouldn’t there be a unique one for the 50th anniversary? However, I wondered if the launch shot was from a later Saturn 5.

Chasing the Book - bookI also wonder if after 50 years I’ve just forgotten most of what I once saw? And maybe seeing the launch sequence in 1080i on a 65″ HDTV made it look different from all the small CRT screens I used over most of those years.

There were also some facts presented that I don’t remember ever knowing before either. For instance, NASA had trained a black astronaut, Ed Dwight Jr. at the request of the JFK White House, but for political reasons was left out of the second cohort of astronauts, the one that included Neil Armstrong. Dwight was sent to be trained by Chuck Yeager as a test pilot, but Yaeger told all the other pilots to give him the cold shoulder.

Another surprising story was the JFK tried twice to get Nikita Khrushchev to make the space race a joint expedition to the Moon. I knew that Kennedy wasn’t interested in space and only promoted the idea to compete with the Russians, but I don’t remember ever reading about him trying to reduce the cost of the mission by co-opting the Russians. Wouldn’t history have been amazingly different if Nikita had agreed?

Chasing the Moon covers all the history I remember, but with slightly different details and film clips. It starts with Werner von Braun and Sputnik. However, the book that goes with the documentary starts back in 1903 and covers earlier rocket pioneers and the influence of science fiction. I wished the documentary had started there too.

Be sure and tune in tonight for part two. Many stations will be repeating part one, so fire up your DVRs. And the PBS streaming app should have it too. Wednesday, NOVA will be about the future of Moon exploration and colonization.

There is another reason to watch these 50th-anniversary celebrations. I’m starting to see the shaping of history. Sure it was great to be a 17-year-old kid watching the first Moon landing, but it’s also been great to see its history unfold over fifty years. I realize so much has been left out of the story. We always get the gung-ho glamor version, but the PBS documentary hints at much more. Besides covering the lost story of a black astronaut, they show clips of African Americans at the launch protesting. They came there on a mule-drawn wagon. The documentary also hints at the dirty pork-barrelling politics behind the scenes or how hard we worked to cover up the fact that our space program originated with Nazis. I didn’t know this, but the Russians eventually sent all their captured Nazis back to Germany. Of course, I knew about von Braun, since I have read biographies about him, but even those I expect were cleaned up.

There are still two parts to go and I wonder if they will try to answer the really big question that we always avoid. If going to the Moon was so great, why didn’t we keep going, why didn’t we go to Mars? We went to the Moon in nine years, but we haven’t gone beyond low Earth’s orbit since 1972. That 50th anniversary is only three years away. Was the final frontier just a cold-war political stunt? Are the plans to return to the Moon just another political keeping up with the Jones?

JWH

If I Was A Robot Would I Still Love to Read?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, May 8, 2019

One of the trendy themes of science fiction is the idea of mind uploading. Many people believe it will one day be possible to record the contents of our brain and put our self into a computer, artificial reality, robot, clone, or artificial being. Supposedly, that solves the pesky problem of dying and gives humans a shot at immortality. The odds of this working is about the same as dying and going to heaven, but it’s still a fun science fictional concept to contemplate.

I can think of many pluses to being a robot, especially now that I’m 67 and my body is wearing out into wimpiness. It would be wonderful to not worry about eating. Eating used to be a pleasure, now it’s a fickle roulette wheel of not know if I’m going to win or lose with each meal. And not having to pee or shit would be a top-selling advantage point to being a silicon being. And what a blessed relief it would be to never be tormented by horniness again.

Life would be simple, just make sure I always had electricity to charge up and spare parts for the components that break down. No worries about coronaries, cancers, viruses, fungus, bacteria, or degenerative diseases. Or flatulence.

I’d also expect to have superlative sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell, along with a host of new senses. And I assume those senior moments would be gone forever.

But would I still love to do the things I love to do now – read books, watch television, and listen to music? What would reading be like if I was a robot? If I sucked down a book as fast as I can copy a file on my computer, I doubt reading would be much fun. For reading to be enchanting, I’d have to contemplate the words slowly. How would a robot perceive fiction? Are we even sure how humans experience the process of taking words from a book and putting them into our head?

Let’s say it takes me one minute to read a page of fiction. Somehow my mind is building a story while my eyes track the words. A novel would take hours to unfold. A robot could read a digital book in less than a second. Even for a robot brain is that enough time to enjoy the story?

Will robots have a sense of time different from ours? Dennis E. Taylor wrote a trilogy about the Bobiverse where Bob’s mind is downloaded into a computer. Taylor deals with the problem of robots perceiving time in it. He had some interesting ideas, but not conclusive ones.

In the WWW Trilogy, Robert J. Sawyer theorizes that consciousness needs a single focus for sentience. No multitasking self-awareness. I think that makes sense. If this is true, robot minds should have a sense of now. They say hummingbirds move so fast that humans appear like statues to them. Would humans appear like the slowest of sloths to robots? Does slow perception of reality allow us to turn fiction into virtual reality in our heads?

Could robots watch movies and listen to music in real time? Or would images of reality shown at 24fps feel like a series of photos spaced out over eons of robot time? Would the beat of a Bonnie Raitt’s “Give It Up or Let it Go” create a sense of music in a robot’s circuitry or just a series of periodic thuds?

It’s my guess that who we are, our personality, our sentient sense of reality, our soul, comes from our entire body, and not just data in our head. Just remember all the recent articles about how bacteria in our gut affects our state of being. Just remember how positive you feel about life when you have a hangover and are about to throw up.

I’ll never get to be a reading robot. That’s a shame. Wouldn’t it be great to read a thousand books a day? Maybe I could have finally read everything.

JWH

I Haven’t Studied Biology in a Classroom Since 1967

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, January 5, 2019

How old is your knowledge? That question can be taken in two ways. The years since the last time you studied a subject, which for me and biology is 52. Or, the age of the subject itself. For example, Euclidean geometry is two thousand years old. And dating the ages for either isn’t precise. I’m sure when I studied biology in the tenth grade (1966/67) my textbooks were not up-to-date, and far from chronicling the current discoveries in biology. Thus, my simple-minded memories of cell structure might be about two hundred years old.

In the first third of life, we go to school and college to prepare ourselves to be functional adults for our middle third of life, but how much do we need to know for our last third of life? What is a useful education for our retirement years? I certainly could sneak by without knowing any more biology, but should I?

I’m reading The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen for a book club. Reading it makes me feel ashamed of how little I know about biology while blowing my mind with new information. It makes me wonder just how current my knowledge should be in various important subjects, subjects that help me understand my place in reality. Just because I might be leaving this reality soon, doesn’t mean I should fall into oblivion knowing so little.

universal-phylogenetic-tree-showing-relationships-between-major-lineages-of-the-three

The Tangled Tree starts out by announcing “recent” discoveries in biology, such as horizontal gene transfer (HGT) and the third domain of life called archaea and how they are disrupting our old image of an evolutionary tree structure, thus the title of his book. Both discoveries occurred after my last biology class. I had heard of archaea since and seen the graph above. I’ve read about prokaryotes (bacteria) and eukaryotes (plants, animals) but I couldn’t remember those labels. They say to really learn a subject you should be able to teach it, but I could only confuse small children with the vague ideas about biology.

Of course, I’m not totally ignorant of later biological developments. I regular watch PBS Nova and Nature, and over the decades read books like The Double Helix, The Selfish Gene, and a few popular books about the history of evolutionary theory, but they don’t require the same kind of learning that taking a class does. To really know a subject, even at a fundamental level requires knowing the words that describe it. As an adult, I’ve read many books about physics and astronomy, so I know some of their vocabularies, but I know very little of the terminology of biology. Quammen describes many fields within biology that are new to me, like molecular phylogenetics. I’m savvy enough to know what molecules and genetics are, and I could guess that ‘phylo’ concerns their taxonomy, but I’m totally clueless about how scientists could go about classifying these wee bits of proto-life.

Before jumping into the work of Carl Woese, Quammen succinctly describes the history of how the idea of evolution emerged in the 19th-century with various scientists using the tree metaphor to illustrate life emerging out of an orderly process. And he gives passing references to those scientists that developed taxonomy systems to categorize all living things. This lays the groundwork for understanding why Carl Woese wanted to develop a tree model and taxonomy of bacterial life.

1837_notebookb_cul-dar121.-_040Quammen grabbed my interest by describing how 19th-century scientists first started drawing trees to describe their theories. He even describes a page from Darwin’s notebook saying his first tree was rather simple. I was shocked when I saw it though, it was too simple looking, but the basic idea is there. I’ve vaguely remembered seeing this before, but to be honest, I’ve never tried to learn all of this information in a way that I’d memorize and use it. I put my faith in science, in evolution, but I know very little of the actual science. What I know probably compares to what the average Christian knows about this history of Christianity.

This got me to thinking. Should I study biology before I die? I doubt I’ll need it after death since I’m an atheist. So, what should my educational aspirations be in my retirement years? I’d like to pass from this world knowing as much about reality as possible. Why leave in ignorance? Why live in ignorance? There’s no meaning to our existence, but why not try to understand our situation to the fullest extent possible?

linnaeusWe’re a bubble of consciousness that has accidentally formed in reality. That’s pretty far out. Most of the matter in this reality is unconscious stuff like subatomic particles, atoms, molecules, and a smidgeon of biological living things. Reading The Tangle Tree makes me want to do more than reading over the subject and forgetting it again. Like Linnaeus, I want to organize what I should know into categories, into a Tree of Knowledge I Should Know. But I realize I am limited by time and energy – the time I have remaining to live and the dwindling personal energy I have each day.

How would I even go about studying the subjects I deem time worthy? I do have access to free university courses. And there are countless online courses, and I already subscribe to The Great Courses on my Amazon Fire TV. I could pick out some standardized tests for my goals, and thus limit the scope of what I want to learn. Or I could start studying and then try to teach what I learn by writing essays for this blog. That sounds more doable.

Other than the history science fiction, I don’t think there’s a single topic I could teach. I’m not even sure how many other topics I’d like to study — at any level. I do feel a sense of challenge that I should work on biology. At least for a while. Maybe read a few books on the subject this year. Maybe take a Great Course.

That makes me think I could choose a topic each year to study. I can’t promise much, but I think I should try.

Thus I declare:  2019 is the year to learn about biology.

JWH

 

Science Fiction and Human Evolution

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, July 13, 2018

Are homo sapiens not quite intelligent enough to survive? Did you know the poor Neanderthal made the same stone tools for hundreds of thousands of years without discovering innovation? Homo sapiens have always assumed we had endless potential because we constantly create better technology. Is that true, or just hubris?

Most dreams of science fiction will remain fantasies. It’s unlikely we’ll ever have faster-than-light spaceships, or any kind of interstellar travel, time travel, matter transporters, brain downloading, living in virtual worlds, or become immortal. There are limits to our hopes.

But what about dreams that could still come true?

Our current reality reveals we’re a species that have so overpopulated the planet that we’re about to destroy our shared ecosystem with all other species, that we’re now bringing about the sixth mass extinction event, and we’re dismantling the first global civilization. We’ve amassed a pile of problems we can’t solve. Is there any hope we can smarten up before it’s too late? I doubt it, but let’s explore the possibilities of change.

Science fiction has often assumed humans becoming a new species, but usually, it’s rather far-fetched, involving new people with psychic powers or comic book mutations and superpowers. A great deal of current science and science fiction explores the idea of post-humanism or transhumanism, but I think that’s mostly hopeful fantasy too. If we were realistic, how would a new species emerge and what traits would define it? Is there enough time to transform ourselves before the clock runs out? Prophets, philosophers, scientists, and science fiction writers have suggested many methods that humans might evolve.

  • Spiritual discipline. Yogis, fakirs, mystics, priests, and self-improvement gurus have taught us for thousands of years that we already possess the potential to be superior beings.
  • Medical technology. We’ve already expanded our lifespan and improved our bodies. Could we deploy the same research to expand the brain?
  • Eugenics. Is it possible to intentionally breed humans like farm animals to improve the species? It’s a vile idea that’s been thoroughly rejected but people still think about it.
  • Genetic engineering. We’re getting closer to manipulating our own genes. If CRISPR can edit out genetic diseases could it delete genes for dumbassness and add some for wisdom?
  • Accelerating evolution. What if we could use technology to physically change our brains? Such devices pop up in the news all the time. Will they always be sold by snake oil salesmen?
  • Cyborg technology. Can we enhance who we are by bolting on machines to our bodies and minds? What if we could embed smartphone technology directly into our skulls? I guess that’s one kind of evolved telepathy.
  • Uplift. Science fiction has often imagined humanity being improved with the help of superior aliens. I doubt aliens will visit us anytime soon but what if we build AI machines that bootstrap this process?

We know our species, homo sapiens evolved out of older species, but will a new kind of people ever evolve out of us? Modern humans have been around 300,000 years and maybe 500,000 years by some estimates. The “average” lifetime of a species of mammals is around 1 million years, although some species have been around for millions of years. We split from the lineage containing chimpanzees and gorillas about 6 or 7 million years ago, and 400,000 – 500,000 years ago Neanderthals and homo sapiens took forking paths. Modern humans and Neanderthal coexisted for over 200,000 years.

Here’s an illustration I borrowed from Wikipedia:

Human family tree

Imagine if the top of this chart extended into the future, would we see new offshoots from homo sapiens coexisting with us and eventually leaving us behind? Generally, species are defined as a group of individuals that reproduce. But is a new species one where individuals can’t interbreed with the old one? In recent years we’ve learned that Neanderthals and humans interbred. Could we have already produced a new species that won’t reveal it’s obviousness for thousands of years?

We don’t have the time to evolve better humans naturally, although our collapse could provide the evolutionary breeding ground for a new species. We have to consider that homo sapiens might be the end of the line. Maybe intelligence isn’t a trait that’s sustainable. Maybe our descendants will be less smart and less destructive? Why do we assume more intelligence is what’s needed? Can you imagine the Earth evolving countless species for billions of years and never reinventing self-aware conscious intelligence?

I tend to believe our replacements will be machines with artificial intelligence. But let’s explore the possibility a new species will descend from us biologically. Right off the bat, I want to exclude any speculation about psychic abilities or superpowers. Evolution isn’t magic. In fact, I want to suggest that one of the singular traits of the new people is a complete disbelief in magic. Embracing make-believe has held humans back like some powerful drug addiction. I define magic as any hope to alter reality by any means unexplainable by science. All theology evolved out of magical beliefs. Humans have always worked to reshape reality, either with tools or prayers. The next species needs to give up on wishing to make it so.

Let’s assume the new people reject magic, mysticism, religion, theology, metaphysics, and make-believe. Of course, if you’re a believer in magic then my suggestion is going to outrage you. But this is my essay, so go along with me for a while. I’m going to assume that new people will be completely in touch with reality. Scientific thinking will be their cognitive foundation. They will only be concerned with what they can perceive with their senses, scientific instruments, and confirm with statistical scientific analysis. I will assume their use of language will evolve out of this too. Their success will be a society that’s ecologically sustainable and embraces everything we learn from reality.

Let’s assume the new people will be like Mr. Spock in Star Trek and the next species of humans will be sort of like Vulcans, except they won’t be able to do mind melds or any of that other silly mumbo-jumbo. They will be very logical beings, clear thinkers, with precise language. They won’t have psychic powers but they could have technological augmentations like the Borg. Let’s assume they have an extra neocortical layer that allows them greater pattern recognition than we have. They will have better memories and better cognitive strengths. They could look the same as us or maybe have slightly larger heads, or have brains that are neurally denser.

How Will the New People Emerge?

Science fiction has already explored many possibilities? This is the prime virtue of science fiction, to speculate about possibilities. Some of what I’ve read include:

  • 1895 – The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. Just decades after Darwin’s famous books, Wells imagines the human race splitting into two new species, the Eloi, and Morlocks.
  • 1911 – The Hampdenshire Wonder by J. D. Beresford. The story of a child prodigy that nature produced randomly.
  • 1930 – Gladiator by Philip Wylie. A medical serum is developed that gives people superhuman powers. Probably the inspiration for Superman.
  • 1930 – Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon. A story that describes 18 species of humans over the next two billion years.
  • 1931 – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Eugenics creates superior beings and society.
  • 1931 – “The Man Who Evolved” by Edmond Hamilton. A scientist invents a cosmic-ray-machine that stimulates 50 million years of evolution every 15 minutes of exposure.
  • 1940 – Slan by A. E. van Vogt. A story about a race of scientifically evolved humans that must hide or be killed by jealous normal humans.
  • 1948-53 – Children of the Atom by Wilmar H. Shiras. Radiation causes some children to have superior minds.
  • 1952-53 – More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon. Sixth strange people with various psychic skills form a gestalt being.
  • 1953 – Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke. Aliens come to Earth to uplift us to our next stage of existence.
  • 1955 – The Chrysalids by John Wyndham. Mutations are showing up in plants, animals, and humans, and they are rejected by humanity, but the hope is on the side of the new.
  • 1959 – The Fourth “R” by George O. Smith.  In this story, teaching machines are invented that accelerates education in the brain.
  • 1959-66 – Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. A medical procedure is developed that accelerates intelligence.
  • 1961 – Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. A human child is raised by Martians proves that humans already have the capacity to be more powerful beings. This is the culmination of a decade of psi-stories in science fiction.
  • 1963 – “The Sixth Finger” is an episode of The Outer Limits. A scientist invents a machine that accelerates human evolution.
  • 1993 – Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress. Humans are genetically engineered not to need sleep thus giving them 30% more time to be productive. The new humans out-compete humans who need sleep.
  • 1997 – Gattaca. Genetic engineering creates a new generation of humans that out-compete the older generation.
  • 1999 – Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear. A retrovirus alters human reproduction causing a new species to emerge.
  • 2012 – 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson. Humanity alters both itself and the solar system.

Science fiction has seldom dealt with subtle ways in which new people might evolve. The best example I can think of is a 1953 fix-up novel Children of the Atom by Wilmar H. Shiras, which is long out-of-print. Shiras was an early woman science fiction writer, and she imagined normal looking children with greater intelligence created by radiation exposure. Her special children did not have wild talents like all the silly comic books. However, some writers have suggested her book might have influenced the Marvel comics and their explosion of mutants with superpowers in the mid-1950s.

But let’s not think in terms of unrealistic 1950s science fiction. We’re getting close to real genetic engineering. In the 1990s Nancy Kress imagined in the Beggars in Spain series a future where genetic engineering creates a race of humans that don’t need sleep. This one advantage gives the sleepless a tremendous edge over sleepers. Or the film Gattaca where society allows parents to select the genes of their children creating a division in society between enhanced humans and normals.

If you think about it, we’ve already altered our species several times in the last 17,000 years. Switching from hunting and gathering to agriculture did a huge uplift to our kind. Writing did another. Then the printing press accelerated our progress tremendously again. Universal public education made a huge change to our species. The American Constitution altered our species too. Computers and networking are giving us another makeover. What’s interesting, if you pay attention to it, is society changes, but not us. Humans are basically the same throughout the times, just reprogrammed by outside forces. We’re very adaptable. In fact, we’re too adaptable, because we’ve taken over all the environmental niches on this planet, pushing out other species.

I believe society is programming us more and more, overriding our genetic code. Feminism is a great example. Our genes want to treat females as possessions. Society is convincing us they are individuals. How we shape society will determine how people will behave. This gives us a chance to evolve ourselves, and not have to wait on biology.

Religion and then politics has tried to codify behavior for thousands of years, but both systems have always failed to be universally successful. Science fiction writers have often explored utopian and dystopian societies that worked to impose a new way of living on our species. The lesson from these stories is utopias universally fail. But is that really true? Could we create a society that brings out the best in people?

As individuals, we are naturally greedy, self-serving, resentful, and xenophobic. I’m not sure genetic engineering can do away with those faults. The current return to conservative philosophy emerging around the globe is nationalistic, racist, protective, greedy, “I’ve got mine, fuck everyone else” Ayn Randian. How can we be sure the next stage human won’t follow those traits?

As a species, we have to worry about fractional groups running the whole show. Theocracy and plutocracy allow a minority to dominate the majority. What we need is a system that benefits all, including the other species. Right now, we can’t choose to evolve our physical bodies, but we can choose a society that shapes our minds.

I believe we need to apply the highest aspirations of religion, philosophy, politics, and science in creating a technological society that brings out our best traits. This Pollyannish hope is being crushed by our worst traits making all our political decisions right now. Donald Trump and politicians like him represent the election of leaders based on our worse qualities and fears. We’re reverting to wanting strong tribal leaders rather than globally enlightened ones. I can’t help but believe that’s happening because homo sapiens just aren’t up to the challenge. However, I want to be proven wrong.

Most species don’t adapt to change, they just die out. We were just about to create a global society. Then with recent political changes sprouting the globe, it feels like we’re de-evolving. Hopefully, if the past is a predictor, we’ll swing back to progressing.

JWH

 

 

 

 

 

Why Do We Dream of Interstellar Travel When It’s Probably an Impossible Dream?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, June 4, 2018

I’ve always loved science fiction. Dreams of science fiction have felt like our species greatest ambitions. I’m not the only one that feels that way, because space travel enchanted many in the twentieth century. Humans have been imagining how to voyage across space for as long as they’ve known there were destinations to set sail across the sky. Landing on the Moon in 1969 made us believe we could go anywhere in the galaxy. But next year, the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing will only remind us we haven’t.

From the Earth to the Moon

When I bring up this subject to science fiction fans, most express a firm faith technology will find a way. I have doubts. Reading science books, rather than science fiction, gives a whole different perspective. My faith fades, and I assume humanity will never go far from Earth. At best, we might put outposts on the Moon and Mars, like those in Antarctica. It will probably never be healthy living off Earth. The more we study living in space, the more we learn that Earth is where our biological bodies are designed to dwell. Shouldn’t science fiction be exploring all these things our species could do in the next million years while stuck on Earth?

Because I’m an atheist I’ve always wondered why people waste their lives in anticipation of heaven. Now I wonder if science fiction’s hope of space travel is equally unrealistic. Strangely, we have far more books and movies about living on other worlds than fantasies about life after death. Is that a shift in faith to something we thought could be actually possible? And what if we find out that dream is just as unreal?

Or am I completely wrong? I’ve always had trouble enjoying fantasy stories because what’s the point of imagining things that can’t happen? Do most science fiction readers see their genre no different from fantasy? I read science fiction because I believe it could come true. Years ago I stopped enjoying stories about faster-than-light travel. Now I’m doubting any story about interstellar travel. I wonder if doubt is happening to science fiction writers too. Just read Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson.

I’ve always considered Star Wars fantasy but believed Star Trek attempted to be practical science fiction. Yet, when I study the details, Star Trek is no more realistic than Marvel comics. Are all these genres stories for the child that never died in us? When do we grow up and read stories for adults? Isn’t a large portion of TV/movie content aimed at a kind of permanent arrested development in our souls?

When I was a kid I was savvy enough to distrust religion, so why did I buy into science fiction? We have a hunger for the fantastic. We want reality to be more than it is. Is it healthy to justify fantasy as only pretending? We want to aim high in imagining future possibilities, but when is ambition delusion? Why do we reject the mundane for the fantastic?

The Skylark of Space

What if our fantasies are a kind of reality? What if our fantasies are a new dimension we’re creating? A spin-off of this reality. What if all art is creation? Our conscious minds are the accidental byproduct of this universe. We have woken up becoming conscious of reality and said, “I wish it was different.” Maybe all art is fantasy, our blueprints to how we would have designed creation. What if our real desire is to put our conscious minds into our art, our self-created reality?

That philosophy would explain the drive to create VR software or the science fictional hope of downloading our brains into virtual worlds. There are folks who already believe this universe is such a construct.

I don’t know if this is good. Are we not destroying this planet by pursuing our fantasies? Should we not accept the physical reality in which we evolved? We are proud to be an evolved species with high intelligence, but what if we’re really a species with evolved fantasies? Is that creative or delusional?

Can we live in both reality and fantasy while respecting the rules of each?

JWH

 

 

 

 

 

 

What I Loved and Hated About Lost in Space (2018)

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, April 20, 2018

I remember watching the first episode of the original Lost in Space when it premiered back in September of 1965. I was thirteen and hooked on reading Heinlein juveniles. Science fiction was my religion. Even as a kid, I thought Lost in Space rather cheesy, but I watched it every week for a few months. I have fond memories of the 1965-66 television season. My favorite show of that season was I, Spy, but I also loved Twelve O’Clock High. I was embarrassed to admit I watched Lost in Space to my friends because I didn’t have any that were into science fiction, and they made fun of it as a kid’s show — but hell, we were kids. I loved the robot and thought Penny (Angela Cartwright) awful cute (hey, I was her age at the time).

Lost in Space - Robot and Will

I was a little apprehensive about giving Lost in Space (2018) a try. I was afraid they’d make it into a campy joke like before. I was wrong. It was ten episodes of action-oriented science fiction, visually pleasing, with engaging characters who were complex. This time around I still liked the robot best, but found Maureen (Molly Parker), the mom, the most attractive female, even though I’m way too old for her. It’s a weird headspace to remember a show that I watched as a kid being remade when I was older than any of the characters.

The Robinsons of Lost in Space is inspired by Swiss Family Robinson which was inspired by Robinson Crusoe.  The Robinsonade is a very old literary type and has always been one of my favorites. I highly recommend In Search of Robinson Crusoe by Tim Severin (currently $3.99 for the Kindle) if you want to read a fascinating history of lost on deserted island stories. In the original series the Robinsons were alone in space, but in the reboot, they have some company.

Lost in Space - Mauren

This time around the female characters get a lot more screen time, and Dr. Smith is played by a woman, Parker Posey. In fact, I would call Maureen Robinson the main protagonist, with Penny (Mina Sundwall) and Judy (Taylor Russell) getting as much or more story time as Will (Maxwell Jenkins), John (Toby Stephens), and Don West (Ignacio Serricchio). Even though the characters have the same names as before, their backstory and present stories are much different. Sure, everyone is super-smart, but each has a flawed history, which the show presents in flashbacks.

Lost in Space (2018) is mostly about family dynamics, and that’s what makes the series compelling this time. Each episode has lots of science fiction action, usually with one or more Robinsons escaping death in the last few seconds. Now that’s copied from the original. Interestingly, the cliffhangers in the new series don’t fall between episodes. The original series ended each episode with a new cliffhanger, which added to its cheesiness, demanding viewers to tune in next week. 2018 episodes have a nice closure to each.

21st-century television shows, especially those with limited seasons and high production values like Westworld, The Man in the High Castle, and The Handmaids Tale, are light years ahead of 1960s television productions. Back then TV was considered crap, and movies were art. Now movies are comic books and TV is art. Lost in Space isn’t at the level of Breaking Bad or The Sopranos, but I think it’s as good as Stranger Things.

However, I do have some disappointments to register. But they aren’t unique to Lost in Space, but to current science fiction in general. Lost in Space (2018) looks very realistic. The sets, props and special effects are excellent. However, the science behind the story is rather lame. They practically don’t try. The Jupiter class spaceships are fueled by liquid methane. That’s just silly. Even sillier is when they find a substitute in high-grade alien-bat guano. Plus the apparent amount of fuel that each Jupiter holds is only a couple hundred gallons. I won’t give away the story secrets of the interstellar travel methods, but it’s closer to comic book terminology.

What disappoints me about modern science fiction is the total lack of realism regarding space travel. We’ve just given up and turned outer space into fantasyland. Spaceships are now equal to flying dragons or magical portals. Writers, if they make any effort at all to explain how we can travel in space, throw out a few gobbledygook words. The word wormhole is the new abracadabra. Man is that depressing.

I grew up reading science fiction believing that some stories were serious speculation about how humans might one day travel into space. I doubt 1-in-100 SF stories today even try to imagine something real.

Lost in Space (2018) has become a 1965 kids story for 2018 adults. Science fiction now lives on nostalgia. Hell, most visual science fiction today are remakes of films, shows, and comics from the 1960s and 1970s.  I read “What’s Going Wrong With Sci-Fi?” this morning from Esquire, which the essay opens with:

“One of the problems with science fiction,” said Ridley Scott back in 2012 ahead of the release of Prometheus, “is the fact that everything is used up. Every type of spacesuit, every type of spacecraft is vaguely familiar. The corridors are similar, the planets are similar. So what you try to do is lean more heavily on the story and the characters.”

And Scott is only complaining from a filmmaker’s perspective. I’m complaining that science fiction has practically given up on any kind of basis in science. Readers and watchers only want escapism. Lost in Space (2018) is good escapism but bad science fiction.

Half a century ago, NASA gave us Project Gemini and Project Apollo. Being a science fiction fan in the 1960s meant believing that humans would make it to Mars and beyond in our lifetimes. Well, our lifetimes are almost over and we’re still orbiting the Earth dreaming of beyond.

The new Lost in Space imagines life on Earth getting bad enough that people would want move to Alpha Centauri to start over. Suggesting that idea is wrong on so many different philosophical and scientific levels. It’s a fantasy on the level of Superman comics. A few hundred humans might one day colonize the Moon and Mars, but they won’t be places for pioneers seeking escape dismal lives on Earth. And travel to the stars is completely impossible by the science we know today. And I hate when true believers answer that with, “But we don’t know what science will discover in the future.” Study the problem. Wormholes and warp drives are only slightly more realistic for space travel than magical wardrobes in the Narnia books. Star Wars is no more science fictional than Lord of the Rings.

Lost in Space (2018) is fun television, but its science is no more advanced than Lost in Space (1965). Writers use scientific terms like magical spells in Harry Potter movies. Of course, this is the norm. I shouldn’t complain. Movies like Gattaca and Her which are at least philosophically realistic about the impact of science aren’t blockbusters. The reality is we live in a small world, orbiting an average star, in a nothing special galaxy, and the likelihood of going anywhere else is almost zero. So, is fantasizing about space travel really that bad? It is if we think we can escape Earth once we’ve trashed it.

I found a lot of pleasure watching the new Lost in Space, but I’m also depressed that after 57 years of traveling in space, spacefaring humans only live the distance from Memphis and Nashville above the Earth. I thought humans would be dwelling much further away by now. Instead, we’re still just watching unrealistic science fiction dreaming we had.

JWH