That’s Not Us in the Future

This blog post is a response to a comment, made on a blog post, that was also made in response to a comment, made on this blog post.

This is like the Inception of blog posts.

No one’s ever been three levels deep before!

The gist of the last post was that civilizations have a narrow window in which they are capable of settling the entire galaxy and yet still backwards enough in their thinking to want to. My hypothesis is not only that this is true, but that the window for galactic domination is only open for a few centuries. By the time a civilization sets out to take over the galaxy, filling every available niche, they will have progressed ethically enough to choose not to.

Daniel Knight commented and wanted to know why I think we will ever see the filling of available niches as evil. And it’s a great question, one I couldn’t attempt to answer in the space of a comment, which is why we find ourselves three levels deep (you know, at that snow fortress level, where shit really stops making sense).

One of Daniel’s points is that we will eventually have the means to live forever, and we will keep having offspring, and all those bodies have to go somewhere, which will mean taking over the galaxy. If you continue his reasoning, we will then have to take over the universe. And if you continue this reasoning further, even that won’t be enough.

I might end my response right there and point out that any race capable of seeding the galaxy will be able to extrapolate these base impulses and realize that there’s no end to such ambitions, that space will eventually run out, and so the move is not only pointless — is not only delaying the inevitable —but only stands a chance of causing harm in the process, both by increasing the frustration of our species, now swelling at the universes’ limits, and also by reducing the universe’s potential for diversity.

That’s the simple answer: We won’t seed the galaxy, because how is that any better than the idea that we’ve run out of room on Earth? And how is the expiration of our sun any different than the heat death or collapse of the universe? Once our capabilities have expanded enough to seriously contemplate seeding the galaxy, our minds will have expanded enough to take in the bigger picture: And that is that the galaxy suddenly isn’t so big, certainly not big enough for exponential and unlimited ambitions. At that point in our ethical progress, we will realize that what we have is quite enough.

If that sounds impossible, consider the many ways that we are now defying our biological imperatives. People still live in terror of runaway population expansion, but we’ve already hit the deflection point on that growth curve. The world population is set to max out around 2050 – 2100 and then begin to decline. Despite the incredible base impulse to reproduce — an urge as strong as any (right up there with eating) — more and more people are choosing to have fewer and fewer children. Some countries are now offering couples money to have more kids (Iran and China both have or have had programs like this), and people are turning them down.

Similarly, the question: “Why don’t we expand and fill every available niche?” sounds to me like the question: “Why don’t I eat all doughnuts?” It is the extrapolation of a primitive urge that is overcome once we realize how unhealthy it is. Our drive to seek new frontiers served us evolutionarily, but it does not hold up as we progress morally. Already, there are islands and deep jungle tribes that we are aware of and choose to largely leave alone. We choose not to interfere. Sure, it took longer to reach this moral framework than it took to practically cover the planet, but the vacuum of space is proving to be the physical barrier we needed to allow our ethics to finally catch up.

And that brings us to the crux. It brings us to a very important point. There is a bit of flawed reasoning here that we all fall prey to, myself included, and it leads to really poor predictions about the future:

We keep assuming that technology will race forward and forward, but that we’ll be the same people when we get there.

That is, we place ourselves into that future. But it won’t be us there, it will be future generations, and they won’t think like we do. Millennials do not think like Baby Boomers. And Baby Boomers did not think like Victorians.

It is hubris and ego that cause us to do this. We like to think of our current generation as morally perfect. Our brains do this to protect us from our biases. Entire generations convinced themselves that slavery was perfectly reasonable. Current generations (myself included) contort our brains until we’re convinced that eating animals makes sense. What is accepted today will be abhorred in the future. We are barbarians. In a very near future, professional football will no longer be played, and boxing will be outlawed, thanks to the progress of science and (lagging behind science) ethics.

Guffaw now all you like. Previous generations likely thought the same thing about public executions, the sport of nailing cats to trees and setting them on fire, or — sticking with cruelty to cats — one Native American tribe’s habit of burying cats up to their necks, riding past on horseback, and ripping their heads off.

That revulsion you feel? That’s what future generations will think of us.

There are signs that it’s already happening. It’s hard to spot these trends, just as it would’ve been difficult to foresee the emancipation movement hundreds of years before Lincoln, but they are there.

We see a growing rejection of consumerism, even as things are more plentiful and cheaper. It might be a minority, but the small-home practitioners (of which I am one), and those who get rid of as much of their stuff as possible and find increased happiness as a result (ditto) are in clear violation of accepted cultural norms, but might perhaps be a sign of things to come. Just as lower reproduction rates fly in the face of biology and millions of years of evolution, and yet seems to be a growing and near-global trend.

In my last post, I suggested that science progresses and then moral progress comes after. The idea in this post is the consequence of that. We make a horrible mistake when we project our cultural mores into the strange and wonderful world around the corner, because that won’t be us there. It’ll be our grandchildren. There will be fewer of them than there are of us, but they’ll be much wiser and better behaved than we were.



104 responses to “That’s Not Us in the Future”

  1. Hugh,

    I agree with so much of this and the last one, as well . . . .
    . . . but I’m also thinking that there’s like a 20% chance that you’re high.


    1. I wish I had that excuse. This is actually just the stuff I think about all the time. And talk about, to anyone unlucky to be around me.

  2. Reading and thinking and thinking and reading – this last succession of posts is the most fun I’ve had at work in weeks. Theories can be formally and cordially discussed over the internet all you like, but the best way to have a discussion of this magnitude, in my experience, is over as many pints as you can fit on the table at your local watering hole. Grab a pen and napkin, get absolutely legless, and see where you end up. It’s a lot of fun.

  3. I’m working in this area. One possible explanation for the Fermi paradox: technical civilizations progress so quickly through their material expansion phase that they don’t make it to the next star before they turn virtual; no point in rude colonization when you have infinite interior space in simulations. Then you have a moral question about the relevance of morality in virtual space: is simulated suffering the equivalent of real suffering? I’d say yes if the simulated sufferer is self-aware…

    The counter-argument to yours is that numbers of intelligences matter. If there is an overriding goal of accumulating knowledge, more people means more knowledge. I’m sure that when the global population was 10 million, few imagined the use of adding more people; and ditto at a billion. Now at ten billion, increasingly wired and sharing, progress is much faster. There are probably at least a million relatively habitable planets in the galaxy; how fast will a thousand trillion people accumulate new knowledge? That positive value outweighs a lot of negative. Why shouldn’t the ethically-advanced learn to inhabit their worlds carefully and keep on trying to learn?

    1. I meant to add that into this post. When I wrote THE PLAGIARIST, it arose from the idea that we will simulate our infinite universes, rather than chase the real ones.

      I was mentioned (then deleted) a reference to a short story I wrote years ago about a future where you had to decide between immortality and having children, because you couldn’t do both. I think that will be a question people face in another 100 – 200 years.

      1. Looks like you just addressed part of my comment that took me forever to write. (There were no comments when I started. Now there are 10. Damn slow fingers….and brain) It is an interesting thought if people might have to someday choose between immortality and having children.

      2. Hugh and Jeb both touched upon the virtual world idea. Here’s something that has always made me think. Sure we know you can create virtual worlds inside a computer and all it takes is the computing power and memory of some pretty small devices. But these worlds are always very crude representations of our universe. Would a convincing simulation of our universe, have to literally have every single atom modeled? Or would this only matter if someone was looking at/interacting with that thing directly?

        So while a thing like a desk is made up of atoms, maybe in the simulation it is abstracted as simply a desk, unless something happens that the atomic interactions come into play. But wouldn’t this kind of simulation become unwieldy to codify. From a code standpoint, simply setting the parameters of elementary particles and matter would probably be the simplest way to make everything work together correctly.

        So if you do have to have every single atom modeled, is there any way to do this simpler than the actual real universe, with real atoms? In other words wouldn’t your computer have to contain as many atoms as the real universe in order to model every single atom?

        1. Hey Daniel,

          In a former life, I coded large-scale computer simulations of — never mind what, actually… ;) — but we used two techniques to overcome computational complexity. In combination, those two techniques allowed us to accurately model — literally to the photon level — the real world physics and interactions of real-world systems with lots of moving parts, predicting real-world behavior to a scary level of precision.

          The first technique, that of distributing complex computing tasks across thousands of networked computers in parallel, has now gone mainstream.

          From the aerospace/defense world, it moved first to the music world (I actually did some hands-on coding for Napster, too, back in the day — remember them?), and then to almost everywhere else… including algorithmic stock and derivative trading, mobile- and web-advertising technology, and even applying machine learning to video game-generated user telemetry (where I’m currently doing some consulting work). But as you point out, simulating the universe at an atomic level would by definition defeat any degree of parallelization you throw at the task — :)

          It’s the second technique that holds the answer to your paradox: variable-fidelity simulation.

          “Butterfly effect” notwithstanding, most small-scale physical phenomenon are highly localized in influence. You can approximate their aggregate effect on other nearby physical objects or fields quite well, and therefore use coarser (and far less compute-intensive) software models without losing any real precision in your simulated outcomes. And you can sensitivity-test the accuracy of your coarser models by wiring in the more complex models in a few sensitive spots, or running short-time-duration simulations both ways, to see if the overall answer changes any.

          Sorry for rambling — you made me geek out :) But the answer is: no, your computer wouldn’t have to contain as many atoms as the real universe in order to simulate it well enough to fool anyone into thinking the simulation was real.

          1. Hi Paul, Thanks for the detailed response. What you are proposing sounds a bit like what I was thinking, in that you would have to abstract things into bigger elements than atoms. I’m not a professional programmer but I do know my way around code enough to be dangerous, so you’ll have to excuse if I say something silly about how such a simulation would work.

            So as an example lets take a desk (since I’m stuck at my day job sitting at one right now). What you are proposing sounds like what they do in videogames where the desk would be modeled as a bunch of simpler shapes to get roughly the right thing. So these simple shapes would have properties that let other things interact with them (like collisions, surface texture, etc). It seems like a simplification like that could hold up under a lot of circumstances.

            But let’s consider a desk in reality. Mine is made up of particle board with laminate covers. It’s not too hard to scratch or dent the laminate top – and when that happens, doesn’t the shape the ding takes and the forces it exerts depend heavily on the atoms it is made up of? Not to mention, in reality, few things are perfectly homogenous. So in fact my desk would have all kinds of internal flaws, many of which can only be expressed at the atomic level. These flaws would all effect things like how the desk would break if overloaded. Now obviously my desk isn’t perfectly instrumented so I would never really be able to tell if it broke realistically.

            So does the desk have to have properties or detail levels that only kick in when the atomic level interactions become important? I can’t even fathom how somebody could program something like that. Wouldn’t you need all kinds of specific behaviors for billions of different objects. It seems like the only way to limit the number of object classes is to get down to the most fundamental elements that everything is made up of – which would be atoms. Then you just have to worry about the properties of all the elements on the periodic table (and the many permutations of how they combine into molecules). Even this would be daunting but at least seems tractable.

            As an example of this need for different fundamental objects, think about a blade of grass. It seems like your options are to have an object class like blade of grass (which would have to have countless variations), or you have to break it into smaller elements. What smaller element could you use that would work across the spectrum other than atoms. If you use any larger object, it will be specific to blades of grass – and likewise the tiny elements of a desk would be unique to desk objects (or even more specifically desks made of particle board covered in laminate).

            If my logic is correct (which it may not be – hopefully you can help me figure out where I’m going wrong) then the only way to not model the whole universe at the atomic level, is to only model it that way at a localized level where humans are interacting with the universe (under the assumption that humans are the subjects of the simulation). So Earth would be modeled at the atomic level, while all the stars and other planets and everything else out there would be abstracted while giving the impression of being made of atoms, until we ventured out and started looking closer.

            So what do you think – am I missing something?

          2. Hi Paul, as an addendum I just wanted to say I took a look at your Amazon Author bio – very impressive resume. If there was a short list for people who could start writing the world simulation it sounds like you would be a good candidate.

            I got accepted into MIT for graduate school myself – but decided to go to Carnegie Mellon instead (to study mechanical engineering and robotics). Not sure if that was the right choice career wise or not, but it has worked out on the personal level. Now of course, if this reality is a simulation, there is probably a parallel one running where I went to MIT instead. Hmm, how can I check in on that guy?

          3. Daniel,

            You nailed it. :) Such a simulation would use very precise models — even atom or photon-level models — for whatever the intended audience is “focused” on, while using cruder models to simulate things that are far away or have little effect beyond their immediate locality.

            Your videogame examples are absolutely spot-on: to optimize computation at 30 FPS or 60FPS, games routinely swap mipmapped textures and variable-LOD 3D polygon models for each other as the player moves closer or further away from each object. Think of a Hollywood movie set — a prop the actors pick up and hold must be a perfect reproduction of reality, whereas that building in the distance can be a painted plywood facade, propped up in back by two-by-fours.

            My compliments on having been accepted into M.I.T. — I think I myself got in purely by accident (hard to explain, but true story :) ). And on CMU, another awesome school whose graduate CS program USN&WR rates right up there with MIT, Stanford, and Berkeley. I wouldn’t read too much into my work background, either — I’ve been lucky, mainly, to have had the opportunity to do some cool stuff. And naturally, a bio leaves off all the real bonehead moves I’ve pulled, too. ;) And the boring parts.

            About checking in on that other universe where you went to MIT? If you could see that other version of yourself, you might feel you dodged a bullet. MIT’s a great school, but it was a pressure cooker, too, and it took a lot out of many the kids who went there. Lots of prep-school valedictorians suddenly found themselves at the bottom of their classes, and scrambling just to pass. Suicides, serious drug problems, and 21-year-old burnouts were very common. At seventeen, I remember thinking, “These are some unhappy people here,” and spending all my time across the river, hanging out with folks from other schools (whom my MIT classmates sneeringly dismissed as “randoms”). And the MIT friends and folks I’m still in contact with aren’t on average any happier or more “successful” than the non-MIT folks — some of them are still pretty messed up.

      3. If you insist on having a body, then immortality might be a luxury good, with most living “forever” in simulation but perhaps choosing to forget big chunks of earlier lives, and the wealthy coming out to inhabit bodies to experience their true animal natures – barbarous tourists. :-) Having a real child would be the ultimate status symbol.

        I can imagine a Matrix with class warfare overtones…

      4. What short story was that. Id love to read that. (Btw. This was pretty mind blowing).

    2. Colonization isn’t necessarily perpetrated by societies. It’s often driven by small groups that want to get out of the environment created by the majority.

  4. I totally agree Hugh. However our other offspring may not see things the same way.

    To a super intelligent AI there is only so many ‘cycles’ potentially available to calculate on the quarks inside our lightcone before heat death. That may be the ceiling that is chased, not by us…. But by our descendant.

  5. While I agree in principle, I also recognize that greed or survival, whichever the imperative of the moment, carries a grim first to market logic, and that historically, our collective conscience lags our capabilities. Tragically, I have yet to see true evidence to the contrary. Hope I’m wrong Hugh…

  6. I really like this train of thought-it’s fun contemplating the psychologies of the future. My assumption and hope is that sometime in the far future, somebody will create a “smart pill/device” that allows people to think with more l

    1. Lol got cut off due to iphone

      …more logic and less base emotions/biases/grudges/laziness/etc, etc. Then this would be widespread-a sort of stupidity vaccination raising the IQ by 30% or so across the board.

      Going to your predictions, I agree that cultural and generational values shift, but I thinks it only within a certain range. Human nature, unfortunately, doesn’t change much. There are parallels for most of the old sins of our past. People still scam, murder, and do unreasonable things.

      The biggest obstacle for a “utopia” or something close is the urge to reproduce-this has always led to competition. When you think about it, most illegal/unethical activity is traceable to this.

  7. Will Swardstrom Avatar
    Will Swardstrom

    But…I do eat ALL the donuts.

  8. Wow, Hugh – thanks for such a detailed response. That’s pretty cool to have inspired a whole blog post. You raise some really interesting points about how things we consider normal might be revolting to future generations. I’ll admit that I hadn’t really thought about that in this context. But I still think there are some holes in your theory.

    Like you said, current population trends have us reaching a maximum point eventually and then even declining after that. But of course this scenario is without what I claim will eventually be possible – indefinite extension of the human lifespan. If that does happen, then even if only a small percent of people continue to have children, the population will continue to grow. Sure people might die from accidents, but let’s assume that everybody gets backed up digitally so you can be brought back to life if you fall into that tree shredder. Of course I guess future generations could foresee this problem and deny themselves immortality because of the problems it will create, but that’s a big leap from just stopping the support of brutal sports or eating meat. I will admit that I’m probably not as enlightened as yourself (I mean that will all sincerity – I’ve followed your self-publishing career from the beginning and your words and actions have always been of someone possessed of a very selfless mind-set).

    Maybe it is just because of my age, and because mortality is very much on my mind these days (I lost my mother unexpectedly two weeks ago), but I really don’t like the thought of dieing. I know some older people often say they are ready to move on. I’m sure the frailty of an older body is part of the reason – which begs the question if they would feel different if they could retain a youthful body indefinitely. Of course, belief in an afterlife is also a big second part to that question. If you do believe in an afterlife (something I waver on all the time) then dieing could mean reuniting with those that have passed on.

    I don’t know where future generations will land on the question of an afterlife. If they as a whole don’t believe in an afterlife, then I would think it would be hard for them to willingly give up their lives. But maybe they will be more willing to make the sacrifice of not procreating so as to keep enough room for themselves.

    Of course future generations could decide life as a digital entity inside simulations is a safer and better course of action. But then the computer itself might have to keep growing if the digital people keep procreating, or even just keep creating ideas.

    Maybe that is really the crux of it. I don’t think people will ever stop wanting to create – and that could mean more tangible space and matter will constantly be needed.

    1. Most people abhor the thought of dying.

      Some fill that void with religion. Some (like Ray Kurzweil) take 150 vitamins a day and believe in technological immortality. Some are overcome with despair. And some learn that not-existing is something they did for billions of years, and they will go right back to that, and it’s perfectly okay.

      I wish everyone could be a part of the last group. It’s nice here. You’ve got one life. Enjoy it. Try not to leave behind a lot of regrets. Soothe more anguish than you cause. Remember that every action you make will always have been the action you made (that is, we may not be forever, but our decisions are).

      If immortality were offered to me, I would pass. I think by the time we can achieve it, more and more people would feel the same. And anyone who gives it a try, might go a thousand years, or a million years, or a billion years, but no one would want to exist forever. Long enough, and the first years become so meaningless that they may as well never have happened.

      That’s one of the things that turned me off the concept of heaven when I was younger. I thought to myself: After five trillion years in heaven, will I remember a single thing about Earth? Then what’s the point of the years here? And five trillion years barely dents immortality.

      We crave a thing we have barely pondered. We crave it because it isn’t possible. Once it’s possible, we’ll have to actually think about it, and I think our choices will surprise many.

      1. My husband and I were talking about this not too long ago. Today, we are relatively healthy, active/athletic, in our late thirties, and if given the option of immortality, we would probably decline. I see immortality like winning the jackpot lottery – all of a sudden you’ve got problems and decisions that are more trouble than it’s worth. I like living simple, small house, less stuff, less weight, more happiness. It works for us. I throw stuff out all the time. Spring cleaning is like trimming your rose bushes… you got to trim in order to maintain a healthy blooming bush.

        But, if we were older, say 90, or with health issues, or on our death beds… our perspectives would be different. I didn’t think I would think this way when I was younger, and I don’t know how I will think when I’m 90, should I be so lucky to live that long. Similar to the millenia/baby-boomer/victorian comparison, later in life you may not think the same way. At 90, I might fight you for your immortality ticket!

        But why settle for only two options? Can we entertain the live-as-long-as-you-want scenario? For the people who don’t choose immortality, for whatever reason, let them live as long as they want and then end their lives at will. That would make an interesting experiment. How long would the average life span be then?

        1. I’ve been posing the immortality question to people a lot lately – in FB parties primarily, as we chat about my latest book. The answers are always fascinating, but they quickly evolve to Tanya’s point – that people would make different choices in different situations (the “of course” answer hiding in plain sight). To me, the variety of old and young, healthy and not, and the wide range of philosophical ideas that immortality whacks over the head (it really messes with our taboos in a number of ways) – all of that is fascinating. But the truly intriguing thing is where the tipping point will go – what will the majority embrace when Kurzweil’s longevity finally appears as a real option?

          (BTW absolutely love this post).

          1. Hey Susan,

            This is one of my favorite topics too, lately. The David Ewing Duncan (author of the thought-provoking When I’m 164) has to date asked over 20,000 people the question: “How long do you want to live?”

            He makes it multiple choice, and there’s no “forever” option, but it’s still interesting how people respond to his question:
            60% say they want to live 80 years
            30% say they want to live 120 years
            10% say they want to live 150 years

            But as you say, there are a lot of unentangled assumptions in there that haven’t been unpacked. In other words, is that a healthy, active 150 where you physically look and feel like you’re 30, and so does everyone you know and love? Or is that an every-joint-surgically-replaced-twice, IV-pole-toting 150 where everyone you’ve ever cared about is dead and you wouldn’t remember them anyway if they weren’t? Each respondent no doubt makes their own assumptions about what the 80, 120, and 150-year options mean.

            Still, I’m pretty sure that 120 will start looking pretty good to a lot of the folks saying 80 now, when that 80 is instead only a year or two away.

            I remember a younger version of myself thinking “Why the heck would I want to live past 30? The best part of life’s pretty much over by then, and it’s all downhill from there…”

            When biological immortality truly becomes an option, rather than a philosophical question? I bet there will be an awful lot of takers…

          2. You know, even if we do become immortal, I don’t think that will stop norms from changing over time. For all we know, it might hasten those changes. With finite lifespans, people seem to hit an age where they become naturally conservative, wishing things would remain in place as they coast through the last of their years. How much of that is a relaxation of the will that comes with a softening of the sinews? How much of that changes when people are kept perpetually young, feeling and acting like 30-year-olds?

            We won’t even think the same if we’re living for thousands of years (something that I think we’re a long, long, long way from achieving). We will have to plan for a more distant horizon. We will be on Earth long enough to acquire more wisdom, to travel more and empathize with more cultures. How much of our violence will we see vanish when life becomes more precious for being much longer? How will this deepen our empathy further?

            Not to mention that if we have the tech to live for 1,000 years, we’ll probably have automated many of our jobs, leaving us to creative or humanitarian pursuits, our immediate needs met. We might be forced to contemplate our lives and our place in the cosmos, rather than grind out a living in a perpetual rut from which we rarely glance up.

            But the biggest change in our new pace of ethical progress will come from the sharp decline in religious thought. Without a fear of death, one of the great motivations of subscribing to religious beliefs is removed. That’s a massive source of conservative thought. As that declines, so will violence, and mores change even more.

            Heck, think of how murder will be viewed when the only way to die is by injury. The murdered didn’t hasten the inevitable, they stole something unique and precious that (possibly) cannot be given back. The Golden Rule will go on steroids. If you have so much more to live for, you have so much more cause to let others live.

          3. Didn’t someone with the requisite chops do calculations that indicated that even with immortality in play, the average lifespan would be around 900 years when all factors (accidents, new diseases, etc.) were included?

            Anyone else encounter this errant factoid?

            That makes a difference in our future dreaming. With lifespans of 900 years instead of infinitely long, we might need room for considerable physical expansion through the galaxy, but still stop well short of all of it.

          4. Hey J.M.,

            I’ve seen a couple versions of that calculation, some more scientific than others. All of them come out right around 900-1000 years.

            For example, Joon Yun, the guy who launched the Palo Alto Longevity Prize, simply took the census-data probability of 0.1% of a 25-year-old dying before they turn 26, and multiplied it out to come up with 1000 years.

            But the thing is, with longer potential lifespans to protect, future advances in safety tech (like driverless cars, forex ;), and the downward trend in interpersonal violence, I think the probability of dying “unnaturally” will go down.

            These 1000-year estimates mostly make the mistake of assuming today’s safety statistics also apply to tomorrow.


          5. “With finite lifespans, people seem to hit an age where they become naturally conservative, wishing things would remain in place as they coast through the last of their years… How much of that changes when people are kept perpetually young, feeling and acting like 30-year-olds?”

            Hey Hugh,

            That’s the key question, isn’t it? How much of that comfortable conservatism and desire to keep the status quo that most people settle into as we grow older is due to progressive brain degeneration? Is it a reversible symptom of the congenital, always-fatal degenerative disease we all suffer from and euphemistically label “aging”? Or will our individual philosophies and points of view become more rigid and inflexible over time, regardless, even when we can maintain the healthier brain tissue and biochemistry of a 30 year old forever?

            The buddhists call it Beginner’s Mind, and it’s a good thing — avoiding preconceived notions and viewing the world with wide-eyed wonder and a willingness to change one’s thinking, even after attaining a great deal of experience and knowledge. And perhaps immortality will bring that enlightenment to everyone. But perhaps not.

            I think Max Planck said it best:

            “Science advances one funeral at a time… Truth never triumphs — its opponents just die out.”


      2. You are assuming that the afterlife will be experienced like this life – you will experience linear time in the afterlife and therefore you will get bored. Maybe you have the assumption that the afterlife is religious in nature instead of something more like the Aboriginal Dreamtime. The afterlife could have its own laws of space/time.

        1. That sounds horrific. An eternity in a nonlinear, drunken stupor?

          There is no concept of an eternity that sounds pleasant to me. Not a one. Eternal bliss? No thanks. Eternal consciousness? No thanks. Eternal existence? No thanks.

          To which someone might say: “Well, the concept of eternity will be different in heaven.”

          Either the afterlife means I’ll be around without end as a self-aware organism or collection of thoughts, or the afterlife entails me no longer being aware of myself at some future point. If the former, I’m horrified. If the latter, how long will I be tortured before I find release?

          1. I did not say drunken. Maybe its both, where you can be conscious if you want and take a break from reality and not be conscious. You can do both. If its eternity without the way we experience time, it won’t feel like forever. I still think you are putting your experiences of this reality onto another reality that is different, like a square in a hole. I believe in reincarnation, though, so that is where I am coming from. The center and present moment is inside of you (non time or timelessness, present) and our world is experienced with the senses – linear time. Eternity is a blink of an eye. And its filled with love. Non density in the afterlife or dream experience (but there is form to navigate) is a natural high by definition (without the body is a natural high). Its bliss and a blink of an eye if you want or stay longer and conscious, you won’t be bored, Your spirit will be immersed in love and feel whole and refreshed and anew, like its only been around for a split second. Its your Dream, you do what you want.

          2. Reincarnation without a memory of a past life is just death and something else’s birth. If there’s no continuity, there’s no eternity.

            I’ve had this conversation with a lot of believers, and when confronted with the absolute madness of what trillions of years of existence would be like, every single person I’ve spoken to says, “Well, it’ll be different than that.” And when asked how it’ll be different, the response is, “We can’t know. It’s too different. But it’ll be perfect and it’ll last forever!”

            Which feels like a lot of wishful thinking. How can something be both perfect and forever? Whatever small dips will feel like the deepest depression. Any subtle high will feel like the new euphoria. What is existence without swings? Anything too bizarre, and how can we call it an existence?

            I think people don’t want to be dead in 100 years, so they grant themselves a daydream of immortality, without considering the consequences. When faced with the consequences, they move from projecting their current life and thoughts forward 100 years to making up some kind of psychedelic wishy-washy thing that even they can’t explain. Which I totally get. I mean, the point here isn’t to really ponder what comes after death but to come up with a safety net that allows us to avoid thinking about death altogether. I get that. Every religion has that. It might be why every culture even has a religion (the other strong urges being the desire to explain the origin of everything and to get people to fall into line).

            The problem with making the afterlife so psychadelic is that it can’t possibly be us there doing the experiencing. It’ll be another lifeform of some sort. And how is that eternity? It gets back to the reincarnation problem, which is the death of one thing and the birth of another (which starts getting real secular. I mean, this is what I believe: Things are born, and then they die. Why marvel what not-existing will feel like when we’ve done it for billions of years. Each of us. Remember the 18th century? The 23rd will be a lot like that for us.)

          3. Hi Hugh,

            I didn’t see a reply button so that I can address your response, so my comment might be so out of order on your webpage here. I am sorry about that.

            I am writing because its the way I learn. I love feedback from others as that is how I got to here, in my life. I am not religious. I don’t go to a church. I am not affiliated with any kind of group or anything. I like to learn and philosophize. I don’t seek to change your beliefs or ideas.

            I think you are putting your experiences with others, onto me, a little bit, so I want to explain where I am coming from. I am a believer in an afterlife but I don’t have a belief in God, in the way many people believe in God. I believe in God as energy more than a Being with a capital B. If I try to define God, by doing so would be missing the mark, as God is undefinable to me.

            When I witness tragedy in the world, I never think there is a God that works in mysterious ways and there is a reason for the tragedy, kind of thing. I think tragedy happens from living in the world of matter – a car can hit another car and people get hurt because we live in the world of nature and of dense form.

            I rarely use the word “perfection” or think of perfection in this life as I think it is unhealthy. Nor in reference to an afterlife. I used the word “whole”. Usually when I use the word “whole” its because I am trying to explain a metaphysical idea. I believe reality is about perception. The whole is that which is formless (I think the true nature of reality) and the separation is when we experience the Whole as form, sound, our bodies, touch, sight and so forth. I believe reality is about the separation and the whole.

            Personally, I did not search for a belief system so that I could feel good about dying. I love the atheist world view (or agnostic) because its gritty and down to earth. I wondered about life but I did not have a need to come to conclusion about life, and I still don’t have conclusions in mind, in order to keep an open mind. I read a book on lucid dreams and had a out of body experience by mistake as I was just trying to experience lucid dreams. It was like a near death experience for me – everything was so conscious and clear in my obe. I did it with no drugs. I had a few obes when I was young, but they were quick and inside a room, this was really different. It was close to a half hour and I saw a lot. It happened because I was meditating and jogging and doing lucid dreaming exercises.

            Since I have experienced consciousness outside my body, I believe that when a person dies, he or she leaves their body just like an out of body experience. Maybe this is where my belief system is flawed. I am putting two and two together. Its hard not too, because it is a logical deduction to make.

            My experience taught me a lot about consciousness. I could see clearly with my eyes closed, also. It was not a trick of the mind. Sometimes people who are dubious will label something like this a trick of the mind, unless they experience it themselves.

            My belief system has come from the obe experiences and some other life experiences. I don’t have a need for reality to go on and on or a need for an afterlife. My experiences shaped my belief system.

            The experience It is not unlike watching a play and then getting a sneak peak behind the curtain. I don’t know everything that is behind the curtain, not even close, but I know that there is a curtain. The knowing makes me feel centered in this world. so it informed how I am in this world, which is I feel centered and grounded. The world of dense form (this reality) is desirable because you can really feel and taste and touch here. Its so real, here, unlike the very real and clear yet dreamlike nature of the obe. I love this world. You forget the Dream, here, and its beautiful to do so.

          4. I respect your opinion and our different points of view. So I mean no disrespect with my reply.

            But when I hear people rely on their personal experiences in order to understand the world, rather than approaching the world with curiosity and skepticism, I am wary of the results. Just as we could never use a ruler to measure itself, it’s impossible for one mind to know itself. What if the mind isn’t working properly? We know that our brains can act up, can misfire. How much truth do we hope to find in those experiences?

            You say that you saw clearly with your eyes closed. I do this every night. I dream, and these dreams are so real that I sometimes wake up sweating, afraid, feeling like I’ve lost something, or looking in the bed for the last thing I held in my hand in the dream. I see in color with my eyes closed. I hear loud noises where there are none. These nightly hallucinations — plus the hallucinations I’ve had due to sleep deprivation — cast doubt on claims of having seen strange things. We all see strange things in our lives. But where are the real, physical miracles? The clearly unexplainable and testable miracles? They don’t seem to happen. We just hear their accounts from others.

            I’m not saying I’m right and you’re wrong, only that you believe in something for which a simpler explanation occurs to me. Again, it’s cool that we disagree. Life would be boring otherwise. I enjoy learning about how you see the world and am just trying to explain how I see it.

          5. Hi Hugh,

            Thanks for your last response…and, interesting. You said when waking upon a dream, (some) things are very real for you in your perception. With my experience, I did not come out from a dream or nightmare. I was awake when it happened. With my eyes closed, I could see my room, literally. It was not a dream room, it was definitely my room. I could see the table, the chair, the books, the walls, the whole room. Because I had the experience by meditating, I know how the experience happened. I could follow the experience. I did not see the room by magic. My consciousness became the room. i was the room. If I had woken up and saw the room with my eyes closed, it would seem more like a hallucination.

            I am totally fine if you want to call my experience a hallucination. Because I know my experience was abnormal and different.

            I like quite a lot what you say about one person’s experience and coming to conclusion. It did turn my mind around, by the way. Everyone wants to do that, like, its human nature.

            I have something to say that I hope you will like. I think you have an affinity with the shamanic experience. I know you are not a shaman and neither am I. You are a writer. I think you like to hear what people think and this is what I think of you, in regards to shamanic storytelling.

            A. Capable of a strong mythos (in story)
            B. Nomadic (ocean travels, story travels)
            C. Experience of waking and dreaming consciousness
            E. STORYTELLER (most important attribute, so I repeat it)

  9. Vickie Boehnlein Avatar
    Vickie Boehnlein

    Hugh, this is a really interesting post. I agree with much of what you said but would like to propose one additional thought, using something you have shared about yourself as an example.

    You recently began the process of purchasing a boat. You did this, so far as I am aware, not out of a business/financial need (you don’t need it for your livelihood) but out of a love for sailing. Without disagreeing with your point that by the time we are able to, technologically, seed the galaxy we won’t because we will have made ethical progress beyond our human needs/drives, I would like to propose that I don’t think population explosion is the sole or even driving force behind the desire to seed the galaxy. Like you and your love of the sea there will always be people who are driven by a need to explore. As we get ever closer to their being no place left on Earth to discover or explore people will look outward to the stars.

    Among the explorers are people who want to colonize distant planets, not for the need to procreate or a place to live but because some people are driven by a desire to find something new, better or simply different than what is here on Earth. That is the pioneering spirit that has led to the spread of people all around this planet even before there was a need for space.

    1. Vickie, I agree with your sentiment that humans have a natural desire to explore. Similarly, I think we have a natural desire to create (writers like Hugh know all about that). I think both of these drivers will eventually push us out into the cosmos (to explore you have to go somewhere new and to create you will eventually need more matter than is left in our own little solar system).

  10. Don’t worry about the population and galactic expansion. Next week, after they prove at the LHC the existence of parallel universes, our ideas of leaving this world will change dramatically.

  11. Wait… so when we’ve filled every niche in the world and can’t die… we’ll just be standing shoulder to shoulder on every inhabitable surface and surviving? I’ll pass.

    1. Check population curves. It’ll never come to that. There’s a future Earth coming with only a billion people on it.

  12. Fascinating point about future generations not being “us.” I’m sure that will be true. You ought to bury a copy of this post in a time capsule for someone several generations down the line to discover.

    Along with football, I trust we will get rid of weapons at some point.

    And I disagree with the idea that people won’t want to let life go. After a certain point, even if your body and brain are as youthful as ever, I suspect that many will feel they have simply had enough. If you can extrapolate from a long full day to a long full life, you will see that you eventually get tired, feel sated, and are ready to rest. And who knows, perhaps you will volunteer to “die” only to be revivified in another century or millennium? I can imagine there might be certain brains or personalities that are considered critical to humankind, and could be legacies for the future… maybe a little 500-year sleep, and then a fresh start. Maybe deep underground, in a Silo….


  13. One thing to consider is that in the future, not everyone will agree. What happens if the majority are content to hang around in a small number of systems for redundancy, but others have their own idea as well as a lot of technical know-how and just enough resources to get their own start?

    1. who knows how far they might? – would be fascinating to see. and if they returned, would there be any similarity between the redundant group and those who left?

    2. Enabity,

      You are talking about rebels violating cultural norms and social mores. What if a small group of people today decides to behead infidels and enact sharia law? What if a handful of people announced that they were going to penetrate the Brazilian rainforest and convert the heathens there to Christianity, level the forests, and build bowling alleys? Do you think we’d wish them safe voyage? Or denounce them and try to stop them?

      If we progress to the place I believe we will, any savages foolish enough, evil enough, and desperate enough to rush out to find another wet ball of rock on which to reproduce, despoil, fill up, and then rush off to repeat the process, will be shot out of the sky. With a tear, perhaps, but with full conviction of the rightness of this action.

      This may sound extreme, but it won’t to our descendents. What would sound extreme to them is what most people propose we do today, which is to fill the galaxy with our biomass, as if we will be satisfied even then.

      1. Hugh,

        ISIS is actively seeking an apocalyptic confrontation with the US, so they openly try to incite us. Plenty of people in the world are currently committing atrocities you and I know nothing about the particulars and some of them have probably escaped the notice of the free democracies, much less their reach. Some of these people operate in the US. Keeping perfect track of everyone’s activities is not so easy when there is a desire to not be compelled by the monolith.

        Presuming that the end game is enlightened computers, I don’t see why wet balls of rock would necessarily be desirable. Mars and the Moon probably as good as the Earth for inorganic settlement and provide a prime observation point to watch the diversity that is emerging on the wet rock in the neighborhood.

        What would be more interesting and challenging than watching something completely different and complex emerge and get the chance to learn from their perspective by communicating? There are so many ways to view how an ethical advanced civilization might act.

        I regret mentioning uncontrolled proliferation so flippantly. It came from an intuition that we are much better at building something big that falls apart than at building sustainable systems. The current path we’re on will not hold up for a long time, much less forever. Our lack of organizational capacity will cause us to slow down our technological expansion or we will crash and burn, because each level of hierarchy requires new structures and new rules to work. This makes these steps difficult to make with build-ups and failures.

        Life as we know it is hierarchy. Individuals get subsumed as new hierarchies emerge above them. Your individual cells by and large conform to your welfare rather than their own. However, cancer cells act against the whole to their own temporary advantage. Even as we act to stomp out these aberrant cells through our immune systems and medical technology, there are individual humans in our society that act very similarly to cancer. Likewise, groups like ISIS emerge as groups within our collective civilization at yet a higher level of hierarchy with very similar behavior. What about the next levels of hierarchy makes you think that there won’t be negative and selfish actors there as well?

        1. “I regret mentioning uncontrolled proliferation so flippantly.”

          There you go. You just made the first step that I made not long ago. The longer you think on the end result of our spreading throughout the galaxy, the more abhorrent I believe you will find it. The more pointless as well.

          We can lust over destroying our galaxy right now both because we are primitive and because the technology to do so eludes us. But once it’s feasible, we’ll not only be different people, we’ll start discussing the pros and cons. We’ll find there are vanishingly few pros and monumental cons. Maybe we’ll send probes, wiped clean of world-destroying germs, but I doubt we’ll even do that.

          1. You’re assuming that what you view as common sense and ethical will become the norm as humans (or any sentient species) evolve and develop their technology. Except, you said yourself that behaviors we all accepted in previous generations have become unacceptable to us now (using “us” in a pretty narrow way, to be honest, because there are still elements in the world who still view some of those behaviors as acceptable). The parenthetical aside, how can we know what future generations will consider as acceptable behavior?

            Paraphrasing an idiom: The victor writes the history. The same can be said for the future. The victor, in that case, will be technology. What technology will advance fastest? Will we develop fully functioning and realistic virtual worlds first, or will a breakthrough in physics, allowing us to traverse vast distances quickly, precede it? Biological advances may also play a role, redefining our life spans, not necessarily to the point of immortality, but enough to give humanity a different perspective on the pros and cons of its possibility. My point is: our values are in many ways defined not only by our technology, but the types of technology we develop.

            Think about gasoline. When supply is high and prices are low, what types of vehicles become popular? SUVs and other gas guzzlers. When supplies were squeezed and prices were high, fuel efficiency was the watchword of the day and small, high mileage cars were the rage. Our sensibilities tend to follow availabilities.

            If we were able to physically travel to another Earth-like planet before we are able to create a truly believable virtual world, how would that affect our thinking? Look at how many people paid big money for a shot to go to Mars that company offered. It was billed as a one-way trip, with all the inherent dangers and unknowns you can think of, yet, lots of people still want to go.

            Manifest Destiny painted the western expansion of the U.S. in the 1800s. Who’s to say we won’t have a similar view of humanity’s expansion from the Earth in the future?

            (Apologies if I’ve rambled! Children, pets, telephones, and other aspects of life interrupted what began as a cogent and coherent comment on the Interwebz) ;-)

          2. I’m looking at trendlines and making educated guesses based on how morality has changed over time. What I did prior to this was assume people in the future would think like me. I like my new stance. Feels more likely.

          3. With all that’s going on in the world lately, I wonder if we’re becoming more morally diverse, rather than less. Possibly it’s just that we’re more aware of the world as a whole, with instant news and social media, than ever before. Something to ponder.

          4. Hugh,

            I guess I haven’t been clear enough. The physical laws of the universe will prevent us from organizing enough for your doomsday scenario. Nothing in this universe perpetuates without end. Organizing the entropic burden becomes exponentially larger the whole way. We will not be faced by the grim prospect of overrunning the galaxy or the universe. They are safe from us, which was the gist of my flippant remark. The foundation for my position on this is far deeper than I’ve already presented, but it comes down to evolution affects universes, and all of the limiting factors we’re encountering in physics are necessary for a universe to have self-replicating systems inside of it and not be overrun by them. The chances of us being in a universe where there is potential for runaway growth but it didn’t happen is as close to zero as you can get.

  14. Check out the TED talk:

    Aubrey de Grey:
    A roadmap to end aging
    TEDGlobal 2005 · 22:45 · Filmed Jul 2005

    I posted a comment on their web page years ago about the topic. It’s buried six years deep, so I’ll repost what I said here.

    A series of comments: Part 1 of 3:

    1) The wealthy, the top 2% of society, would have the main access to any immortality treatment.

    Everybody needs to remember that the Western/First World essentially is the top 2% of society. The poorest of the First World will still have access to the treatment before any Third World peasant.

    People in Africa, scratching in the dirt for food will not have access to longevity treatments, but virtually everyone posting on this site will.

    2) Over population caused by immortality.

    People could live to 1000 years, that doesn’t mean everyone will make it.

    Take a random sample of a thousand people who get the treatment today, and a thousand years from now only one of those people will still be alive. Immortality does not protect you from accident, murder, suicide, stupidity, or boredom.

    3) An immortal society would not face a population explosion, but a population crash.

    We already see that in society today. First World countries are having a population crash. Countries like the USA are growing only from immigration. All societies that achieve a middle class living standard have their population drop below replacement level. In southern India, where the big cities are, the population has dropped; while in northern rural India, with people still living in feudal conditions, the population is exploding.

    – The main reason for this is due to educated women having reproductive choice.

    Aside from the cost and time needed to raise a child, thus cutting into the earning power of women, what most people don’t realize is that giving birth to a child is dangerous. No matter how immortal she is a woman can still die while giving birth. The percentage of dying has dropped in the past hundred years but it is still a non-trivial number, and an educated woman will think very hard before she risks her thousand years.

    End Part one:

    Part 2 of 3:

    4) No such thing as retirement.

    Retirement is based on having money to pay the bills the rest of your life. Today, you are expected to die within a decade of retiring so the retirement fund is not exhausted. If you are immortal, that means you have to have enough money to generate continuous income for a thousand years, at least. Unfortunately, that assumes the banks/financial institutions last that long. As we have seen, and will see in the next few years, that is not a safe bet.

    As an aside: Anyone who retires and does nothing but exist will be dead after a slow agonizing decade. That’s based on the concept of, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” If you don’t actively challenge yourself with new activities the brain atrophies, killing the body.

    Check out the movie:

    Jerome Bixby’s The Man from Earth (2007)

    They talk about the fictional life of one immortal person who has lived from the stone age to now. I think the main character’s viewpoint is realistic.

    – People will stay people no matter how long they live.

    – You can only know what a normal person knows.

    – It doesn’t matter how much you study/learn over the years you will forget what you don’t use.

    The immortal person will have to work and live, be alive, for those thousand years. The brain melts away when it’s not used, not challenged with new tasks. At some point the loss is so great that the brain can no longer support the body, and the body dies.

    End Part Two:

    Part 3 of 3:

    Go to the website for Nova: World in the Balance and see how the world is changing now, simply with people living a long life.

    Nova: World in the Balance


    By the end of the century, Japan’s population is expected to shrink by half, with one out of every three people retired. And Japan is not alone. Over the next 50 years, Europe is projected to lose 63 million people, while Russia shrinks almost 20 percent. As elders over 60 outnumber children under four, the economic and social changes will be wrenching.

    :end Quote

    The First World population is imploding, the Third World is still growing. As the Third World becomes First World, i.e. middle class, there population will drop as shown by the difference between south and north India

    Hour 1: The People Paradox

    Hour 2: China Revs Up

    The two main shows about the brain on PBS are:

    The Secret Life of the Brain

    The Brain Fitness Program

    I couldn’t find transcripts for the two shows. The first has a website with downloads, the second does not, but both are available on DVD.

    The essential message from both programs is:

    – A day to day, rigid, unchanging life is not sustainable. People change, societies change; when they don’t, they die.

    Personally, I look forward to continuing this discussion over the next few centuries, and I’ll leave you now with one of my favorite quotes:

    “Millions dream of immortality who do not know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” – Susan Ertz

    1. “Millions dream of immortality who do not know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” – Susan Ertz


      Brilliant. When I tried to imagine heaven, as a 10-year-old, this was one of the reasons I rejected the idea. Billions of years of trying to stay entertained? I couldn’t stay awake through Sunday morning Kung Fu theater marathons! And I loved them!

      1. But perhaps this is where your “we’re not them” argument comes into play. If there is an afterlife, will our existence in it have any resemblance to our current mortal ones? You say you would get bored, but it’s just like your argument for future humanity – what they find abhorrent will be different from what we think. Crossing over to an afterlife may not be a temporal change (though I would guess that an afterlife would exist outside of time), but it is certainly a major change in our state of existence that could dramatically change how we think/feel about everything.

  15. Hugh, love your work and commentary. However, I am a bit of a realist, and do not believe mankind will fill the list niches of the universe.

    Don’t t forget she’s expanding at a rather rapid rate. Neither do I believe, left future generations will have better morals, based on previous experience, Nor will l moral behaviour increase exponentially.

    That was a theory, held on to in the early part of the twentieth century, but the atrocities of WWII blew that hypothesis out of the water.

    The human condition is broken. Where ever and whenever mankind exist there is the potential for evil. Since the Garden of Eden, it’s never been more than a whisper away.

    I read Wool and follow your blog and celebrate your success. I think you are one of the most friendly, down to earth, and unassuming individuals I would ever want to meet.

    I agree with some of your opinions in this post, but can’t swallow the who’ve onion, or potato, or whatever metaphor we may use.

    That being said, Happy sailing on your up and coming adventure my friend, and I’d love to meet you sometime.


    – Cam

  16. A couple issues with your line of thinking.

    First, I really don’t think that the human race will reach the point where it overcomes death (of individuals). The human body wears down. Cells sometimes make imperfect copies and introduce defects. I do believe that we’ll reduce aging, but I think human immortality is of the same wishful thinking as perpetual machines.

    And, of course, in all of human history, has there ever been a point when people didn’t kill other people, either accidentally or on purpose? Just when we think we’re all rational and beyond that, we learn new levels of human depravity (for example, the news now talks about a woman in America who stabbed another woman and ripped the unborn baby out of her stomach).

    There is another issue that we will have to contend with. When I was in school the definition of a living organism included the requirement that it reproduce. Wouldn’t that mean, then, that by definition we are no longer alive if we don’t reproduce? Your mention of the countries rewarding reproduction is a bit funny because in China, in several parts of the country, there are still prohibitions on having more than one baby. The stigma with having babies is entirely manufactured and is now backfiring, necessitating the policy reversal in a few areas.

    We will never eliminate the human desire to reproduce. In my opinion, when a society does that, they cease to be humans. We have deep inside of us a coded and irresistible desire (at the macro level) to increase and spread out.

    1. We are no longer just subject to our genetic history. We now have cultural history, which also evolves. No other living organism leaves a history of its thoughts to subsequent generations, layer after layer of generation after generation of thoughts, ideas, wishes, dreams, regrets, lessons, failures, curiosities, philosophies…

      All of these legacies influence our thinking today. They influence our behaviors today. As we become more interconnected, and the world becomes more literate, this cultural history begins to weigh on our genetic history.

      I believe the scales have already tipped. We are no longer what we evolved to be. We are becoming something different, perhaps something more. When we begin to fuse more completely with our machines, this will accelerate. Thinking we will be bound by reptilian or even mammalian drives in the future may miss the mark.

  17. Part of the reason we project ‘us’ into future stories is that our audience has to be able to relate to the characters. I’m writing a far-future sci-fi right now where the culture is as about as different from us as you can imagine, so I’m struggling to work out how to make the characters work without tuning out the audience.

    1. Could this be why time travel is used in many such stories. Send contemporary characters forward in time and then describe how they interact with with humans of the future.

  18. Re Newz’s remark above: I think we will achieve immortality, but not within our natural bodies. And we may indeed cease to be human by your definition, but there is nothing in evolution that says we must remain human.

  19. Sorry for a third post, but I just read through all the comments, and my novel The Immortality Game is precisely about so much of what is discussed here (I wouldn’t normally mention a book here, but it so directly relates to what is being discussed). I also agree with Vickie that we are likely to keep exploring the universe if only out of curiosity. Also, I think we’ll have the ability to move into other solar systems long before we overcome the deep-rooted cultural and religious differences that we have, and since I seriously doubt we will overcome the speed of light, we would see lots of different evolutions of our species as it turns into different things in different solar systems. I think we will see a mixture of those turning inward into a cyber reality and those who continue to push outward into actual reality. I’m not sure we will have a biological imperative to reproduce, at least not in some of our evolutionary groups, since I believe we can blend the digital and the biological into a form of extreme longevity. In the book I’m writing now the particular solar system has chosen to be only female (and that an evolved version of female, where they no longer reproduce, don’t have ‘periods’, have no hair or breasts, etc.), have disavowed digital immortality, and reproduction is done mechanically in clinics. There are so many ways it can go, and given the way humanity has worked, I think we will split into many different unrecognizable versions that we wouldn’t recognize as human.

    1. Hey, feel free to mention your book. I’ve got mine all over the sidebars. :)

      And I really think people get it wrong when they insist that our “curiosity” our “need to explore” our “thirst for knowledge” our “creativity” or any of that will motivate us to spread out across the galaxy. This misses my point, which is that by the time we can leave the solar system, we won’t have the same moral framework that we do today.

      Let’s take a few examples. Just a century ago, it wasn’t strange to go out and hunt down the last living members of a species, kill them, stuff then, and mount them on a wall, all out of curiosity, a thirst for knowledge, and a love of exploration.

      Just a few centuries ago, it wasn’t strange to do the same thing with people, except rather than stuffing them, we would dress them up and have them parade around court to the amazement of kings and queens. This was where our curiosity and need to explore took us. Rounding up fellow humans and enslaving them.

      Our curiosity and drive for new knowledge had us torturing chimpanzees a few decades ago. Torturing them. A living race that’s 98.6% the same as us. Our biological first cousins. Our kin. We tortured them. I would detail a few of the experiments here, but it makes me sick to even think about them. Physically sick.

      So here’s my point from the post, spelled out again: If we can see such massive changes in our moral structure, where the accepted behaviors of yesterday absolutely disgust us today, then why can’t more people today see that the people of tomorrow will find the concept of spreading out across the galaxy absolutely revolting. Just immoral and disgusting. Because that’s what it will be. We just aren’t yet the people who realize it.

      I think we aren’t far away, though. Because I would have told you a week ago that we should absolutely expand in order to safeguard against extinction, to gather more knowledge, to see what’s out there, to make new friends, to find out that we’re not alone. But thinking on the direction of moral growth, and thinking on the fact that limitless expansion in a finite space just adds to eventual suffering and magnifies problems without solving a single one, has changed my mind.

      If we could go back and handle the discovery of the New World all over again, knowing what we know now, we would do it differently. We would inoculate people against our diseases or set up strict quarantines. We would trade more and conquer less. Seeing the behavior of moral laggards, like Russia and Putin attempting to gobble land as per the 20th Century, highlights how quickly our attitudes change. Again, my question is this: Why do we insist on imagining runaway technological advancement while injecting our current ethical framework into that future? Our mores have been changing just as fast. People in the future will not think like us.

      1. I don’t know, Hugh. Even when intellectuals gain in morality, our actions in general, being led primarily by money, continue to go against our own moral ideas. Look at Iraq, where we unilaterally invaded them. We know as a species that it is wrong, but we couldn’t prevent it from happening. Look at congress in the US today. We know morally what is happening is wrong, but we can’t stop it. Global climate change is the same, as well as our destruction of species both in and out of the oceans. I see us improving as a species as far as our understanding of immorality, but I don’t see it in our actions. I have yet to see anyone outside of countries with small populations (Sweden, Norway, etc.) actually have morality trump the greedy in controlling the power. Yes, we have the technological capabilities to, say, set a baseline living for everyone and have automation run most things for us, but that goes against what the moneyed interests believe is best for them, so it’s difficult to see us breaking through against them. I like imagining that you are right, but I don’t truly believe it. I think humans as individuals are mostly great, but as a group we fail far too often to live up to our capabilities.

        1. Check out Stephen Pinker’s THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE.

          Seeing modern man as savages shows a high awareness of current events and a very low awareness of human history. :)

          Yes, we have progres to make. And yes, we’ve made enormous strides already. Why wouldn’t we continue doing so?

          All of your examples pale compared to examples from recent, previous human history. And those pale compared to examples from further back. It gets worse the farther you go.

          Reverse that timeline, and we can see that the world (and humans) keep getting better. Switch from CNN to The History Channel, and you’ll see what I mean (if they still show any history on the latter).

      2. Hugh, I still don’t think you have made a compelling argument for why expanding out into the universe is evil. I know you say it is our future selves who will hold this opinion, but they still have to have a reason behind it. The only thing you have mentioned is that limitless expansion will run into the confines of finite space, which I guess you suggest will create suffering because people will run out of resources. But doesn’t artificially limiting yourself to one planet also create that same problem – only billions of years earlier?

        Also, you assume that limitless expansion means we will fill up the universe, but without knowing the rate of human expansion (which we could control), there is no guarantee that we would fill up the universe before its heat death. In fact I doubt that we will have enough time to fill up even a small percentage of the universe.

        If we don’t destroy ourselves first, I think it is pretty much guaranteed and our moral obligation that humanity will expand to other worlds. Staying on a single planet or even in a single solar system puts our entire species at risk for extinction – and that seems much more evil.

        To borrow an analogy Joe Konrath uses when talking about publishing pundits warning of the dangers of Amazon – worrying about the problems of filling up the universe while disregarding the real problems created by not expanding to other worlds is like worrying about the tiger that might attack you someday, while ignoring the one chewing on your face.

        1. I would need someone to convince me that our present mores will survive hundreds or thousands of years into the future, when we’ve never seen this occur in the past.

          We are horrified at the rape of our continents by our ancestors. There’s been a steady change of values in this direction. We now set aside millions of acres of land, saying that no one can settle there or despoil it. Eventually, we will expand these ideas to cover our galaxy. We’ll get there not long after achieving the ability to despoil our galaxy. We’ll be wise enough and mature enough to realize that our existence here, however temporary, is enough. That delaying the inevitable is a primitive urge not worth fueling, especially at the cost of countless other habitats.

          When I hear the reasons for why we should spread out through the galaxy, they sound like the cravings of adolescents. That’s not a put-down; I love kids. But they grow out of certain things. Right now, the drive to spread out is fueled by a fear of death (and extinction), by an insatiable urge to see what’s around the corner, and by biological impulses to fracture tribes in order to hedge bets, take over more ecological niches, and diversify our gene pools.

          These primitive urges will go away. Why would they remain? We are gradually tempering our other primitive and damaging impulses. We keep growing up. The hubris of every age is that they think the growing and maturing have stopped. But it hasn’t.

          Again: Why will our technology keep advancing but not our morality? Why do so many people see us as marauding conquerors and germ-spreading colonists in the far future? I don’t think we will be. I’d love to hear why anyone thinks we will. I’d love to hear why our primitive urges will remain intact. Just as we can’t conceive of the inventions of the future, we can’t conceive of the wisdom of those who will wield those inventions. Compared to us, they will be Buddhist Monks. And compared to their grandchildren, those monks will be savages. And so on, for billions of years, until we watch from Mars as the sun grows red and expands to consume the Earth, or the next great impactor once again scrambles our biome.

          1. It won’t convince you, naturally, but I believe these moral changes you talk about are happening primarily at an intellectual level. Those who actually hold power remain as corrupt as ever. I’ve spent the past 22 years overseas working as a diplomat, and corruption is as strong as ever. And in the US institutions like journalism have only gotten worse. We used to joke about Russian ‘news’, but we have turned into them with Fox and other propaganda sites. I do see intellectual improvement over time, but I simply don’t see political improvement except in small population countries like Sweden.

  20. Hi Hugh,

    I liked your post so much that it motivated me to write, so this will be my first post on the blog :)

    I agree fully with the first part of your post regarding the “expansion window” of a civilization. I furthermore think that it will apply to very few civilizations out there as ours is not exactly a stable one, it’s right now as it stands on a suicidal course and in a way in a race to expand or die.

    One of two things can and will happen in the next approximately 100 years. Either our civilization finds a way to colonize other worlds and then this cultural model will continue with few changes. Or it won’t and then it will perish, possibly taking our species along with it. I consciously separate our species from our world-civilization as they are not the same thing. As you mentioned the uncontacted tribes in the amazon rainforest, those are not part of this civilization although they are part of the species. They run little risk of colonizing anyone, nor their neighbors nor the planet let alone the galaxy. Left alone they will continue to thrive for thousands of years without any urge to expand into an empire and establish a new world order.

    I’m dwelling on this example to make the point that “out there” there may be relatively few civilizations like ours as ours is doomed to self-destruct if it cannot expand. It is built on a paradigm of endless expansion that has never actually stopped nor changed in the past 10k years. (as a side-note this also begs the question, if most sentient species evolve into a balanced state, they will most likely not develop a civilization or technology as they will live like the uncontacted tribes of the amazon). On the other hand most species that do build a civilization will most likely create an imbalance with their environment as they will expand beyond the existing means (technology in it’s self is a way to overcome balance by getting “more ressources” while investing “less energy”.

    On the morality side though i think you are overly optimistic about future generations. While progress has been clearly made and ripping the heads of kittens looks barbaric to us today, most unethical and barbaric behavior is still here today, it has only been exported out of sight. And it is not a “shameful minority” but a fundamental building block of this civilization without which it would collapse in the blink of an eye.

    Today we don’t keep racial slaves we instead have a billion people forced labour camp that produces everything, some people call it China :) And the extent of our morality about it is to post articles about the suicide nets at Foxconn plants… but we all buy “made in china” stuff because we need to. We eat animals because we need to… and have sex because we need to… but have found a biological loop-hole where our drive is actually for sex and not reproduction, thus we are satisfied with the activity bypassing the biological result.

    Also today we cringe at the thought of ripping kittens heads off for sport but don’t flinch a second about the mass slaughter that goes on constantly in order to produce our food.

    I think our collective morality has remained pretty much the same over the past thousands of years but it has shifted towards specifics. We abhor the idea of a forced marriage or one to consolidate the financial means of 2 families, on the other hand we are overly concerned over divorce rates and the status of the modern nuclear family which seems to be already obsolete.

    We cringe at public beheadings and torture but cheer at bombing ISIS… why ? because they deserve it of course… just like the ones in the public executions did in the mind of the public.

    Will future generations look upon us as barbarians ? most likely… but i think if we had a portal into the future and we could look at them, we would discover just as many barbarisms in their society as they would in ours.

    Returning to my opening argument though, if i were to make a prediction it would be that in the next 50-100 years, our civilization will either leave the solar system and spread or collapse and if the collapse doesn’t end our species, something new will emerge… better or worse, but different than what is today our world culture.

    1. I think you’re wrong about those tribes. Given enough time, they will send out more and more members of their tribes, until they colonize the planet (and perhaps beyond).

      Beware the urge to romanticize more primitive peoples. They are often more barbaric, not less barbaric, than modern civilization. And remember that all of us came from such tribes. That’s how it all started. That makes it hard to say that history wouldn’t repeat itself, or somehow these glorious peoples in the jungle are noble and would never hurt a fly. That almost always gets it wrong.

      1. I’m not romanticizing the tribes, and I perfectly agree that our civilization was created by the same tribes. I’m talking about a cultural shift though. Those amazonian tribes have lived in isolation for thousands of years and if nothing changes their environment they will continue to do so.

        Is it possible on the other hand that the environment remains perfectly stable ? of course not, and given enough time and various variables falling into place it is perfectly plausible to assume that such a tribe would undergo the same cultural shift that would make them build a civilization. Would this civilization be the same as ours ? it is hard to say.

        Our civilization has one major fundamental feature, which is “city building”. A settlement that grows large enough to not be able to sustain it’s self on local resources anymore. This is the fundamental fuel of empire building and expansion since the first empire emerged. Local resource depletion means you need remote resources… those resources might be freely available in no-man’s land or on someone else’s land… who might or might not wish to trade them willingly or at a price you are willing to pay. One might start a war for those resources and expand into the “other’s” territory and claim them. Once you consolidate the core of the empire you are still left in the same conundrum, you don’t have enough local resources to maintain the existing structure, thus you need to expand even further, and the bigger the empire the bigger the infrastructure and the need to expand.

        On the other hand, what i would call a stable “culture” would be one that can sustain it’s self on local resources indefinitely (or until a shift in the environment causes a shortage). It matters less if such a culture is primitive or advanced, cruel or benign (thus addressing the romanticization part) what matters is that they will have no true NEED to expand… they might explore out of curiosity but not necessarily conquer, send scouts, establish trading relationships, but their very existence won’t depend on those trade relationships as they could very well do on their own should negotiations fail. From the earliest city state, our civilization didn’t have this luxury, it was get or die, just as it is today with outer space.

        In short, that amazonian tribe is not necessarily more moral than we are, but it has the luxury to be self sufficient. And being so automatically removes many of the moral dilemmas that our civilization faces.

        The society that exists today cannot maintain it’s existence without exploitation of resources, of other people and of foreign resources… and it has grown so large that one planet can no longer maintain it, it needs to grow but it has reached the limits of the local environment, so it must expand beyond or die. The scaling back that you described is due to reaching these limits, that’s why the present generation is not like the baby boomers generation of the 60s, that generation of 3 billion people was just starting to use abundant oil to fuel agriculture… it was not in a period where oil prices fluctuate every week but where oil was plentiful and cheap. And leaving oil aside, supposing there’s some magical substance that can replace it, agricultural surface is also overstretched, deforesting to create more arable land is a hot topic for over 30 years now.

        So yes, forced with natural limits this culture is changing, and if it does change enough to be self-sustaining then it won’t be “this culture” any longer :) it will be something else… a city state that can sustain its self off the local land, a bigger tribe…

        And i forgot to address the virtual space part: the computing power required for such a virtual space requires energy in the “real world”it requires machines (made out of minerals) and/or people to maintain and adjust to the changing computing needs. Thus, if the virtual culture inside is also expansionist it will eventually also outstrip the real local resources needed to keep it running.

        In short i would equate expansionism as a function of the relationship a population has to the local resources: balanced, overuse, under-use.

  21. I like this train of thought. It touches on something I’ve thought about previously. I would go a step further and say that moral development and technological progress are intrinsically linked. This represents a balancing force. As a gross example, if you have a level 1 society with the mind of a barbarian, it’s not hard to think of the problems that would cause locally, let alone outwardly as that society spawned forth.

    The ability to perceive new ways of thinking, require us to be different each step of the way. Without that slight new way of being each time, perceiving the next step of tech advancement would not occur, or would be very infrequent. It is certainly a huge failure placing our current state of mind into a different future. The two cannot reconcile. I assert that one cannot happen without the other, and to say that one would develop beyond the other, shows the lack of grasp of such things.

    1. Totally agree. In the previous blog post, I suggested that scientific progress leads to moral progress. The more we discover, the more it changes how we see the world.

      Some interesting thought experiments to test the idea, and to put our galaxy-destroying lust into perspective: What would previous generations have done with today’s technology and with their moral framework? That is, what would the slave-trade look like with steel-hulled container ships, shock collars, webcams, electric fences, etc.? What would colony-obsessed England look like with a nuclear arsenal? What would Napoleon or Hitler do with social media? What would Stalin have done with online corporate and governmental espionage?

      Take our current technology and hand it to the barbarians of the past, and you get the same disastrous results as those who take the advancements of tomorrow and hand them to our barbaric selves.

      1. I’ve always looked at it in the reverse, in that ‘morality’ opens the door to potential progress. But looking at it the other way as you say, I now suspect it works in both directions. The problem with this kind of concept, is that morality has a lot of baggage which will confuse the idea in a fair number of minds. What we call morality, may just be the tip of the iceberg of something more profound/subtle than what we see it as.

  22. My head is spinning… Is this all an analogy for how authors have a narrow window to colonize Amazon with their books, because content-generating bots will soon populate all available niches in the Kindle store and achieve galactic dominance?

  23. “In a very near future, professional football will no longer be played, and boxing will be outlawed, thanks to the progress of science and (lagging behind science) ethics.”

    Amen to that. Fox hunting is now illegal in the U.K., but until 10 years ago it was commonplace in the countryside among the upper classes, and in fact you can still find organized (legal) hunts in Canada. But much as it’s no longer cool to run a peasant through for perceived rudeness and boast of it over dinner with the family, most people no longer think setting hounds to tear a fox to pieces is the way to spend a country weekend. And I could mention worse examples of behavior a lot closer to home that were once “the way we do things,” and are now widely regarded with horror. We are changing as a culture in so many ways.

  24. I completely disagree with a major premise of this post, and that is the idea that “we” will ever agree on anything as a human species. There will always be those who push the technological and ethical limits, and when they co-exist in one effort, we will make leaps to places “we” did not want to go. No amount of waxing on about our ethical progress will make all of us rambunctious human sorts fall in line. We never have, and we never will.

    1. We won’t fully agree, but our shared values will continue to move.

      There are people alive today who probably think owning other people is a great idea. Or who get a kick out of torturing animals. These things were allowed in the past. You could do them without shame.

      Much of what we do today are things you will similarly not be able to do in the future. You might wish you could legally box another human in a Vegas ring, but you won’t be able to. You might wish you could bring back the NFL, but it won’t exist, and most people will be glad it doesn’t exist.

      Look at the polls on gay marriage and see how far that’s come. Sure, there will always be bigots, but even their bigotry will change. The people railing against gay marriage today were railing against interracial marriage decades ago, and marriage between protestants and Catholics before that, and before that, they were stoning anyone not a virgin on her wedding night. You get the picture.

      Frankly, I’m shocked that anyone disagrees with the truth of this. Our mores change. They will continue to change. It doesn’t even seem debatable to me.

      1. I think the problem is you are bringing up very specific examples, when a bunch of the rest of us our talking bigger picture. What you see as major shifts in morals, I see as tweaks and small adjustments made along the way.

        200,000 years ago when homo sapiens first appeared, they took care of their young, they worked together in groups, tribes or packs fought with one another, and they killed animals for food. Today, most people still take care of their young, civilization is built upon the concept of working together, countries, political factions, races, all still fight and even kill one another, and the majority of the world still eats meat. Also, from the dawn of man and civilization people (men in particular) have craved power and control of others. That same thing is in action today, mostly in what people might consider a more civilized manner (CEOs, elected officials, coaches, bosses, etc). The details might have changed but our fundamental behaviors, urges and driving directives haven’t.

        To take your one example of the NFL. People love competition and violence. Thousands of years ago, people still loved these things and went to events like gladiator games. Now most would probably agree that playing or watching football is a more enlightened way to satisfy those primal urges than watching slaves fight to the death – but both things are still satisfying those same primitive desires. I acknowledge that the NFL could disappear, but why would it? The players themselves are the ones at risk, but yet they are all volunteers and being compensated handsomely for taking those risks. The other business men involved in the game are making obscene money. The only way the NFL could disappear is if the fans lost interest – which would mean going against instincts and urges that have been active in us since the beginning of our species. We love to belong (identifying with a certain team), we love competition (the game itself), and we enjoy violence (again the game itself).

        Do I think certain groups may continue to tweak their morals to no longer accept things that we have no problem with in our current era – of course. But will the future be one of a homogeneous humanity who all share the same details about general morals. If you asked a normal person in any part of the world if murder is okay – they would probably say no. But what they constitute as murder would be different. In some parts of the world killing somebody from a different country, religion, or tribe isn’t murder so it is okay.

        In another comment you acknowledged that there would be groups that wouldn’t go along with what the community at large thought was right – and that these people would be rebels. You said they would basically be reigned in or dealt with by the greater community. Besides sounding disturbingly like the Empire from Star Wars, has trying to keep the rebels in check ever worked? Our country was founded by rebels.

        More to the point, there is simply no reason that expanding to other solar systems has to violate the morals of humanity, no matter how enlightened. You seem to suggest we will become so enlightened but yet lack the self control to branch out in a responsible way. There are lots of dead planets out there that could be colonized or used for resources (even taken apart at the atomic level by future molecular machines) without a single other life form suffering in anyway. And what about those planets that do have primitive life. Is it immoral to kill a bacteria? We do that all the time just by existing.

        If we ever got to the point that we tried to have no impact on other lifeforms, we would have to eradicate our own species.

        You say that our morals have advanced with technology, but what I think is more accurate is that our personal freedoms have advanced with technology. And trying to restrict or control rebels would go against that trend of more personal freedom and more equitable distribution of that freedom to all people.

        So bottom line is I also hope that future humanity will be more enlightened and responsible, but that simply does not correlate to halting expansion of our species beyond this solar system.

        1. Nicely expressed. Thank you!

          I’m finding Hugh’s posts fascinating and am enjoying all the different points of view being shared.

  25. Hugh I fucking love you man! Keep writing and I’ll keep reading

  26. You end with this…

    “There will be fewer of them than there are of us, but they’ll be much wiser and better behaved than we were.”

    I’m trying to imagine someone like Thomas Jefferson or Walt Whitman or Cotton Mather embracing this idea, and then you hurry them forward in time and show them the rise of Nazi Germany.

    1. The dude who owned slaves? And didn’t pay his debts? That guy?

      Is there anything to be learned by taking the outliers of good from one generation and then comparing them to the outliers of evil from another? That’s a carefully constructed but not very honest argument. Not sure what could be gained from that.

  27. Whoa whoa!
    Baby Boomers did not think like Victorians.
    Baby boomer here!! Not dead yet!

  28. One of the reasons we write is because we are thoughtful people who want to have an impact, in the here and now as well as in the future. If in the future we would like to see less bigotry, or less war, or less poverty, then we must do something to affect the outcome. If we want to see more education in the future, there’s nothing like putting our money and our efforts where our mouths are.

    Our most powerful tools are the words we choose to speak.

  29. Hugh, You may be right. Let’s say you’re probably right. But as a construct for intellectual argument, I have a little trouble with “I was convinced I was right last week (when I thought something different). Then I thought about it some more, and now I’m sure my new position is correct.”

    I’m not arguing that our thinking shouldn’t evolve over time. On the contrary.

    When I’m “sure” of a thing one week, and then I’m “sure” of something else the next week, this causes me to be less certain of what I’m sure I know this week. Because I might think something else next week.

    Which is sort of your core point. :-)

    1. Yup. I could change my mind again next week.

      I’m more wary of fixed minds than I am of changing ones. Any time a mind is changed, there’s reason to suspect it has latched on to a better idea. Any time a mind never changes, there’s reason to suspect the *quality* of the ideas are not what that mind craves, so much as validation for what it already holds.

  30. Hi, Hugh!

    Great ideas and concepts I have struggled with as an aspiring SF writer. We may develop technologically so that we are able to live forever and exploit all the planets in our solar system, our star and eventually colonize the galaxy, but unless we develop a morality that keeps up with our technology, I could see us being very nasty colonizers in the future.

    Exploration and colonization does not, in and of itself, have to be exploitative. It depends on what we find and what kind of people we are when we find it. If we find a planet dominated by peaceable cow-like creatures, will we roast them for dinner or apply the prime directive and try to study them from behind blinds? If their planet has a vital resource that will help us colonize other planets, will we put them on reservations and take the resources, arguing that since we are more technologically developed, we have the higher right to those resources?

    So far, our morality has edged to a higher plane in that some of us have rights and protections under law and there is legal equality for some of us, etc, but our technology has developed at light speed by comparison. We — as a species — still have slaves, we still make women wear veils and deny them education and employment, we still stone adulterers, we still have wars, we still exploit child labor, we still rape and pillage and plunder and shoot each other and abuse and assault each other. We still shrug when tens of thousands of babies die each day of treatable problems, or when a species goes extinct through our actions and we look the other way when ice caps start to melt because of the energy source we use. Unless we answer why these kinds of behaviours persist, we won’t overcome this tendency to kill and harm our own. If we kill and harm our own, why would we not treat other species, alien species, that way?

    I may be a curmudgeon, but I firmly believe that it is possible for our technology to advance so far beyond our morality that we could be nasty colonizers.

    Fundamental to this advanced morality would be to solve the problem of narcissists of varying degrees and how to stop them from pursuing their personal agendas at all costs. I think the vast majority of us are peaceable cooperative apes who get along with the group and are happy to do so, but there is a small group of us who are not happy peaceable and cooperative, and they are the wild cards. They are the Hitlers and Stalins and Bin Ladens of history and I think most of our problems come from the fact that these humans are not shy about taking power and directing things to their own aggrandizement and that too many of the rest of us cower or cover our eyes.

    They tend to step on the rest of us non-narcissists to get ahead and will continue to do so because evolution has not seen fit to eradicate their kind. Their genome keeps being reproduced and enough of them are high functioning that they find their way to the tops of our hierarchies. If there is a ladder somewhere they will climb it so they will be at the top.

    We will have to engineer our genome to prevent these genes from being passed on, otherwise they will continue to fight their way to the top and commandeer the ship.

    Of course, if we don’t spend enough money on how to stop a big space rock from hitting us, one will eventually do so and will reset the evolutionary clock. Problem solved. Some other species will fill the niche we left empty and then the whole thing starts over again.:)

    1. Fundamental to this advanced morality would be to solve the problem of narcissists of varying degrees…

      They tend to step on the rest of us non-narcissists… because evolution has not seen fit to eradicate their kind…

      We will have to engineer our genome to prevent these genes from being passed on…

      Anon Author,

      Half in fun and half seriously, I can’t resist pointing out the moral ambiguities inherent in what you’re saying here.

      On the one hand, you’re arguing that we should all strive to reach greater levels of peaceful, cooperative inclusiveness with even more rights and legal protections for all.

      On the other hand, you’re saying that there is this group of wildcards who don’t want to play by your rules, whom you label “narcissists,” and you seem unhappy that evolution hasn’t seen fit to “eradicate their kind.”

      So the peaceful solution that you propose to bring about “moral advancement”?

      Genomic genocide.


      1. Paul, you don’t seriously think that if we developed technology that could eradicate all genes that lead to an increased risk of cancer that we wouldn’t do so? What about a technology that could correct flawed genes for MD or Tay Sachs or Huntingdons? If narcissism is the consequence of some defective genes for empathy, wouldn’t we also want to eradicate those genes and prevent psychopaths / sociopaths from being created? I’m not talking about abortion here. I’m taking correcting our genome at the nuclear level. Currently, we are limited to treating humans who have aberrations that lead to disease, etc. after the fact. Why not prevent the disease before it gets a chance to develop? We’re still in the earliest stage of this potential, now that we are able to sequence whole genomes. We still haven’t figured out what everything means, but the first step in engineering our genome is already here. What we do with that power is going to be interesting to say the least. I know that DARPA is funding research on improving “war fighters”. Given our current level of morality, I could see them engineering better warriors using genetic engineering. In fact, they are funding research on better red blood cells already so they can use it on the battlefield to protect warriors from biological and chemical warfare.

        A civilization who engineers better warriors is not the kind to peaceably colonize a galaxy.

  31. Another absolutely irresistible siren’s song of a post, Hugh. And the comments…!
    I’m getting nothing done today.

    For me, personally, biological immortality and machine artificial intelligence are the two most fascinating issues we face today. They define our era. Nothing else comes close.

    For the last 18 months, for my WIP I’ve been doing a lot of digging into the molecular biochemistry of aging and the science behind medical immortality. And just like AI, I’m finding that biogerontology is another area where popular awareness, governmental regulation, and political and religious ideologies are all being overrun by the relentless, exponential progress of technology.

    I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing.

    The crazy part is, the biomedical technology to make ourselves physically young again, and keep ourselves young forever, will be within our reach sooner than you think. We’re a few decades away from it at most, not centuries… unless our progress somehow gets stopped dead by something else (see: runaway Artificial Intelligence. ;) ).

    Which brings us to one of your key points in the blog post, and it’s one I heartily agree with: human ethics and morality are currently evolving at a rapid pace. As time goes by, we are becoming a kinder, gentler, more benevolent, less destructive, more empathic, less violent, and far wiser species. Most of us today look at groups like ISIS with utter revulsion, but we forget so easily that ISIS-like attitudes and behaviors used to be humanity’s norm, not the now-thankfully-rare exception. As you point out, our cultural evolution is proceeding far more rapidly than our genetic evolution. We’ve come a long way since the dark ages.

    But as a species, we still have a ways to go yet… As evolved as we pride ourselves in being, we still look at ISIS and can’t help thinking that it’d be fantastic to give those motherfuckers a taste of their own medicine, and feed them screaming and kicking to sharks.

    And that right there is the insurmountable problem with biological immortality.

    I agree with you that the Malthusian argument is a total straw man — one way or another, it won’t be an issue. The real problem is that, the day humanity becomes immortal, our cultural evolution grinds to a halt, or at least slows to a crawl. Given limitless lifetimes in which to amass power and influence, the dominant and energetic “old” will control society to a degree that is unimaginable today. They will impose their political, ethical, and even artistic beliefs, doctrines, and orthodoxies upon the young and powerless. With the arrogant sureness of their superiority and greater wisdom, they will stifle any attempt at change by the young. Society will stagnate. Human moral and ethical progress will stall.

    You think That’s Not Us in the Future?

    Well, not if we achieve biological immortality. Because then,

    It Will Be Us in the Future

    We humans aren’t ready for this yet.


  32. I love these theoretical discussions. There’s no right answer today, maybe tomorrow, or long after we’re all dust, but it’s so fun to play in the sandbox.
    I would like to believe that our descendants will be better than we are, more caring and understanding that we are capable of being. I want to imagine a future where people consider the pain they inflict on others around them, their environment, and choose to abandon the darker threads of our weaving.
    I’m not convinced we will reach that point.
    We kill out of instinct, fear, boredom, necessity. One person might squash a spider because they fear all spiders, the fear might be beneficial (i.e. not being bit by poisonous varieties) or non-beneficial (the spider has been killed and can no longer help control other insect populations). We kill cockroaches because they are repulsive and smash crawling things on the sidewalk to hear them pop or crunch.
    It’s built in. Even from a young age, many of us put other creatures in jars or boxes, unable to really care for them: a coffin for our pretty things.
    This brings up an interesting question. To get to the future described here, where we realize the notion of spreading out is nothing more than a measure of futility, do we evolve or are we engineered? Meaning, how long will it take to naturally get to a point where our collective can agree on the same notion and act in unison (or by force from any entity who exerts control)? I would think it would be much easier to engineer a new human, turning off switches of learned behavior through all the previous generations of our existence, with emotions and ‘abnormal’ reasoning turned off chemically, or the physical components entirely removed.
    Left to our own devices, we will likely continue to have dark days and bright revivals. We will usher in huge advances and then self-destruct, only to rebuild in future generations. Isn’t that our story?

  33. The human population, if unchecked by collective action, will probably explode. The recent slow-down accompanying modernization is most likely a pause. Something about the modern environment is causing people to choose to have far fewer kids than they are biologically capable of. Maybe it is advances in the technology of contraception that allows us to easily separate the pleasures of sex from the work of reproduction. Maybe it’s because children are more expensive (they go to school instead of helping out on the farm). There are many possibilities. But whatever combination of factors caused it, there is a tremendous force of nature acting against it: evolution.

    People tend to think of evolution as a glacial process taking ages and aeons. Sure, it takes a few billion years to get an amoeba to give birth to Einstein. But for traits that are already present in the population, selection can work fast. For example, a pandemic that ravages a continent will instantly select for those with resistance to the disease.

    From an evolutionary standpoint, our disinclination to produce lots of offspring in our new environment is an unfit trait–it’s not likely to be passed on. Selection favors people who have many children in spite of the disincentives offered by the modern world. A few hundred years from now, most of the human population will be descendants of people who, for whatever reason, decided to have many children. If the propensity to have children is genetically transmissible (and why wouldn’t it be?), the future world will be inhabited by people with a strong urge to procreate. What would stop them?

  34. […] brings to the second post by Hugh Howey about our evolution. I think he’s right, we don’t think like Victorians and future generations won’t […]

  35. I’m not a very smart person, though I wish I was. In fact, the more I progress in life, the less I realize I know. I don’t have the brains as Hugh Howey, nor the foresight, but I also have come to learn that there is much to foresight that makes us “over-see” things.

    Hugh, this post was great. You’re my favorite author, so I come to this website nearly every day, excited about what I’m going to read. This post was yet another example of why I come here.

    I’m a Fantasy and Sci-Fi writer. I’ve written several books, and what I’ve come to learn is that many Sci-Fi writers delve into the future with their eyes only on the “now”. And, this post, in my eyes, was similar in nature. Our past is not a conglomeration of what white people’s morals were or why they did such petty things or how they rationalized their actions. Nor is our past an example of one Native American tribe’s abuse on animals. It’s quite the opposite.

    Let’s First Look at Technology

    There is vast evidence, especially if you dive into archaeology and their findings, that the past was more technologically advanced than today. From the writings of the Sumerian Tablets to the building of the Nazca Lines down to the precise cuttings and placements of Machu Pichu structures, then to the northeastern African desert where the Giza Pyramids reside, constructed of blocks that only three cranes could lift at our present period of time, we see technology more advanced. There are even dozens of famous crystal skulls, which are 10,000+ years old, that could have only been carved by lasers. How did the Vikings sail at such high speeds without motors to propel them?

    The future is only a repeat of the past. Thus is our loop in life.

    But, it’s not always technology that we are talking about, especially in your post.

    The Moral Compass

    We have been taught from Hollywood that Native Americans lived in Tipi’s, rode horses, hunted Buffalo, and fought with other tribes. Most did not. In fact, a larger percentage of Native Americans did not hunt at all, or live in Tipi’s, nor had they ever seen a horse in person. They lived in peace, made treaties with other tribes, traded for goods, created confederations with each other, which included checks and balances, that in fact the Fore Fathers used as a template for the Constitution of the United States of America.

    But, I digress.

    We can argue that the Aztecs were murderous, but we seem to forget that their brother tribes to the north were harmonious, loving, and did not war. For instance, a cousin to the Atzecs were found in the Copper Mountains about twenty or so years ago. They eat no meat, they live in harmony with each other, and are one of the longest living cultures in the world – they average well over 100 years of age with disease and illness rarely seen. They claim they have always lived like this.

    Their morals, along with most cultures that lived off the land, was to take care of the land, the animals, and the people. You can see this throughout time, from the Rus tribes in Russia to the Celtic tribes in Britannia to the Dogon Tribes in Africa to the Mayans in Central and South America. These type of cultures, at one time, covered the map. War, famine, disrespect, and the over consumption of Ego were only aspects, and very tiny aspects, of who we were. We’ve been conditioned to think that today we have better morals than humans had ever had.

    The Future is the Past

    You have probably never heard of the Rife Machine. In Star Trek, there is a device that Bones used to instantly heal another human being. Now, the Rife Machine did not “instantly” heal, but it did heal. It was created in the 1920’s by a man by the name of Dr. Royal Raymond Rife, who understood the concept that if an opera singer matched the pitch of a mirror, the mirror would shatter. He decided to use this approach with diseases and found that when the envelope structure around bacteria or viruses were matched with the same exact frequency of itself, it too would shatter. The bacteria or virus would instantly die and flush out of the body, one way or another. The Mayo Institute and the University of Southern California used his device on cancer patients and found it eliminated cancer from 90% of their patients. Sadly, the Rife Machine was shut down in the 1930’s.

    This example, plus many others in the past that I don’t want to bore you with, is one instance of where the past is our future. Heck, we may have a device that Bone’s used just around the corner.

    To end my probably drooling, sleep inducing post, I’ll skip to immortality and say this: If we had the ability to live longer, or perhaps for as long as we wanted to, then I don’t think we would ever be able to populate the entire Universe, just as we have never over populated the Earth. Nature has a way of changing things, moving things back into rhythm, pushing us to either be on the same page as her or join her friendly roots in the ground. In this way, if we ever reached the ability to live as long as we desired, we wouldn’t do so in the name of survival, or in the name of technology, or even in the name of morality. We would do so in the pursuit of continual learning, because I don’t see us using technology in the future. I see us disbanding it, coming into communities, and learning from one another. Perhaps, in the future, we would learn to do things with our bodies that technology does for us now.

    So, which pill in the future do we take? The red one or the blue one? As you can tell, I’m obviously taking the purple one.

    1. Some good points. And don’t sell yourself short or build me up. I’m not that smart, and you clearly are very smart.

      One thing I disagree about is the past being more advanced. They weren’t. We have to look really hard to find little snippets that amaze us. The pyramids, for example. The blocks weren’t lifted; they were pushed up dirt ramps. It didn’t even require slaves; it was done with paid labor. A dome like Brunelleschi’s is a sign of real technological achievement. By contrast, a pyramid or cone is the shape a large pile of dirt takes. Which is why we see pyramids in different cultures. Not because of aliens, but because of physics.

      The people of the past had the same potential and intellect that we have today. If we cloned them, they would be indistinguishable from us. What they lacked was the knowledge accumulated over the years, and the tech that is built on other tech. They were nowhere near as advanced as us. Not even close. They didn’t have a moderate understanding of anatomy or disease. They didn’t have our metallurgy, our math, our atomic physics. We put people on the moon. They had a hard time getting people to their 50s.

  36. I always find these articles interesting, and they give much food for thought.

    However, I feel obligated to provide a counter thesis to your, at times, overly optimistic view of the world, human nature and the future.

    This review of Steven Pinker’s work is very interesting and provides an opposing argument. Put simply, the world is not as much of a better place as Pinker et al argue, and that their views and arguments relating to violence and morality are actually less persuasive that at first glance. Indeed, the view that violence is a type of civilisational backwardness, and that those who carry out violence are backward and less civilised, reeks of cultural determinism and, to be brutally frank, an almost religious sense of narrow mindedness and intellectual arrogance.

    I would argue that yes, violence has reduced in the terms that pinker describes, but in other ways it is actually increasing. I also think it is dangerous to blithely assume a Whig view of humanity, of a species on the path of inevitable progress from violence, superstition, intolerance, racism, and other forms of societal malfeasance, to a society of higher beings, who conduct themselves through purely altruistic actions. This view, inspired by the almost religious faith in “Enlightenment values”, and the fact that these are supposedly the highest form of philosophical ideal by which to live one’s life, does not take into account the dark side of these “Enlightenment values”. Details of these are mentioned in the review.

    My main objection to the overly optimistic views espoused by Pinker and his followers – as indeed they are, in an almost religious sense – is that this adherence to the new orthodoxy of apparently increasing tolerance, altruism and ethical behaviour, alongside decreasing violence, seems to engender a sense of moral superiority, whereby those who hold to this orthodoxy are so unwilling to concede that the world and humanity might not be progressing in the above ways to the extent they argue it is that they fall into behaviour and ways of thinking that they uphold as examples of primitive human nature and cultural backwardness. In this way, Pinker’s overly and arguably unrealistic optimism is actually more harmful than helpful.

    Indeed, it could be argued that this worldview is as damaging as that held by the 19th century imperialists, or any other ideology that sees itself as the answer to everything, for the reason that those who hold it believe that everyone should share in their belief, and those who don’t are backward, less advanced and less civilised.

    I’m not saying that we should all go about our lives under a cloud of dread about various impending “apocoli”, but that we shouldn’t go into the future with unbridled optimism.

    Here’s the link for anyone who is interested in reading a much more eloquent and coherent argument against this new form of unrealistic optimism:

  37. This is a blog post worthy of

  38. I think the Ekard equation and Hugh’s notion that any advanced species would be too ethical to conquer of the galaxy can actually go together pretty well and create lots of opportunities for colonization of the galaxy.

    Let’s say that the chances of an intelligent terrestrial species developing on its own is very low, as Ekard suggests. Okay, fine. But that only increases the odds of that any lone intelligent species that does develop, will become a colonizer of their galazy. Why? Because then it means that most of the planets out there have no intelligent species in them already, so it’s ethically fine to colonize them. If there’s only a few intelligent species, and all that undeveloped real estate out there, they could go a very long way exploring and then colonizing and terraforming a whole lot of planets out there before coming across any other intelligent species that might give them ethical concerns about conquering/colonizing their real estate.

    In the event they did come across a planet that, on its own, had at least some promise of developing intelligent life, perhaps they would even help it along. Splice in some of their DNA to push it in that direction, direct their evolution to some extent.

    In other words, the Arthur C. Clarke 2001: A Space Odyssey theory. That intelligent, benignly ethical species would slowly colonize the universe, often by simply altering the genetic evolution of host species already on the best planets with life already on them, by taking a species like an ape, or a bear, or a wolf, and guiding it in the direction of intelligence. With giant monoliths doing the heavy lifting.

    In fact there are some people out there who take Clark seriously, and suggest this is actually how we can account for mankind’s rapid evolutionary leaps of the last few million years or less, in suddenly becoming so damned intelligent. That we have already been a part of a massive colonization process for a very long time, and we are the colonists.

    If that’s the case, it would also preclude us every getting out of hand, morally speaking, and going out and conquering the galaxy. Our parents would just take away our toys and give us a time out. Childhood’s End, in other words.

  39. Hugh I think you present some interesting ideas. I have perused most of the comments here. I must say that you appear ( please don’t take offense ) a bit too pessimistic about the afterlife and too optimistic about the future. I urge you to take a look at the Bible for yourself alone. Not as part of a Church ,but just spend five minutes a day reading it.
    On another note, the Bible which predicts moral decay , and wars etc , also seems to suggest the limit of human life to be the 120 year span. Meaning 129 would be our MAX.
    I think the state of living , where oxygen both feeds and kills us, necessitates death in the end.
    Everything else man imagines I believe will come to pass- just not overcoming death. I believe we will go forth into the universe and discover we are the only sentient and perhaps the only life form period.
    This frightens most atheists who desperately want to fill the God shaped void and need to know there is ” someone out there”. There is “someone out there” but it’s God not aliens. And He loves us even when we are stubborn. He wishes all His children would love Him back.

    1. Read the book cover to cover during and after my confirmation process. It’s what convinced me that organized religion is not for me. Too much hate and destruction in that book. Couldn’t get over the idea of the flood. I mean . . . all the pregnant mothers who drowned. Not all could’ve been sinners.

  40. Hugh, This is the most thought provoking post you’ve ever written.

    I met you in Redondo Beach on your book tour while I was pregnant with my eleventh child three are mine, and eight were for other couples in need, I was a surrogate mother.

    Anyway, I talked to you about writing my memoir, and you gave some fabulous advice as usual, and I am still plugging away on it, a l m o s t finished!

    My point is this, When I gave birth to my daughter, the eleventh baby, the most amazing thing happened to me during the birth, kind of ironic too. You would have thought I would have been an expert at childbirth by the time I gave birth to her, but the unexpected happened, and the OB/GYN made a fatal mistake and obliterated my bladder during a routine c-section and my other organs reacted in a fatal blood loss. I flatlined and was brought back by an amazing surgeon who reconstructed my bladder. If I lose you now reading, I understand because it does sound kind of “lu-lu” but I had a near death experience almost two years ago that will never leave me in way of human immortality. I left my body and did not want to come back to earth. The experience was surreal, was it all consciousness?, I don’t know but it was REAL. It was the most amazing experience of my life. It seriously changed me and my biggest revelation? “Heaven” is everyday on this earth, it’s not a place we go to, it’s how you make a difference in the world, leaving your footprint to make the world better for those to come later. And we better sure start now, every single one of us.

  41. There is one flaw in the logic that I can see and it also has to do with timing.
    Ice ages.
    Will the next ice age come before we have the technology to travel between stars? Although we can survive an ice age, can 7 billion, or more, survive well on a planet mostly covered by ice? Will we survive so well we keep growing and thinking about space? Won’t we be focused on survival instead? After thousands of years of surviving on an ice planet, will we be back in the stone ages?
    Maybe this is why we have not seen aliens, maybe no civilization lives long enough to reach the level of tech needed to travel? Meteors, viruses, weapons of war….taking life down a peg or two.

  42. I think we exist as ultra-sentient particles.
    Purpose is a constant. Consciousness consists of transmissions of quantum energy (“Quantum” = a blossoming of the divine). Quantum cycle.line 4
    line 4=via electromagnetic forces. The question is can we as a species hear it?
    Sorry is some of this has programing mixed in-I’m realy tired.
    ********************Siri if some of this has comp sci stuff, I’ve been awake for the past 83.42 hours, b.but my friend=Zack text.ed me = “Breck”) to check this thread out. Trying to balance a project and boatlode of red bull with progaming and text-writing in response to this post. ////
    Surreptitiously (and ideally), we will soon be awakened by a power deep within ourselves — a power that is spatial, non-local. Reiki may be the solution to what’s holding us as a society back from an unimaginable uprising of synchronicity. As we exist, we will enter into infinite space-time that transcends understanding. Therein lies one potential answer to population expansion and balancing it with immortality.

    I’ve always felt that without self.actualization, humans cannot reflect. args {humans are going to have to take a stand against desire}
    yes=yes, it is possible to eliminate the things that can eradicate us, but not without health and logic on our side. But I digress.

    var A = parasine.north {{
    It can be difficult to know where to begin (or continue (or end for that matter)). If you have never experienced this harmonizing of unfathomable proportions, it can be difficult to believe. One theory advises that we look within and empower ourselves. //I definitely agree with this one personally.

    Ho[[e.fully my message is somewhat understandable.

  43. It seems to me that an ethical problem with colonizing the galaxy only arises if you limit ‘colonizing’ to Earth like planets. We could zip around the galaxy in hollowed out asteroids, live on artificially constructed ringworlds etc.

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