Thursday, June 26, 2008

On leaving the Earth and its Cycles Behind

January 6, 2005

I reject the natural cycles of biology. And rejecting them may be quintessentially human -- our most defining characteristic.
Our special (speci-al; read "species-all") hallmark is our absence of oestrus and our year-long month-long sexual receptivity (c.f. Jared Diamond's "Why Sex is Fun") shared by almost no other animals in the world. It is hypothesized that our ability (willingness, longing?) to have sex all the time, even when it could be considered wasted effort (in reproductive terms) is an adaptation to maintain and secure the pair bond for the difficult task of rearing a large brained, slow-maturing offspring. Sex keeps the couple together through hard times and ensures fidelity. By rejecting the natural menstrual cycle and seasonal cycle as rulers of sexual activity, humans have been able to evolve to a level of consciousness and intelligence and physical prowess far exceeding the millions of other life forms with whom we share this planet.

I suspect that to continue evolving progressively we must divorce ourselves even further from the cycles of this planet.

In defense of ignoring our environment

Our disdain for recycling and ecology may stem from this "progressive evolutionary instinct." Our world-wide adoption of eschatological religions with linear story lines and our overall rejection of recycling religions (i.e. circular, cyclical religions) may also stem from the same urge. We don't want to be ruled by the ebb and flow, rise and fall, incarnation-decomposition-reincarnation rhythms of this lonely little planet. We don't want to be ruled by the slow trickle of solar radiation and its limited rate of income (or at least capture by fellow life forms who can do 3 % conversion at best). The 10% rule of energy transfer up the trophic levels infuriates us. We want it all and always!

Wearing beards as a recidivist trait

Men shave their beards in "advanced" societies, and enforce their growth in "backward" societies. The Taliban and Bin Ladens of the world are seen as recidivist, anchored by ancient books and old rhythms. Beards are what happen in the 'natural' life and death cycle. Beards show age, reveal experience, signal the transfers of power that occur through the life cycle. We free ourselves from that cycle when we shave, holdingon desperately to our species' special neoteny.

It is said (Desmond Morris, E.O. Wilson, Jared Diamond et al.) that we differ from chimpanzees in that we retain some fetal characteristics into adulthood. It is implied that the genetic switches that make us different from our closest relatives were merely time dilation switches in development (ontogeny) that carried into phylogeny (see Stephen J. Gould ; I think it is in Aldous Huxley's "Ape and Essence" where an idea is put forward that a man allowed to live several hundred years eventually turns into an ape! Or was that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Creeping Man"?)

If we are aware that to be human is to stay young -- to perch perpetually at the starting line, at the opening salvo of every natural cycle in some eternal spring, then it makes sense to rail against every autumn, to fight the winter of our soul, to fight senescence in every way.

We must get out of harmony with "nature".

The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one can not live in a cradle forever."
-Konstantin Tsiolkovsky

William E. Burrows, in "The Survival Imperative: Using Space to Protect Earth" makes an eloquent case for creating an ARC on the Moon, an archive or "backup drive" of civilization to preserve our history and values for when the earth is impacted by another asteroid collision (or other large magnitude disaster). He goes further in urging us to backup civilization throughout our solar system to increase the odds of this fragile phenomenon -- intelligent life -- surviving the myriad catastrophes that can (and will) occur in our pocket of space.

An argument can be made that just as the moon (and the "moon-strual" cycle) no longer rule our sexual appetites we must lot let the sun (or our orbit around it) rule any of our behavior. Those deadly yearly cycles must be conquered. Very soon we will (by choice or necessity) leave this earth, this moon, this sun. We will abandon this solar system and its infernal, eternal cycles. Our evolution into a space faring civilization demands it. To suggest otherwise is to condemn us (and any intelligent organisms who follow in our footsteps) to extinction. The philosopher Jean Francois Lyotard was quite adamant about this in the arguments he laid out in his "Post-modern Fable".

We will need our individual members to live for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. We will need to delay reproduction for hundreds of years.

Conforming to another Fable:

It is recorded in Genesis -- the most widespread creation myth of our species -- that our progenitors lived almost a thousand years (950 in the case of Noah) and often delayed reproduction until many hundreds of years had passed (as many as 500 in Noah's case; his father Lamech had him at 182). This is of course if we take the Bible literally (some who believe in the Bible do not and have other more terrestrial explanations for the numbers)

But taken at face value, longevity and neoteny are in the Bible. (Bible thumpers will be delighted to hear this! So come on religious folk, get behind this space faring initiative!)
According to the Bible (don't you love the implicit authority in that phrase?) we lived for nearly a thousand years when we first came to this planet and our current 120 year "limit" was only imposed on us when we decided to stay and mingle our genes with some of the locals (dying young was partially a punishment for the "the sons of God" interbreeding with the "daughters of men" -- this allegedly angered God).

Well, now that we are leaving, we no longer need the limit.

Being adapted to the Earth and its cycles can be seen as the curse we inherited when we left Eden (clearly a land without cycles of life and death, birth and senescence, predators and prey, winter and summer) and mingled space-faring genes with planet-bound genes. We must now decouple ourselves from this planet's rhythms if we are to gain purchase in space.

I use biblical fables metaphorically, but I wouldn't be the first person to connect the influence of the Genesis myth to our attitudes toward our environment and role in it. UCLA History Professor Lynne White Jr. wrote The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis in Science 155: 1203-1207.

As Eric Doyle argues in "Ecology and the Canticle of Brother Sun" ( an analysis of St. Francis of Assissi's "Canticle of Brother Sun" and how Franciscan thinking can be used to help us deal with our ecological crisis),

"In an article published in March 1967, Professor Lynn White of the University of California, argued that the historical roots of the ecological crisis can be traced to the traditional Christian view of man’s dominion over nature.’ Professor White maintained that because the roots of the trouble are largely religious, the remedy must be essentially religious".(p. 392)

Turning to Genesis and other long-preserved creation myths is not an untenable way to mobilize humankind toward measures that would preserve creation, and Burrow's idea of creating a (Noah's) Archive of civilization and the living heritage of the Earth in space is not without precedent in our religious history.

What is complex about using religion and eschatology to deal with our ecological predicament is that it involves so many contradictions, chief among them the question of whether we should be trying to adapt to the earth and its limitations or transcend them. And if we attempt to transcend, what becomes of the other life forms with whom we share this planet?

One argument says,

"Hooray for the indifference of people to their environment! Bravo if you disdain "nature" per se! You are ready to blast off this earth!"

I am no environmentalist. I am a space man.

I was born a year after the Russians put the first man in space and watched the first man walk on the moon in the Summer of '69 when I was in the second grade. My view of the earth was always the one looking down FROM space -- put that image in a child's head when he is little and it is hard not to think of oneself as separate from the home planet. The famous "earth from space" image reproduced in thousands of books and posters cannot help but give us the feeling that we are aliens, for when we learned Geography and Geology in School we were introduced to the 3rd Rock from the Sun the way an extra-terrestrial child would be - from outside. That's how I grew up.

As a space-man, I want to understand each planet I visit and know what resources there can sustain us. But like any good traveler and conscientious visitor or polite houseguest I want to leave the resource cycles of each place intact so that it will still be here next time I visit and will be available to other visitors (utilitarian argument) and because it has its own intrinsic worth (spiritual argument).

In my space capsule it is like being in the garden of Eden from which I came. It is a land of perpetual spring where I am forever young.

I frolic and play and carry on like an eternal child.

My wife Sybille has a recurrent dream that is perhaps about the same theme. In her dream she is running on a track and her mother insists she leave the race and come sit and drink tea with her. She does so, but is upset and annoyed. As well she should be. In the extended neoteny hypothesis it should be the elders who join us on the track not the other way around. They should not be allowed to drag us into their earthly grave, slow us down, force us to adapt to their rhythms of decay. We reject our elders because they want us to stop running, to change phase, to "grow up". They want us to fulfill their expectations that we reproduce their departing genes because they have no faith that there is anywhere else to go. They are stuck on earth. They are preachers of stagnation. And as long as we are merely "running around in circles" (as Sybille is when she runs on the race track) what argument do we have?

But when we are racing for the stars, all this will change.

No more stopping for the "long dark tea-time of the soul". No more "pause that refreshes" -- no quittin' time for dying and recycling. We are taking our CHON (our CHON'PS -- so as not to forget the Phosphorous and Sulfur) off this "God forsaken little planet". It will be a net drain on resources, but don't worry those of you who choose to remain behind; the next meteor strike or asteroid collision will return plenty!

The Great Leap Forward

All of this will become clear when humanity discovers evidence of astrobiology - of extraterrestrial life. It should have happened on January 14th 2005 (8 days from when this essay was first written) with the first surface probe of Titan, the moon of Saturn, but all we got were confirmations of hydrocarbon seas. It could happen any day now with the results of the Phoenix lander's analysis of Martian soil. But so far all we have are confirmations of water ice.
Recently we have learned that the building blocks of DNA are of extraterrestrial origin.

Once we do confirm exobiology - life out there -- the race to space will begin in earnest.

The human genome project (and the genome projects of other species), along with stem cell research, will give our neotonic tendencies their due. We will achieve relative "immortality". God will speak to those who have ears to hear ("you are close to the tree of life -- now go reclaim Eden"). And we will move out in the journey of a thousand years.

By the year 3000 we should no longer be reckoning by years, which are silly solar revolutions, and will reckon time in linear, not circular distances.

No more cycles.

Men and women will choose reproduction without ovulation -- sex will be a form of play, keeping people bonded for the long and challenging journey ahead.

We have been working through the consequences of consequence-free sex for 30 years or more. Stuck on Earth it wreaked emotional and social havoc, but in space, until our worlds are bigger than a tin can, it will serve us well.

We had to go through "overpopulation" (and deliberate migration to cramped apartments in unnatural settings) to get adjusted to the challenges of space travel, or at least this is what our descendants will claim in hindsight. What does it matter if it is true or not? Did the hand know that it was "meant" to evolve into the chiropteran wing of the bat? Would it ever admit it? Yet if bats could speak they would claim they had to have hands at some point in their evolution in order to have wings. The insects among you will disagree, but the birds will chirp in their teleological approval, more or less!)

The Muslim Spacemen will claim Ramadan was an exercise to help decouple us from the daily cycles of consumption and that God knew that we needed the discipline of fasting to make the journey through the vast desert in the sky.

Christian spacemen of Catholic origin will claim a 40 day Lent necessary for crossing interstellar resource-poor spaces.


We are preparing for a journey.

So back to our species' unique sexual problems:

In space, the female cannot dictate the the amount of sexual activity based on her "cycles". If she did, we would only have sex in the fall or early winter (in seasonal climates) or 9 months away from the most favorable times of the year for child birth and survival. When we did come together it would be like it is for other animals -- only for three days during the month. But in extra-terrestrial space there are no seasons, no days or nights, no calendars to reckon things by.

We may have started that out behaving like most other animals, but apparently the human male didn't conform to the usual pattern for very long. Almost all other animal males simply lose interest in their females during the times they aren't receptive, and many actively avoid them.

In the classic Red Deer of Rum studies done by TH Clutton Brock et al. they talked about "Sexually antagonistic genetic variation for fitness in red deer (Nature, 447: 1107-1110. [PDF]); In his seminal 1982 book "Red deer: Behaviour and ecology of two sexes" (University of Chicago Press, Chicago) TH Cluton Brock made the argument that for many mammals males and females are, for all intents and purposes, two different species for most of the year (in terms of behavior and niche exploitation).

When I was at Harvard, Professor Mark Leighton gave all of us in Biological Anthropology a host of examples of primates that show similar divergence between the sexes in their behavioral ecology. In species that maintain the sex drive for most of the year, when many males find their mates unreceptive but there are other receptive females in the population, they simply choose another sex partner. Therein begins the patterns of promiscuity that so upset those of us with big brains, long memories and the ability to feel jealousy.

Animals (like Gibbons and many bird species) that face resource constraints (where resources are patchy in distribution and need defense) tend to evolve monogamy.

Human males who maintained monogamy in resource challenged areas (for example during migrations), usually facing conditions where other females weren't available, pressed for extended receptivity in their mates. Female mutants who had the trait for ever-present desire obviously out-competed their more reticent competitors, hung on to their males for longer periods of time, earned their mate's devotion and secured their defense and resource provision, and thus passed on the trait to more offspring.

We ended up evolving the largest brained creature on the planet (relative to body mass), changing the biology of the species, and making the males and females of our species more similar than most others.

Monogamy and constant sex within the pair bond are the hallmark of our evolution. To get back in sync with female bio-rhythms is to make a major step backwards. It forces men to at least "think" promiscuously (coveting neighbor's wives, for example, and committing "adultery in the heart" if not de facto), it weakens the pair bond and degenerates us (literally, back to genetic patterns of our distant ancestors).

Simply look at the standard behavior pattern: Boy and Girl meet, get attracted and excited, have constant sex on a many-times daily basis until Girl gets pregnant. After childbirth, when the female is receptive again, the cycle begins anew. Eventually the couple reaches its reproductive limit. They continue to engage in intimate behavior to keep the pair bond strong for the duration of child rearing. Once all the children have been weaned and there is no evolutionary pressure to stay together, the sex life of most couples begins to wane (in many cases a loss of interest in sex can happen much earlier; allegedly it is the female who loses interest in constant sex, having passed through that seasonal biological phase of the cycle). Without sex, the relationship usually starts to get tense, fights break out without the irrational salve of ecstasy to bring the pair back together, and pretty soon the couple either break up or lose their ability to cooperate effectively. Old age and a decrease in the hormones of libido are often to blame for a decrease in sexual interest, but there is also the disease of senescence which erases secondary sex characteristics and their ability to stimulate. Unfortunately the female is the one to suffer the most from discrimination that results from this, as many older men begin to seek sexual companionship from "younger women", often causing much suffering in their former mates (as we all know, in a male dominated society, the men, who may well have lost their sex appeal, trade status, power and wealth -- i.e. resources -- for sexual gratification).

Either way we, as a species, must face up to the effect sex has on our ability to get along and the effects of aging on sex. And we must wonder what our libidinous tendencies will do to our prospects for survival in a changing environment.

When we start gong into space in earnest and cannot use procreation as our excuse for sex during long journeys (wherein having an increasing population would create severe resource problems), couples will need to be completely free of cyclical thinking in order to maintain harmony. They will have to be free of cycles that go beyond ignoring outdated concepts like "day and night" and "spring and autumn" and equally ignore ideas like "the spring of youth" and "the autumn of our lives". In journeys that will last hundreds to thousands of years, our attitudes toward age and the feeling that "for everything there is a time and a season" will have to be reconsidered, and probably re-engineered. Along with our bodies.

We will have to forget about Nature and stop behaving according to our "nature" -- the human nature that evolved in harmony with the cycles and rhythms of the Planet Earth.

In fact everything we did and all the traits we evolved during our relatively short tenure on the planet Earth (ca 100,000 years?) to stay adapted to our relatively unchanging environment (+/- a few ice ages) will have to be reconsidered in the light of the challenges we will face in outer space. They will also have to be reconsidered in light of the challenges we will face as the earth's environment changes so quickly and radically (due to both anthropogenic and non-human causes).

Either way, we will have to think about what pieces of human nature to preserve and which to discard.

I think it is time we started a serious global dialog about this. The Environment is Changing and with it the Psychology of Our Behavior.