People still too human for Stephen Hawking

Damned biological units...


Poor Stephen; he ought to read more and spend less time thinking on his own. There is a serious danger, when one is surrounded by flatterers and apple polishers, and is permitted to think in isolation, of going mad. One's thoughts must perpetually be challenged, tested, and pollinated by others to be kept healthy. One gets the sense of a man whose ideas have not been challenged in decades, and are stagnating, even putrefying.

We see this most clearly as Hawking goes Star Trek on us, and suggests that "the long-term survival of the human race will be safe only if we spread out into space, and then to other stars".

Look, the human race will not be saved by space colonization. There are many reasons why not, but here are two: First, diverting the resources needed to prepare, launch, and maintain a growing (or "viable" in the illiterate language of technology) extra-terrestrial colony would cost the lives of billions of humans here on Earth.

We might send explorers to other places in the solar system to return, or to die there, relatively cheaply; but providing for their eventual self-sufficiency will exceed the resources we can spare, plus the available resources of the host place, which will necessarily offer little useful to humans because we didn't evolve there.

Second, like all living things, we are partly a product of our environment: there is a definite "somewhereness" about us - so much so that it is impossible to speak intelligently about humanity outside the context of planet Earth. If we adapt to some radically different world, we will cease to be human.

So, Hawking's imaginary colonists will either die at great expense to those left behind, or miraculously mutate into something so radically different that the word "human" becomes meaningless.

Hawking's final hope is that we can (and should) breed the very humanity out of human beings, in some pathetic quest of immortality. "Perhaps we must hope that genetic engineering will make us wise and less aggressive," he writes.

Genetic engineering will make us better. Not long ago, there was an influential group of folks who shared that belief, although they used the name "eugenics" in place of "genetic engineering" back in those days. A number of those folks were hanged in a German city called Nuremberg.

But the deeper suggestion here, that we humans, as nature made us, are bad and stupid and should be ashamed of ourselves, is the suggestion of a colossal ignoramus.

We are mortal, both individually and as a species, and we know that we're mortal. And that makes us greater than anything in nature, and anything that Man has yet conceived. Mortality makes us superior even to the gods that we have proposed. They can't die; we can, and we do. And we know it. When we act, we know that it might be final. Nothing the gods do can't be undone; they risk nothing, but we risk everything. We have courage; the gods do not.

Yes, we are passionate, and foolish, and violent. And courageous, and artistic, and creative. We've survived numerous close calls, some of our making, some not. We might yet destroy ourselves, or be destroyed by some natural phenomenon. Death has been our close companion and a constant reminder of our frailty for as long as we've been human. But to be disturbed by that is to be disturbed by the very idea of humanity - to suggest that we're too human. And that requires an almost inhuman blend of cowardice and ignorance. ®

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1. I should add that it's irresponsible to do nothing about global warming merely because it might not be our fault. If an unoccupied car rolls down a hill toward you, you step out of the way, at least if you're sane. You don't stand in its path complaining that someone else failed to set the brake. Just so, we should do all we can to alleviate global warming, even if our activities have little effect one way or the other. We don't know that we can't improve the situation; therefore, we're obliged to try.

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