Captain James Cook has always been a hero of mine. It’s not just that he was born in Marton, which now forms part of my home town Middlesbrough, either. How can you not admire someone who wrote:
I, who hope ambition leads me
not only further than any other man has been
before me, but as far as I think it possible
for a man to go…
No wonder that Captain James Cook was the inspiration for Captain James T. Kirk!
Cook has crossed my mind a couple of times recently, in two quite different contexts. First, my daughter’s school topic this term was called “Beyond the Horizon” – it was about explorers – and she chose to write about Cook. And this week I had the privilege of having advance access to the forthcoming book Emigrating Beyond Earth: Human Adaptation and Space Colonization by the American anthropologists Cameron M. Smith and Evan T. Davies. Smith and Davies are passionate advocates of the need for human space colonisation, and they argue that anthropology – the scientific study of the human species, in all its aspects from biology to culture – will be critical to successful human migration into space. In their fascinating book they describe how a study of earlier explorers, such as Cook, can inform a programme for the colonisation of space – starting perhaps with Mars and then leading who-knows-where.
In chapter 4 of their book, Smith and Davies present various arguments that sceptics have made against human colonisation of space; they then present a robust refutation of each of those arguments. In the same chapter they also make strong arguments of their own in favour of space colonisation. I’m philosophically and temperamentally inclined to agree with all the points they make. And yet…
When I helped my daughter with her Cook homework, one of the things that struck us both was the relative poverty in which he grew up. The conditions Cook faced when he went on his three great voyages could hardly have been much worse than the conditions he faced in cold North Yorkshire winters. In a sense, Cook – and the other explorers Smith and Davies mention, going all the way back to the incredible Lapita voyagers – had nothing to lose. So while I agree with Smith and Davies that space colonisation is the next step in human adaptation, I’m increasingly doubtful whether we’ll achieve it: Cook was poor, we are rich; he had nothing to lose, we have warmth, and full bellies, and television, and the internet… Perhaps we are too rich to colonise space. Would you give up your comfortable existence to risk the countless hardships and dangers of a life in space? Even if you would, do you really think that a sufficient number of your friends, family, neighbours would brave those risks in order to establish a viable human community off-Earth?
Of course, not everyone on Earth is rich: it’s a tragedy that even today many humans would have nothing to lose by taking part in a migration into space. But in general those unfortunate people live in countries that are too poor to even contemplate the expense of a space programme. My guess is that people in the rich countries wouldn’t want to be part of human migration into space; people in poor countries won’t have the chance to be part of human migration into space.
Maybe it’s all the dismal news that’s going around right now, but I’ve never felt less hopeful that we will – as a species – eventually live off-Earth. And if we don’t eventually make that move off-Earth, something (asteroid impact, global warming, pandemics, whatever) will extinguish us.
If you’ve read Where Is Everybody? you’ll know that I don’t believe such ‘sociological’ factors can be an explanation of the Fermi paradox. But I do increasingly wonder whether they’ll be the reason why humans never reach space.