Hedging Our Bets

By | July 10, 2006

Stephen Hawking continues to push the issue of moving off world. Last week Hawking posted a question at Yahoo Answers:

In a world that is in chaos politically, socially and environmentally, how can the human race sustain another 100 years?

It’s not, as one news article suggested, that Stephen Hawking is stumped and needs help with an answer. Hawking has been very public with his point of view on this subject. Last month in Tokyo he said:

“[The human race needs to] spread out into space for the survival of the species,” claiming “life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers we have not yet thought of.”

If Hawking’s purpose was get people thinking and talking about this issue, he was successful. Some 17,000 people have responded to his question. So let’s make this post the 17,001st response.

I’m all for getting us out into the galaxy, but there is reason to argue the premise of Hawking’s Yahoo question. Is it true that things are particularly chaotic now? Phil recently quoted the book Before the Dawn: {correction: the quote is from a review of Before the Dawn}:

Two billion war deaths would have occurred in the 20th century if modern societies suffered the same casualty rate as primitive peoples, according to anthropologist Lawrence H Keeley, who calculates that two-thirds of them were at war continuously, typically losing half of a percent of its population to war each year.

Since we “only” had 262 million die from war in the 20th century (h/t to Matoko Kusanagi), we improved on the Stone Age by 1.7 billion lives saved last century even with two world wars and Stalin. This while people invented the most efficient weapons for killing the world has ever seen.

And it’s not just nations that grew less violent. See Phil’s post on the falling crime rate.

The difference is that today more disputes – local, national, and international – are handled systematically. Might no longer makes right… usually. But right makes might. Those countries where the courts are trusted and corruption is rare grow rich and powerful as the world’s resources flow to them.

I’m not arguing that Hawking is a Luddite. I’m sure he appreciates that technology has made it possible for him to live and make great contributions. What concerns Hawking is the fact that technology cuts both ways. Technology can be a force for good, but technology could also allow terrorists to engineer a pandemic. For all their other problems, Stone Age people didn’t have to worry about this. This risk has arisen only in the last decade.

Other risks will surely arise as we move toward the Technological Singularity. These risks will be significant, but I’m more optimistic than Hawking that we can manage it. We’ll likely take some hits, but we’ll learn to defend ourselves with the same technologies that create the risks.

That said, on the off chance that I’m wrong and Albert Einstein Medal winner Stephen Hawking is right, I see no reason not to take Hawking’s suggestion and establish colonies elsewhere. Because, you know, stranger things have happened.

  • Phil Bowermaster

    The quote actually comes from a review of Before the Dawn, not the book itself.

    I think developing a non-earth-constrained branch of human civilization — which may in time become the mainstream, leaving earth-constrained human civilization as the branch — is as good a means of hedging our bets as we are likely to find. And, as several of our survey-takers observed, there are plenty of other good reasons for doing it.

  • http://beyondwordsworth.com Kathy

    I wonder if Hawkings is projecting his feelings about his own mortality on the whole human race. It’s amazing how long he’s lived and how prodcutive he’s been with ALS. Although we all have a terminal disease called senescence, he’s been living with a different sort of knowledge of how he might die than the rest of us have.

  • http://cracksinthesanitarium.blogspot.com/ MattShultz

    I thought the question was a bit silly myself. When has the world not been in chaos, politically, socially, or environmentally? It’s the way of things.

    Not that setting up space colonies isn’t a good idea. By all means, let’s spread; it’s what life does. And if Hawking’s question gets a few more people thinking along those lines, well, he’s on the side of the angels.