Apollo 11 image: Earth viewed from Moon

Carl Sagan Two billion years ago our ancestors were microbes; a half-billion years ago, fish; a hundred million years ago, something like mice; ten million years ago, arboreal apes; and a million years ago, proto-humans puzzling out the taming of fire. Our evolutionary lineage is marked by mastery of change. In our time, the pace is quickening.

When we first venture to a near-Earth asteroid, we will have entered a habitat that may engage our species forever. The first voyage of men and women to Mars is the key step in transforming us into a multiplanet species. These events are as momentous as the colonization of the land by our amphibian ancestors and the descent from the trees by our primate ancestors.

Fish with rudimentary lungs and fins slightly adapted for walking must have died in great numbers before establishing a permanent foothold on the land. As the forests slowly receded, our upright apelike forebears often scurried back into the trees, fleeing the predators that stalked the savannahs. The transitions were painful, took millions of years, and were imperceptible to those involved. In our case the transition occupies only a few generations, and with only a handful of lives lost. The pace is so swift that we are still barely able to grasp what is happening.

Once the first children are born off Earth; once we have bases and homesteads on asteroids, comets, moons, and planets; once we’re living off the land and bringing up new generations on other worlds, something will have changed forever in human history. But inhabiting other worlds does not imply abandoning this one, any more than the evolution of amphibians meant the end of fish. For a very long time only a small fraction of us will be out there.

“In modern Western society,” writes the scholar Charles Lindholm, “the erosion of tradition and the collapse of accepted religious belief leaves us without a telos [an end to which we strive], a sanctified notion of humanity’s potential. Bereft of a sacred project, we have only a demystified image of a frail and fallible humanity no longer capable of becoming god-like.”

I believe it is healthy - indeed, essential - to keep our frailty and fallibility firmly in mind. I worry about people who aspire to be “god-like.” But as for a long-term goal and a sacred project, there is one before us. On it the very survival of our species depends. If we have been locked and bolted into a prison of the self, there is an escape hatch - something worthy, something vastly larger than ourselves, a crucial act on behalf of humanity. Peopling other worlds unifies nations and ethnic groups, binds the generations, and requires us to be both smart and wise. It liberates our nature and, in part, returns us to our beginnings. Even now, this new telos is within our grasp.

Carl Sagan
Pale Blue Dot


Eric Chaisson After all, since we have recently become the agents of change on Earth, we must now begin playing an active role in the process of evolution. And I maintain that this active role must begin with a collectively recognized set of ethics or principles suited to the preservation of all humankind. Furthermore, like the evolutionary changes that in turn originated and developed particles, galaxies, stars, planets, biochemicals, lives, and cultures, transition toward the next step of globally conscious life forms is a universal phenomenon. All technological beings, on any planet, must evolve a planetary ethic, lest they be unprepared to endure the by-products of technoculture. In fact, implicit within our cosmic evolutionary paradigm is a transcendence of the Darwinian principle of natural selection, a loftier standard that I call the principle of cosmic selection: Those technological civilizations (of any type on any planet) that recognize the need for, develop in time, and fully embrace a global (even a galactic and then a cosmic) ethics will survive, and those that do not will not.

Eric Chaisson
The Life Era

Edward O. Wilson The human brain evidently evolved to commit itself emotionally only to a small piece of geography, a limited band of kinsmen, and two or three generations into the future. To look neither far ahead nor far afield is elemental in a Darwinian sense. We are innately inclined to ignore any distant possibility not yet requiring examination. It is, people say, just good common sense. Why do they think in this shortsighted way? The reason is simple: it is a hardwired part of our Paleolithic heritage. For hundreds of millennia, those who worked for short-term gain within a small circle of relatives and friends lived longer and left more offspring—even when their collective striving caused their chiefdoms and empires to crumble around them. The long view that might have saved their distant descendants required a vision and extended altruism instinctively difficult to marshal.

The great dilemma of environmental reasoning stems from this conflict between short-term and long-term values. To select values for the near future of one's own tribe or country is relatively easy. To select values for the distant future of the whole planet also is relatively easy—in theory, at least. To combine the two visions to create a universal environmental ethic is, on the other hand, very difficult. But combine them we must, because a universal environmental ethic is the only guide by which humanity and the rest of life can be safely conducted through the bottleneck into which our species has foolishly blundered.

Edward O. Wilson
The Future of Life

Fred Hoyle It has often been said that, if the human species fails to make a go of it here on the Earth, some other species will take over the running. In the sense of developing intelligence this is not correct. We have or soon will have, exhausted the necessary physical prerequisites so far as this planet is concerned. With coal gone, oil gone, high-grade metallic ores gone, no species however competent can make the long climb from primitive conditions to high-level technology. This is a one-shot affair. If we fail, this planetary system fails so far as intelligence is concerned. The same will be true of other planetary systems. On each of them there will be one chance, and one chance only.

Sir Fred Hoyle
Of Men and Galaxies

A Future beyond Earth?
Change and Evolution
Which Future?