Human Nature Rules Out Colonialism?

Science fiction has always been based on this assumption. The usual premise of SF set in large colonies, those ready for independence, is that they are being economically exploited by whatever agency — governmental or private — made the original investment. The plot often involves the colonists winning, or attempting to win, their freedom. The most recent presentation of this scenario is in Firefly, which is convincing precisely because we know underneath that its metaphors express truth about the way long-distance colonization works. (Incidentally, I don’t see the situation in Firefly as parallel to the American Civil War, as has been stated in several places; politically, it’s more comparable to what the aftermath of the American Revolution would have been if the US colonies hadn’t won.) Colonies cannot be founded without a large investment from the mother civilization, which will not be made unless a return on the investment is expected; and if they provide a return, that civilization will do its best to retain control of them. I trust that in another century or so we’ll have matured enough to resolve the situation without fighting a war over it — but that doesn’t change the fact that no colonies will ever be established unless benefits to Earth are foreseen.

We tend to lose sight of this fact when we think of space colonists as rugged individualists setting out for new lands like the original American colonists or Western pioneers, which of course is a valid comparison as far as their individual motivation is concerned. Unfortunately there are two major reasons why it’s not valid in other ways. In the first place, they won’t be able to get to Mars or any other world using only their personal resources. And in the second place, they will not be able to “live off the land” when they get there, not on any planet in this solar system. Thus somebody has got to pay for their transport and their life support until the colony is well established, and whoever does so is going expect an eventual profit.

So if we want colonies, we had better hope that Earth will benefit from them, and we had better be careful about allowing the public to believe otherwise. A planet that has no resources of use to Earth will simply never be settled, unless perhaps, as O’Neill suggested, residents of orbiting colonies get so rich selling power and materials to Earth that they can fund a more distant colony on their own. It’s a sure bet that no sufficiently-large group of prospective pioneers on Earth is going to get that rich.

Then have I, a lifelong optimist, become a cynic in my old age? Since I’ve declared in The Far Side of Evil and at my website that the survival of humankind depends on colonization beyond our home world, have I concluded that we’re doomed because only self-interest can bring about the establishment of colonies? No. I believe space and/or other worlds do contain resources that self-interest leads expanding planetary civilizations to utilize, even if we are not yet aware of them or of how our capabilities will develop. I believe’s that’s a natural step in evolution (although I am not saying that all civilized species successfully take that step, or that ours will inevitably do so).

Progress is not made, and has never been made, on altruistic grounds. That is not how the universe works. Progress is made by individuals pursuing their own ends — and yet it does occur. This idea is no longer just philosophy; the evidence for it is building up through the new science of complexity (the implications of which have not yet been recognized by traditionalists) and will, I believe, transform the outlook of all sciences, including the social sciences, before the end of this century. In the evolution of organisms, communities, and even technologies — in the process of history itself — individual self-interest, pursued without regard to any central plan or altruistic aim, results in spontaneous overall self-organization (which may or may not be termed “progress,” according to one’s personal preference). Thus if it’s a natural law that at least some species that develop technology spread beyond their home worlds, as I believe it is, then it’s through this process that it occurs.

19 thoughts on “Human Nature Rules Out Colonialism?”

  1. I agree. First of all, we are animals, and our behaviour is motivated by our biology. Technology has grown at an astonishing speed, so fast that it has outpaced our biology.

    An example; there are enough food in the world to feed every human alive (we have the technology), yet, half of it goes directly to the trash can, if the price is “not right” (greed, animal irrational behaviour).

    I believe we need to artificialy evolve in to something else than an “human animal”, before we reach our first colony.

  2. What do you mean by artificially evolve? Sounds scary to me. Yes, I believe we do have the ability to feed all the hungry people in the world right now. We just need a few more people with guts and vision.

  3. Perhaps by “artificially evolve” he’s talking about something like the singularity, which either sounds perfectly plausible or completely nuts depending on who’s describing it

  4. Indeed. For what we normally consider “to be human”. Yet, things need to change, sadly I dont know how.

  5. You say, “In the first place, they won’t be able to get to Mars or any other world using only their personal resources. And in the second place, they will not be able to ‘live off the land’ when they get there, not on any planet in this solar system.”

    Don’t you think that it is possible that future technological progress will allow a small group’s personal resources to allow them to get to Mars and live off the land? The Europeans had to develop some reasonably sophisticated tech to colonize the New World after all. I think most Europeans in 619 A.D. would have imagined it to be impossible to sail across the Atlantic. Maybe in a thousand years it will be as easy to get to Mars as it was for the Pilgrims to get to Plymouth.

  6. While governments may support military or research outposts on other planets, real human colonies won’t succeed until they have the potential to become economically self-sustaining. That means engaging in trade. Profitable trade will create opportunities for individuals to migrate, get a job, and support themselves.

    Parts of New England aside, most of the British colonies in North American were founded by companies and individuals seeking to make money. Absent a self-sustaining economy, the flow of resources from Earth will always exceed the flow of resources from the colony to Earth. True colonies can’t be sustained like that.

  7. They might be, in a way, the foundation of what we know as civilization.

    Still, they are also the source of almost every think we do WRONG.

    Like NOT feeding all the humanity, or NOT giving FREE medical care to ANYONE who requires it.

    It is simply not logical nor efficient.

  8. No, I don’t think so — at least not until Mars is already settled and terraformed. The cost of transportation to Mars cannot possibly come within the reach of small private groups until large numbers of private spaceships capable of traveling interplanetary distances are in use. You can’t just go and build one, as the Europeans could build ships. (And sailing ships were common before they were used to colonize the New World. Even then, the early explorers needed wealthy backers; according to tradition Queen Isabella had to sell her jewels to buy ships for Columbus.)

    Technology is always costly in the prototype stage, and life support systems for Mars would by definition be prototypes when first used for colonization. “Living off the land” means surviving without any high technology, let alone new technology.

    When we have colonized many planets, then maybe small groups can colonize new ones with similar conditions. But that can’t happen in our own solar system.

  9. Sending robots to the planets for natural resources or scientific experiments is much cheaper than sending humans.

    So why send humans into space? Sure, it’s fun. But is it good economics, or even good science?

  10. Economics isn’t the reason too many people are hungry. Economics isn’t the reason people lack medical care. Those things are caused by human nature. Economics attempts to explain how people behave, it has nothing to do with the motivation for that behavior.

    The desire for personal gain — financial and otherwise — will be fundamental to space exploraton and colonization, as it was to human expansion across Earth.

    So, blaming economics for the world’s ills is analagous to blaming medical science for disease.

    It seems self-evident that colonies, either here on Earth or on other planets, succeed if they meet one of two basic criteria:

    1) The colonies serve a purpose that is so important to the home nation/planet that it is willing to transfer whatever resources it takes to sustain the colony. I.e., run the place at a loss. Examples might include military outposts.

    2) The colonies become increasingly self-sufficient and eventually reach the point at which they obtain all necessary resources locally or by engaging in trade with others.

    Colonies require resources. If the resources aren’t available, a colony will fail.

    As for all this somehow not being logical and efficient…well, we’re not Vulcans, are we? What you are suggesting requires a fundamental change in human behavior. I don’t think we’re going to see that.

  11. You are correct in defining the principle behind modern economics. I focused on the result and not in the source, but in the end I feel one takes us to the other.

    So, I stick with my thinking, it is because of this monetarian based economy (propelled by the desire of personal gain above anything and anyone else), that half the humanity doesnt have anything to eat. It is not what would happen in a well administrated and efficient society.

    And I agree, what I say here will not happen anytime soon. Personal Greed is many times more important for the common individual than having a true civilization.

  12. I’d agree with you completely were it not for the possibility that we may soon have a working space elevator on Earth. The existence of a space elevator will make it much easier and less expensive to build large ships (with large fuel tanks) in orbit. These ships, bound for Mars, would never need to touch an atmosphere and so could employ very simple designs (a big cube, for instance) which further cuts down costs. These ships might well be within the reach of corporations to fund.

    And if our first project on Mars is to build a space elevator there, that makes travel from the surface of Earth to the surface of Mars much less costly. I actually don’t think that any sort of colonization on Mars will happen at all until space elevators are first built here and there. Too costly and dangerous without them–especially if part of the economic payoff of going there is to mine its resources and send it back to Earth.

  13. It’s just a matter of time. Already studies are underway to find the genes responsible for high intelligence. First will come genetic screening of the “bad genes” in the sperm and egg to create a child free of genetic diseases and predispositions to diseases. Then will come genetic selection of the sperm and egg with the “good genes” that make us athletic or more intelligent. Then we’ll start to artificialy introduce good genes (that neither parent carried) into our sperm and egg so to create children better than nature would have allowed. And finally, we’ll begin to create new genes that never existed in nature before, so as to radically increase our intelligence and other physical characteristics. Our species will likely be much, much different several hundred years from now (if we’re still here).

  14. We’ve spent about $5 billion on Mars robotic missions so far – many of them have failed (close to 2/3 I believe). The cost of a first human mission would not be much more. Robots are expensive too, and unfortunately still too unreliable and inflexible to be as useful as real people.

  15. Technological growth can serve as the basis for economic and sociological growth and human evolution.

    NASA has less peer-reviewed science than NIH, which is why NASA has been inefficient.

    Innovation goes down as politics becomes the criteria for advancement among scientists.

    Bush wants to kill all space science that might, someday, actually get us into space. As opposed to silly assed posturing designed to start a Cold War with China and enrich General Dynamics, General Electric, and Halliburton, among other Carlyle group affiliates.

    The problem with the desire to “dominate” space militarily is that we do not have and will not encourage the scientific and engineering base to do it with. There is currently a drive in the White House to end all peer-reviewed science. They haven’t the slightest idea how to actualize their fantasies, and they have nothing but contempt for the analytical process it takes to develop it.

    Look for covert attempts to sabotage the space programs of other countries, the government realizes it is incompetent to run its own space program.

    This country could have moon and Mars colonies in a generation, and interplanetary ships and stations capable of reasonably safe space exploration and development. We’re human, we’re animals, but we’re also a tropical species that selected for an intelligence that allows us to live and succeed in incredibly harsh environments. For the people that want it, space colonies will be a boon.

    But this country won’t do it, because it doesn’t understand the concept of scientific peer review, and it has nothing but contempt for the kind of people it takes to do science and accomplish the engineering.

  16. I think that the ultimate goal of space travel IS colinization of another planet. As a species if we expect to survive 10,000 years more we NEED to not have “all of our eggs in one basket”. What if a large asteroid destroys Earth… should that be the end of all humans… what about the dammage we are doing to the planet? Expenontal population growth? No the soloution to these problems is Not just moving to another planet, but expanding the area for humans to live and expanding our resource base IS part of the ultimate soloution. Either that or mass suicide, Which ultimatly is what staying here and only here will be.


    I apologize for spelling and grammar mistakes, writing is not my forte.

  17. Why does mankind toy with the idea of colonizing and exploiting another planet when he has done a fine job of nearly destroying earth? Are humans therefore, no more than locusts? If there is intelligent life out in the universe I can only hope they will limit human space exploration efforts.

  18. Earth has not been “nearly destroyed,” but it will be in time if we don’t expand our civilization beyond it. The problems we now have are the natural result of our species being ready to colonize (in the biological sense of the term) a new ecological niche: the niche of space and lifeless–or almost lifeless–planets. Failure to do so would be the surest way to bring about the future destruction not only of Earth’s resources, and not only of our own species, but of all other species that share our home world.

    To those who like the metaphor of Mother Earth as Gaia and argue that she is not healthy, my answer has been that her symptoms are due not to illness but to the fact that she is pregnant. This, I think, says it all. I was once going to write something using the pregnancy metaphor, until I discovered that others have also thought of it and have mentioned it on the Web–so I can’t call it an original one. It nevertheless is apt.

    If there are other intelligent species out in the universe, they could not “limit” our space exploration efforts unless they themselves have expanded into space! They could not even know about our space activities without being space explorers, unless their home worlds are close that they’ve already picked up our radio broadcasts, which is highly unlikely. So the suggestion that they would disapprove of space exploration is self-contradictory. (For my view of how very advanced civilizations view civilizations of less mature species, please read my novels Enchantress from the Stars and The Far Side of Evil.)

    In my opinion, all intelligent species ultimately colonize beyond their mother planets — either that, or they become extinct, which is what happens to any species if it is unable to expand into a new niche when the resources of the old become inadequate. We are not exempt from the natural laws of evolution. Though our means of occupying a new niche is different from that of the first creatures to move from the sea onto land, it is no less a part of the evolutionary process;
    to abort that process would be contrary to the principles under which all life exists.

    Because we can partially foresee the effects of our actions, however, we do have more choice than locusts do. We can choose to expand into space before we’ve consumed everything in our path to survival, instead of waiting until it’s too late to preserve Earth’s environment.

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