Among advocates of space exploration it is a truism that expansion into space
is a major step in human evolution. However, the idea has been stated by
laymen and scientists alike simply as an article of faith. Little if any
attempt has been made to provide a theoretical basis for it or to present it
in scientific terms. Such an attempt should logically come from anthropology,
since anthropology is the discipline concerned with the study of human
evolution. Yet though a few anthropologists have been involved in space-related
work or have made comments about space, they have not approached the topic
from the evolutionary standpoint, nor have they analyzed the impact of a
space-oriented worldview on anthropological theory. With respect to theories
of cultural evolution, such impact is potentially very great; but it has not
been dealt with in the literature of the field, nor indeed in the growing
body of literature concerned with what is now coming to be known as space
This gap needs to be filled, particularly in view of the recent formation of
the Institute for the Social Science Study of Space (an affiliate of the
Universities Space Research Association), one goal of which is to
stimulate social science and humanities scholarship and reflection on space
related topics (Cheston and Webb 1979). More and more, it is being
recognized that space studies should not remain the exclusive province of
technological disciplines, and increased interest in mans imminent
utilization of the space environment is being shown by scholars outside the
aerospace community. So far, however, social science studies of space have
been focused on issues of sociology and applied anthropology. There has been
consideration of the impact of space programs on society, and of
sociocultural designs of space colonies; but no theoretical foundation has
been laid in terms of the evolutionary significance of space colonization for
our species as a whole. To do so will be the aim of this thesis.
II. SPECIFIC AIMS
The thesis will present arguments to support the following hypotheses:
a) Expansion beyond the biosphere of a single planet is adaptive for a
culture-bearing species and should be seen as occupation of a new
b) Once the above hypothesis is taken as a premise, the controversies in
anthropological theory concerning cultural evolution appear in a new light.
If development of technology and social structure prerequisite to
extraterrestrial expansion is adaptive for the species Homo sapiens, then the
belief that such development constitutes progress is not mere
ethnocentricism; thus cultural advancement can be objectively defined and
cultural relativism becomes untenable as an overall view of human history,
however valid it may be for comparing aspects of particular cultures. (This
is not to say that cultures conducive to progressive evolution of the species
are better than others, since it is not necessary for all
cultures to adapt to new niches in order for the species to do so, and since
diversity is important to a species adaptability.)
c) Neither of the above hypotheses implies that any specific socioeconomic
system is more advanced than all others; on the contrary, the importance of
space colonization is currently defended with equal vigor by adherents of
diametrically opposed ideologies. Furthermore, an argument often advanced in
favor of space colonies is that they will foster cultural diversification.
Therefore, in the present era at least, a space-oriented perspective has no
effect on theories of social evolution, as distinguished from theories of
cultural evolution in the sense of exosomatic evolution.
d) However, since it is self-evident that occupation of extraterrestrial
environments requires a high level of technology, the premise that expansion
into space is adaptive does have significant effect on views of the role of
technology in evolution. It leads to the conclusion that continued
technological advance is an essential and integral part of exosomatic
evolution, and that there is no distinction between natural and
unnatural environments in the case of a species that evolves by
exosomatic as well as by genetic means.
The thesis will be based on synthesis of the literature in the areas of space
humanization, evolutionary and ecological theory, and anthropological theory
pertaining to cultural evolution. Because few scholars are familiar with all
three of these areas, it will necessarily be directed to a somewhat broader
academic audience than is usual, and will be of greater length. There is no
escaping this if the topic is to be treated in depth rather than
The tentative organization of the material is as follows:
a) The new conception of space colonization, which is so recent that many
social scientists are not yet aware of it, but which amounts to a major
paradigm shift in the Kuhnian sense. Although some people have long believed
in the evolutionary importance of expansion beyond Earth (I myself have felt
strongly about it since the early 1950s), it would not have been possible to
operationalize the concept prior to the introduction of this new paradigm,
which has emerged in the past five years, largely as a result of the work of
Professor Gerard K. ONeill of Princeton. It is essential that the
premise of the thesis be made clear at the outset: space
colonization refers not to the establishment of outposts on the moon or
other planets, but to the construction of large ecologically self-sufficient
habitats in space itself. This is not a mere speculative idea; such
construction could be begun in this century with present technology, and the
concept has been extensively studied in both quantitative and human terms
(e.g. ONeill 1974, 1977; Johnson and Holbrow 1977; Brand 1977). It is
not the purpose of the thesis to demonstrate the technological feasibility of
building orbiting habitats; the relevant body of literature will simply be
cited and summarized in order to dismiss the assumptions of the older
paradigm, under which space was conceived as empty distance between worlds
rather than an environment rich in energy and resources.
b) Foundation in evolutionary and ecological theory for the concept of
expansion into space as adaptation to a new environmental niche. It will be
argued on the basis of such theory that occupation of a new niche is adaptive
for a species, and that expansion into a previously unoccupied niche
constitutes progress for life. This section will includebut will not be
limited todiscussion of various definitions of such terms as
niche (e.g. Hutchinson 1957) and progress (e.g.
Huxley 1974; Stebbins 1969) and analysis of the past importance of new niches
in human evolution (e.g. Campbell 1966).
c) Specific reasons why occupation of the extraterrestrial niche will be
adaptive for Homo sapiens. These derive from the fact that expansion
into space will enable the species to transcend the alleged limits of
growth that appear to exist when the planet Earth is viewed as a closed
system, a point that has frequently been made by ONeill and others.
(Those unfamiliar with the new paradigm of space colonization should realize
that orbiting habitats will be built from extraterrestrial materials and will
become the sites of polluting industries which will ultimately be removed
from Earths biosphere.) Further adaptive value lies in the dispersal of
the species, which will decrease its vulnerability to disaster.
d) The objective definition of progress in cultural evolution in
terms of the capability of the species to colonize unoccupied niches. It must
be emphasized that this is progress for the species as a whole, not for the
particular culture(s) that initiate(s) space colonization (and for this
reason the literature of cultural ecology is less relevant than it might
seem). It is what Sahlins and Service (1960) term general
evolution as opposed to specific evolution, although their
discussion is not wholly applicable. The ideas of White (1959, 1969),
especially his theory of energy utilization, are highly pertinent and will be
discussed in detail, but Whites views of causation will not be
endorsednor indeed will any other form of determinism; to say what
constitutes progress is not to say what causes progress. The
question of unilinear vs. multilinear evolution will also be considered, but
will be shown to be meaningless in this context. All in all, theories of
cultural evolution, even general evolution, have focused on
comparisons between cultures; they have suffered from a lack of criteria by
which to judge advancement of the species as an entity. (Use of the term
entity here does not imply superorganicism; some views of space
colonization are strongly superorganicist, while others are strongly
individualistic, and both are compatible with the premise of adaptiveness.)
e) The question of whether extraterrestrial habitats are natural
environments. The position taken will be that they are as natural as any
other environments modified by culture, including prehistoric settlements.
The argument here depends in part on the characteristics of such habitats,
which are not conceived as ships or space stations
and which include plants and animals as well as human life; as visualized by
ONeill, they will seem considerably less artificial than
many of our present citiesalthough some authors feel that future
cultures will have different standards and will not wish to make new
habitats look like pastoral Earth. (Of course, a major advantage of orbiting
colonies is that they need not be all alike.) The fundamental principle
involved in the issue of naturalness is that exosomatic
evolution is natural to Homo sapiens.
IV. SOURCES CITED IN THE PROPOSAL
Brand, Stewart, ed.
1977 - Space Colonies. San Francisco: CoEvolution Books/Penguin Books.
1966 - Human Evolution. Chicago: Aldine.
Cheston, T. Stephen and Webb, David C., eds,
1979 - The Space Humanization Series, Vol. I. Washington, DC:
Institute for the Social Science Study of Space.
Hutchinson, G. Evelyn
1957 - Concluding Remarks. Cold Spring Harbor Symp. on Quant.
1974 - Evolution, the Modern Synthesis (3rd ed.) New York: Hafner
Johnson, Richard D. and Holbrow, Charles, eds.
1977 - Space Settlements, a Design Study. Washington, DC: NASA.
ONeill, Gerard K.
1974 - The Colonization of Space. Physics Today 27
1977 - The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space. New York: Morrow.
Sahlins, Marshall D. and Service, Elman R., eds.
1960 - Evolution and Culture. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.
Stebbins, G. Ledyard
1969 - The Basis of Progressive Evolution. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North
White, Leslie A.
1959 - The Evolution of Culture. New York: McGraw-Hill.
1969 - The Science of Culture New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.