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This is the proposal for the thesis I planned to write in 1980. For personal reasons, I was unable to continue with my graduate work although I had completed all the courses required for a master’s degree in anthropology—and so it was never written. I had hoped it might someday become a book, but I wouldn’t have been able to get it published without an academic connection; scholarly books are difficult enough for even faculty members to get into print. But I think its approach, which is focused on issues current within anthropology during the 70s, is still of interest to space enthusiasts, even if not to scholars in general. I think I could have incorporated enough citations to support its assertions in an academically-acceptable form.

Evolutionary Significance of Space Colonization
and Its Impact on Anthropological Theory

A Master’s Thesis Proposal by Sylvia Engdahl

(Submitted to the Department of Anthropology, Portland State University, September 1980, and subsequently approved)


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 humanization.

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 man’s 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.


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 environmental niche.

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 superficially.

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. O’Neill 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. O’Neill 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 include—but will not be limited to—discussion 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 O’Neill 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 Earth’s 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 White’s views of causation will not be endorsed—nor 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 O’Neill, they will seem considerably less “artificial” than many of our present cities—although 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.


Brand, Stewart, ed.
1977 - Space Colonies. San Francisco: CoEvolution Books/Penguin Books.

Campbell, Bernard
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. Biology. 22:415-427.

Huxley, Julian
1974 - Evolution, the Modern Synthesis (3rd ed.) New York: Hafner Press.

Johnson, Richard D. and Holbrow, Charles, eds.
1977 - Space Settlements, a Design Study. Washington, DC: NASA.

O’Neill, Gerard K.
1974 - “The Colonization of Space.” Physics Today 27 (Sept.): 32-40.
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 Carolina Press.

White, Leslie A.
1959 - The Evolution of Culture. New York: McGraw-Hill.
1969 - The Science of Culture New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Copyright 1980, 2003 by Sylvia Engdahl. All rights reserved.

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