Scottish geologist Dougal Dixon doesn’t think much of the human future, or at least he didn’t have very much hope for the human species twenty years ago when he wrote Man After Man, a dystopian tale of how humans will eventually go extinct. Vulnerable, highly reliant on technology for even their basic needs, and unable to do anything about the pollution and overpopulation of their world other than subject their fellow humans to cruel and extreme genetic engineering and surgical modification to build a fleet of spacecraft to find a new home in the depths of space, future civilizations collapse and leave only their attempts to start the species from nearly scratch. And if that’s not pessimistic enough for you, consider what Dixon predicts will happen in five million years, when the planet is pillaged into oblivion by alien beings with very distant and gruesome ties to Earth.
While you can check out online editions of the book to see how Dixon envisions the end of humanity through inbreeding and over-reliance on technology to circumvent natural selection, and the millions of years in which their bizarre, formerly human creations take over the planet, I wanted to focus on his version of colonizing the outer reaches of space. In many parts, the book’s science seems solid on the surface and shaky when you’re really drilling down into the his detailed explanations, but his ideas of a society which spent millions of years in space and the territory of which spans countless worlds, are really quite scary and all too plausible. In the timeline he lays out, humanity sends its best trained, smartest, and most athletic members to the stars while turning countless others into nearly alien species designed only to help build the machinery for exploring the interstellar voids. One might assume it’s the triumph of a future eugenics movement, a sinister cackle of Sir Francis Galton from beyond the grave, but the reason for their selection is far more sinister. They’re not just selected to be good breeding stock. They, and their children, were selected to be spare parts.
Far from their home world, the space-faring humans will need to radically adapt to survive harsh alien planets and moons, and their chosen method is to genetically engineer themselves into a new species. The perfect, athletic, genetically sound, selectively bred space travelers’ organs will be used to put together bodies of their descendants, the ones who’ll be alive to complete the journey and set foot on alien worlds. And once they start expanding from planet to planet and adapt to new climates, atmospheres, flora, and fauna, there’s no telling how twisted and bizarre their bodies will have to be to survive. Their tactics for harnessing food and ensuring steady supplies of workers to maintain their complex machinery are described in pretty explicit detail and very disturbing illustrations. To them, who spent eons living this way, this is the normal state of affairs. To us, it’s bound to be immoral and horrifyingly inhumane. But that last word really is the key there, isn’t it? These past humans no longer see themselves as such and the descendants of the species that gave rise to them seem like nothing more than another alien species to exploit for the time being. It’s a little chilling to consider that at some point in the future, we could become even remotely like them…
Exploring and colonizing space is supposed to ennoble us and give us a sense of perspective, the sense of community which needs to stay together in a vast and often hostile universe which can take your life as easily and as randomly as it was given to you. But if we spread out across the stars with barely any communication between our fellow colonists and Earth, this adventure may well harden, isolate, and warp us into a species we wouldn’t want to meet, a species which cares only about keeping its reactors going and ensuring it has a steady flow of crucial supplies to all its outposts. One could argue that we already behave like that, but since we’re on the same planet, we have to at least pretend to get along once in a while. Once future generations of deep space colonists start branching out from the rest of their species, however, that becomes unnecessary, and all that they’ll need to get the raw resources they require is to take them by force.