Friday, April 22, 2016

Go team human!

A species is an organizational device, the result of a particular taxonomic structuring of the world. Species does not refer to a concrete entity. The human species can’t have needs, for example. Individual people have needs—and although each person shares many needs in common with every other person, no singular needy entity mysteriously emerges from the expression of these mutual needs. To say that the human species has needs—as a species—is to speak nonsense. Species is a concept, a construct, an abstraction.

Don’t get me wrong—it is an extremely useful abstraction. But just like its close cousin, humanity, it is a tool of thought and a linguistic convenience, not a thing in the world. It is important not to lose sight of this fact because there are concrete real-world repercussions to treating abstractions as if they were actual entities (“Corporations are people my friend”).

In addition, there appears to be a strong tendency for us to attach more importance to the abstraction, the idea, than to the concrete entities the abstraction subsumes—in the same way that the team becomes more important than the individual players.

The movie, Interstellar provides an interesting case study of this tendency.

The human part of the plot of Interstellar is simultaneously banal and unbelievable, but the broader story it sits upon is neither banal nor unbelievable: a future in which the Earth is rapidly becoming a dustbowl and humans are doomed. All government money and resources in this future world are being directed at food production. GMO corn is the last major food crop to survive, and there is every indication that it will be dying out in short order as well—GMO or not. All is not lost for the humans, however, because NASA has been secretly diverting billions of dollars to a massive space colonization project.

The NASA project has a Plan A and a Plan B. Plan A is a city-sized space station that can accommodate an untold number of people—untold, but obviously far fewer than the Earth’s remaining population. The problem with Plan A is a lacuna in theoretical physics, specifically a missing piece of an equation involving gravity that would allow the space station to get off the planet. But not to worry, because Plan B is already in full swing. Plan B involves launching small groups of astronauts through a mysterious wormhole placed next to Saturn by some unknowable five-dimensional alien beings simply referred to as "they." The wormhole leads to a distant and unnamed galaxy, and allows access to a star system with a number of potentially habitable planets. Oh, and the important part, the astronauts sent through the wormhole are packing specially selected frozen gametes so that if they do find a good place to land they can eventually reestablish the human species, and also ensure a wide range of genetic diversity so that evolution has something to work with as the species accommodates the idiosyncrasies of its new planetary home.

Interstellar suffers from a cadre of logical kinks, impossible coincidences, and hard-to-suspend-disbelief plot vehicles that are typical of the science fiction movie genre—the most egregious of which is that the mysterious five-dimensional beings turn out to be a distant future iteration of the human species. So, powerful five-dimensional beings go back in time to set up a wormhole close to their planet of origin so that they might survive to evolve into five-dimensional beings that can travel back in time to set up a wormhole next to their planet of origin….

But set aside the recursive circularity of the wormhole’s origin for a moment. There is another issue being dealt with here that strikes to the heart of the matter, the real issue; the only issue: the future survival of the human race. The most important thing is that the human species survives. This is more important than any of the lives of any of the people involved. We must continue—although it is clear that this "we" is not all inclusive. Even stronger, the only "we" that really matters is some abstract "us" in the future that does not include a single soul alive today. This unanalyzed assumption sits like a monolithic 2001 Space Odyssey obelisk on the brain of the movie’s writers and viewers alike: it is imperative that the human species has a future; humans must survive.


Why does it matter whether the distant future is inhabited by our progeny? It makes no difference to anyone alive at this moment if every human on the planet disappears two hundred years from now. Our lives will be as rich and full and complete (or not) regardless of the future of the species (or lack thereof).

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