Should we care if our species becomes extinct? I don’t mean should we try to avoid it from happening tomorrow. I mean if (when) the earth becomes no longer suitable for life, the backup plan seems to be to colonize other worlds. This TED talk suggests that to do so, we will have to modify our bodies significantly, or even transplant our very consciousness, preserving “ourselves” through the long journeys of space by body transplants. The head in a jar atop a Futurama robot comes to mind.
But are we merely our “species” biologically, or are we personhood and culture? And how much of that is founded in our bodies as they are, in all their hormonal drives and imperfections? Will humans on Mars in a hundred or a thousand years exemplify what it means to be “human” in the sense we are today? What are we trying to preserve?
I have an answer that is surprisingly personal: I am adopted and have no grandchildren.
How am I preserving the family that adopted me? Assuming a lack of grandchildren, what do I want to preserve of myself and how? To whom will it go? Perhaps it’s like passing a baton between people of three different teams. But if I die tomorrow, my memory lives on, my writings, my stories and jokes and photographs that capture special times. Being adopted, I have lived my life with no interest in breeding clones of myself because I am not anywhere near such a thing myself. And yet my ancestors live on in me. Genetics aside, we are all raised in a human village of sorts, all children to each other’s parents. We are deeply affected by collective culture, and we pass it on to those around us with different last names all the time. The most meaningful things are passed, with not so much distinction as to who specifically they are passed to.
So what of humanity? I don’t think we should NOT evolve, naturally and artificially. But I don’t think preservation of the human body is so vital or our consciousness so sacred that we should just assume it will always be the way it is. That may not even be possible given the necessities of other worlds. When we move on as a species — and as human beings in a more meaningful sense — it will be preserved by descendant species or even outright aliens.
It is through deep cultural preservation that we are adopted by the ancients. We in turn may adopt our distant descendants in a similar fashion, to children evolved from us or across the void into other interstellar nurseries. Beings and species from other worlds may see themselves as part of a larger village, caring for each other’s children, preserving what is meaningful from all of them, capitulated through memory and thought into even more distant futures.
As individuals we are mortal, and so shall be our species. But life and who we are can will probably still go on, even if the cords of DNA are broken. I don’t think that’s such a bad deal.