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Review: ‘Scatter, Adapt and Remember’ asks if we can survive the worst

In last year’s Why Does the World Exist? Jim Holt asked an essential existential question. Examining physics and philosophy, he managed to maintain an atheist’s dubiety while unfolding a scenario that looks like Something trumping Nothing: a particle sparking the universe. In this year’s Scatter, Adapt and Remember, science writer Annalee Newitz poses the next logical question, at least by implication: If there is a reason why we are here, what are we to do about it?

Humanity has long answered that question. Look around. Newitz acknowledges we have this tendency to dominion, for assuming that we are the object of all that making. And in disasters, her three title directions are our default settings. In this, we merely mimic the perseverance of species over the 13.7 billion years since Something, in making itself, slung this little clump of molten rock through a life-friendly corner of space-time. Newitz argues that we should embrace the duty to evolve. She interviews a range of future-seekers, from NASA engineers to science-fiction enthusiasts, to show just how earnestly this issue is being pondered.

Of course there are complications. For one thing, carbon space ladders and cyborgs can only be imagined at this point. But more key to our species’ fortunes, Something seems to have given us a finite few millennia to figure things out before Earth does something to shed itself of us, like crack open in atmosphere-poisoning super-volcanoes or collide with an asteroid.

Not to worry or anything, but Newitz makes a good case we should start thinking harder about coping with catastrophe. The Earth seems to be staging ample training opportunities lately. But what about the sort of mass-extinction events that regularly cull species, as Newitz documents from primordial algae to modern famine? Has anyone noticed that the U.S. no longer has a space vehicle? In what would we load Bruce Willis and crew, not to nuke an asteroid, but to yank it from its collision course? And who, exactly, is prepared to do that? We’re still several years from private space travel, maybe decades from mining the Moon or setting up base camps on Mars.

Newitz often enough admits that research leading to bio-engineered cities or to “solar management” — seeding the atmosphere with sun-blunting filters — is embryonic and that some of it even morally troubles researchers. Our species’ record on unintended consequences is not good, remember. Newitz relates a Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer’s expectation that space exploration will reprise the market’s government-driven embrace of early flight. But does it not seem likely that we will blithely divert ourselves, a comet not so much? And how will the market determine to do more lofty things, like manage our evolution into benevolent super-beings?

“The urge to survive, not just as individuals but as a society and an ecosystem, is built into us as deeply as greed and cynicism are,” Newitz asserts. Maybe, but saying so only acknowledges our firmly embedded dark traits. I don’t like our chances of surviving long in caves, for instance, which is among Newitz’s suggestions for enduring inhospitable climates. Recall the last scene of Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, when Strangelove proposes saving a patrician male core of humanity in mineshafts and argues that, far from being dispirited, it will exhibit “a spirit of bold curiosity for the adventure ahead.”

But ultimately Newitz fixes her gaze outward, to the colonization of space by engineered humans — possibly our minds uploaded into machines — that can swim the methane lakes of Titan. We are successfully rigging humans with electronics, and are likely to extend life expectancy, and maybe we will revitalize space exploration. Newitz knows the challenge: “If our progeny do make it that far, it will be because humanity has chosen exploration over warfare often enough that we’ve managed to work together as a planet on several large projects.”

All manner of promising research shows that Newitz’s future is possible, but buying into it requires settling a metaphysical question, the twisted koan at the core of our experience: Is human nature inevitably, maybe fatally, flawed, or can our goodness prevail? You can find plenty of arguments on both sides from conservatives and liberals alike. But clearly politics complicates attempts to “focus our scientific and technological energies on problems that are solvable in the near term,” as Newitz urges. The latest Gallup poll shows growing acceptance that climate change is real, but still only a third of the U.S. sees a threat in global warming.

If there is hope, it lies in Newitz’s third directive, Remember. We are the storytelling species, after all. The skill has preserved us more than once. If we can just settle on what to remember, maybe we can spin a story that carries us to the stars.