Book review: The Next 500 Years – Engineering Life to Reach New Worlds

Author: Christopher E. Mason

Publisher: The MIT Press

ISBN: 978-0-262-04440-0

Price: £25/$29.05 (Hb) 256pp

In my review of The Precipice, which is Toby Ord’s book about the dangers of existential risk, I referred to a line from Game of Thrones: “You are the shield that guards the realms of men”. In The Next 500 Years: Engineering Life to Reach New Worlds, Christopher Mason wants to take that a step further, making humanity ‘the shield that guards the realms of life.’

Mason’s book is ambitious. It harkens back to the optimism about the future that permeated books such as Gerard K. O’Neill’s The High Frontier, T. A. Heppenheimer’s Colonies in Space or Adrian Berry’s The Next Ten Thousand Years. And we need a little optimism about the future right about now. Alas, we’re no nearer to achieving the future as depicted in those aforementioned books from the 1970s as we were when they were written. Will Christopher Mason’s template for the next 500 years have greater accuracy?

I think the answer to that is going to be yes and no. 

Before we get onto that, who is Christopher Mason? He is a geneticist and computational biologist at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York, and has worked with NASA on various projects including analysing the cellular and DNA data from astronaut Scott Kelly’s year in space. His expertise in genetics is clear and apparent in his book, and it’s this knowledge that has given him and his colleagues the confidence to craft a 500-year-plan for humankind to spread out not only to the other planets in our Solar System, but also to the stars in vast generation ships.

The motivation for this future diaspora, writes Mason, is not only our survival, but the survival of all life, of which we are the self-appointed guardians of. Mason calls this deontogenic ethics, which proposes that we have an obligation to protect life so that it has the opportunity to achieve its potential. By editing our genetic code, and the genes of other species, Mason shows how we can adapt to the challenges posed by spreading into space – radiation, temperature extremes, zero or microgravity, lack of sunlight, hostile environments or biospheres, and anything else that the Universe cares to throw at us.

Moreover, we are at the beginning of being able to tailor our genetic code right now. Techniques such as CRISPR allow us to edit genetic sequences, and while still such technologies are still in their infancy, as we come to better understand the human genome, future geneticists will be able to edit out genes that could cause diseases and replace them with genes that could make humans more resistant to radiation, or microgravity, or limited sunlight, for example. Going even further, they may be able to write entirely new genomes, rather than just edit existing ones. In doing so, we’ll adapt the human body at the genetic level for surviving beyond Earth.

This is the ‘yes’ part to the answer to the question of the accuracy of Mason’s predictions about the future. We have this technology and ever-growing understanding of the human genome right now, and it will only improve and have a massive role to play in our future. Imagine being able to cure all genetic diseases, or remove them from a baby’s genome while they are still just an embryo. Even ageing might find a cure in our genes. And if we can make space less hostile by making our bodies more resistant to it, that will surely remove some of the boundaries to human beings exploring space. To that end, understanding the changes that 12 months in space made to Scott Kelly’s body is an important starting point, one that takes up much of the first chapter of The Next 500 Years.

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly spent 340 consecutive days in space, and subsequent studies revealed that the time spent in orbit had temporarily altered his cellular biology. Image: NASA.

Mason’s book is filled with heady ideas, and his enthusiasm and optimism is infectious as the text races ahead in the first few chapters, barely pausing for breath as he casually drops in notions such as the end of the Universe alongside discussions of ethics and genetic science. By the end of the second chapter Mason is already talking about restructuring space-time in the far future to ensure life can survive forever, and the ethics of doing so if that restructuring prevents the progression of a cyclic universe that could create a new universe even more suitable for life than our own!

This is the kind of stuff I dig.

In Chapter 3 Mason brings us back down to Earth with the first phase in his ten-phase plan to send humanity to the stars. The first phase refers to the ‘Landscape of Functional Genomics’, and talks about our current abilities at sequencing and editing genomes. There’s lots of jargon and details here as Mason delves into what he knows best, and as someone with only a modest grasp of the concepts, I admit I did get lost in some of the details. Happily, there’s enough there for the reader to roughly follow what’s going on if they don’t have the required technical background.

Each subsequent phase then takes us a little bit more into the future. Phase 2, the ‘Preliminary Engineering of Genomes’, is described as taking place between 2020 and 2040; Phase 3, ‘Long Term Trials of Human and Cellular Engineering’, covers the years from 2040 to 2100; and so on.

Mason emphasises that, in the future, our genome will no longer decide our fate, either as individuals or as a species. Editing and rewriting our genome will give us cellular liberty, in the sense that we will will change ourselves so that we can have access to environments too hostile for us to live in currently. He even briefly raises the idea of ‘green humans’ – humans with chloroplasts in their skin for photosynthesising sunlight, perhaps while living on some dim and distant world where every photon counts. I’d love to see this concept in science fiction.

One idea that Mason clearly fancies is that of ‘exowombs’. Rather than putting women through the painful and sometimes dangerous process of childbirth, children could develop inside an artificial womb outside of the body, built from genetic information not necessarily limited to just two parents of opposite sex, but potentially a multitude of parents, giving the child the most preferred genetics possible. This reminds me of the character of James Holden in The Expanse novels and TV series, who has eight parents.

The development of exowombs wouldn’t just make things better for mother and child; they could be put to use in space, perhaps on the long voyage of a generation ship, or even on another planet, watched over by robotic guardians, the genetic information beamed to that planet from Earth and the cells essentially printed off and assembled into a human embryo. A new, modified population of humans could be grown on a faraway planet, cutting out the difficulties of human space travel. 

Mason even briefly raises the idea of ‘green humans’ – humans with chloroplasts in their skin for photosynthesising sunlight, perhaps while living on some dim and distant world where every photon counts.

Around this stage, I felt Mason was becoming a little too optimistic – not, I hasten to add, that there’s anything inherently wrong with that. However, when thinking about the future I think it’s important to also ask, ‘what can go wrong?’

Genetic editing is a hugely powerful tool, but when we get into discussions of designer babies, exowombs and editing our genetic code, it’s not hard to see how these technologies could be used for nefarious purposes too, or create further schisms in society between the haves and the have-nots, making the gulf between rich and poor even greater. And just as science fiction has alerted us to the potential risks of artificial intelligence, it has also shown us the risks of eugenics. If these technologies are not made available to everyone, it’s not hard to see how the rich could form their own elite super-race, capable of outmatching anything we ordinary homo sapiens can do. This way lies conflict and dystopia if we’re not careful, and those are definitely not things we want to take with us to the stars if we can help it.

To be fair, Mason does address some of these concerns in a discussion about ableism, but I’d like to have seen more. Any plan for the future has to also include an awareness of how we can avoid some of the pitfalls that we can envision. I feel this is missing somewhat from Mason’s master plan.

And this is where I come to the ‘no’ part of my answer to the question at the top of this review. Predicting the future purely through the progress of technology ignores human unpredictability – our capacity to do surprising, and sometimes not entirely logical, things, and for greed and avarice to conflict with generosity and selflessness. We don’t know how society will react to the sophisticated genetic editing technologies that Mason describes, and how we might merge those technologies with others, perhaps some that are not even invented yet, and how these might influence our social and economic infrastructures, and vice versa. Speculation is fun, and it can act as a guide as we enter the future, but we should never expect the future to turn out as we imagined it would, because in my experience, it never does.

I also think that Mason is playing down the challenges of living in space and on other worlds. He predicts that by 2150 we’ll not only have a permanent colony on the Moon, but also be on the way to developing a permanent city on Mars. Admittedly this seems far more realistic than Elon Musk’s timescale, but even with genetic modifications, Mars will be an incredibly hard world to live on, and we can forget terraforming it – Mars has a leaky atmosphere, and there’s no way to plug that leak. And who knows what hostility awaits us on exoplanets that may or may not have some similarity to Earth.

Mars will be a harsh world to live on. Can we genetically adapt ourselves to survive there better? Image: NASA.

Think of the hostile environment of a planet or a moon as being a big brick wall. Our use of technology, including genetic editing to modify ourselves and the environment, will chip away at this wall, but it remains an open question as to how much of the brick we can remove by chipping away at it. Mason, on the other hand, suggests that we’ll be able to take a sledgehammer to it.

And I fervently hope he is right. But I think it’s important to play devil’s advocate because the future is never plain-sailing. Still, merge genetic editing with other burgeoning technologies such as artificial intelligence, and we will have an interesting future ahead of us.

Mason predicts that the first generation ship ferrying humans to another star system will launch around the year 2401. By this stage of the book, we’ve left behind the careful detailed explanations of genomes and cellular rewriting, and find ourselves in the land of speculative cosmic exploration. I mentioned that the early chapters were full of jargon and details as Mason found himself in his element. Later chapters are more vague, with a few inaccuracies as Mason moves from genetics to astronomy and cosmology. His definition of Earth-sized and Earth-like planets, and the differences between the two concepts, is unclear, while being in the habitable zone off a star doesn’t guarantee that a planet has water. He also conflates the possible ‘Big Rip’ at the end of the Universe (“atoms in planets moving apart” as he puts it) with the heat death, which instead refers to the entropic decay of matter.

The most Earth-like planets currently known, compared to Earth (given a ranking of 1) – however, their rankings are based on incomplete observations. When we reach these planets, we may find them to be completely alien, or inhospitable, and living on them will be tough. Image: PHL@UPR Arecibo.

Still, the ambition of the book is really on show in the final chapters. Mason describes three components of an ecosystem: 1) producers, 2) consumers and 3) decomposers. But then he suggests a fourth component: guardians, designed to protect the ecosystem. And those guardians are us, ironically, given the damage we’ve caused to Earth’s ecosystem. But following through on Mason’s deontogenic ethics paradigm would mean that we would learn the lessons of our mistakes, and protect life and biology in the Universe, not trample over it. As we travel to new worlds, we’d become the architects and engineers of genetic diversity, and when we move on to pastures new, we could leave behind other guardians – perhaps uplifted primates, or artificial intelligence. 

The end of Phase 8 in Mason’s plan would see this guardian system established as we take the finals steps to becoming “interstellar entities”, with self-reliant generation ships with guardians on board or sent ahead in advance. And it’s not just about protecting Earth-derived life – if we find life elsewhere in the cosmos, we must protect that too, and adapt to biospheres rather than make biospheres adapt to us. (This is where I think the argument for settling on and adapting Mars falls down on an ethical viewpoint should we find native Martian microbes, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Following through on Mason’s deontogenic ethics paradigm would mean that we would learn the lessons of our mistakes, and protect life and biology in the Universe, not trample over it.

In summary, Mason has crafted a thought-provoking book that should spark more than a few discussions, and I think that’s all any author could ask for. For geneticists unfamiliar with concepts of cosmology and space exploration, it’s probably an eye-opener. For futurists enthusiastic about space, it’s an accessible opportunity to learn about genetics and how genetic science can be used to help us. Mason isn’t afraid to make bold statements, is confident in his opinions, and he likes to think big.

To wit, the final phases of his 10-phase plan would see humanity reach its destiny, but why stop at planets? There’s an entire runaway Universe that we would have to tame to ensure the longevity of life into the deepest future imaginable. We don’t yet know whether we live in a Universe that will be ripped apart by dark energy, or die of entropy in the heat death, or all come crashing back down in a Big Crunch, à la Paul Steinhardt’s Ekpyrotic model. Whether humble humans could change any of this is unanswerable speculation for now. Mason ends his tome, however, by imagining a question that we could ask the Universe were it alive and purposed with fostering life and a continuation of itself.

“What kind of Universe would you want to be?”

“A Universe that creates new universes.”

To that end, I wonder if Mason has ever come across Lee Smolin’s Fecund Universe theory?

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