Nightmare: the Genetics Game

by Larry Niven

I Where are they?

The age of the universe has changed often during my lifetime. Currently it is believed to be 13.7 billion years old.

The solar system is 5 billion years old.

If it takes 5 billion years to make a tool using civilization... allow another 2 billion years for the original oversized stars to go supernova to make heavier elements so that we'll have planets to work with. The oldest tool users should have been manipulating their local universe for 6.7 billion years plus or minus a fudge factor.

We put men on the Moon, and explored the eight planets, in a few hundred thousand. The earliest civilizations should be shaping galaxies by now.

Why aren't we seeing their work? A Dyson shell is a special case of a Type 2 civilization: it's any means of using all of the energy output of a star, for industry and habitat shaping, and radiating the used energy as waste heat. We would see a great gaudy glare on the infrared sky. For a Type 3 civilization, a wide splash of sky would look like that.

Sure, they'd have about as much interest in communicating with us as we would with ants. Well? Any biologist could cop a Nobel Prize if he could talk to ants, or understand them. Any bright ten-year-old would give a year of his/her life for that privilege. Why aren't they talking to us, or at least performing experiments on the Earth? Why don't we at least see a gigantic magnifying glass?

Something must be happening to civilizations before they can expand too far.

II Nemesis

It's as if something is killing off tool users before they can progress much beyond some threshold event.

Other science fiction writers have toyed with this possibility. A whole generation thought it would be the discovery of thermonuclear power, leading to atomic war. That got dull, and when the USSR collapsed without destroying everything, we looked to other possibilities.

Fred Saberhagen and others invented Berserkers: machines left over from an old war, that destroy whatever civilizations they find.

Energy considerations suggest that any mistake made in using the entire energy output of a sun, would destroy most of a solar system.

There are less morbid possibilities.

III Confinement

A few life forms have spread across the planet Earth; but they are scarce. Rats and lice followed human expansion. Humans brought horses and dogs (and corn and apples) with them. Seagoing mammals have the run of the seas... but most of the life forms on Earth can't leave the domain in which they evolved.

Intelligence isn't magic. A species that can swing a club might still be as confined as an intelligent koala, bound by what it eats, or the way it breeds, or by biorhythms. Octopi are surprisingly intelligent, but they'll never discover fire.

It might be that humans are the universe's future translators and negotiators and merchants. Maybe nothing else can leave its lakeside or mountain peak or continent, let alone reach its own moon.

With that in mind --

IV Daydreams

One valid way to predict the future, is to look at the old daydreams, the ones we will never give up. Instant learning or teaching. Instant travel. Immortality. Communication. Flight. Gradually we make progress: faster travel, speedreading, longer lives and easier healing, cellphones.

One of the old dreams is the ability to reshape ourselves. Exercise techniques travel unhampered across the world, as universally as cuisine. Me, I use yoga, and I've still got a pot belly. We shape our children via arranged marriage, and give them advantage via inheritance.

Now we've discovered DNA. We're already using that knowledge to reshape life.

Any trained science fiction writer can see the evil possibilities in anything. If we can shape the unborn... how would you build a man to clean out a sewer pipe?

But the shaping of our nature is not a barrier we can walk around. I have friends who died of diabetes. I watched my stepfather die of Alzheimer's. My mother has had too many strokes. How can I not work to cure these evils in coming generations? And maybe there is a perfect human shape.

V The Barrier

Here's the barrier that every intelligent being will eventually face. They learn to shape themselves. We have always tried to do that. We used breeding techniques to shape dogs and horses and wheat, learning the techniques that way, then tried to shape our descendants too.

Dreaming of perfection must be universal. No civilization can evade that challenge. Each of them made one mistake.

There must be myriads of ways in which genetic engineering can go wrong. You can dream up your own examples, but try this one: Species K is a Koala with hands. He daydreams of a perfect Koala: a little more muscular, taller, with better hands and a little more smarts, and maybe a more versatile digestion. Comes the day he can work with his own genetic program. He shapes the next few generations of K into one perfect image... experimenting a little, finding just the right proportions...

And the next bacterial mutation finds all of species K to be identical, all susceptible. Your average Earthly plague takes out 65% of a population, then 25% of the next generation. This time there would be no survivors.

For most intelligent species the nightmare is unavoidable. They can't move, remember? One pond, one mountain, one eucalyptus grove. They're performing their experiments where they live. Any mistake, any experiment with long term effects, will kill them all.

The human species has a better option.

VI Moonbase

We're human. We spread across the world, and we did it without budding off new species. We can travel.

We must still tamper with our own destiny. We must explore the possibilities of DNA; we must work toward the perfect human. But we can perform our experiments where it's safe. A few miles from Moonbase, separated by vacuum. If a mistake is made, it can be confined.

Of course that's expensive. We have to face the possibility that somebody is performing much cheaper experiments in Ecuador or Peru or Bangladesh, where laws are not so restrictive. Any mistake made there could spread across the Earth.

We'd have to resettle from the Moon. Or Mars. Or the asteroids.

The first baby was supposed to be born on the Moon in 2001 AD, according to the late Arthur C. Clarke.

Wait now…we didn't build Moonbase, did we?

VII Now what?

I have pursued the conquest of space for all of my life. At first I just liked the rocket ships and the thrill of the imaginary ride. But everything turned out to be more difficult and more expensive than anyone anticipated. We fiction writers made space travel easy because it made stories easier.

The Earth is too small a basket to keep all our eggs in. We're becoming too powerful to be so restricted.

The threat of unrestricted DNA research... or nanotechnology, or thermonuclear war, or war fought with bacteria, or giant meteoroid impacts, or any of hundreds of other possibilities... should be enough to persuade us: we need the planets. Huge progress has been made in understanding the nature of the universe. Understanding is not enough if we don't act. We need to take the solar system.

The dinosaurs didn't have a space program.

Larry Niven
Chatsworth, December 3, 2008