Deep Space Exploration Could Lead to Emergence of New Genetically Modified Humans, Astronomer Predicts

Deep space exploration could lead to the emergence of a new breed of genetically- or robotically-modified humans, a top astronomer has predicted.

U.K. Astronomer Royal Martin Rees said that in future, some people may decide to leave Earth in order to live on other worlds. Eventually, he added, they might use advanced technologies to modify themselves in order to adapt to their new environment.

"They will find themselves ill-adapted to conditions there, so will have a more compelling incentive than those of us on Earth to redesign themselves using powerful genetic-engineering and cybernetic technologies," Rees wrote in a comment piece for New Scientist. "These techniques will, I hope, be restrained on Earth, on prudential and ethical grounds; but those on Mars will be freer to experiment."

"We should surely wish them luck in modifying their progeny to adapt to alien worlds. This may be the first step towards divergence into a new species—an evolution via 'secular intelligent design' that proceeds on timescales of technological advance, perhaps thousands of times faster than Darwinian selection," he said.

Rees proposes that these "post-humans" could one day transition into becoming "fully inorganic intelligences" which may not even need an atmosphere to survive and may thrive in zero-gravity environments, which normal people are not adapted to. In these environments, they could be capable of constructing "massive artifacts" that are far beyond our current technological capabilities.

"So it is in deep space, not on Earth, nor even on Mars, that non-biological 'brains' may develop powers that humans can't even imagine," Rees said. "Earth, we can surmise, would no longer seem an alluring environment to them, a reassuring thought, as they would be likely to leave our descendants undisturbed."

space, the universe, stars
Stock photo: Humanity is looking to venture deeper and deeper into space. iStock

The astronomer even suggested that the next phase of human space exploration could lead to a migration in which ever more complex, immortal beings colonize the galaxy. This could potentially be achieved with the help of self-reproducing machines or other technologies.

"Interstellar voyages would hold no terrors for such near-immortals," he wrote. "There's plenty of time ahead."

Despite these predictions, Rees warns that humanity should not fall back on the idea that it can avoid disaster on Earth by heading deeper into space.

"It is a dangerous delusion to think that space offers an escape from Earth's problems," he said. "We must solve them here. Coping with climate change is a doddle compared with terraforming Mars; there is no environment in our solar system as clement as even the Antarctic or Everest's summit. There is no 'Planet B' for ordinary risk-averse people."

This is not the first time Rees has made intriguing predictions. In an interview with The Telegraph last year, Rees highlighted the potential dangers of physics experiments taking place in particle accelerators on Earth. He noted that there is a very remote possibility that these could create a black hole.

"Maybe a black hole could form, and then suck in everything around it," he said, according to the newspaper. "The second scary possibility is that the quarks would reassemble themselves into compressed objects called strangelets. That in itself would be harmless. However under some hypotheses a strangelet could, by contagion, convert anything else it encounters into a new form of matter, transforming the entire earth in a hyperdense sphere about 100 metres across."

However, some experts are wary of this claim. Stefan Söldner-Rembold, a particle physicist at the University of Manchester, U.K., previously told Newsweek that he wouldn't be "losing any sleep" over this suggestion.

"The collisions produced in the Large Hadron Collider just reproduce what happens in nature all the time, just under controlled conditions. An example is the bombardment by cosmic rays," he said. "If there were any risk of producing strangelets or black holes that could swallow the Earth, it would already have happened."