Issue #1(23) 2020 Science

Evolutionary lessons for an interplanetary future

James Vaughan
James Vaughan
Scott E Solomon Rice University, Houston, USA

The motivation to settle space - not just to build temporary outposts but self-sustaining colonies - comes from the notion that our long-term survival may depend on being a multiplanetary species. Yet, to date, most of the focus has been on how to reach suitable places like Mars and how to build the infrastructure needed to sustain human life there. These are necessary and important first steps toward space settlement, but we must also consider how living on planets with dramatically different environments will affect generations of humans in the future. Evolutionary biologist Scott Solomon sees settling space as a familiar first step in a process that has played out thousands of times on Earth. The planets of our solar system are islands on a much larger scale and that means we can use what we know about evolution, as well as what we know about how space affects the human body, to make predictions about how humans would change by living on Mars.

For an evolutionary biologist, visiting the Galapagos Islands, the Pacific archipelago straddling the equator, famed for its large number of endemic species, is a pilgrimage of sorts. After all, it was Charles Darwin’s experiences in Galapagos that inspired him to develop his theory of evolution by natural selection, forever changing our understanding of the natural world and our place in it.

Visiting Galapagos as an undergraduate student to conduct field research on marine iguanas convinced me to pursue a career as an evolutionary biologist. While I didn’t fully appreciate the significance of these islands on that first visit 20 years ago, returning last year - as a university professor with a PhD in evolutionary biology - everything I saw took on a whole new meaning.

Seeing the tortoises, iguanas, and finches reminded me of the clues that Darwin noted during his 1835 visit that helped him piece together the history of life on these islands. He saw that individual variations - from the shape of a finch’s beak or a tortoise’s carapace - could affect which animals live and pass on their traits to future generations. But Darwin’s insights went much further. He reasoned that the same processes that had given rise to the animals on the Galapagos Islands could also explain the origins of life elsewhere on the planet - including the origins of our own species - and he argued that those processes are never-ending.

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