A new landscape to love
New Mexicans can feel a special affinity for the new landscape revealed to us by NASA’s Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. What we see is a parched, wind-eroded, desert landscape with wonderful reddish coloration and terrain with rocky plains, playas, mountains, arroyos, canyons, and mesas that we could feel right at home in—albeit not quite the atmosphere for breathing we would hope for.
Looking at the Mars images causes another thought to spring to mind: the notion that we humans are somehow infinitely adaptable and can go anywhere, even to outer space. No less a person than the President has announced exactly that in his plans for space stations on the moon and Mars.
Looked at genetically, however, such a proposition raises serious questions. As ecologist Paul Shepard reminds us in his book Coming Home to the Pleistocene, we twenty-first-century humans are “the product of our genetic heritage, formed through thousands of years of evolution during the Pleistocene epoch.” Contrary to what some may like to think, that does not include origins on another planet. Thus, the human genome does not fit with living in outer space.
Of course, humans encapsulated in totally artificial, simulated environments can engage in space travel. As a matter of fact, some of us are living in highly artificial, simulated environments in order to continue living right here on Earth now, but the likelihood that technology will provide large numbers of us the opportunity to ship out to the Moon and Mars is both unlikely and genetically ill advised. As Shepard’s work demonstrates, our genome arose as a part of the evolution of the planet when humans were hunter-gatherers in a “wild” environment. Our interrelationships with other animals and plants living within the forest-plain edge during the Late Pleistocene shaped our genome and made us what we are. Shepard indicates that our genome may no longer fit the highly domesticated, unnatural environment we have created for ourselves on earth today. This genomic misfit explains anti-ecological, destructive human behaviors such as war, social unrest, mental illness, and trashing of our environment that characterize much of today’s world. One can only imagine what chaos populating a waterless Mars with hordes of humans would generate.
Initial reports from Mars reveal that the rovers’ various robotic capacities are regarded as “extensions” of the NASA scientists’ eyes, ears, hands, and noses, and perhaps even of their brains. Thus, as things unfold we can observe how humans (not just robots) look, touch, smell and conceptualize that exotic new environment millions of miles away. What we have seen so far indicates that we will continue to distance ourselves from that environment the way we do with the environment here on earth—as if we were looking at it “through a hole in the wall,” to use Shepard’s phrase. We are using amazing cameras and digitalization to translate the wholeness of Mars into manageable, framed bytes and pieces for analysis. Like the great representational paintings of the Renaissance with their emphasis on “scientific” linear perspective, our current technologies still pull us out of nature and distance us from it by using ways of looking that preclude the perception of the wholeness of the environments we are a part of. We are therefore less likely to notice when such environments fail to meet the expectations of our Pleistocene genetic heritage. Rather than interacting with “the other” ( the whole of nature) and being a part of it, we fall prey to staring at our own reflections in a pond of virtual realities simulating, but disconnected from, the ecological connections our genes are screaming for.
“Going to Mars” does have many good things about it, not the least of which is the amazing skill of the engineering and technology involved. Also, “seeing” the profoundly arid, lifeless landscape on Mars can bring us a new appreciation of our critical role in working for a sustainable existence here on earth, instead of depleting and polluting our water and other natural resources.
Let us hope that the rocket scientists taking us to Mars can also help us turn around the worsening environmental situation on the earth—before we all need space suits just to survive along the dried-up Middle Rio Grande—rather than help us fly up to Mars to catch the President’s next “mission accomplished” speech.