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The Next 500 Years review: Engineering humanity for life after Earth

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Genetic-engineering tools like CRISPR may help us live on harsh alien worlds

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The Next 500 Years: Engineering life to reach new worlds

Chris Mason

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MIT Press

HUMANITY’s long-term prospects are weak, at best. If we don’t all kill each other with nuclear weapons, a planet-killing asteroid can’t be too far off. And anyway, the sun itself will (eventually) expand, obliterating all traces of life in our system. Let’s not even get started on pandemics.

As if awareness of our own mortality hasn’t given us enough to fret about, we are also capable of imagining our own species’ extinction. Once we do that, though, are we not ethically bound to do something about it?

Chris Mason, a geneticist at Cornell University in New York, thinks so. In The Next 500 Years, he writes: “Engineering is humanity’s innate duty, needed to ensure the survival of life.” And not just human life – Mason is out to ensure the cosmic future of all living things, including species that are currently extinct.

He isn’t the first to think this way, but his book arrives at a fascinating moment in the history of technology, when we may, after all, be able to avert previously unavoidable catastrophes.

Mason’s 500-year plan for our future involves re-engineering human and other genomes so that we can tolerate the extreme environments of other worlds. Our ultimate goal, he says, should be to settle new solar systems.

Spreading humanity to the stars would hedge our bets nicely, only we currently lack the tools to survive the trip, never mind the stay. That is where Mason comes in. In 2015, he became the principal investigator on NASA’s Twins Study, an analysis of the health of identical twins Scott and Mark Kelly during a 340-day period when Scott was in space and Mark was on Earth.

Mason explains how the study informed our understanding of the human biome, and how a programme once narrowly focused on human genetics now extends to bacteria and viruses. He even describes how tools like CRISPR and its successors may enable us to address the risks of space flight (exposure to cosmic radiation is considered the most serious) and protect the health of settlers on the moon, on Mars and even on Saturn’s moon Titan.

Outside his specialism, Mason has some fun (a photosynthesising human would need skin flaps the size of two tennis courts – so now you know) then flounders slightly, reaching for familiar narratives to hold his sprawling vision together.

More informed readers may start to lose interest in the later chapters. The role of spectroscopy in the detection of exoplanets is certainly relevant, but in a work of this gargantuan breadth, I wonder if it needed rehearsing. And will readers of a book like this really need reminding of Frank Drake’s equation regarding the likelihood of extraterrestrial civilisations?

Uneven as it is, Mason’s book is a genuine, timely and engaging addition to a 1000-year-old Western tradition, grounded in religious expectations and a quest for transcendence and salvation. Visionaries from Isaac Newton to Joseph Priestley to space pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky have all expounded on the tenets that underpin Mason’s account: the apocalypse is imminent, but, by increasing human knowledge, we may recover the paradise we enjoyed before the flood.

Masonic beliefs follow the same pattern. Significantly, many famous NASA astronauts, including John Glenn and Buzz Aldrin, were Freemasons. This Mason puts a new layer of flesh on what have, so far, been some ardent but very sketchy dreams.

While a proud child of his engineering culture, Mason is no dupe and no Frankenstein. He explores the major risks of genetic tinkering, entertains the pertinent counterarguments, knows where 19th-century eugenics led and understands the value of biological and neurological diversity. His deepest hope isn’t to see his plans realised, more that we continue to make, test and remake them, for the sake of all life.

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