Deep Time and the Far Future


Deep Time and the Far Future

Dr Martin Rees President Emeritus, The Royal Society; Professor of cosmology & astrophysics; master Trinity College, University of Cambridge and author

Essay From “This will make you smarter” edited John Brockman

Rees’ response to the Edge question of 2011 ‘ What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”

Starts with the following proposition and related facts before making some speculations about our future.

  • “We need to extend our time horizons. Especially, we need deeper and wider awareness that far more time lies ahead than has elapsed up to now.
  • “Our present biosphere is the outcome of about 4 billion years of evolution, and we can trace cosmic history right back to a Big Bang that happened about 13.7 billion years ago.
  • “.. the immense time horizons that stretch ahead – though familiar to every astronomer – haven’t permeated our culture to the same extent.
    “our sun is less than half way through its life. It formed 4.5 billion years ago, but it’s got 6 billion more years before the fuel runs out.
  • …”most people – and not only those for those whose views are enshrined in religious beliefs – envisage humans as in some sense the culmination of evolution”
  • There is abundant time for post human evolution, here on earth, or far beyond, organic or inorganic, to give rise to far more diversity and even greater qualitative changes than those that have lead from single celled organisms to humans.”
  • Future evolution will see the millennia slow rate of Darwinian selection overtaken by an accelerated rate of genetic modification and rise of machine intelligence…   “and forced by the drastic environmental pressures that would confront any humans who were to construct habitats beyond the Earth.”
  • “Humans surely are not the terminal branch of an evolutionary tree but a species that emerged early in cosmic history, with special promise for diverse evolution.
    “We humans are entitled to feel uniquely important, as the the first known species with the power to mould its evolutionary legacy.”


I find nothing to criticise. His main point about Time is true and we have a very small perspective on time. We plan and act within our individual life spans although the consequences of our acts span generations. Perhaps most our personal concerns stretch towards is the life of our grand children. From a collective societal or cultural perspective even that view I suggest gets diluted.
Maybe in our past, we had a tribal affiliation that went beyond or was more extensive than pure blood line. Maybe we were better at acting in the now in a way that we considered would be better for our tribes future. Individual over the collective. Whatever, it’s something we struggle with. Consider current dilemma over Global Warming. We don’t seem to be hard wired to think rationally, dispassionately and globally.
Can we learn to? Can we develop morals, values, and ethos that takes into account both humanity and its environment?
I think it is necessary for our survival that we do. I fear we don’t have many generations left to us. In terms of Rees’ Deep Time and the Future survival is a constant achievement. Perhaps we could stagnate and survive. Keep the Earths population to say 2 or 3 billion people at most and ration our resources to eke them out over a longer time span.
Could be idyllic, happy if we changed some parts of our nature. But would not likely stretch far into the time frame Rees presents to us.
Of course, such a future would mean we survive one of natures bottle- necks such as devastating global warming. As I’ve suggested above I don’t see any of us volunteering to get off our small little raft to save those who remain.
We could seize control from Nature of our own selection. Would we, do we have the maturity, the moral values, and ethos that would allow us and guide us to do so beneficially for ourselves and our environment. Our control of the Nuclear Gene is temperamental and fragile and does not bode well so far for the challenge genetic manipulation and the next probable great advance of artificial/machine intelligence must present. I say must because I don’t think we can or should hold back crossing these thresholds. They are emerging powers that could affect our survival for good or ill not because of any inherent quality in and of themselves but by the way we choose to interact with and use them.

For myself, I think we need to use our new tools/knowledge to expand our domain off the planet. We could have [eventually] a 2 billion Earth with an ecology we husband to enhance diversity and sustainability. The rest of world. Yes we would have to re design ourselves and the environments we live in and it would take time but as Rees points out we do have that.

Does need the vision desire and a global unity to carry it off. Can’t see a single nation or a group like the Pilgrims achieving it but applaud Elon Musk’s pursuit of the vision with Space X and colonisation of Mars, as the vision and the technology needed must be kept alive to at least give future generations the option.