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Hobbes's avatar

Would it be more effective to terraform other planets or to modify our own physiology?

Asked by Hobbes (7257 points ) September 17th, 2008

It seem to me that if/when we get to the point of colonizing other planets, attempting to change their surfaces and atmospheres to match ours would be immensely expensive, complicated, and difficult. In contrast, it seems as though it would be much easier to, say, genetically modify ourselves to live in low or high gravity.

Note that I have only a limited grasp of the (largely theoretical) technologies involved, so my thoughts are based largely on intuition.

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19 Answers

8lightminutesaway's avatar

well… ethically, I think it would be better to terraform rather than to modify ourselves. I mean, there are ethical implications of terraforming a planet, but to genetically modify ourselves seems much more extreme, and to me at least, wrong. Genetic modification on that scale, would lead to people modifying themselves or worse, their offspring, to whatever end they desire. At least with terraforming a planet you could argue that the universe is infinite, and therefore there are infinite other suitable planets, and you’re just using one, hehe.

Amish_Ninja's avatar

We may not have to, if we can find another planet in the universe that can support life more complicated than fungi and bacteria. Just keep hoping and searching.

IchtheosaurusRex's avatar

I cannot envision an adaptation, artificial or otherwise, that would allow humans to live elsewhere in the Solar System without external life support. The only other planet where we might conceivably live in the future is Mars, and that place does not have an atmosphere that is dense enough to support any kind of Earth life without help. It’s been suggested that some forms of algae, or even some species of spiders, might survive there on the surface, but they would not live long without intervention. We could more easily terraform Mars than adapt ourselves to live there.

The rest of the Solar System is simply too inhospitable. Venus has a hot, dense, corrosive atmosphere that even machines cannot withstand for very long. The larger moons, e.g., Titan, of the gas planets might be considered, but they’re extremely cold. It’s Mars or nothing.

As to extrasolar planets – all are too far away to reach by spacecraft, even if we were to discover one that we could live on. Methods of propulsion that would facilitate interstellar travel by humans would be as staggering an achievement as creating forms of life that could exist in our own sun’s neighborhood.

wundayatta's avatar

I agree with Ich that Mars is the only place to consider trying to live, and that we’d have to do it with external life support. Various SF writers have proposed that we could supplement the Mars atmospher by crashing ice ball asteroids from the asteroid belt into the surface of Mars. Kim Stanley Robinson’s series of novels about terraforming Mars suggested that this could happen within a lifetime. I doubt it.

Now, as to genetic modifications—wow. Let’s see. We’d have to be able to live in a low oxygen environment that is significantly colder and windier (if we were preparing for Mars). Hmm. We’d probably have to have huge lungs (which might involve expanding the rib cage—maybe doubling our chests in size. We’d also need to be able to take in more air, more quickly—widen the size of the mouth? We’d have to amp up the metabolism to generate more heat, and probably make the skin much tougher and less sensitive.

Alternatively, we could ramp down the metabolism, make us smaller and more compact—kind of rocklike, so we didn’t need much energy or food to keep us warm, and it would maybe reduce the air requirements. We could have a kind of built-in windsock that would channel air through us.

Assuming we ever get the technology to make DNA build whatever we want. Personally, I don’t think that’s going to happen. There are too many genes and epigenes, with too many possible interactions. It was developed by evolution, and I really doubt that, except for a few very specific conditions, we will be able to tinker significantly with our bodies. In any case, that takes generations, and human experimentation is illegal in most countries. I doubt if there will be an underground economy where underground labs in the wilds of China buy protection, and try to develop new human forms, but give them no rights, and probably kill them off, to avoid detection. I feel pretty safe in saying this will not happen. Not in 100 years. Not in 1000 years, and not in 10,000 years.

So, to conclude, terraforming will happen first, but I doubt if that will happen either. It’ll take too many resources. We will build in L5 orbital spots first. But mainly for industrial and scientific purposes. If terraforming happens at all, it will have a marginal impact. Or should I say, Marsginal impact? Again, Mars is too far away and hard to get to.

Science fiction is a wonderful thing. And this is a wonderful question for speculation. I wish I didn’t have to be such a wet dishrag about it.

JackAdams's avatar

I favor terraformation, if possible.

Hobbes's avatar

Thanks daloon and Rex, those were really great responses =]. It seems to me, though, that people have always said “Well, technology will never reach this point because it is impossible for it to reach X upper limit – it’s too hard!”. Maybe a combination of terraforming (to make the planet a little less extreme) and engineering could be used?

IchtheosaurusRex's avatar

I think it would start with a series of enclosed structures that would maintain an oxygen atmosphere. You could link these by rail or roads that would still require pressurized vessels, but we already know how do do that. Commercial airliners are pressurized vessels that let people travel in cold, thin air.

A major obstacle to terraforming Mars would be the absence of a magnetosphere, like Earth’s, to deflect the stream of ions constantly emanating from the sun. Part of the reason Mars’s air is so thin is the blow-off from the solar wind; the planet’s gravity doesn’t account for all of it. We would need a way to produce a breathable atmosphere continuously, rather than rely on the dynamic equillibrium that we have with plants and animals on Earth. Even there, you would be losing air constantly into space, with nowhere to get more. As such, it’s hard to envision a terraformed Mars even in the remote future, given what we know right now.

I do believe that humans will be able to build self-sustaining colonies on Mars at some point in the future, but they will continue to be in enclosed structures.

drhat77's avatar

Hobbes, if you’ve read Robinson’s Mars Cycle (Red Mars / Green Mars / Blue Mars) you’ll get an excellent picture of the topic and the science behind it, plus some genetic engineering thrown in to boot. Win/Win!

wundayatta's avatar

And an extremely excellent read!

KatawaGrey's avatar

Well, the question is an extremely complicated one. One would have to consider the life on other planets if one was to terraform. True, there may only be fungi and bacteria, but we all started as only fungi and bacteria as well. I think the answer would be to start searching for planets with no signs of life very early on and then start terraforming. This way, we wouldn;t interfere in the natural evolution of another planet, but we would also avoid overpopulation on our own.

Nimis's avatar

I think it would have to be a combination of both. I can’t imagine our grasp of either being so absolute that it would be able to cover all the varying factors.
And even still, I’d bet some poor sap would meet a grisly (though possibly entertaining) fate because their physiological modification cocktail was missing a dash of gravity moderation or atmospheric equalizer.

winblowzxp's avatar

I don’t think that terraforming would be a realistic approach, and here’s why: It would take thousands to millions of years for the planet(s) to become somewhat hospitable for us. The biggest problems that I see with terraforming Mars and/or Venus are (1) Mars not having a magnetic field, and (2) Venus has such a weak magnetic field, that neither planet would be able to protect us from cosmic rays. Natural resources on either planet would be more finite than they are here because neither planet has a plate tectonic system, which creates more natural resources by recycling the crust. Venus has a process which is vaguely similar to plate tectonics, but not quite. It lets its mantle get to a certain temperature and pressure, then it goes into a subduction phase which lasts about 100 million years. Mars, on the other hand, I believe is a dead planet, in that I’ve read speculation from scientists that the core of the planet has solidified, which could explain the lack of any volcanic activity within the past few million years.

I wouldn’t want to alter my genetic code, or anyone else’s because then I/they would be a science project, and there’s no telling what the reprocussions would be.

Overall, I think that both plans are bad ideas, as one would take too long, and would probably not last too long either; the other would violate any ethical code that I hold dear. I think the best idea would be to invest the time, money, and effort that we would spend on terraforming or genetic reprogramming to actually devise vehicles which can get us to distant systems within a relatively short period of time.

Hobbes's avatar

I’ve noticed that many people have dismissed genetic engineering on personal/emotional/moral grounds. While I understand what a sensitive issue it is (I’ve argued it many times), that’s not the aspect of the technology I’d like to debate. What I’m asking is – would it be more effective, efficient and feasible to modify ourselves as opposed to terraforming?

winblowzxp's avatar

I seriously doubt it. Adaptations to certain climates takes several generations for it to be efficient. I really don’t think that there’s a ‘less o2’ gene, or a ‘less dense’ gene, et. al, so I really doubt that it would even be possible, much less feasible.

If we were hell-bent on modifying ourselves, then I think biomechanical cybernetics would be better than trying to alter DNA coding, since it’s easier to code half a million IC’s than it is to recode an ever-mutating genome.

Jreemy's avatar

I feel terraforming along with developing cybernetic implants would be the best course of action, that way the two could “meet in the middle”, so to speak, on some things.

RandomMrdan's avatar

I’d say terraforming would be the best bet. I’m sure it would create tons of jobs too. Modifying ourselves seems a bit excessive just to go to another planet. What if you wanted to come back home to Earth?

SeventhSense's avatar

Genetic engineering of our species seems extreme but if necessary why not if we can eliminate cancers and genetic aberrations? Before colonizing Mars though, it seems more practical to attempt to inhabit the places on our planet that we find inhospitable at this point-i.e.- deserts and mountains. It seems that would be infinitely simpler than having to create artificial environments. At least here we have the O2 and H2O. So I would say let’s work on first using up our “Mars” like terrains here. Simpler but maybe less dramatic. No martian neighbors :)

hivemindharvester's avatar

I think we must build modular vessels on which we can live in the universe, rather than colonizing a planet. That may require us to modify ourselves. Small modules of thriving life – independent of each other, but large enough to house a living infrastructure eg. “mini-earths”

Next step after that, would be to find a suitable planet, for better living or abandon living on planets…

That being said, I have limited knowledge about sciences involving any of these things – but then again, how many people have? :)

Dan_DeColumna's avatar

That’s easy. Terraforming! Just tell Quaid to start the reactor.

:-D

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