Of "Melanesian" and "Martian"

Observations from visiting the Mars Society

At a friend's hospitality I visited a Mars Society conference, and amidst little details (I got to handle lunar rocks!), I noticed one thing that was overarching and overpowering.

What was going on was something more than an enthusiastic effort to do what it takes to put a man on Mars. The question of whether we as humans are "a spacefaring race" was fundamentally a question of salvation, and with it the Mars Society acted as a magnet to people who were alienated with life on earth. It was not terribly far in that I was thinking, "This is not a job for science and engineering. This is a job for counseling!" Furthermore, the John 3:16 of that movement is, "Earth is the cradle of humankind, but one does not remain in a cradle forever."

What was going on was not a question about the technical feasibility of colonizing Mars, or even landing a person on it. Nor of whether the massive fuel expenditure and ecological to launch ships in space is an appropriate way to act on the realization that the earth's resources are finite. Regarding technical feasibility, one friend who has an interest in astronomy said a ship to reach Mars would have to be "assembled in space." Another author said, "Colonize the Gobi desert. Colonize the North Atlantic in winter. Then get back to me about colonizing Mars." But this does not really touch what was going on. I still remember the betrayed look on a woman's face when she thought of people who did not click with her conviction that if the human race gets it, because if we do not infest other planets we are immature and in an arrested development.

The overarching narrative, motivated by a profound alienation to normal human life as we have known it, is that we have spent a spiritual childhood doing things that were perhaps excusable at the time, but this is not a mature condition, and now we have, or at very least seem to have, a way to approach true spiritual maturity by stepping up to a profound technological transformation that would jettison normal human life as we know it.

The academic slur "Melanesian," which I do not recall reading in our more politically correct times, refers most literally to an ethnicity or grouping of hunter-gatherers who do what human beings had done time out of mind: acquire food, live in face-to-face community, raise children, make music, tell stories, interact with nature, do physical work, live out of their community's religion, and so on and so forth. A quick web search for "Melanesian" turns up various interesting results. And the term "Melanesian" refers, in this overarching narrative, to the spiritual infancy that is still being lived, even in much or all of the West. The narrative is really the same as with transhumanism. Before we were capable of AI, we were at least excusably spiritually immature children, but now we have an opportunity to technologically transcend our spiritual childhood. And it is morally incumbent on us, if we are mature people who get it, to do so.

The Mars Society and transhumanism may differ in important details in what exactly it means to put Melanesian things behind us and grow up to technologically transcend our present Melanesian state, and kick it away like a ladder we climbed and have no further use for. In one it is a science fiction's making spaceships and spreading out colonies to other planets, and in the other it is a science fiction's being able to do things like upload our consciousness to a computer and live in artificial intelligence and not in mere bodies of human flesh living on the earth. Nonetheless, these are two implementations of the same kind of overarching narrative.

Virtue is "Melanesian"

A Utopia of spoiled children

One French philosophy professor talked about what at least some Utopians were seeking, such as turning the ocean to lemonade, and called their Utopia "a Utopia of spoiled children." Transhumanism's marketing proposition, with such things as letting us have superhuman bodies if we still need bodies at all, having any pleasure you want without the consequences of drugs, being able to download your consciousness into a computer, and so on, are "a Utopia of spoiled children."

Although the reasons are less obvious, "space, the final frontier," is also a Utopia of spoiled children. Mary Midgley, I believe, in Science as Salvation: A Modern Myth and Its Meaning, talked about the frontier mentality where if you wanted space you could always invade the next nation over, as a concept of freedom. Star Wars and Firefly, like much space opera and science fiction, see space as a place of freedom. However, real astronauts really in space talk about feeling like they're "Spam in a can," and are micro-nano-managed down to every bite of food and every defecation. Even apart from the dangers of becoming solipsistic, real space travel is further, not closer, to what "Martians" (as members of that society or movement call themselves) want. We do not live in a perfect frontier and we do not enjoy perfect freedom, but we have a whole lot more space and freedom than astronauts in space. The average prisoner probably has more space to move about in a day than astronauts in a space station. This is not to say that there is nothing desirable about space travel; but it is to say that Martians will get less, not more, of what they unconsciously want in the here and now than if they can go to Mars. (Even apart from lessons in the enjoying of the here and now with such as the mindfulness we seek from the East because we have rejected it in the West.) My suspicion, based on observation and my own sin and struggle, is that proper repentance, Heaven's best-kept secret, will give further, faster, and better results than colonizing Mars.

Lifting a man up to God

One Orthodox elder said that it was a truly great achievement that with the expenditure of untold sums of money, cutting-edge engineering, and a national effort, the U.S. had succeeded in lifting a man up to the moon. But, he said, the Orthodox Church has known for aeons how to use a little bread and a little water to lift a man up to God.

One time I invited a co-worker and friend, along with his family, to a coffeeshop that had dozens of flavors of Italian sodas available. I particularly liked that as it gave an opportunity for everyone to have a classy drink with the children having the same selection of Italian sodas that the adults had. At one point, one of the children's drinks was running low, and I was just about to order another drink when the parents preempted me and used the limited amount of drinks ordered to teach them a lesson about virtue. I believe that I intended to give the child something good, but the parents chose to use the occasion to give the child something better.

Virtue philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre's Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues talks about dependency as fundamentally constitutive of human nature, and holds human dependency to be a gateway to truly great treasures. Virtues are truly awesome things to have, or rather to become, and they hinge in part on our finite, embodied, limited condition. I have referred to space-conquering technologies as "body-conquering technologies," which either defeat or make irrelevant the finite embodied conditions we are meant to be. Earlier space-conquering technologies like cars and airplanes could make the human body move farther and faster; later space-conquering technologies like the Internet for communication obviate much of the need to move the human body. Both unravel, at least in part, the occasion for growing virtue.

Virtues are treasures. Virtues are their own rewards; when an alcoholic starts to recover and regains sobriety, the main reward is not that people get off his case about his drinking; the primary reward is that he has abandoned a source of suffering he would not wish on his worst enemy, or to put it more concisely, the reward for regained sobriety is regained sobriety itself. And the same goes for all kinds of virtue.

Virtues are pretty stinkin' awesome things to have. No amount of money compares to them, and they are available to poor as much as rich people, and possibly the poor more than rich people. And the natural garden for virtues to grow is "Melanesian," how people have lived time out of mind.

We live in a state of rebellion against how God chose to make us. Transhumanism is one symptom. Transgenderism is another. But growing up spiritually does not draw us away from all things "Melanesian." It draws us further in, where there are all kinds of treasure.

The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet and Paleo movement hinge on the realization that we are built on a hunter-gatherer chassis, and we ignore that at our peril. Wolf does not advocate a literal return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, or moving away from civilization. He does, however, advise living under today's conditions in a way that is gentle to our hunter-gatherer nature. So far as I recall he never warns about rebelling and trying to technologically "grow up" by kicking away "Melanesian" pursuits as a ladder we no longer need now that we have ascended to its height. However, he seems far from using a designation of a hunter-gatherer people as a caricature term for how humans lived from before history to historically recent centuries at least. He does, however, criticize e.g. the marketing proposition of growing your own grain instead of wandering and eating a normative human diet as being like the marketing proposition of a scam. He does not really talk about virtue so far as I recall. However, eating Paleo is not nearly so interesting of a step into goodness as living out Paleo, "Melanesian" virtues.