The racist folktale behind the myth of space colonization
“Out of Africa” — in spaaaaaaace
While reading an ungodly amount of lofty treatises on humanity's future in space — it is a mind-numbing literary sub-genre — I was struck by the repetition of a very odd narrative pattern. Almost all these books, penned by august men of science, feature the same exact folktale.
It goes something like this: at some point in the past, a small band of enterprising homo sapiens — “our” ancestors — left the cradle of Africa to boldly go where no one had gone before. They spread throughout the world, they splintered into many groups and peoples, they invented new tools, new art, new ways of life. They were intrepid explorers who yearned to find out what lies beyond the horizon. They adapted to new landscapes and to new climes. The fable affirms that the past is prologue: venturing beyond the Earth will be like venturing out of Africa.
Take for instance a certain Robert Zubrin who, I am told, is the founder of the Mars Society, an advocacy nonprofit with a large and distinguished membership. Zubrin is an accomplished nuclear engineer, an inventor, a philosopher — in short, a latter-day Renaissance Man. He is an established figure in the space colonization community. Here’s what he says about humans leaving Africa (in his 2019 book, The Case for Space):
“For 150,000 years after the appearance of Homo sapiens, our ancestors remained in the tropics. (...) Indeed, the 150 millenia humanity spent in Africa were a period of almost total technological stagnation…” (The Case for Space, p. 280)
“Indeed” does a lot of work here. He rhapsodizes:
“…some bands of these people left the African homeland to try their fortunes in the north (…) in this new and more challenging world, the old bag of tricks that had served static tropical humans so well for so long no longer sufficed.” (The Case for Space, p. 281).
“More challenging world” is a bizarre characterization. Technological stagnation, “static tropical humans” — what is going on here?
Apparently, Dr. Zubrin claims to be a big fan of the European Enlightenment. It shows, as he fully embraces Montesquieu’s old climate theory, whereby the tropics are supposed to breed idleness while the northern cold stiffens people’s spines and makes them industrious.
Needless to say, none of Dr. Zubrin’s affabulations about “static” African humans have any basis in fact. It is one google search away. Just punch in “Blombos Cave.”
Nevermind. Archaeology, schmarchaeology. This is why Dr. Zubrin makes a detour through Africa on the way to Mars:
“In a biological sense, humans are not really native to the Earth. We are tropical creatures, native to Kenya. That is why we have long, thin arms with no fur. Across most of this planet, unprotected human life for any length of time is as impossible as it is on the moon. We survive and thrive outside of our African natural habitat solely by virtue of our technology.” (The Case for Space, p. 280)
Dr. Zubrin gets one thing right: the East African Rift is the likely birthplace of hominins. The loss of fur among anatomically modern humans is a fascinating area of scientific inquiry. It has nothing to do with the climate of the tropics — which, by the way, varies widely according to factors such as elevation. As for life on Earth being as impossible as on the Moon for “unprotected” humans — this does not seem to be accurate, mostly because of uh, air. Or maybe he’s referring to the oceans? Who knows.
But let’s not quibble about human pilosity, the climate or the paleoecology of the East African Rift, or even Earth’s atmosphere. None of this stuff matters anyways. Because he is making the “case for space,” Dr. Zubrin’s has to reach the conclusion that “our” technology allowed “us” to survive outside of our “natural habitat.”
Oh and pray tell, who is “us”? Ahhh, there we go:
"Within a few thousand years of their arrival in the north we find our ancestors making all sorts of novel gear… and producing fine cave art and musical instruments.” (The Case for Space p. 281)
The virtuous people of mythical Thule, “our” ancestors, toiled so hard because of the unforgiving cold, while those who had stayed behind, in Africa, were condemned to tropical idleness and “stagnation” and whatever else. If this sounds familiar, it's because it is.
This is completely absurd, and therefore very interesting: Dr. Zubrin’s climate theory of space colonization does not really belong in a discussion of facts. Think about it this way: it makes no sense to debate the real-world validity of Marvel comics — or racism, for that matter.
To his credit, Dr. Zubrin is most honest, if perhaps unwittingly. There is no subtext in his disquisitions. Once again I am going to get yelled at by space bros for casting aspersions or taking words out of their context — even though Dr. Zubrin’s fan-fiction of humans “leaving Africa” is very much the whole context here. It is a Victorian idyll of Europe’s heritage (humans “trying their fortunes” in the “north”), sort of Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” but this time, in spaaaaace. Africa is turned into a mythical place, the savage and backwards heart of darkness. A few humans heroically escape from it to start afresh and to create civilization and whatnot.
No doubt one could advocate for space colonization without the racist fan-fiction of humans “leaving” Africa. Yet almost every proponent of space colonization offers his own version of that fable. Dr. Zubrin is only a small sample. Even Carl Sagan does it, and he was a learned man and definitely not your racist crazy uncle from Facebook.
The out-of-Africa folktale keeps popping up in the literature. It’s almost compulsive, like the eternal return of the not-so-repressed.
Some humans left Africa, and before them some proto-humans. There were several waves. First they spread throughout Africa (eg. the aforementioned Blombos cave in South Africa, but also the Atlas mountains). Then they followed the coastlines of Egypt and Arabia, which were very different at the time. In that sense, it is not even clear that it was “leaving Africa” in the way we mean it today. None of this is in dispute.
Instead, what is utterly bizarre, and symptomatic, is the insistence on concocting epic moral tales of space colonization out of events that have absolutely no bearing on it. Dr. Zubrin is a particularly hilarious and desperate specimen, but he is just one among many. It’s because a few hundred modern humans walking along the coastline of Southern Arabia some 70,000 years go is a necessary articulation of the entire mythical construct. Without it, space colonization can no longer pretend to follow any supposed logic of human evolution or destiny. It is no longer natural. It is no longer rooted in humanity's past and it is no longer “progress.” It loses its varnish of secular eschatology. It becomes contingent and extraneous, nothing more and nothing less than incremental improvements in dental floss technology.
Does that make space colonization a hopelessly racist enterprise? At the very least, its ideological framework, such as it is, looks to a rather dubious part of the past.
Which in turn begs the question: who wants to spend the future in underground tunnels on Mars with these people? It can get very lonely out there in space, as well as in the comments section.
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"the tropics are supposed to breed idleness while the northern cold stiffens people’s spines and makes them industrious"
There were 19th century Britons who believed that no intellectual activity could occur in their Canadian provinces because of the mind-numbing effects of cold on the brain (that's a paraphrase; sorry, I can't find the source at the moment.) So, you know, not *too much* cold. The spine must only be stiffened by *just the right amount* of cold.
Very minor, assuming you want editorial comments. "Begs the question" is widely considered a solecism, since it was originally a translation of the Latin phrase "petitio principii" (assuming what you want to prove). "Raises the question" is better.