Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Extra Solar Evolution via handwavium

When gaming, I'm one of those people who likes to have a background to each game, hence my interest in campaigns. I have a fair collection of 28mm SF stuff, which I want to use in games using the Fast and Dirty Rules (a great set of free rules, available here , and yes, I am biased as the author, Ivan, was kind enough to use some of my artwork inside it). Now being a picky sort of person I'm not entirely happy to use a ready made background, but want to gradually put together one of my own. I want a 'hard SF' style background, but obviously with enough 'handwavium' to allow for things like FTL. Not a 'grimdark' dystopian future, but one with enough plus lots of scope for friction and conflict to allow for different combinations of games.

Anyway, I'll be posting various bits of background here and there, the first is intended as an excuse for my little lead and plastic soldiers to fight it out on various worlds that look suspiciously earth-like, and without having to wear vacc suits all the time! Any comments or thoughts welcome!

Contrary to what many scientists had predicted, in Man’s rush to the stars following the discovery of a cheap, reliable form of faster than light travel, we discovered that the conditions to support life as we recognise it were far from scarce. They were in fact astonishingly abundant.

To many, this was seen as proof of divinity. Mankind had reached for the heavens only to find the benevolent hand of God had travelled before, sprinkling new worlds for us to conquer. For some, space exploration and colonisation took on a hitherto unseen religious dimension, the ramifications of which we are still dealing with today.

But for much of the scientific community the discovery of so many ‘human compatible’ planets was a fascinating mystery to be solved. What mechanism could be responsible for the emergence of life in such similar forms throughout known space?

What now appears to be coming clear is just how persistent and adaptive life is. On almost every world where significant amounts of liquid water have been able to exist for any length of time, there is evidence of life. Where conditions have been stable long enough for the most basic of recognisable organisms to form, it seems that, barring catastrophic disaster, complex life is almost certain to eventually follow. In fact, it would appear that even the simplest ecosystems demonstrate self-regulatory ‘behaviour’.

This is not to suggest that there is some sort of guiding hand behind all of this. As natural selection favours organisms best suited to their environment, so it would also naturally favour those that are able to adapt their environment towards increased stability (as humanity has arguably demonstrated for millenia). Thus, over time, simple Darwinian selection can be seen to not just adapt species to their environment, but also to adapt the environment, to the benefit of those species.

Not divine providence then, but a simple extension of evolutionary theory to encompass the wider planetary ecosystem. Worlds themselves evolve as well as individual species.

“So why”, I hear you ask, “do we see so many familiar shapes?”. In answer I would ask “why shouldn't we?”.

Quite naturally humans have tended to colonise those planets that most suit our preferred conditions in terms of temperature, gravity and atmospheric pressure and makeup. Given these preconditions it is inevitable that we will see similarities with terrestrial species. The shape of any creature that travels at speed through liquid water, or stays aloft in the air, is governed by certain principles of dynamics. Thus analogues of the ‘fish’ shape and the bat or bird wing can be seen on hundreds of similar worlds.

In the same manner, an outer coating that looks and acts like fur is often found as an effective way of regulating temperature, even though the chemical composition of its constituent parts may differ widely from one world to another; four ‘legs’ commonly provide both stability and speed across a range of terrain (nature understandably having struggled to evolve the wheel and axle); whilst light sensors (‘eyes’ to most of us) naturally tend to be situated where they have the clearest outlook of terrain (and food), high up on the body.

Perhaps we should instead see this as evidence of the wondrous variety that evolution on our own homeworld has given us.

But the familiarity argument also misses the many other forms of life that have been discovered, both on earth like worlds and others, that do not bear such easy comparison to earthly species: parasitic, hydrogen filled ‘dirigibles’, that drift on air currents to find new hosts or ‘plants’ that migrate with the seasons.

In our rush to the stars we have learnt so much about the operation and evolution of complex natural systems on a planetary scale. We have gained undreamed of insights into the history and functioning of our own, beautiful homeworld, and we have reassessed its place in the galaxy. No longer a lone jewel in a dead universe, but part of an intricate web of evolutionary possibilities.

We are like an only child who suddenly discovers endless brothers and sisters, each unique and yet familiar to us, created from the same basic material according to the same laws yet in endless variety.

And yet there still remains that often asked, but to date unanswered question: “Is there anybody else out there?”. A question I shall address in my next lecture.

Extract from Professor Peter de Moyens inaugural Lecture to the Barnard’s Institute, Hope, Barnard's Star - 2119