My Debate With Jackson Kisling: Should We Terraform Mars Or Bioengineer Ourselves?

I do enjoy a good debate. So when fellow Mars One Round 2 candidate, the Minnesota Martian Jackson Kisling invited me to participate in a debate about this question: “Should colonists strive to adapt themselves to Mars, instead of the other way around?” I was all for it. It’s a way to get us talking about important issues long before we start going to Mars and avoid situations like the Kim Stanley Robinson Mars Trilogy, in which unresolved issues related to the debate topic led to a civil war on Mars. In the interest of saving ourselves all the damage caused by bringing unresolved baggage with us to Mars and creating a similar scenario, I like the idea of getting these issues out in the open now, while they can still be resolved relatively peacefully. Leila Rowland Zucker, an AMG moderator, agreed to act as the moderator for our debate. So we spent about six weeks planning a “Facebook Style” debate to post in the Facebook Aspiring Martians Group. Here’s the debate in its entirely, with my posts in red and Jackson’s posts in blue:

Moderator: Welcome to the first “Facebook-Style” AMG debate. The resolution is: “Colonists should strive to adapt themselves to Mars, instead of the other way around.” I am your moderator. The debators are Heidi Hecht, arguing the affirmative, and Jackson Kisling, the negative. We ask that no one post comments until after the surveymonkey link at the end. You are invited to follow that link and vote for the winner! We will begin with opening statements.

The scientific community and general population is going to demand answers to the question of whether there is or ever was life on Mars. Many see it as the entire reason of going to Mars in the first place. I doubt that the search for life will be the utmost priority for people on Mars who may be pretty focused on staying alive on Mars. This will be a situation in which the mission is not counted as a failure if native life is not found within the first year or the first decade of human activity on Mars but everybody is still alive. However, we should count the search of life on Mars as one scientific priority.

I list the search for life as a scientific priority because I don’t expect future expeditions to Mars and especially the Mars One candidates to take unnecessary risks for the sake of possibly finding a fossil or a microbe. The highest priority should be staying alive even if it means passing up a promising sample that might be in the middle of the same kind of sand trap that finally did in the Spirit rover. The scientific community will still be curious, though, so I could see them becoming increasingly involved once it’s established that people can actually survive in the harsh Martian environment.

What will happen to terraforming efforts if we do find life? Well, the ethics issue can become tricky if, by chance, a Marstronaut falls into one of those reservoirs of water and gets good footage of complex life-forms that survived the drying up of their planet. These are life-forms that have probably adapted to being in a cold, underground, watery world and probably won’t react well when their planet becomes better suited for life on Earth. Considering that most reasonable terraforming plans would take centuries or millennia to accomplish, it wouldn’t make much difference if we slowed down long enough to reconsider our plans based on new information. We shouldn’t do any irreversible damage to what’s left of what might have been a rich Martian ecosystem at one time. It’s even possible that we can develop plans that work for both Martians and humans even if it means learning how to adapt humans to the Martian environment rather than the other way around.

This is actually why I want to ignore the people who argue that we don’t deserve to colonize space because we haven’t figured out how to take care of our own planet yet. If we don’t send people with a sense of ethics who can actually care about what happens to native Martian life, you can be sure that there are people on Earth who would have no trouble filling the gap and altering Mars to suit their needs with no regard of any lingering life that might hypothetically still exist. The human species is going to expand into space. I would very much prefer that the people who actually go to Mars represent the best of humanity and don’t mind altering plans based on new information.

Thank you for taking the time to read this debate. I am here to argue against the resolution. Mars has the potential to be the new home for millions of people and the “greatest hits” (if you will) of Earth’s species. Unfortunately, it is not particularly hospitable right now. It is too cold, the atmosphere is too thin, and the water is locked up underground. I am neither a geologist nor a climatologist, so I’m not going to get deep into technical details in this debate. We have agreed to these two conceits: one, that terraforming Mars is in theory possible, and two, that Mars could have substantial evidence of past and even present native life. I believe that we should immediately begin the process of building a second home for Earth’s species, and we should not let the remote possibility of life slow us down.

There is only one good reason to send manned missions to Mars (as opposed to robotic ones,) which is, we want to live there. We have everything yet to learn about what it means to adapt ourselves and our homeworld’s species to a permanent life off-world. And this is science that we need to do, and soon. What we learn from this process on Mars will inform our future colonies elsewhere in and outside of our solar system. As long as we remain on one planet, we are vulnerable to extinction. But with a viable second planet (i.e. a planet that meets our biological needs) we are much more likely to persist out into the galaxy.

The human being is a thin infrastructure of body cells and a metropolis of microorganisms. Part of being a biological organism means leaving bits of ourselves everywhere we go. Thus, it’s not possible for humans to visit a “pristine” Mars without contaminating it. Of course, we will dutifully sift the Martian dust for signs of life—we definitely want to know if life is or was there. But I submit that no good can come of us finding life there. Either we will contaminate it, or (worse) it will contaminate us. We are not planning to take Ebola with us to Mars, and we should not set ourselves up to encounter its equivalent on Mars.

Now certainly if Mars were like Earth, with life in abundance that we could study, then we would not want to go crashing in. But Mars is a dead world, as far as we’re concerned. It’s really the perfect “scratch planet”—one that we can make into what we need, without having to worry too much about what existed there before. Sure, if we looked under every stone we might find a microbe. But we don’t want to wait forever for that. Life in this solar system is in our hands, and we need to build a livable second home for it while our first (and only) one still functions. Thanks for reading, and I urge you to vote negative.

Mod: Heidi, is it not our biological imperative to create shelter for ourselves? And thus isn’t it natural, and indeed necessary for us to transform as much of the universe as we can into that which will sustain life?

It is a biological instinct for any living being to expand its territory. Historically, nations have taken over territory from weaker entities without much regard to the “rights” of the original inhabitants. The difference between humans and “mere” animals is that we can change our plans, even ignore instincts that insist that we follow our own self-interest, to allow for a more ethical approach to the colonization of Mars if life is found. We could say that they were here first and, in the case of finding complex life, we should expect them to fight back once they become aware of us because their own biological imperatives may tell them that we are the invaders. Should we then say, in a quote attributed to Gus Grissom, “The conquest of space is worth the loss of life?” If I encounter complex life on Mars, my first reflex may be one of fear: Is it going to eat me? I hope I can suppress my reflexes enough to attempt to communicate on the off chance that its brain is complex enough to understand my intentions, because it may be as afraid as I am.

When we talk about the rights of indigenous life in regards to Mars, what we’re really talking about is the slim possibility of alien microbes. Discovering and studying them would no doubt be of great scientific import, but human interaction with such creatures is almost guaranteed to be profoundly detrimental to them and to us. The real ethical question should be, “how can we preserve as much of Earth’s biodiversity as possible, given the finite time and resources we have to do so?” To me, the answer is clear: we build ourselves a new home at any cost.

Mod: Jackson, some people support the idea of bio-engineering humans to suit the environment they find themselves in rather than terraforming planets to suit human needs. What do you think of this idea?

Bio-engineering Terran life to fit on Mars will undoubtedly be a part of our transition to multi-planet life. Even just 3rd and 4th generation humans born on Mars with no adjustments will be substantially different than humans born and bred on Earth. I would tend to doubt that we could 100% adapt humans to Mars, however. The idea of a human being that could survive breathing nothing but carbon dioxide seems pretty far-fetched. We aren’t plants, after all. Such a creature would surely stretch the very definition of mammal—let alone be considered fully human. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t work on the science of species-building, but if we ever want to be able to function on Mars outside of what Terran facilities we can bring or build there we will need to make the planet more livable. We will need to move the mountain part of the way to Mohammed, so to speak. It may seem like the more difficult task, but if Mohammed is incapable of interacting with the mountain no matter what he does, then it will be necessary to work on them both if we want for them to get together.

Jackson, using your analogy, it may be easier to take Mohammed to the mountain than take the mountain to Mohammed. People complain about the cost of manned space travel and keeping people alive in a hostile environment is one of the biggest factors in the cost because it adds whole levels of complexity. One might also consider the fact that many people won’t want to wait centuries for Mars to be terraformed. You get plans like smashing asteroids into the polar caps because people get impatient. It is true that future generations of Martians probably won’t be recognizable as humans because they will have found ways to adopt themselves to the Martian environment that will likely include bio-engineering, and it’ll happen in less time than most terraforming plans are going to take.

Mod: That concludes round one of the AMG Facebook-style debate. As a reminder we are debating this resolution: That Terran life should adapt itself to life on Mars, instead of the other way around. We now begin round two, and the first question is for Heidi Hecht, who is arguing in favor of the resolution. Heidi, there’s no physical reason why we can’t walk both roads—Terran bioengineering and terraforming of Mars. So assuming that both are in theory possible, why not attempt both?

I believe that bioengineering is the better choice because we’ll be taking the easier route of adopting humans who choose to make Mars their home to their new environment. It will also help future generations of Martians who see the Red Planet as the only home they’ve ever known. Bioengineering will bring up some interesting philosophical issues such as what it means to be human, but will help us learn to adapt ourselves to our own environment rather than expect our environment to make radical changes to suit our own needs. Like most species, we are still evolving and small changes that look strange to the mainstream now might become the norm within a few generations if people with these new changes pass on their genes. Bioengineering is simply a way to speed up the process that will be useful for cases like the colonization of Mars in which we are making a radical move to a hostile environment. Current terraforming plans are still highly theoretical and we should not waste centuries waiting for results of a plan that might fail for reasons that we can’t predict right now.

One argument against aggressive bioengineering is the dilemma of heterogeneity. Biodiversity is definitely important, but I would posit that, for the development of a bi-planetary civilization it’s also important that the citizens regard one another as members of the same species. Humans have a track record of horrors and tragedy when it comes to interacting with beings regarded (correctly or no) as “The Other.” While it’s natural that Martian humans will evolve differently than Earth humans, we don’t want to outstrip our ability to adapt psychologically to such differences. Mars will need Earth’s support and engagement for centuries to come.

Mod: Jackson, technologies are already being developed to take advantage of local Martian resources and this is likely to be sped up once “Martian ingenuity” begins to take over. Do you not think that ISRU technologies can help to make Martian colonies self-sufficient more quickly than a time frame that take several centuries?

Making use of Martian resources is inevitably going to change the planet, especially with the dirty business of mining. We have demonstrated (to the great detriment of Earth’s biosphere, unfortunately,) that we are capable of altering the climate patterns of an entire planet in human-scale time. The industrial revolution is barely 200 years old, and we started very small. We now have considerable abilities to gather data on global conditions and to compute climatological models. It’s reasonable to hypothesize that we could produce a desired outcome on a second planet, given a similar time frame and level of effort. Certainly the question is worth pursuing, and what we learn from it could make us so powerful as a species.

What I am not hearing in this debate is a reason why we should try to keep Mars more pristine. What benefit could there be to it, especially if it means that fewer of Earth’s species can be saved from extinction? If we don’t hone our terraforming craft, we could end up with two barely livable planets. If we do, there is a chance we could fix both planets and thrive. Why wouldn’t we want to take our chance at that?

That’s a fair point, Jackson. The colonization of Mars will likely start small, as well, and force the development of cleaner and more efficient technologies that will reduce the environmental impact of several industries. The fact that we will not be able to keep Mars 100% pristine if we are serious about colonizing does NOT mean that we should be careless and let greed and haste override common sense. If we do, we risk making mistakes similar to the ones we’ve made on Earth. This is why I favor caution so that our descendants won’t look back and say, “Boy, did our ancestors really mess up that one.”

Mod: This concludes round two of the Hecht-Kisling debate. Note to readers, there will be a link to a survey after the closing statements. Your votes will determine the winner. Results will be posted here in 48 hours. We will now have closing statements, beginning with Jackson who is arguing against the resolution.

I’ll begin by thanking Heidi, our moderator the good doctor Leila, and our gracious hosts in the AMG. And thank you all for reading. It’s been really fun putting this together. Today’s question centers around what would be the most effective local paradigm for colonization, and also what actions would result in a more harmonious bi-planetary civilization. It boils down to two choices here. Would you prefer to have a small footprint in order to leave Mars as pristine as is practicable? Or should we attempt to optimize Mars for our purpose and long-term use? The former does have certain advantages, perhaps most importantly that it leaves open the possibility that native life on Mars (should any exist) would survive our incursions, and as a result they would have a lot to teach us about surviving there…assuming we can find it. But we already know where life is. It’s here, on our homeworld. Sadly that is not guaranteed to always be true, and so we are now tasked with rescuing as much of the biodiversity of Earth as we can. That’s going to be more successful if we have a place to go that can support us. Mars is not there yet, but it can be over time with patience and concerted effort. There is water on Mars, lots of it we think. And it can be ours, we just have to not be afraid to stick our drills into the ground.

My opponent may argue that the better route to syncing Earth life to Martian conditions would be to engineer new pre-adapted species—including, perhaps, a new human being. While this is likely to be a part of our journey towards a bi-planetary civilization, I would argue for a much more gradual heterogenization of humans. We are generally good at taking care of our families, but we are terrible at helping out our neighbors. I would argue that the more that Martian humans are perceived as being part of the same family as Terrans, the better our relations will be long-term. Is it really easier to change the universe than it is to change the human psyche? I would argue that, in some ways, it is.

Finally, I want to emphasize how important and empowering the science of terraforming will be for us. We are already learning the wrong way to change a planet (with poison and garbage.) The true mark of a worthwhile galactic civilization is how well, how quickly, and how non-destructively it can expand its habitat. The things that we learn from shaping Mars will inform other colony missions for centuries to come. Not only that, but through our work on Mars we may even discover viable solutions to the problems we’ve created for ourselves on Earth. Once again, I thank you for reading our debate, and if you agree with me I urge you to vote negative.

Humans are pretty good at using technology to adapt themselves to their environment. Our distant ancestors invented fire, clothing and ways to build our own shelters to help us survive in hostile environments like the Arctic circle and the high desert. Bioengineering is yet another technology that we can use to adapt ourselves to life on hostile planets like Mars.

I predict that a rift between Earth and Mars may well happen with or without bio-engineering for the same reason that the original 13 colonies in North America evolved into the United States of America – there was simply a disconnect between the priorities of the British Empire and those of the colonists who had to deal with the reality of living on the frontier. For this reason, I do not see the use of holding back bio-engineering technology out of fear that it may cause a future conflict that might see a Martian race adapted and practiced at surviving on the Martian frontier holding an advantage when the conflict hits their home turf.

As Jackson mentioned, humans have found many of the wrong ways to change a planetary system, so I see no reason to rush into terraforming in a way that might backfire and make Mars completely uninhabitable. The Venus system with its runaway greenhouse effect and the presence of chemicals that destroy our probes within hours of landing comes to mind as an example of what can happen if we go about it the wrong way and we aren’t going to get many chances to modify terrestrial planets in our own solar system. As I mentioned before, most terraforming plans that actually make sense will also take many generations to accomplish and Homo sapiens is known to be an impatient species. So bio-engineering makes sense as a way to make it possible to thrive in an environment that the current human species sees as hostile.

For a first debate, that wasn’t bad. If you want to vote on who you think the winner was, you can do so with this Surveymonkey poll. We’ll probably do it again sometime when we have a new topic.

The Mars Trilogy