martin_rees's picture
Former President, The Royal Society; Emeritus Professor of Cosmology & Astrophysics, University of Cambridge; Fellow, Trinity College; Author, From Here to Infinity
Deep Time And The Far Future

We need to extend our time-horizons. Especially, we need deeper and wider awareness that far more time lies ahead than has elapsed up till now.

Our present biosphere is the outcome of more than four billion years of evolution; and we can trace cosmic history right back to a "big bang" that happened about 13.7 billion years ago. The stupendous time-spans of the evolutionary past are now part of common culture and understanding — even though the concept may not yet have percolated all parts of Kansas, and Alaska.

But the immense time-horizons that stretch ahead — though familiar to every astronomer — haven't permeated our culture to the same extent. Our Sun is less than half way through its life. It formed 4.5 billion years ago, but it's got 6 billion more before the fuel runs out. It will then flare up, engulfing the inner planets and vaporising any life that might then remain on Earth. But even after the Sun's demise, the expanding universe will continue — perhaps for ever — destined to become ever colder, ever emptier. That, at least, is the best long range forecast that cosmologists can offer, though few would lay firm odds on what may happen beyond a few tens of billions of years.

Awareness of the "deep time" lying ahead is still not pervasive. Indeed, most people — and not only those for whom this view is enshrined in religious beliefs —envisage humans as in some sense the culmination of evolution. But no astronomer could believe this; on the contrary, it would be equally plausible to surmise that we are not even at the halfway stage. There is abundant time for posthuman evolution, here on Earth or far beyond, organic or inorganic, to give rise to far more diversity, and even greater qualitative changes, than those that have led from single-celled organisms to humans. Indeed this conclusion is strengthened when we realise that future evolution will proceed not on the million-year timescale characteristic of Darwinian selection, but at the much accelerated rate allowed by genetic modification and the advance of machine intelligence (and forced by the drastic environmental pressures that would confront any humans who were to construct habitats beyond the Earth.

Darwin himself realised that "No living species will preserve its unaltered likeness into a distant futurity". We now know that "futurity" extends far further, and alterations can occur far faster — than Darwin envisioned. And we know that the cosmos, through which life could spread, is far more extensive and varied than he envisaged. So humans are surely not the terminal branch of an evolutionary tree, but a species that emerged early in cosmic history, with special promise for diverse evolution. But this is not to diminish their status. We humans are entitled to feel uniquely important as the first known species with the power to mould its evolutionary legacy.