Now that a helicopter has flown on Mars and oxygen is being produced there, children on the Red Planet today could imagine going to school, tending plants, and exercising in 38 percent of Earth’s gravity. It is almost inevitable that people will end up there at some point and form small biospheres of plants, microbes, and people intertwined in a tightly controlled ecosystem. If we go we will bring some species from Earth to Mars, such as the microbes on our skin, and we may even find life there.
However, if we do find organisms on Mars, they will likely fit into the same three species categories in ecosystems here on Earth:
(1) producers (e.g. plants, algae);
(2) consumers (e.g., snails and squirrels for fish and humans); or
(3) decomposers (e.g. fungi and many microbes).
All three types of creatures have been mixing carbon, energy, and nutrients with each other on Earth for billions of years. For all of history, species in all ecosystems on our planet could be neatly placed in one of these three buckets.
However, in 1796 this changed forever. That year, Georges Cuvier gave a lecture in Paris on the species of living and fossil elephants in which he noted the curious fact that the elephants he saw at the time were radically different from the ancient woolly mammoth fossils found in the world . With no living woolly mammoths anywhere on earth, he wondered if perhaps they were all gone. Not just one mammoth or many had died, but of the mammoths had perished never to return.
The simple but powerful concept of extinction was born. This work was noted by Charles Darwin in his 1859 book, where he suggested possible mechanisms for the birth, change, and death of species. This awareness of extinction led to an extraordinary new ability for humans that (as far as we know) still exists We can monitor, prevent or accelerate extinction ourselves. We are aware of extinction.
Unfortunately, despite being “extinct” aware, humanity’s track record in preventing extinction is poor. We have endangered some species, such as the woolly mammoth, manatee, and Eurasian aurochs, and others that we have endangered, such as the dodo and passenger pigeon. It is now estimated that a million species can be lost to human activity, and one in four birds in North America is now gone due to hunting and habitat destruction. The time for greater awareness of extinction has never been so urgent.
The only kind with one from extinction only we can it. We thus represent a new fourth category of species: Guardians.
Guardians of an ecosystem have a duty to serve as protectors of life inside and outside the ecosystem. We are already doing some of this today. We track and restrict invasive species across borders, restore endangered species to health and establish nature reserves around the world. The Revive and Restore project is even constantly trying to keep woolly mammoths from becoming extinct.
While our duty as watchmen is self-appointed, the massive hubris of these endeavors does not render their absolute necessity superfluous. Also, only a confident species can become guardians, so such a duty is likely to always be self-appointed and the only duty activated when conscious.
Fortunately, the act of Mars gives us a new lens through which we can better understand and protect the fragility of life and avoid extinction. In fact, going to Mars is the best way to ensure that humans and other organisms are present on more than one planet. Planetary protection protocols that prevent contamination of Mars (or vice versa) dictate that we must proceed carefully and try to disrupt as few places as possible.
Without guidance or protection from a Guardian species, we know what is happening. In an unmanaged, “natural” cycle of ecosystems, including invasive species and asteroids, massive waves of extinction and rebirth occur. Major extinctions to date include (with the percentage of species lost):
Ordovician-Silurian 440 million years ago (85 percent)
Devonian, 365 million years ago (75 percent),
Permian Triassic, 260 million years ago (96 percent),
Triassic Jurassic 200 million years ago (80 percent),
Cretaceous Paleogene 65 million years ago (76 percent, including dinosaurs).
So far we’ve been lucky, but that luck won’t last forever. Even if we have achieved perfect world peace and sustainability on earth, at some point (about a billion years) the sun will continue to enlarge and begin to char the earth.
All ethical questions become crystal clear within a billion year timeframe. If you value life or something that creates life, we need to move beyond the earth. We have to go to the moon, then to mars, and then on to save life. And since life is not yet adapted or cannot survive, we may have to construct life to save it.
In order to become truly, sustainably multi-planetary and perhaps ultimately multi-stellar, humanity must not only rely on rockets, computers and space habitats, but also on the transformative power of genetic engineering to adapt terrestrial biology to the alien environments beyond the earth. Our duty to the stars requires the consideration, and likely use, of the evolutionary lessons written in the DNA of not just our species but all others. We may need every adaptive ploy from all of the extremophiles known to us in order to survive the new planets we might encounter. We may need to reactivate the capacity in our own DNA, such as the ability to synthesize our own vitamin C, which some primates still carry. Eventually, we can even learn from organisms that evolve and change on Mars or other planets and bring those lessons home in order to survive.
All biology, when time is available, is space biology. Any goal of any kind requires survival, and therefore survival is the original duty and ethic that precedes all others. Our duty is not just for our own survival, but for all species that exist, that have existed, and that will exist. We are the first and so far only guardians of life.
If we don’t find life on Mars or elsewhere, life is so much rarer and more precious. But even if life is found on Mars, we have a guardian duty there too to protect and preserve it, since it is unlikely to be able to do it on its own. This duty will give both a catalog of life and an expanded genetic toolbox for survival. Any creature we encounter in this universe, or any creature that adapts and evolves on a new planet, may contain the clues of adaptation and evolution to help other lives (including us) avoid extinction.
Our guardian role as this unique fourth species is only just beginning as we explore Mars more and more and continue to catalog and preserve the earth. This unprecedented era of space biology and planetary exploration (including the discovery of exoplanets) and genetic mapping is not Plan B. It is Plan A. It is our duty.
This essay comes from the author’s new book The Next 500 Years: The Technical Life to Reach New Worlds.
This is an opinion and analysis article.