Human evolutionary biology, genetics, and the long-term future of human space exploration

This talk will take a look at the deep evolutionary origins of fundamental features of humanity, their ramifications through history, and how they will continue to be important far into the future of our species.

The evolution of our big brains and bipedalism had the knock-on effect of the development of pair-bonding and thus the emotion of romantic love and the formation of the human family. Aspects of these features of human reproductive biology became exploited through history to consolidate inheritable possessions, land and power, most notably in ruling families and monarchies. The masters of such dynastic marriages were arguably the Habsburgs, who by the mid-sixteenth century had come to rule over a global empire encompassing much of Europe, large territories in north and south America, as well as along the African coastline and key holdings in south-east Asia. Retaining such dynastic power, however, came at a steep price: a catastrophe of genetic disorders brought about by long-term inbreeding. In 1700, the Spanish Habsburg line fell extinct, and the Central-European Habsburg dynasty survived only by allowing the succession of a woman to the crown.

The story of the Habsburgs details the hazards presented by in-breeding over the generations. Though a prominent example taken from history, it serves as a cautionary tale for the challenges that will need to be overcome in the future of our species. Our technology will one day enable humanity to disperse further and further from our homeworld (as we dispersed out of Africa from around 70,000 years ago) – first colonizing other planets and possibly moons in our solar system, and ultimately launching starships to reach other solar systems. Careful consideration needs to be given to ensure that such founding populations, which may potentially become isolated, contain enough genetic diversity to prevail in the long term. The talk will also discuss other considerations of human biology with respect to long duration space flight.