Synthetic Men of Mars

Let us suppose  that Elon Musk makes substantial progress in Mars colonization.  There’s a problem* – it’s not clear  that current Earth humans could thrive there. The gravity is a lot lower: we know that zero G is bad for you, and 0.376 of Earth standard  might not be survivable, over a lifetime.

But that’s no reason to give up. Evolution has solved a lot harder problems than that, and likely our genetic engineers could as well.  The solution is changing the DNA, redesigning  human physiology for low gravity.  while we’re at it, I’m sure we’d want to make a number of other improvements, most of which already exist in the spectrum of human variation.

It would be easy to design in or select for increased intelligence ( av 140) , so that they would be able to learn new tasks more rapidly [ with as few as 5 repetitions !] .  While we’re at it, they should also have a built-in willingness to learn, and an eagerness to have a purpose.  They should be curious – and stronger than typical Terrans#.

Although there would be variation within this new population, they would have significant average phenotypic differences from every Earth population.  On any given trait ( other than tolerance for low gravity) there would be some overlap with existing human populations, although perhaps not very much in some traits ( like intelligence).

But, although instantly recognizable, significantly different in genome and phenotype, and many ways quite formidable, those Martians would not be a different race. Why?

Because Carl Zimmer and David Reich have recently discovered,  a population isn’t really a race – not matter how different – unless it’s been around a long, long time.  Five thousand years isn’t nearly enough.   Previous definitions of races or subspecies never mentioned this, so it must be a new discovery.

And by the same inexorable argument, German Shepherds, developed in 1899, do not exist.  There is no such breed. I wish this had been generally known back when I had a paper route,  because if  I had just known that the beast on my Sunday route didn’t really exist, either he wouldn’t have bitten me or at minimum it would have hurt less.


*Several, actually.

# And have highly mobile ears.


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96 Responses to Synthetic Men of Mars

  1. akarlin says:

    Ability to survive without oxygen for at least a few minutes would also be highly adaptive. Space Marines when?

    • John Hunyadi says:

      Not really, because you still need to be in a pressurized environment in order to survive. Outside pressure on Mars is way below the Armstrong limit of human survivability, which means that the boiling point of the water contained within your body is quite a bit lower than your body temperature of 37 degrees Celsius. As you can imagine, having the water in your body and blood boil away can be quite unpleasant and detrimental to your survival.

      • wontgetthtough says:

        “environment” could obviously apply to housing or vehicle but got me thinking about suits’ behavior. Found this,

        when somebody asked her what would happen if something punctures a spacesuit while in use, she told the user to forget everything he’s seen in sci-fi movies or books. Apparently, they have over 20 layers of materials with a very, very tough outer one, and a small puncture wouldn’t cause an astronaut’s death. The flesh immediately underneath the puncture will swell, she explained, effectively stoppering the hole. Yes, it could be “extremely painful,” but the wearer will ultimately live, provided nothing worse happens. Note that it’s very hard to pierce a NASA spacesuit anyway, since it’s designed to resist tears and is tough enough “to stop a meteoroid traveling at high speed.”

        but what does a highspeed meteoroid of any size do to the person in the suit???

  2. But if they managed to return from Mars, surely in that instance they would be a racial minority?

    • gcochran9 says:

      Only if they do poorly in school.

      • Gilberto Dorneles says:

        Very likely the kids from this population would correct the errors of minority teachers and even complain of being locked 200 days per year in a class for something they could learn in a few days, very anti-social behavior that doesn’t adapt to the norm, they would, at least, be diagnosed with autism, ADHD and ODD.

        • Zimriel says:

          The JA Corey crew who wrote the books now portrayed in The Expanse agree with you and (I suspect) with our host: it would take hardly more than two generations for Martians and Belters and all offworlders to select for OCD. (But not for ADD.)
          Keeping stuff running right in a lowgrav environment sealed against deep space (or near enough) demands concentration, and attention to detail. One bad day, and you die.

  3. Distrust but verify says:

    His name is Zimmer, not Zimmerman.

  4. Coagulopath says:

    Sending humans to Mars is expensive. A better solution would be to create humans locally.

    NASA already put a penis on Mars, so we’re halfway there.

  5. ilkarnal says:

    Robert Zubrin claims zero g maleffects are exaggerated. Paraphrasing: “When you do proper exercise, it really isn’t a big deal. This idea that zero g is catastrophic for your health is based on results before we had our astronauts up there with proper exercise equipment and routines – and sometimes, in the case of the Russians, drinking while they were up there. When they do proper exercise, the effects are much less severe.” Bullshit?

    He recommends providing artificial gravity for the Mars-Earth journey, though.

    My two cents – issue of Mars low-g should be trivial, when you have some gravity you can just wear something heavy and avoid strength and cardio capacity loss. Maybe there’s some issue of circulation, but I doubt it will be severe.

  6. Pingback: Synthetic Men of Mars – The Daily Walk

  7. Loved it! A great read! ❤

  8. JP says:

    ‘They should be … stronger than typical Terrans#.’
    Why, in a society in which almost everything has to be done by machine because the enviroment is lethal?

    And have highly mobile ears??

  9. It depends on what you call a “race.”

    • gcochran9 says:

      Any population whose genetics makes them different enough to give a shit about. There, that was simple.

      • Agreed. Apparently that thinking isn’t universal. So if you call them populations and find differences, then that will be considered a code word for race. The root words for penitentiary and reform school aren’t all that unpleasant, but everyone figures out it just means “jail” pretty quickly. The evasions of using other terms for “race” will only work temporarily. Still, I’m an old guy. Temporarily might be good enough for me.

  10. Cloudswrest says:

    “But that’s no reason to give up. Evolution has solved a lot harder problems than that, and likely our genetic engineers could as well. The solution is changing the DNA, redesigning human physiology for low gravity. ”

    I think hyperloop centrifuge habitats around the rims of the domed crater cities perhaps may be easier. And of course the weight of the Mars dirt on top of the domes balances the internal air pressure.

    • Cloudswrest says:

      It also occurred to me that as long as there is SOME gravity you can always wear weighted garments to maintain your earth normal. But I’m sure there would be slackers.

      • Cloudswrest says:

        Speaking of weighted garments, would make backpacking lots of fun. You could pack in and out perhaps five times the amount of crap on a hiking trip.

  11. David says:

    No, the modified humans are the Terrans. Seriously, read the damn lore…

  12. j says:

    I vote against highly mobile ears. They make me nervous.

  13. ohwilleke says:

    “Evolution has solved a lot harder problems than that, and likely our genetic engineers could as well. The solution is changing the DNA, redesigning human physiology for low gravity. while we’re at it, I’m sure we’d want to make a number of other improvements, most of which already exist in the spectrum of human variation.”

    For an extensive fictional development of this idea, read the stand alone novel “Martians Abroad” (2016) by Carrie Vaughn.

    Among the other “improvements” made in the novel is to change human biochemistry to make Maritans obligate vegetarians since herding on Mars is much less economical than farming there.

    • Zimriel says:

      Vaughn is, I wager, a vegan extremist herself, and a collectivist.
      Her argument is silly for several reasons that we can take in stages. At the first stage, when living space is at its tightest and for the first people there, meatlike protein can be manufactured or grown – I believe we are already at this point on Earth. Second, animals don’t have to be herded: farms of guinea-pigs and goats, and other smaller mammals, can be raised for meat and maybe cheeses. (Same with ponds stocked with fish.) At the final stage there will be vast haciendas of martian land covered over, for whatever domesticable ungulates.

  14. Bob says:

    Gerard O’Neill already solved this problem, at least on paper. Musk can solve it in the real world with the old fashioned mechanical engineering he already does – no need for genetic engineering. A lot nicer weather too.

  15. dearieme says:

    I enjoyed the juxtapositioning used to imply that Elon Musk is a Synthetic Man of Mars. He certainly needs some explanation.

  16. Steve in Greensboro says:

    Elon Musk won’t be an issue in a few years when Tesla collapses and he is hauled off down the same road that Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos is currently going.

  17. j says:

    It is much more difficult to create a synthetic human adapted to live in one third of Earth’s gravity than to create an artificial environment on Mars. We could give them high IQ and let them modify themselves. That would also reduce the chances that they will come back two hundred years later demanding monetary reparations.

    • albatross says:

      On the contrary, a separate population of super smart, super hard-working, super detail-oriented people may very well come and demand reparations from us. Or maybe the term would be “tribute.”

      • albatross says:

        In order to get good data on how Martian gravity affects humans long-term, we’d need to either send people to Mars or make a spinning habitat in Earth orbit that gave us approximately 1/3 Earth gravity. I expect the spinning habitat is easier, but neither one is trivial.

  18. Zenit says:

    It would be easy to design in or select for increased intelligence

    Yeah, and the highly intelligent Martians will find there could be better life than sitting in underground caves and used their IQ to find a way to return to Earth ASAP.

  19. crew says:

    But other people are solving the really tough problems:

    6,300 years in space, or
    COMPUTING THE MINIMAL CREW for a multi-generational space journey towards Proxima Centauri b

    • Jacob says:

      I love how eugenics are baked into this. I guess their abacus didn’t have any special beads coded for politically correct thinking.

      Personally, I doubt that a socially implemented eugenics program could remain implemented for 6,300 years, unless part of the program was selecting for people who favor the program. Alternatively, I’d be curious to see an embryo selection program tweaked to compensate for mutational load and genetic drift, or very slightly overcompensate.

      I’d also like to know how you could possibly keep a ship going for 6,300 years. I wonder if you’d have to be able to repair it from the inside and out, every part of it. I’d guess that efficient recycling of materials, a large initial supply of raw materials, and some 3D printers would all be necessary.

      Imagine the power supply: to recycle water, to keep the lights on, to keep the cabin at habitable temperatures, and to reduce carbon to oxidation states seen in carbs/fats/proteins so the crew doesn’t, you know, starve, or run out of oxygen because it’s all been fixed to CO2. Of course plants can do all of that, but they need light, which is energy.

      Anyway, what a cool idea for a paper.

      • gcochran9 says:

        Photosynthesis isn’t very efficient: people dissipate on the order of 100 watts, but you need way more per-capita electrical energy than that for the hydroponic gardens.

        • Jacob says:

          I’m amazed that photosynthesis evolved in the first place, given how convoluted it is. It happened once to our knowledge, so it’s not Something That Just Happens (e.g. sight, magnetic sense, flight, sexual reproduction).

          Semi-related: how nice would it be if photosynthesis were the Great Filter?

          I had assumed that most of the light in the gardens would end up as heat, but you need that anyway, right? I’m just curious to know where the energy would come from in the first place, how you could possibly store and recycle enough for 6,300 years.

          • gcochran9 says:

            Fissionables, natch. Uranium.

            There is another kind of photosynthesis: bacteriorhodopsin.

            • Jacob says:

              How to get a fission reactor to not melt down for 6,300 years?

              Man, people would come to worship that thing. Their Sun, basically.

              There you go quashing my wishful thinking re: photosynthesis.

              Using retinal like that is brilliant, though, I’m reading that it can only go back down to a lower energy state with a bunch of acid-base reactions (yielding the gradient, since the first and last proton donations occur on opposite sides of the membrane). Two separate residues are doing catalysis while a third binds the thing as a coenzyme. Amazing.

              • See Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky

              • crew says:

                Well, you could start with three reactors and use a pebble-bed reactor design perhaps.

                The point of using 3 is so that you can take one out of service to refurbish it, but still have another incase the one in use goes out.

                With U235 having a half life of some 700M years, it seems, you wouldn’t likely have to do fancier things.

      • Greying Wanderer says:

        “I’d guess that efficient recycling of materials, a large initial supply of raw materials, and some 3D printers would all be necessary.”

        not remotely an expert but seems to me it might be better to turn a large asteroid with a ton of natural resources into a ship with a larger population/crew so you could mine/refine/manufacture using those resources – like an Eldar craft world

    • crew says:

      Of course, the Pak would have no problem with 6,300 years.

  20. Larry says:

    might not be survivable, over a lifetime.
    Sure it would be. It just might not be a terribly long lifetime. 😉

  21. BB753 says:

    I thought that Elon Musk was broke. Tesla isn’t doing well and the hyperloop is not viable. Steve Sailer had a post about Musk the other day.

  22. syonredux says:

    Massively off-topic,

    I wonder how long it will be before Ron decides that Stanley Kubrick faked the Apollo Moon Landings….

    • MawBTS says:

      You can read Greg’s arguments with Ron under some old posts.

      It’s frustrating. He refuses to back down or admit defeat on any subject, no matter how obviously wrong he is. It’s like “debating” the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

      It was illuminating to see Ron make an argument, Greg convincingly point out major flaws in it, only for Ron to respond with some version of “yes, but have you considered [original argument worded in a different way]”. Argumentum ad broken record.

      Obviously, I appreciate all that Ron’s done for for alternative thought and publishing (etc). But stubbornness is a more profitable trait in business and politics than it is in science.

      • David Chamberlin says:

        Ron Unz promotes all kinds of crack pot conspiracies because it increases readership at his lousy blog site. He knows most of it is bullshit but he doesn’t care. I had a conversation with him once (on line), don’t promote conspiracy theories and you might get some respect. He knew exactly what i was talking about, but the complex truth is boring to Unz Review readers so he completely sells out and prints garbage that people will read.

        Alternative thought is fine and dandy but when you mix it with 90 percent nonsense it’s useless.

        • Wanda says:

          I thought Ron Unz was wrong in alleging John McCain was a Tokyo Rose deliberately hiding the”truth” that North Viet Nam held back hundreds of American POWs, and especially acting as if it were some hushed-up conspiracy.
          But every aspect of that story has been pored over for decades, most especially by the wives, children, parents, siblings and friends of the MIAs for whom this subject is intensely personal.
          At first, I thought Unz was being sincere, but as I read more, especially his responses to comments, it seemed to me that his intent was to use the POW/MIA issue to smear John McCain as a bad seed. Nor would he brook any criticism of his chosen expert on the matter, Sydney Schanberg. The MIAs were just props.

          • gcochran9 says:

            John McCain did make propaganda broadcasts for Hanoi. That’s a fact. And as far as I can tell, McCain really has been a bad seed his entire life: dumb, careless, dishonest, and a bad influence on public policy. Never met a war he didn’t like. Christ, at one point he was talking about invading Burma. I think he’s despicable.

            I looked at the POW/MIA issue, and although there was nothing logically impossible about Hanoi holding back prisoners, I found only one piece of evidence that suggested it had actually happened ( a Russian report). No other, ever. I told Ron I didn’t think it had happened, but he thought otherwise.

            Let me tell you – it seems likely to me that Unz is sincere. He’s not winning himself any brownie points by embracing David Irving.

            • Wanda says:

              The fact that McCain made a propaganda broadcast is very well known; it’s old news. Unz acted as if he had turned up some secret the boys from Iron Mountain didn’t want anyone to discover. My father, who flew combat missions over North Viet Nam during Operations Linebacker and Linebacker II, knew about it when he was at Pensacola. Everybody knew.
              Other than that, McCain’s naval career was fairly routine, and all indications are that he was just an average scooter driver but for the fact that he lived in the shadow of his much more famous father. If he hadn’t happened to have had a really bad day at the office in October of 1967 no one would have ever paid attention to his naval career.
              Those who were POWs with McCain, including James Stockdale — who brought charges against fellow POW Commander Walter Eugene Wilber — had nothing bad to say about him. (I should add, illustrating the confusing, very personal and highly contentious nature of the POW issue, that there are those who strong defend Wilber).
              The Schanberg article Unz was boosting contained a lot of inaccuracies and relied on senate testimony as if it were undisputable truth.
              McCain’s subsequent political career is irrelevant to his career as a naval aviator or his ordeal as a POW, but Unz implied that it was. If McCain had eluded his guards, escaped, hunted down and killed Ho Chi Minh with his bare hands, and then gone on to have the political career he has had, what would be the difference?

              • gcochran9 says:

                Most people don’t know – a lot of time has passed. Certainly very few ever heard the broadcast.

                And I don’t think many naval aviators ran into power lines after already losing one plane due to pilot error.

              • David Chamberlin says:

                I am not going to defend McCain, the fool thought we could solve complex international problems by going into a ridiculous wars multiple times. One thing in his favor. The McCain-Feingold campaign reform act really would have been a great service to our country. Too bad the Supreme Court over rode it.

        • gcochran9 says:

          “because it increases readership”

          You’re imputing a rational motive. I doubt if you are correct.

        • crew says:

          Compared to this paper, Unz appears fairly rational, IMO:


          I propose an idealist ontology that makes sense of reality in a more parsimonious and empirically rigorous manner than mainstream physicalism, bottom-up panpsychism, and cosmopsychism. The proposed ontology also offers more explanatory power than these three alternatives, in that it does not fall prey to the hard problem of consciousness, the combination problem, or the decombination problem, respectively. It can be summarized as follows: there is only cosmic consciousness. We, as well as all other living organisms, are but dissociated alters of cosmic consciousness, surrounded by its thoughts. The inanimate world we see around us is the extrinsic appearance of these thoughts. The living organisms we share the world with are the extrinsic appearances of other dissociated alters.

          • David Chamberlin says:

            “Bottom up-panpsychism ” sounds like a weird deviant porn category you don’t want to know about but it’s worse. Panpsychism is the notion that rocks and spoons have consciousness. A dirty mind is understandable, a batshit crazy one isn’t.

          • Garr says:

            Reading and enjoying the essay right now — thanks for the recommendation.

  23. Michel Rouzic says:

    There’s an obvious flaw with that plan, modifying humans and watching them grow takes much longer than it takes for everybody on Earth to realise that moving to a desert planet with a 2,000,000 ms ping is an even worse idea than moving to Australia and therefore undesirable once the novelty effect of “hey look I’m on a planet that isn’t the Earth!” wears off. Yet probably less time than it would take me to figure out what on Earth people like Musk think is so great about living somewhere that makes the South Pole look like a nice place to live. Besides, can you imagine how the Virginia Dare of Mars would feel about her parents for making her live on such a ghastly planet?

    • Cloveoil says:

      Surely geothermal biodomes on interior Antarctica would be a necessary and sensible forerunner; and lots of new living space on earth for humans, without environmental destruction (nothing lives there). Also places like the Sahara, but the Sahara is too hot by day to be as relevant for Mars life.

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      assuming a flying rock will eventually trash earth then the only way to save the whales is terraforming other planets and seeding them with terran flora and fauna – human space ents ftw

  24. Young says:

    Given the intense selective pressures in a Martian environment evolutionary change aided by modern gene editing techniques would be so rapid that Martians would probably be looking at us as a separate species or, in generous moments, as archaic humans.

    • j says:

      Human evolution on Mars may take a different direction. People stranded on Mars could well end like the those stranded on the Indonesian island of Flores, pygmies with brains of the size of an orange, hunting with spears overdeveloped rats.

      • Cloveoil says:

        I thought of what a terraformed Mars might be like a few times; human settlers would bring agriculture and avoid bringing pests; these would be simplistic ecosystems, populated by humans and domesticates, probably with some genetic tamperings. Some forestry would be useful for settler folk, but without pest species would land ecosystems not be sterile?. Melting the icecaps would provide a cold freshwater sea, fine for cool temperate lake species palatable to man, and here the ecosystem would need to be richer to prop up the food chain for fisheries. But still limited, I reckon.

  25. Rich Rostrom says:

    Actually, they would not be a separate race. Because once germline genome editing of humans becomes possible, the traditional definitions of “species” and “race” will collapse. There will be thousands or millions of differently engineered variants of the human species. Most of them will exist for only one generation; later humans will have revised (and presumably improved) versions of earlier genomes. Furthermore, “breeding” as it has been known will become irrelevant, as genes will be transferable at will between “lines”.

    Humans may be engineered to function as Martian colonists, but it is unlikely that there will be one and only one set of changes, or that the revised genomes will remain unchanged in later generations. Variants wil fork, merge, and terminate.

    There wiil be a class of people who have Martian-colonist genomes, but they won’t all be the same, and they won’t all be on Mars. Depending on how obtrusive the Mars variants are, they may persist in people descended from emigré Marsmen.

    • Cloveoil says:

      Taking Rich Rostrum and Young’s points together, that’s a great idea for a sci-fi, isn’t it? Sci-fi that hinges on themes of GM humans, usually define them as a group – like the Apex in a recent TV show. But what if they don’t have a biological definition anymore, and are proud of it – and they hate us, and our natural ecosystems, because we are ‘naturally defined’ organisms with species and races from natural evolution – because they hate unmodified nature? Sort of like the rejected Alien 3 script but with GM human descendants. And they are naturally seeing themselves as above us because their lack of essence makes them multiculturalists from hell.

      • Cloveoil says:

        And of course they do have a social identity, but they’re in denial of that fact… they really do see themselves as superior, having overcome a belief in biological differences, and they act on it.

    • Patrick says:

      See Bruce Sterling’s universe, where mankind has split into two groups – those that use genetic engineering (Shapers) and those that use mechanical augmentation (Mechanists).

  26. sam57l0 says:

    Didn’t Edgar Rice Burroughs write that book? By golly, he DID:

  27. Sinij says:

    Stanislaw Lem suggested this idea: Once civilization starts experimenting with genetically engineering their own form, it is very quickly moves from function to style. What if being genius-level smart is no longer seen as desirable because anyone could be that way if parents simply check-boxed it on the form?

  28. Oh Hey says:

    I despise John McCain but it is hard to blame him for propaganda broadcasts under the threat of torture. Most people would make a broadcast if it meant their finger and toenails would not get ripped out (they probably did not use THAT form of torture, but still). .

    • gcochran9 says:

      Most American POWs in Vietnam didn’t make propaganda broadcasts.

    • Wanda says:

      Navy Captain Rod Knutson, a PoW for eight years, knew McCain during his captivity, and bore no ill will toward him or others lesser-known who cracked under Vietnamese torture. Knutson was responsible for having the wording of the Code of Conduct changed from “bound to give only name, rank, service number and date of birth” to will “evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability.”
      Knutson pushed for the change based on his own experience:
      “I was shot down near Hanoi on 17 October 1965 on my 76th mission.
      Due to my low altitude ejection at over 500 kts, I suffered a fractured neck
      and back. During my capture I was fired upon by enemy soldiers and to
      protect myself I killed two of them before I was knocked unconscious by the
      muzzle blast of a rifle being fired at point blank range. I had a laceration
      over my right eye and an abrasion down my face along my nose, powder burns
      on my face and a swollen knee.
      While in captivity I suffered injuries due to maltreatment by the
      Vietnamese. I was tortured many times — with ropes on my arms, leg irons, hand cuffs,
      manacles and beatings. I was suspended by ropes, and also suffered a broken
      nose, broken wrist, broken teeth, and multiple other minor injuries.”

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