Generation Ships and Monarch Butterflies
Over the course of a year, monarch butterflies make a massive journey of thousands of miles, from places like Canada through the United States, down into Mexico and then back again. But, as per Wikipedia, “No individual butterfly completes the entire round trip…Four generations are involved in the annual cycle…” While the journey south occurs in a single generation (this generation of butterflies has a much longer lifespan than the others), the migration north is multiple generations. Ultimately though, the monarch butterfly round trip journey is a multigenerational one, with no single butterfly returning to the origin of this journey.
Which brings us to generation ships.
Generation ships—for those who are not familiar with this science-fictional trope—are spacecraft where multiple generations of people live and die as they travel towards some destination, such as another star system. Because of the general difficulty of space travel and the speed limit of light, these voyages might take centuries to be completed.
Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my favorite explorations of the complexity of building a long-term enclosed environment for a large population as it travels through space. But in addition to the complexity science issues, it also touches on the ethical ramifications of these kinds of ships: is it fair to its future generations to launch a generation ship? The descendants of the original population are locked into a project in which they have no say. In addition, since generation ships are imperfect microcosms of human society, each of the ships’s children and grandchildren are also provided with a more limited set of options than they might have had if they were left on Earth, from reproduction to choices about one’s occupation (this essay explores some of the ethical issues of generation ships). They are limited in what they can do, forced by virtue of their birth to participate in a large multigenerational experiment.
The migration of monarch butterflies is—at least if you squint a lot—kind of like a generation ship. Not the self-contained component, but the directed long-term journey across generations. I don’t know if there are other species that have similar multigenerational migrations, but these butterflies are part of a multigenerational voyage, much like the residents of a generation ship.
Whether we are thinking about butterfly migration or generation ships, these multigenerational projects have something to teach us. As per the essay on the ethics of generation ships, “Asking about the permissibility of generation ships might give us a fresh perspective on the permissibility of the constraints we impose now on human lives, here on the biggest generation ship of them all – our planet.”
We can also discern in these something important about how we think about long timescales. I think there is a basic human desire to participate in some grand project, something larger than themselves. But a certain amount of choice here seems to be vital. Obviously, there is a lot of complexity and this merits further exploration, but it seems that one must have the ability to opt out in order for any grand project to be meaningful. Of course, there is a grandeur even to a genetically determined butterfly migration. But it’s even more powerful when we have made the conscious decision that whatever multigenerational project we hitch our wagons to is something worth participating in.
As I’ve written, one of the powerful features of Judaism’s longevity is that it recognizes the balance between maintenance and creativity, allowing each generation to make the Jewish tradition its own. It’s something we require as we contemplate the kinds of long-term multigenerational projects that we might wish to be a part of. Or, as Walt Whitman noted, “That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” ■
I’m cohosting another Interintellect salon, this time with my friend Rohit Krishnan of Strange Loop Canon, about something we love to do: connecting disparate domains and ideas together:
If novelty is indeed to come from the recombination of ideas—in addition to just being plain fun—how can we encourage better surfing of the incredibly varied array of humanity’s collective will, and try to link ideas together? How can we link more interesting fields? Can we combine music theory and architecture? English studies and economics? Paleontology and AI? Let’s find out!
Check out our salon on “Connecting the Idea Dots.”
A few links worth checking out:
I’d like to highlight two recent essays by Rohit Krishnan: “AI risk is modern eschatology” and “Effective Altruism is a constant fight against Knightian uncertainty”
On using evolutionary analysis to explore the history of dog domestication
A lecture by Agnes Callard on how to think about meaning and humanity
Also, I turned my modern wisdom literature Twitter thread into a standalone list webpage. Further suggestions are always welcome.
Until next time.
I knew about the monarch migration broadly, but not the wonderful fact of it being more generations to return than to go south!
During the earlier parts of covid, I wrote a little for Breaking Ground on how to live with a generation ship mindset, including this: https://breakingground.us/all-aboard-the-generation-ship/
"Weave Essential Knowledge into All Parts of Life
In generation ship stories, the children of the ship play with models of the engines. Algal food protocols are conserved through nursery songs. The walls are painted with murals of the history of the ship and the future it was built for. All these things are too important to be left only to classroom instruction. The same is true in our own lives. Whatever is most important should be before our eyes and knit into our bones."