Norman Spinrad
      1 rue Maitre Albert                             about 3700 words
      Paris 75005
                           THE TRANSFORMATION CRISIS
                               by Norman Spinrad
           We are living in the most critical period in human history, 
      indeed the most critical epoch in the evolution of life on Earth, an 
      ongoing evolutionary crisis which came into full flower over 
      Hiroshima in 1945, and which will probably persist well into the 
      21st Century, if we don't destroy ourselves and the terrestrial 
      biosphere itself first. 
           That we have the nuclear power to do just that is the most 
      starkly obvious aspect part of what I have come to call the 
      Transformation Crisis, but far from the only ultimate evolutionary 
      responsibility placed in the hands of generations now living.
           Nor is such a Transformation Crisis likely to prove to be a 
      uniquely human phenomenon; rather, I believe, it is an evolutionary 
      inevitable that any intelligent species anywhere is sooner or later 
      going to confront. 
           Perhaps twenty billion years ago, the universe exploded into 
      being from a dimensionless singularity in a presently unimaginable 
      nothingness of quantum flux, and began to expand, cool, and evolve 
      towards ever-increasing complexity, and with ever-accelerating 
           The primal quarks condensed into subatomic particles, the 
      particles clumped into hydrogen atoms, which condensed into galaxies 
      of first-generation stars.  Fusion processes produced the heavier 
      elements in the cores of these first-generation stars, the stars 
      went through their life-cycles, and exploded into novas, enriching 
      the interstellar medium with elements and compounds.
           Proto-stellar nebulas formed out of this material, condensed 
      into second-generation stars, many of them attended by planets, 
      gaseous and solid, if our present understanding of cosmological 
      evolution is correct.
           Given a planet of roughly terrestrial mass and chemical 
      composition orbiting its star at a distance allowing liquid water to 
      exist on its surface, the universal physical laws would seem to 
      deterministically dictate what happens next.
           The planet begins to evolve.
           Outgassings from the interior and/or cometary bombardment give 
      it oceans and an early atmosphere.  Pre-existent complex carbon 
      molecules rain down from space.  The universal laws of organic 
      chemistry cause them to link together in chains of every-increasing 
      length and complexity....
           Whether the next stage is inevitable or the result of a chain 
      of random recombinations we do not yet know, but given the 
      likelihood of billions of suitable planets, and given the certitude 
      of billions of years of time, it seems likely that what occurred on 
      Earth can hardly be unique.
           Molecules eventually evolved that were able to organize 
      duplicates of themselves out of the raw materials of the nutrient 
           On Earth, these molecules were RNA and DNA or the chemical 
      precursors of same.  It seems likely that different but functionally 

      analogous chemical structures would have evolved elsewhere.  But 
      whatever the chemical specifics, the evolution of such replicating 
      complex molecules, the simplest viruses, represents the birth of 
           Cosmic ray bombardment and random accidents cause variations in 
      some of these copies.  Those that are better adapted to duplication 
      and survival increase their numbers at the statistical expense of 
      the others.  
           Life begins to evolve.  
           On Earth, at least, viral cores evolve protective envelopes of 
      increasing complexity, become cells.  The chlorophyll molecule 
      evolves within some of them, enabling them to use the energy of the 
      sun directly to turn simpler compounds, mainly carbon dioxide, into 
      more of themselves--the first single-celled plants.
           Evolution itself begins to evolve as living organisms alter the 
      chemistry of their planet, replacing much of the carbon dioxide in 
      the atmosphere with free oxygen. 
           Driven by this radical environmental change, the pace of 
      evolution quickens, as the planetary biomass rapidly expands.  
      Predatory microbes evolve to feed off the simple plants.  Colonial 
      organisms.  Multicellular organisms, then sexual reproduction, which 
      increases variation, and speeds up the pace of evolution yet again.  
      Primitive nervous systems evolve to coordinate activity.  Spinal 
      chords with neural nodes evolving towards central brains....
           Vertebrates, fishes that crawl up on the shore, evolve into 
      air-breathing amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals.  And all the 
      while, driven by the need to prey and avoid being preyed upon, 
      nervous systems and brains evolve greater and greater complexity 
           Primates start picking up sticks and stones and using them as 
      weapons, later as tools, requiring the evolution of still larger and 
      more complex brains to coordinate these activities.  Perhaps at the 
      same time, they begin hunting in coordinated groups, using sounds 
      and gestures with differentiated meanings.
           These become language, a means of conveying information from 
      one animal to another, but also a medium within which internal 
      information processing can take place between stimulus and response, 
      which is to say thought.
           Consciousness has evolved.
           How universal is this evolutionary process?  Given the 
      diversity of starting conditions and the abundance of random factors 
      inherent in such long evolutionary chains, it seems highly unlikely 
      that sapient beings evolving on other planets will bear much 
      physical resemblance to ourselves.  But given billions of planets 
      and given billions of years of time, and given the universal 
      evolutionary drive towards greater and greater complexity, it would 
      seem likely that consciousness will evolve at the pinnacle of many 
      if not most biospheres.
           And that is the point.
           The point at which physical evolution produces an end product 
      that transcends the physical evolutionary process itself.
           Billions of years for planets to evolve from the Big Bang.  A 
      billion or two more to quicken to life.  Perhaps another billion or 
      so for microbes to become creatures that think and speak and use 
      tools.  But once they do, once cultural and technological evolution 
      begins, it proceeds at blinding speed, mutating faster by many 
      orders of magnitude than anything possible in the cosmological or 
      even biological realm. 

           A million years or so from the first words and tools to the 
      first cities.  A few thousand years from early communities to the 
      nation-state.  A millennium or two between the birth of science and 
      the industrial revolution.  About a century between the first 
      primitive mechanized transportation and the airplane, and about six 
      decades later, men on the Moon.
           Men who, biologically speaking, have hardly evolved at all 
      beyond the inhabitants of the first humans to master fire.
           And who now, for better or for worse, hold the power of nuclear 
      fire in their hot little hands.
           Which bring us back to where we find ourselves today.
           As surely as the Big Bang implied the formation of planets, as 
      surely as organic chemistry led to the evolution of life, as surely 
      as consciousness arises out of the evolution of the biomass, any 
      sentient species which develops science and technology is going to 
      is going to get its hands on the power of the atom, is going to find 
      itself in possession of the power to destroy the biosphere which 
      gave it birth.
           Atomic destruction is certainly not the only means for 
      destroying life on Earth, but it is sufficient, meaning that our 
      species entered its mature Transformation Crisis with the first 
      nuclear explosions in 1945.
           How lucky we were!
           Humans developed and used the first primitive nuclear weapons 
      at the tag-end of a great war.  If this technology had arisen a 
      decade or two earlier, both the Allies and the Axis would have been 
      in possession of large arsenals of fusion bombs and ICBMs when the 
      war started, and the Earth might now be a dead planet.  If the 
      development of nuclear weapons had been retarded by a decade or two, 
      if the Soviet Union and the United States had built up their nuclear 
      arsenals during a Cold War period without benefit of the relatively 
      cheap lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the result might have been 
      much the same.
           Fortunately for us, we seem to have successfully negotiated the 
      crudest and earliest challenge of our species' Transformation 
      Crisis.  For nearly half a century, we have lived with the power to 
      destroy our biosphere without so doing.  But that does not mean we 
      have transcended this aspect of the crisis.  We never will.  For as 
      long as our species endures, we will possess the power of total 
           As Robert Oppenheimer exclaimed in dismay upon viewing the 
      awfulness of that first primitive nuclear explosion, "Now we have 
      become Shiva, breaker of worlds."  Forever.
           For better or worse, we lunatics are now fully in charge of 
      the asylum.  Permanently.
           And the nuclear aspect is only the most obvious and dramatic 
      consequence of the Transformation Crisis.  Hiroshima brought us to 
      full conscious awareness of that one, but the Transformation Crisis 
      is a complex of inter-related evolutionary nexuses we are only now 
      beginning to understand.
           Prior to the evolution of photosynthetic cells, anaerobic 
      fermentation of the organic soup, an inherently limiting chemical 
      energy-source, provided the life-energy of the biomass.  The mutant 
      photosynthesis-oxidation process allowed life to switch to much more 
      abundant solar energy, but it changed the atmosphere, and the free 
      oxygen released was toxic to most previous forms of life.  There was 
      an evolutionary crisis that lasted millions of years, and which 
      might have destroyed life on Earth.

           The terrestrial biomass transcended that crisis, and the result 
      was a much larger total biomass operating at a higher energy level, 
      and a consequent increase in the pace of evolution.
           Beginning with the first use of fire, technological 
      civilization has produced a similar evolutionary crisis, but in a 
      much more compressed timeframe.  In a very real sense, the use of 
      larger and larger amounts of energy via the burning of fuels is the 
      story of the rise of our technological civilization, enabling us to 
      smelt metals, occupy hostile climes, build great cities and 
      sophisticated machines, make medicines to conquer disease, travel at 
      supersonic speeds, go to the Moon, increase our numbers 
           And all the while, as blindly, until quite recently, as those 
      first photosynthetic organisms, we have been changing the atmosphere 
      in ways that may ultimately prove fatal to life on Earth.
           So too, in obedience to the evolutionary drive of any organism 
      to replicate itself as widely as possible without regard to the 
      survival of competitors, have we been diminishing the diversity of 
      the biomass, mindlessly destroying complex webs of ecological 
      interaction in our natural passion to fill every available 
      ecological niche with more of ourselves.
           Physical evolution unfolding on a geological time-scale has 
      been superseded by immensely more rapid cultural and technological 
      evolution, the mindless "natural" evolutionary process by choices 
      made by consciousness.  What we do now dominates the composition of 
      the atmosphere, the albedo of the planet, the climate, the nature of 
      the biomass.
           Indeed, for centuries, via selective breeding, we have been 
      consciously crafting the evolution of species, as a quick visit to a 
      modern barnyard or pet store easily enough demonstrates.  Now, via 
      the infant science of genetic engineering, we are beginning to 
      control evolution on an ultimate molecular level.  Presently we are 
      tailoring the genetic material of bacteria for our own purposes, 
      experimenting with mammalian chimeras, but we are already thinking 
      about playing with our own genes.
           A "DNA synthesizer" already exists.  Projects to map the 
      complete human genome are already under way.  In a few years, if it 
      is not possible already, we will be able to synthesize simple 
      viruses from off-the-shelf chemicals.  A decade or two later, we 
      will be able to do the same with human life.
           And before that, we will have the capability of creating 
      Artificial Intelligences whose consciousness transcends our own.
           With the growing ability to take all of the above beyond the 
      bounds of our native planet, to colonize other worlds, to terraform 
      them, to create new artificial habitats in space.
           The evolutionary process which began with the Big Bang has 
      produced a race of conscious beings whose transformational powers 
      exceed those of that evolutionary process itself.
           But, alas, power does not inevitably imply wisdom.
           The evolutionary process, via science and technology, has 
      placed these awesome powers in human hands, without regard to 
      whether the minds behind those hands have evolved the moral and 
      philosophical maturity to wield them wisely.
           That is the crux of the Transformation crisis, a crisis that 
      must come on any planet where consciousness arises as the crown of 
      the biosphere.  Consciousness must evolve full self-awareness of the 
      godlike ultimate responsibility such godlike powers imply or it will 

           Science fiction, no less than current events, elucidates many 
      paths to extinction.  Nuclear destruction.  A runaway greenhouse 
      effect that destroys the viability of the atmosphere and the 
      climate.  The stripping of the ozone layer, exposing the planetary 
      surface to lethal radiation.  The release of some lethal artificial 
      organism.  Unforeseen results of genetic tampering.  Worse things 
           But science fiction, unlike current events or any other form of 
      literature, also presents a vision, or rather a series of visions, 
      of transcendence, of what could, indeed must, emerge out the other 
      side--the next stage in evolution, a dynamically stable 
      transformational civilization capable of enduring for millions of 
           What would such a post-Transformation Crisis civilization be 
           Science fiction presents several alternatives, some of them 
      much more attractive than others.
           If we do end up destroying the natural biosphere, it would be 
      at least theoretically possible to construct a stable successor 
      civilization on a dead Earth, even as it is possible to construct 
      entirely artificial habitats in space, and by much the same means.  
      Nuclear fission and fusion as sources of abundant energy, an 
      artificial atmosphere created and maintained by industrial means, 
      food sources based on artificial photosynthesis, perhaps eventually 
      a new biosphere created in the genetic engineering labs.  
           Few people would advocate such a desperate solution as a matter 
      of choice, it would give the familiar cliche "Spaceship Earth" an 
      ironic and highly unpleasant new meaning.
           The Greens, or at least the more extreme wings of the movement, 
      advocate a reverse course to long-term stability.  Give the 
      preservation of the biosphere top priority, and cut back world 
      energy use to a level sustainable by renewable ecologically benign 
      sources such as solar and wind power.  Eliminate the use of 
      pesticides and genetically-engineered organisms and return to 
      "natural" and organic means of food production.  
           Such a civilization could indeed survive indefinitely, but 
      would only be capable of supporting a much lower standard of living 
      or a much smaller human population, and probably both.  Even if one 
      agreed that such an end result was desirable, getting from here to 
      there would require a government capable of ruthlessly enforcing 
      limits on living standards and population, as well as the deaths of 
      billion of people now living.  Hardly a utopian alternative either.
           As both of these dystopian alternatives make clear, energy is 
      the key to the construction of a viable long-term civilization.  The 
      continued reliance on any form of combustion as a major energy 
      source even at present levels is not a viable long-term option.  
      Sooner or later, the carbon dioxide inevitably produced even by so-
      called clean fuels will render the atmosphere toxic to our form of 
           A Transformational civilization must be based on one or more 
      "Ideal Energy Sources."  An Ideal Energy Source is one which is 
      abundant, environmentally neutral and inexhaustible, at least in 
      relatively cosmological terms, say over a time-span of several 
      million years.
           Wind power, hydroelectrical power, and solar power, fulfill two 
      of the three requirements of Ideal Energy Sources--they release no 
      chemical wastes into the environment, and are, for all practical 
      purposes, inexhaustible.  

           Wind and water power, however, will never provide enough energy 
      to replace combustion on a world-wide basis.  The sources may be 
      inexhaustible, but the available energy is limited, and could only 
      support the energy needs of a much smaller and/or poorer population.  
      Nor does solar power seem to offer a viable alternative at least on 
      a planetary surface.  One would have to cover much of the Earth's 
      surface with solar cells, and even then energy production would be 
      constrained by the theoretical limits of photo-electric conversion, 
      even with a future ideal technology.
           In space, however, the sun could indeed serve as an Ideal 
      Energy Source.  Surface area constraints no longer apply, immense 
      collecting surfaces need not be immensely massive, there is no 
      intervening atmosphere to attenuate sunlight, and so it would be 
      merely a matter of some formidable engineering to construct 
      collecting surfaces large enough to secure the desired amount of 
      solar energy, conversion systems to turn it into microwave energy to 
      be beamed to the Earth's surface, and receivers to collect it.
           Indeed, Freeman Dyson has suggested that sufficiently advanced 
      civilizations may deconstruct whole planets and use the materials to 
      enclose their suns in a spherical shell--a so-called Dyson Sphere--
      in order to collect all of the available solar energy.
           For the present and the practical future, though--meaning 
      before our reliance on combustion destroys the biological viability 
      of the atmosphere--the only available Idea Energy Sources will be 
           Despite the horror of the Greens, fission reactors are Ideal 
      Energy Sources.  Heat from entirely-contained nuclear reactions 
      boils entirely-contained water into steam to generate electricity, 
      and nothing is released into the environment.  Breeder reactors can 
      turn relatively abundant uranium-238 into more fuel than they 
      consume, and if we mine other bodies of the solar system, fission 
      can provide abundant energy for millions of years.
           The problem, of course, is that a malfunction at a fission 
      reactor can release truly deadly poisons into the environment that 
      can persist for thousands of years.  And the burned-out cores of the 
      reactors we already have have already piled up huge mountains of 
      deadly radioactive wastes.
           At present, nuclear power represents an uneasy stopgap wager--
      convert to fission power at the risk of an environmental catastrophe 
      sooner or later, versus continued reliance on combustion and the 
      certain destruction of the atmosphere within a century or two.
           Perfected nuclear fusion, however, would be another matter.  
      Heavy hydrogen extracted from water would release energy by being 
      fused into chemically inert helium.  There would be no toxic fuel 
      and no toxic waste product for even an accident to release into the 
      environment, and no possibility of a China Syndrome meltdown or a 
      runaway chain-reaction.
           What is more, at fusion plasma temperatures, any material 
      injected into the so-called fusion torch would be dissociated into 
      its constituent atoms, which could then be collected as pure 
      elemental material.  A perfected fusion torch technology would not 
      only provide an abundant environmentally benign energy source, it 
      would serve as the perfect waste recycler for all byproducts of a 
      Transformational civilization.
           A long-term stable civilization might and probably will 
      eventually develop other and even better Ideal Energy Sources--
      direct conversion of matter into energy being the theoretical 
      ultimate--but it seems clear than any civilization that successfully 

      transcends its Transformation Crisis must have something at least as 
      good as space-born solar power or the fusion torch.
           So, without really having to predict the technological 
      specifics, we can indeed imagine in a general way what such a 
      Transformational Civilization would have to be like in order to have 
      survived a hundred thousand years or so of its own history.
           For all practical purposes, it would have access to nearly 
      unlimited, virtually inexhaustible, environmentally neutral energy.  
      Fusion torch technology (or something even better) will mean that 
      virtually anything can serve as raw material for the production of 
      anything else, and it will all be perfectly recyclable, even food, 
      via artificial photosynthesis, or some even more efficient process.
           If it so chooses, and it probably will, it will be a solar-
      system wide civilization, able to terraform planets, and construct 
      huge artificial space habitats. 
           Given another few decades, we ourselves will be able to 
      synthesize living organisms out of off-the-shelf chemicals, so, 
      given the inclination, a Transformational civilization will even be 
      able to construct new living planets with their own tailored 
           Given even ten thousand years, a Transformational civilization 
      will be able to do just about anything that is possible within the 
      ultimate limits set by the universal laws governing the interactions 
      of mass and energy.
           The final question, of course, is how do we get from here to 
      there?  How do we transcend our Transformation Crisis?
           Vast shelves of science fiction novels could and have been 
      written around the question, several of which I've already 
      published, so perhaps I should close with a brief consideration of 
      what a long-term civilization would have to be like in political, 
      psychological, and, yes, spiritual terms, to survive thousands of 
      years of its own history.
           One thing is immediately clear--such a civilization will not 
      engage in warfare, for the simple reason that any civilization 
      possessed of such physical powers will be unable to survive such 
      behavior.  Indeed, given unlimited energy, unlimited raw materials, 
      unlimited room for territorial expansion, no rational reason for 
      warfare can exist.  Only a bout of cultural madness could lead to 
      war in such conditions; such a civilization might survive one such 
      war, two, maybe three, but over thousands of years, war will either 
      disappear, or the beings that cannot give it up will.
           As with warfare, so with other all forms of self-destructive 
      cultural and technological activity capable of destroying planets, 
      stars, or biospheres.  Given even another thousand years, we 
      ourselves, like any other sufficiently technologically advanced 
      civilization, will possess nine and sixty ways of ending our 
      species' days, and every single one of them will be wrong.
           So finally, the next step in our evolution, the one we need to 
      make to get us through the Transformation Crisis that is the 
      consequence of all that has gone before, is neither biological, 
      scientific, technological, nor even merely political.
           We must evolve the level of moral awareness and spiritual 
      consciousness needed to attain long-term viability as a species.  
      This is no airy pious hope but a cold hard evolutionary inevitable.  
      Any species that does not achieve it will sooner or later destroy 
      itself and its biosphere.  Those that do will be the survivors.  
      There will be no others.
            And while the development of the technology to achieve a long-

      term stable Transformational civilization may lie in the future, the 
      power to destroy our species and our biosphere exists in the 
           So we can't fob off the responsibility for achieving this 
      necessary moral and spiritual transformation on our hypothetical 
           We are the Transformation Crisis generations.  
           We get the job done right, or we won't be having any.