My Email to Elon Musk

Greetings Elon Musk,

You seek to establish a human colony on Mars by 2040; this is a very ambitious goal with many technical challenges that would need to be overcome. One of the biggest challenges I foresee is not technical but sociological. In the olden days if you could get a group of people to where they could find food, water, and shelter, and the group was large enough so their descendants wouldn’t wind up too inbred, you could count on them to multiply. But now, our fertility rate is hovering around 1.6, and the colonists you’d send would be a highly selected group, educated, industrious, visionary. They’d be around 1.2, their kids would regress back to a mean of around 1.5. Though the colony would be subject to the same process of natural selection as the human species as a whole and would reach 2.1 again eventually, it may hit the limit of viability first. What is your plan to deal with this problem?

The simplest would be to make the colonizing population large enough so it can decline for many generations before natural selection does its job and reverses the decline. But this would require more rockets and more supplies for an (initially) larger colony. Another approach is to try to select the colonists so that they, and their children, have a fertility rate above replacement. The latter point is crucial, because of regression toward the mean the colonists must be way above 2.1 but, crucially, also be qualified to make the trip and productively contribute to the colony.

I propose to offer my services in a plan to solve this problem. I will hire two teams. The first will be a team of geneticists and sample collectors with the job to develop the best polygenic score for fertility ever developed, attempting to sequence as many people as possible. The second will be a team of lobbyists. They are necessary because the problem with heritability estimates is that they only tell you about expected phenotypes in the environment used to estimate them. A gene* which serves to make someone more likely to have kids in our environment might not have done so in the culture and economy of 1900, and might not do so in the cultural and economic environment of 2100. The environment of Mars will be very different from the environment of earth, additionally, Mars will be continually influenced by Earth’s culture.** You could prevent the latter by disabling communications between the planets, but this would make it more difficult for Mars to act as the Earth’s “civilizational backup.” So what we want to do is find those genes that work across a variety of environments, assuming they exist, and use them to construct our polygenic score. Luckily, extensive birth and death records give us the data we need on how many children people had in prior generations and where their DNA still exists. Now, I know you don’t have much respect for the law, but I think I would have an easier time hiring the sample collectors if we could do it legally. Thus, the lobbyists will go to Washington and lobby for a law stating that due to the urgency of establishing the Mars colony, our team will be able to legally collect samples from graveyards. With the resulting polygenic score, you will be able to find the men and women with the “right stuff” to make your vision a sustainable reality.

Now, I did think before I sent this letter that you probably have better things to do than entertain cockamamie ideas that come from random people over the internet. Then I read about your behavior in the Unsworth case, and I realized that, no, you don’t.

*Or rather, the place in the genome correlated with the existence of the gene.

**Now, it may be such that the Martian environment leads to higher fertility and solves our problem for us. But if we’re gonna apply Murphey’s law to the design of the rocket, we should do so to the sociology of the colony too.

Sincerely, Alexander Turok

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