Nautilus

The Martians Are Coming—and They’re Human

In the upcoming Hollywood movie, The Space Between Us, a child is born to an American astronaut on Mars. The mother dies in childbirth, but the baby survives, and is raised by a small colony of astronauts on Mars. In the trailer, a somber voice-over intones the central conceit of the film: “His heart will simply not have the strength for the Earth’s gravity; his bones will be too brittle.” In other words, there is no turning back. It’s a question worth pondering—if we choose to leave Earth, will our descendants ever be able to return?

We’re moving ever closer to Mars. NASA hopes to put humans on the red planet in 30 years, Elon Musk in 10—first perhaps, just to visit, but eventually, to create self-sustaining Martian cities. In a September 2016 speech, Musk cited the “two fundamental paths” humanity might take: “One path is that we stay on Earth forever and then there will be some eventual extinction event. The alternative is to become a spacefaring civilization, and a multi-planet species.”

If and when we do reach Mars, the conditions will be unlike anything on Earth. Adjusting to the weaker gravity, intense radiation, and a total lack of microbial life would cause generations of Martian colonists to undergo some of the most dramatic evolutionary changes in the human lineage since we started walking upright and developed our oversized brains.

Rob Atkins / Getty Images


The first evolutionary changes might be quick and subtle. Because the number of initial colonists would inevitably be small—Musk’s proposed spaceship would carry 100 people—the Martian colonists would experience a phenomenon known as the founder effect. The founder effect occurs any time a new environment, like a volcanic island freshly burst forth

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