A Bright Symbol of Ultrasociality



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Last weekend we were visiting my stepson and his family in New Hampshire. He has an interest in astronomy, and he suggested that after dinner we go out and watch the International Space Station (ISS). You can get a schedule of ISS appearances on the NASA site.

We went outside to a clearing and got ready. Five minutes later, and right on time, I saw a bright dot rise above the horizon and start streaking across the dark sky. With the help of high-powered binoculars I could barely make out the elegant shape of one of humanity’s most impressive achievements. The whole experience was over in two minutes, but it was an incredible thrill to watch this remarkable feat of human cooperation. I often use the image of the ISS when I introduce the idea of ultrasociality in my talks about the evolution of cooperation.



The ISS is a result of something that humans learned to do only very recently—cooperate on a very large scale. In the broadest sense, hundreds of millions contributed to it, including myself. After all, it was a small fraction of the taxes I pay that ensures that the ISS continues to grow and function. But how many people actually participated in building it? Nobody knows for sure, but consider that the total cost of the station is roughly $150 billion. Dividing it by $50,000, the median pay of an American worker, I estimate that more than 3 million people-years were required to build and operate the Station. (This is actually an underestimate, because the median pay in Russia, for example, is much lower than in America.) A few, those who work for the NASA or Roscosmos, have devoted years of their life to the station. Most, like welders in Russia who assembled the Soyuz module, contributed only a few weeks of work. So the ISS builders must number in many more millions than three.



Another remarkable thing about the ISS is that its builders, as well as the cosmonauts and astronauts working in it, did not come from a single country. The ISS is a joint project supported by fifteen nations (US, Russia, European Union, Japan, and Canada). It was constructed and kept operational by people from all over the world, including—in fact, led by—two nations that were recent Cold War adversaries.

“Since the beginning of human spaceflight fifty years ago, astronauts have reflected on how peaceful, beautiful, and fragile the Earth looks from space,” wrote the ISS astronaut Ron Garan in his blog Fragile Oasis. “We can look down and realize that we are all riding through the Universe together on this spaceship we call Earth, that we are all interconnected, that we are all in this together, that we are all family.”



Of course, this is an optimistic view; the reality on the ground is much grimmer. There are still wars that kill thousands of people every year, such as the one currently raging in Syria. Millions of people have been forcibly displaced by violence or fear of violence—60 million in June 2015, according to UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. Over 3 billion of people—almost half of the world’s population—live below the poverty threshold of $2.50 a day. And the life systems on the spaceship Earth may be failing.

In fact, as Garan discovered while taking some practice shots to test his camera, you can see some borders from space. The border between India and Pakistan shows up as an illuminated line hundred kilometers long.



It is lit up by the floodlights India uses to prevent infiltration by terrorists and arms smugglers. This is a sobering reminder that the conflict between these two nuclear-powered nations over Kashmir, which has caused four major wars and continues to kill dozens of people every year, has not been resolved.

How do we stop wars and eliminate suffering and poverty? “The answer is quite simple—just do something,” proposes Galan in his blog. “The challenges of the world are really about how each of us individually responds to them. In other words, to what extent does humanity, on a person-to-person basis, commit to making a positive difference, no matter how small, or how big?”

Galan’s heart is in the right place. Unfortunately, his answer is wrong. Difficult things like building peaceful, wealthy, and just societies cannot be done by individuals, even if well-intentioned, when they work separately. The only way we can eliminate violence and poverty is by working together. In other words, the answer is cooperation. And it’s not a simple answer, because getting people to cooperate is a hard job. Fortunately, the humanity has been learning how to cooperate on increasingly large scales, accomplishing increasingly amazing achievements. The International Space Station shows that we have come a long way in the last few thousand years.

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Wow, that sounds like a sermon, which seems odd coming from such a secular source. But maybe it shouldn’t be. Scientific thinking need not (should not) be amoral and value-neutral. Thanks for the perspective recalibration. It is so easy to get absorbed in daily minutia and lose sight of the bigger picture.

Chris Kavanagh

Interesting post, when I was reading I was reminded of a short documentary on the ‘overview effect’ two university friends of mine made (inspired by Garan’s message) that you might enjoy: https://vimeo.com/55073825. While the images and message of global unity are admirable, I couldn’t help thinking when watching about the rather idealised portrayal and the fact that the claims of dissolving boundaries all seemed to be coming from US astronauts. Do Russian cosmonauts report similar things? The short movie was expanded into a feature length documentary in which the same individualistic response to global issues is promoted (albeit in a very fuzzy manner) e.g. increased introspection will make us more aware of our interlinked nature and make us more committed to saving/acting in harmony with the planet: http://weareplanetary.com/. For the same reasons you mention above I didn’t find this particularly convincing.

Chris Kavanagh

Interesting to know, thanks for the references!


Beautiful post, Peter. However, reading in the news about how desperately Europeans are trying to figure out what to do with African and Arab migrants coming to their shores by thousands daily, literally so, I can’t help thinking that we still need borders. Unfortunately… May be some day in the distant future…

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