After thinking a while about why self-replicating robots do not exist (thanks, Casey: https://caseyhandmer.wordpress.com/2019/09/02/self-replicating-robots-do-not-exist/ ), we’re reminded that living things do this regularly. I’m tempted to write “a human is a von Neumann probe,” but that wouldn’t be accurate. A single human cannot reproduce, and even a pair would quickly run into survival problems unless they got lucky (and there’s some amount of genetic variety needed, with the minimum number of individuals being somewhere between 50 and 5,000 to ensure enough genetic diversity). The human is by default in society, usually a band or tribe in the past and now in cities. Our survival depends on it. This has enabled us to span from pole to pole with a vast array of lifestyles.
Even a band (10-50 people) enables specialization and folklore. A full tribe (made of several bands, enough for genetic diversity) is a self-contained unit of humanity. Enough to replicate and perpetuate neolithic technology, which includes domesticated animals, plants, spoken language, and perhaps even written language. An individual or family would have difficulty maintaining this, but a tribe should be capable of it. And with the tools of written technology, could maintain knowledge and learn between generations.
What’s interesting about neolithic technology versus later developments is that this is before humanity became dependent on vast trade routes and city-state social structures (although those did develop in that time). Still small enough to be self-contained within a tribe and replicated most places on Earth (with adaption). Other than biological materials (seeds, animals… which are reproducible and not a fundamentally limited geological resource), it is still really easy to bootstrap neolithic technology and could be done by a small group of people. The Bronze Age requires tin and bronze, which are very limited in geologic availability (requiring vast trade networks) and require more sophisticated processing.
My favorite exploration of Neolithic technology is the Primitive Technology Youtube channel. He bootstraps from nothing (no knives, etc, just himself in shorts) and has gotten extremely far in technology development. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P73REgj-3UE
No doubt his efforts rely on a lot of free time enabled by modern food distribution systems, but they all could be replicated by a tribe. He has made some interesting advances, such as a sort of centrifugal blower and the beginnings of a bootstrapping of iron technology using iron bacteria (found all over) instead of geographically limited iron ore. He also makes use of domesticated yams.
Now I’ve been thinking a lot about potatoes. They’re remarkably easy to grow and extremely efficient in area, store reasonably well, easy to propagate, etc. It really is a good choice if you had to pick one staple to survive on Mars with (hello, Matt Damon). But they were not introduced into the New World until the 1500s. Same with corn (maize), and a bunch of other things. Corn is a particularly efficient way of growing calories. A similar thing is true of other domesticated crops. …and animals, such as donkeys, horse, oxen, etc. Any neolithic tribe could’ve utilized these resources, but these resources weren’t all available until the modern era (i.e. starting in the 1500s). There’s some evidence that domestication of, say, potatoes, helped speed the industrial revolution due to their efficiency. You could say that it was these domestic plants and animals that enabled the industrial revolution as much as any other particular scientific, economic, etc advance.
Any of these could’ve been introduced to neolithic tribes 10,000 years ago or even earlier. Maybe 100,000 years ago. One could have taught them writing. A single tribe had enough resources to bootstrap these “technologies,” and their productivity would’ve been vastly improved. Unlike our heavy industry today, they do not require a vast, globe-spanning economy to replicate. They can be planted and replicated by a single, neolithic tribe to their great benefit. Self-contained, self-replicating… (or requiring just some assistance from people to replicate).
Domestic plants and animals are remarkable technologies. Seeds in particular… little, unassuming von Neumann machines. Iron bacteria could’ve bootstrapped the Iron Age 100,000 years earlier. Give a tractor to a neolithic tribe, and it would stop as soon as it ran out of gas. A steam tractor maybe could’ve lasted longer and maybe animal grease could serve as oil, but the industrial toolchain in order to maintain any such engine would be beyond a single tribe’s ability. But oxen or other beasts of burden? Easy to maintain and replicate in comparison. Even with some amount of semi-autonomous intelligence. There are your self-replicating robots!
This is the potential of biology in simplifying the technology bootstrap process. It’s unfortunate that biological processes tend to be so inefficient. Their relevance to bootstrapping a Mars civilization may be difficult to gauge relative to the more energy-efficient heavy machinery approach… Also, not only is it inefficient, it’s also only viable in a relatively narrow temperature and pressure range which mostly makes it irrelevant to space settlement…
…but perhaps this is worth another look. I think the fact that biology can play a part in bootstrapping is one of the most important arguments for (at least partial) terrraforming… if you can make Mars Earth-like enough for at least SOMETHING to grow, maybe we can use biology to help bootstrap human civilization there. If Mars is terraformed, then the basic human unit, the tribe, would be sufficient to replicate civilization given a continuity of knowledge of written language.
…but maybe something smaller than full terraforming is sufficient? Humans, even with just neolithic technology, are remarkably adaptable (if we can find an energy source). We can live indefinitely in the Arctic by harvesting animals (including fish, etc) using neolithic technology. Some humans live nearly their whole lives on the water using pre-modern tech. Perhaps with some clever new inventions that could be bootstrapped with neolithic-level-tech, there may be some future domesticated plants or animals (or other?) that enable humans to live on a partially terraformed Mars with something as small as a tribe. After all, we used animal intestines to produce the impermeable gas bags of the mighty zeppelins. What new domesticated life form might enable us to live on Mars with a much simpler bootstrap chain?
Can we harden living things for the Martian environment? I’m reminded that the Armstrong Limit of pressure is dictated by the boiling point of water at the human body temperature. Other living things, such as lizards (not to mention hardy plants), can still live and move with body temperatures low enough that Mars’ pressure at Hellas Basin would be high that water would not boil. There’s also the possibility of some sort of toughened skin designed to maintain internal pressure and temperature. Lichen or similar lifeforms may even be able to photosynthesize under Martian conditions: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20402583/
…so what is the REAL Martian potato? Could some domesticated lichen produce food and important chemicals for a growing Martian civilization? Maybe some sort of domesticated lichen that produces hydrogen peroxide? Could some sort of genetically modified reptile beasts of burden serve as our self-replicating robots? Could we grow tough membranes (with built-in molecular pressure pumps powered by photosynthesis) to make our pressurized cities? How can we simplify the industrial tool-chain so self-sufficiency becomes tractable?