Why Astrobiology Matters to the Humanities (Insights blog)

September 16, 2014

This post originally appeared on the "Insights: Scholarly Work at The John W. Kluge Center" blog on September 16, 2014. Read it here


For the second year in a row, scholars in philosophy, the social sciences and humanities will come together with scientists at the Kluge Center this week to discuss the implications of astrobiology research on humanity and society. What does astrobiology matter to philosophers, anthropologists, historians and religion scholars? A great deal, it turns out.


Astrobiology, as NASA describes it, is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. In simplest terms, it is the study of life in the universe–both on Earth and off it. It combines the search for habitable environments in the Solar System and beyond with research into the evolution and adaptability of life here on Earth. By knitting together research in astrophysics, earth science, and heliophysics as well as planetary science, astrobiology seeks to answer fundamental scientific questions about life: how it begins and evolves; what biological, planetary, and cosmic conditions must exist in order for it to take hold; and whether there is/was/can be life elsewhere in the galaxy.


One may be surprised to learn how much science has uncovered in this area. The Kepler Space Telescope has identified more than 1,500 exoplanets–and that’s only in a small portion of the sky. It’s suspected that nearly every star in the universe may have a planet. Nearly 40 billion stars may have Earth-sized planets orbiting them. Within our own solar system, our understanding of the habitable conditions for life has also expanded. Some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn may be capable of supporting living organisms. Complex organic molecules exist in outer space. On Earth, living organisms have been found to thrive in harsher environments than previously imagined. Microbial biodiversity and extremophile life are now known to be ubiquitous. That life thrives in multifarious conditions, coupled with these potentially habitable exoplanets and the detection of life-giving elements on planets, moons and asteroids, means we as humans must contemplate the possibility that simple or complex organisms either exist, or once existed, beyond Earth.  Life of out there appears to be tenable, at least in theory.


These discoveries have the potential to reconfigure our assumptions about the fundamental nature of reality. And while science may tell us what exists, how it came into being, and what physical processes are necessary for life, science alone cannot address the issues of what these discoveries mean. Science alone cannot assess the implications for society if we find evidence of life (microbial or complex), and how to grapple with ontological questions in a universe where life may not be the exception but rather the rule. These questions, prompted by science, must be addressed by philosophy, the humanities and the social sciences.


Throughout history, the human sciences have integrated new scientific knowledge into our world view and incorporated past traditions and experiences into new understandings of our world. In the past, scholars have begun to reflect on what it means that the universe is not static but expanding, that our sun is not at the center of the galaxy nor even the entire universe, and that humanity may not have a central position in the formation and evolution of life. The Kluge Center’s current Astrobiology Chair Steven Dick has dubbed this new world view the “biological universe.” “The central assumptions of the biological universe,” according to Dick, “are that planetary systems are common, that life originates wherever conditions are favorable, and that evolution culminates with intelligence.”


Extraterrestrial life has yet to be proven. But the scientific evidence that such microbial or complex life may be possible has potential to alter our understanding of the nature and meaning of life, and affect how we make decisions about issues facing the future of Earth. If the laws of physics and biology are universal, does it mean that what has happened here has happened elsewhere? Would the discovery of an organism on a distant planet revise our understanding of metaphysics? What are our moral responsibilities towards Earth if organisms are able to exist on other planets–or had once existed? These are the types of humanistic questions that our astrobiology program investigates, undergirded by deep research in the Library of Congress collections.


This Thursday and Friday, philosophers, religion scholars, anthropologists and scientists from around the world will grapple with these questions during our two-day astrobiology symposium (the full list of speakers is here). The participants include philosophers and theologians, leading scientists at NASA, the director of research at the Center for Theological Inquiry, and a meteoriticist from the Vatican who is pondering the possibility of baptizing an extraterrestrial. The event will be hosted by Dr. Steven Dick, our second Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology and a well-known astronomer and historian of science. Dr. Dick’s research at the Kluge Center this year has focused on the potential impacts of discovery. He has investigated how humanity has grappled with the notion of discovery to-date, from the musings of the Ancient Greeks to claims in 1996 of nanofossils found in a meteorite blown off the surface of Mars and landed in the Antarctic. His research centers on what methods societies may deploy in order to prepare for what will surely be a Earth-altering event if it occurs.


Astrobiology research has the potential to reconfigure many of our assumptions about the origins of life and the fundamental nature of reality. Science alone cannot answer the questions raised by astrobiology research; the humanities and social sciences also will play a role. By bringing humanities scholars together with scientists under the grand cupola of The Thomas Jefferson Building, we hope to stimulate discussion between the sciences and the humanities on the big questions facing humanity–even ones as out there as astrobiology.


The second annual astrobiology symposium occurs Thursday and Friday of this week, Sept. 18-19. Watch the event liveor, if you’re in Washington, join us in person (it’s free and open to the public). Follow the conversation on Twitter: #PrepareToDiscover.


The Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology is a joint project between the NASA Astrobiology Program and The John W. Kluge Center.


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