Rethinking Our Place in the Universe:
Exploring the Societal Implications of NASA's Astrobiology Program
Astrobiology is the study of the origin, distribution, and future of life in the Universe. Astrobiologists explore how life begins and develops, whether life exists elsewhere in the Universe and humanity's future on Earth and in space. Although people from many times and cultures have thought about such questions, rapid developments in science and technology enable us to supplement guesswork with facts. In the past fifty years--less than an eyeblink in the course of history--scientists have cracked the genetic code, placed humans in orbit and on the Moon, sent robotic spacecraft to explore neighboring planets, placed a state-of-the-art telescope in orbit, and used huge radiotelescopes to scour the skies for signs of intelligent life. Discoveries that were beyond our grasp just a decade or two ago are now within our reach.
Astrobiologists are discovering large (multiples of Jupiter) planets almost faster than they can be catalogued. Within a decade, new Earth-based and space-based telescopes will go on-line. NASA's planned Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF) and Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST) are but two examples. These instruments will make it possible to image Earth-like planets in other solar systems. Subsequent generation (circa 2020) devices may enable us to identify more distant habitable planets and monitor chemical activities suggestive of simple forms of life such as bacteria. A continuing difficulty confronting astronomers is where they should look to find intelligent extraterrestrial life. Advances in astrobiology may help radioastronomers aim their telescopes in promising directions, that is, towards extrasolar planets where there are signs of biological activity and are hence promising sites for intelligent life.
Discovering microbial or intelligent life elsewhere and establishing a permanent human presence in space would have profound implications for the physical, biological, and social sciences, for philosophy and religion, and for the arts. Such discoveries could fundamentally alter our views of the cosmos and ourselves within it. Because astrobiology has profound implications for almost every sphere of human existence, it invites collaborative activity on the part of experts from many fields. Understanding this subject requires participation from anthropology, education, futures studies, history, journalism, law, literature, medicine, philosophy, and political science as well as from the physical and biological sciences that provide the core of astrobiological research. It necessitates exploring the implications of astrobiology for human psychology, society, and culture, and identifying potential contributions of the social sciences and humanities to astrobiology. In this brief report we review and build upon ideas from these disciplines.
Origin and Evolution of Life
How does life begin and evolve? Where did we come from? What can we envision for life and humanity in the distant future, on Earth and beyond?
Throughout history, people from many lands believed that we came from the heavens or stars. Such beliefs may rest upon profound theological systems that evolved over the centuries (such as Islamic cosmology) or from sensationalistic claims such as those brought to us by tabloid newspapers and heavily fictionalized TV and film accounts. In a literal sense, even scientists would have to agree that we came from the heavens: all matter, living and otherwise, is based on chemicals that "cooked down" as the Universe cooled.
For astrobiologists, understanding the origin and evolution of life includes learning how life arose on Earth; identifying the general principles that organize matter into living systems at the molecular, organism, and ecosystems levels; and understanding the emergence of intelligence and consciousness. Research in physics and chemistry as well as all fields of biology move us closer to understanding life on Earth. Today we believe that the principles of physics and biology hold true throughout the Universe, so life, perhaps including intelligent life, may have evolved again and again. Powerful imaging systems, small smart interplanetary probes armed with remote sensors, and self-contained robot laboratories that can land on other planets and then collect and analyze soil give us new tools to search for extraterrestrial life. Never before have we been able to conduct fine-grained comparative studies of conditions on Mars, Europa, and Earth.
Devised in the early 1960's, astronomer Frank Drake's "Drake Equation" explored variables that determine the number of technologically advanced civilizations that may exist right now. Some of these variables are the proportion of stars that have planets, the relative case with which life starts and takes hold, and the likelihood that evolution will lead in the direction of intelligence (as defined by the availability of technology that would allow an extraterrestrial civilization to make its presence known to us). Discoveries during the past few decades have strengthened the hypothesis that the Universe is liberally seeded with life. These include findings that galaxies are far more plentiful than we had earlier thought, the previously mentioned rapidly growing inventory of extrasolar planets, and evidence suggesting that life may result from reliable principles of self-organization of matter rather than an almost impossible sequence of chance events.
Of course, the evidence for extraterrestrial life is still circumstantial, and there are many unknowns. Do our abilities to use language and develop sophisticated technology result from conditions unique to Earth, or are there many different pathways to the evolution of intelligence? To the extent that there are many convergent pathways, then extraterrestrial intelligence should be abundant. Are civilizations likely to destroy themselves during their technological adolescence or are they likely to work through this difficult period and survive for hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of years? To the extent that they can avoid succumbing to nuclear war, resource depletion, and environmental decay many such civilizations should survive long enough to co-exist with our own.
Even the discovery of microbial or fossil life within our solar system--an independent "second genesis"--will suggest that the Universe is teeming with life. Eventually, we might conclude that the Universe tends towards creating ocnscious, intelligent life forms and that we are but one example among a multitude. This could prompt us to shift our frame of reference from Earth to the cosmos, and a conviction that life everywhere is valuable.
The Human Response to Extraterrestrial Life
How would the discovery of extraterrestrial life affect individuals, institutions, or cultures? What will be the impact on science and religion? Would the discovery destabilize the international political system? How can we formulate a cohesive plan of action for managing short-term and long-term reaction to the discovery?
Science has given us an increasingly convincing account of cosmic and biological evolution and this, coupled with growing circumstantial evidence, has helped place theories of extraterrestrial life on a firm footing. Changing ideas about the abundance of life in the Universe have already affected people's worldviews, and the actual discovery of extraterrestrial life could have tremendous effects. For scientists, the discovery of even a fossil or microorganism would be the final piece of the puzzle. It would constitute proof positive that science has been proceeding on the right track and was not misled by years of illusory progress. Verification of even one technologically advanced civilization would prove that it is possible to survive that period of time when the capacity to develop devastating technology outpaces the civilization's ability to use this technology wisely.
Although many people have preconceptions or expectations we have no real knowledge about extraterrestrial life forms and civilizations, if such exist. Whether the first confirmed detection is fossilized or alive, microbial or intelligent, it is important for us to be highly knowledgable about likely reactions. We would be foolish and negligent if we did not try to anticipate such reactions and make careful preparations. We can prepare by reviewing historical precedents that illustrate the impact of major scientific discoveries, and by studying what happened when radically different cultures discovered one another. We can prepare by analyzing episodes when significant numbers of people believed that life had been discovered on the Moon, that Martian engineers had constructed an intricate canal system to sustain their dying planet, or that radio beacons from distant galaxies had been discovered. And, we can get ready by conducting careful surveys and interviews and involving political and religious leaders in serious discussions.
Most discussions of "contact" and its aftermath have focused on the reaction of people from contemporary western societies. Yet, astrobiology has implications for all humankind. Research and discussions must extend to people from many different societies, religions, and cultures. There is some urgency, since evidence of extraterrestrial life could be found at any time.
The founders of SETI realized that their discoveries could have a profound impact on humanity and involved social scientists early on. Thus, some work has already been done on the consequences of detecting, by means of radiotelescope, an extraterrestrial civilization. Additionally, SETI researchers have devised a set of post-detection protocols that require first verifying the discovery and then releasing the information in an orderly way. This is intended to minimize fear and confusion and assure that rather than serving selfish purposes the discovery is on behalf of all humankind. Very little has been done on the consequences of detecting a single-celled life form elsewhere in the solar system. Confirmed discoveries of single-celled fossils on Mars or simple life forms on Europa could have profound effects on worldviews and religious beliefs, and will raise many ethical and practical issues. We need post-detection protocols to cover all cases.
Exploration Beyond Our Home Planet
How do studies of the cosmos relate to myths and legends, to hopes and fears? How do studies of the cosmos affect life on our home planet? For example, ancient peoples used astronomy to determine when to plant crops. What are some of the far-reaching implications of space exploration, broadly defined? Some of these implications may not be known or appreciated at the present time.
Exploration beyond Earth poses enormous philosophical and ethical as well as scientific and technical issues. These issues will loom in importance as robots and then humans increase research on the surface of the Moon and Mars and on other planets and moons within our solar system. For decades, international treaties have tried to protect space and prevent harmful contamination, but little attention has been paid to the ethical dimensions of space exploration itself. In light of our advancing capabilities, it is prudent to consider the implications of invasive activities on planets where life is encountered. Ethical issues surround not only interfering with a flourishing ecology, but bringing a "dead" planet to life, for example, by sending Mars with simple forms of life to initiate a biosphere or by undertaking planetary engineering projects intended to make Mars more congenial to human settlers.
As scientist Chris McKay points out, there are at least three fundamental ethical positions with respect to our treatment of other planets. One, anti-humanism, contends that human action is inevitably harmful. A second, steward-ship, requires that humans use nature wisely to the benefit of all. A third position, intrinsic worth, holds that planetary resources including indigenous life have value regardless of their utility to humans.
Living in Space
What are the biological, phychological, and cultural factors that compel so many of us to envision life beyond our home planet's surface? How will alien environments affect human biological and cultural evolution? And how will off-world societies and cultures interact with one another?
The immediate benefits of space exploration include efficient worldwide communication networks, remote sensing that allows us to monitor the vital signs of our home planet, and positioning systems that facilitate the navigation of everything from pedestrians to aircraft carriers. Our effort to understand our neighbors, the Moon and Mars, stimulates student interest in math, science, and engineering. History shows there must be significant, on-going discoveries to maintain that interest. For this reason it is important to develop a variety of activities that both build upon and attract the interest of the public. A multitude of relatively inexpensive but high profile activities may be more useful for engaging the public than one or two extremely expensive "sink or swim" missions since, given a large number of activities, at least a few should succeed. At the very least there needs to be significant milestones to maintain public interest in long-term if not multi-generation projects.
Potentially, the long-term benefits of space exploration are incalculable. Tomorrow's spacefarers are likely to enjoy economic benefits such as mining, solar power, low-gravity manufacturing, and space tourism. They are also likely to enjoy psychological and sociopolitical rewards, in the sense that space will offer an unending new frontier, a succession of destinations for pioneers and adventurers. The vastness of space will accommodate many different groups of settlers and lead to the evolution and flourishing of a diversity of human cultures. Unlike today's astronauts and cosmonauts, tomorrow's spacefarers will represent a broad spectrum of humanity, and they will have freedom to make their own choices and experiment with different political systems and lifestyles. Over time, experts from many fields will help humanize spaceflight, with the result that tomorrow's spacefarers will enjoy accomodations that are a far cry from those available to today's intrepid explorers.
Migration into space will reduce chances of human extinction from a worldwide war, asteroid impact, or other catastrophe. Given the immeasurable value of human life, intelligence, and consciousness; we should explore every available means to ensure our long-term survival. Possibilities include genetic engineering, extraterrestrial migration, directed panspermia, and willingness to collaborate with extraterrestrial civilizations, if such are found. The crucial turning point for humanity will come when we view our home as the cosmos, not as the Earth. At that time we will not be one species, we will be many. Given the likeliehood of varied ecological niches in space, our diversity will be a virtue.
There are long-standing interests in the origin and distribution of life in the universe, and in human activity beyond our home planet. The questions addressed by astrobiology have important religious, moral, and ethical as well as scientific dimensions.
It is important to understand all of these dimensions. Consequently, research on the societal implications of astrobiology is an essential corollary of core research in the physical and biological sciences. Behavioral and social research is crucial for understanding public support for astrobiology, for gauging public reaction to astrobiological discoveries, and developing informed policies. Preparing for future developments in space exploration of all types requires addressing issues in philosophy and religion while inspiring society's appreciation of the cosmos as a possible sea of living worlds.
An effective multidisciplinary approach requires close coordination between the scientists who conduct the search and those who can shed light on the social implications. A satisfactory overall research program would be broad, structured in such a way as to permit meaningful quantitative comparisons, and enable cogent explanations of the findings. Thoughtful and effective collaboration among physical, biological and social scientists may break down the barriers that separate different intellectual fields and move us in the direction of consilience, or the unification of knowledge.
Large segments of the public are already interested in astrobiology. Astrobiology offers scientists a great opportunity to raise the level of public discourse by involving people in discussion of the major issues in the cosmos. Further engaging in the public will require a true interactive dialogue. A dialogue is not to be confused with telling people how it is, or what they should do. In some cases people will willingly enter the dialogue. Like dinosaurs, the search for extraterrestrial life and human space exploration are proven topics for coaxing children to learn science. Many adults already view the cosmos with a sense of wonder and awe. Still, not everyone is interested in astrobiology, and, for many people, science does not hold all of the answers. There may be strong resistance from people whose religious beliefs or worldviews are challenged by the assumptions of astrobiology.
As we work with the public we can capitalize on their sense of awe and wonder. We can discuss strange and wonderful possibilities. Yet it is crucial to avoid creating unrealistic expectations. It is important, also, to maintain scientific values and research credibility despite engaging in far-ranging discussions with a wide variety of people. When it comes to life in space, there is a strong temptation to confuse fact with fiction, and those of us who are drawn to astrobiology must be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
By Albert A. Harrison , University of California, Davis, and Kathleen Connell and Gregory K. Schmidt , NASA Ames Research Center. This article is based on papers presented and discussions held at NASA's "Societal Implications of Astrobiology" symposium held at Ames Research Center on 16-17 November 1999. Organized by Kathleen Connell, Steven J. Dick and Kenneth Rose, and supported by senior NASA astrobiologists Baruch Blumberg, David Morrison, and Lynn Harper, the symposium drew over 45 participants from numerous disciplines, including the social sciences and the humanities.
Originally posted on Nasa.gov
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