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SCIENTISTS IN CONVERSATION AT CTI - BIOLOGIST FRANK ROSENZWEIG

by Joshua Mauldin



CTI is an environment for fresh thinking, and especially for fresh interdisciplinary thinking. One of the benefits of the inquiry on astrobiology is that astrobiology is itself already an interdisciplinary endeavor. That fact was clearly on display at CTI’s recent Winter Symposium (Feb. 1-3), which brought in two visiting astrobiologists to collaborate with CTI’s research fellows. Though both of the visiting scientists work in the area of astrobiology, they examine the discipline from different disciplinary perspectives. As a biologist who teaches and runs a laboratory at the University of Montana, Frank Rosenzweig studies the development of multicellular organisms. Michael Hecht, who teaches and runs a laboratory at Princeton University, contributes to the field of astrobiology as a chemist.  

Both scholars are interested in learning about the origins of life by replicating evolutionary processes in the laboratory. Rosenzweig has undertaken research that seeks to study the process of evolution in such a way that history and contingency are controlled. In this way we can learn about not only what happened in the past but also what could have happened, but didn’t. That helps us know more about what might be possible elsewhere in the universe. Hecht’s research aims at similar goals though from a different starting point. Biologists study that which is, while evolutionary biologists study that which was. Chemists, by contrast, study that which might be. Here again, learning about what is possible on Earth helps us know what life could be like elsewhere in the universe. 

This research provides a rich field for scholars in the humanities to harvest. Illustrating the evolutionary process Rosenzweig quoted Shakespeare: 

Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.
(As You Like It, Act 2, scene 1, 12–17)

We, like all living beings, are the result of a series of evolutionary compromises, Rosenzweig explained. Philosophers and theologians will want to explore what these realities of contingency and chance mean for human nature. Others will explore how these themes are treated in literature, as Rosenzweig himself has done with his reference to Shakespeare. How might a cosmic view change how one views precisely this kind of contingency and chance? The Inquiry on the Societal Implications of Astrobiology seeks to explore such questions.