Opening Astrobiology Symposium: September 15-17th

by Joshua Mauldin

CTI Astrobiology Symposium

Our current inquiry seeks to create interdisciplinary dialogue between astrobiologists and scholars in the humanities and social sciences who reflect on the societal implications of this area of science. This is no easy task. In his presentation, astrobiologist David Grinspoon underscored the challenge of interdisciplinary work by noting that dialogue between the various branches of science is itself a serious challenge. Increasing specialization, for all its benefits in terms of scientific discovery, can make even intra-disciplinary conversation quite difficult. The opening astrobiology symposium was therefore a rare event. Our twelve resident fellows had the opportunity to be in conversation with three leading scientists who work in the area of astrobiology. David Grinspoon discussed the topic from the perspective of planetary science, Aaron Goldman from the perspective of biology, and Sara Imari Walker from the perspective of physics. 

A theme that recurred throughout the symposium was that life must be understood not only at the level of the individual organism but crucially also at the level of broader networks and ultimately at the level of the entire biosphere. The notion of emergent properties suggests that in biological networks the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. There is a growing awareness that life cannot operate as a purely local, discrete phenomenon. Aaron Goldman emphasized, for example, that biological research suggests that all life on Earth is related. Biological structures and metabolic processes in every form of life we know today bear resemblances that are best explained by a ‘Last Universal Common Ancestor’ from which they are all descended. To understand what life is one has to look at the big picture. In order to understand the ant one must understand also the ant colony as well as the entire environment in which the ants live. Likewise, in order to understand the human person one must study the entire city, with its various social networks, as well as the entire biosphere that makes that life possible. The city itself turns out to be a biosphere with identifiable organizational principles. The discussion of science and the discussion of social questions become interrelated, in such a way that interdisciplinary dialogue becomes increasingly necessary. 

Much of the discussion centered on the question, ‘What is life?’ It turns out that life is notoriously difficult to define. If we define life so broadly that it includes all matter, the question of whether life exists elsewhere becomes easy to answer but uninteresting. If we define life only in terms of life on Earth we might be able to come up with clear criteria, but we wouldn’t know whether or not they apply elsewhere in the universe. It is very difficult to get outside of the anthropocentric bubble that we are in. Astrobiologists seek to think beyond that bubble as much as possible, and the current inquiry at CTI is beginning to explore how this new perspective can reshape how we think about life here on Earth.