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Rethinking Life on Earth and Beyond: Astrobiology and the Role of Paradigm Shifts in Science and Human Self-Understanding

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[Galileo offering his telescope], Engraving, 1655. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
Scientific discoveries have always had the potential to be contentious, and this has been especially true in phases of transition, when new areas of knowledge have been glimpsed but not yet fully explored, classified, or agreed upon. It is during these transitions that thick debates often ensue. Discoveries can sometimes be threatening because new evidence may cast doubt on previously safe ways of viewing the world and our place within it. This surely happened as a result of the Copernican Revolution in science. It had been comfortable to think the earth was at the center of the universe and to dream, like the 14th century poet Dante did in “The Divine Comedy,” that we could reach a pinnacle of knowledge from which to view the universe as part of an intimate unfolding, with humans as the central characters.

Alas, that sense of cosmic intimacy would not fare as well after the displacements of the 16th and 17th centuries, but even then, when earth’s more peripheral status within the universe had been acknowledged, it took many more decades to fully unravel the multi-dimensional meanings of such a discovery.

Likewise today, more than a century after Darwin, another scientific game-changer, we are still debating the social and philosophical implications of his scientific observations. While the natural processes he described are overwhelmingly accepted, the term “social Darwinist” is often bandied about as a pejorative, indicative of someone who is only concerned with strength and the survival of the fittest. The assumption is that processes that are considered “natural” for certain species, are viewed as unfitting for humans, who have come to value traits such as altruism, humility, and self-sacrifice as forms of good. Of course, whether traits like these can be fully attributed to naturalistic process of evolution also continues to be the subject of spirited debate, because it all becomes more complicated when concepts like will, consciousness, and ethics become part of the equation.

Some of the most interesting scientific discoveries in the field of biology today are shedding additional light on just how intertwined our human history is with that of our bacterial ancestors. As Moises Velasquez-Manoff writes in a recent article for Nature, “Each of us harbors a teeming ecosystem of microbes that outnumbers the total number of cells in the human body by a factor of 10 to one and whose collective genome is at least 150 times larger than our own.” [1] Scientists suggest these findings point to the idea that each human being is actually an entire ecosystem, within which multiple species find their existence. These microbial communities, which preceded us, and now coexist with us, developed over millennia and are inextricably linked to our own formation over time.

These ongoing discoveries of our co-habitation with other species, along with strong evidence of the possibilities for bacterial and other life elsewhere in the universe, suggest that further major disruptions in our self-understanding as human beings may be on the horizon. It’s too soon to determine whether discoveries in the field of astrobiology, which is concerned with the origins, evolution, and future of life here on earth, as well as the search for life on other planets, will result in the kinds of major existential and philosophical overhauls prompted by the likes of Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin. But it’s not too soon to begin weighing the evidence at hand and considering how it is already changing our perceptions.

The second Blumberg Dialogue on Astrobiology will gather philosophers of science, along with a planetary scientist, a historian of the Enlightenment, and a scholar who has looked in depth at historical ways of understanding the complex interactions between biology and psychology. They will spend a day and a half discussing recent discoveries in astrobiology and what they mean for our understanding of the human condition. They will then present their initial reflections in a session open to the public, held in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress.

The scholars are:

• Linnda R. Caporael – Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
• Brian Henning – Professor of Philosophy and Environmental Studies, Gonzaga University
• Paul Humphreys – Commonwealth Professor of Philosophy, University of Virginia
• Sarah Stewart Johnson – Assistant Professor of Planetary Science, Georgetown University
• Mi Gyung Kim – Professor of History, North Carolina State University
• Eric Schwitzgebel – Professor of Philosophy, University of California, Riverside
• Kelly Smith – Associate Professor of Philosophy and Biological Sciences, Clemson University

The scholars will participate in an afternoon public roundtable on Thursday, May 28th at 3:00 p.m. The discussion will be led by Derek Malone-France, associate professor in the Departments of Philosophy and Religion at The George Washington University, and John Baross, professor in the School of Oceanography and in the Astrobiology Program at the University of Washington.

What:Rethinking Life on Earth and Beyond: Astrobiology and the Role of Paradigm Shifts in Science and Human Self-Understanding” – Part II of the Blumberg Dialogues on Astrobiology at The John W. Kluge Center.

When: Thursday, May 28, at 3:00 p.m. – note the earlier start time

Where: Room LJ-119, 1st Floor, Thomas Jefferson Building, Library of Congress. 10 First St. S.E., Washington, D.C.

We hope you will join us.


[1] Moises Velasquez-Manoff, “Gut Microbiome: The Peacekeepers” Nature 518, S3-S11 (26 February 2015). Published online 25 February 2015.

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