Astrobiology and Us: Social and political implications of a “new” science

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Andrea Vicini, SJ

 Andrea Vicini, SJ / Church Thought / 15 June 2017


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During the academic year 2015/16, an international group of twelve professors, including ten theologians, sponsored by the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton (New Jersey, USA), reflected on astrobiology – a rapidly developing field of interdisciplinary scientific research – and in particular on its social implications.1

Responsive interaction between theologians and astrobiologists allowed the group to achieve two objectives. Firstly, the astrobiologists enabled the theologians to acquire specific knowledge of this new area of research. Secondly, together they were able to define some of the social implications of astrobiology and make some suggestions for addressing them. With the shared intention of thoughtfully evaluating what kind of society and living conditions we want for ourselves and for future generations, they then broadened their reflection to consider what animates scientific research, both astrobiological and theological – what are its values, its concerns, the questions posed, and the answers formulated.

What is Astrobiology?

Astrobiology is still in the course of defining its scientific specificity, its areas of research, its disciplinary stature, and how it is situated within the social, political, and religious contexts.

According to astrobiologist David Catling, “astrobiology has emerged as a branch of science concerned with the study of the origin and evolution of life on Earth and the possible variety of life elsewhere.2 He adds, “NASA has defined astrobiology as the study of the origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. Other common definitions are the study of life in the universe or the study of life in a cosmic context.3

According to astrobiologist and theologian Lucas Mix, “astrobiology is the scientific study of life in space. It happens when you put together what astronomy, physics, planetary science, geology, chemistry, biology, and a host of other disciplines have to say about life and try to make a single narrative.4  We could incorporate other disciplines into this definition: molecular biology, ecology, geography, information sciences, and the various technologies enabling space exploration.

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