The sections below briefly summarize the goals and objectives of the draft societal roadmap. Goals A, B, and C [related to origin and evolution (A); distribution and significance of life (B); and relationships of humans with life and environments (C)] are considered foundational and draw from extensive scholarship in many disciplines, sometimes over many generations. Before it is possible to address relationships with extraterrestrial life and environments (D), or the future of life (E), there is need to understand comprehensively how current knowledge and views have evolved over time, whether and how they are likely to respond to new science findings, and what the societal implications might be (see ). Taken together, this draft roadmap provides an organized approach to the multiple pathways of research on societal issues and provides a preliminary step in thinking about how they may be coordinated and prioritized.3
FIG. 1. Roadmap goals as building blocks. Information relevant to Goals A, B, and C draw upon current and historical research from many other disciplines. Before addressing relationships with extraterrestrial life and environments (D) or the future of life (E), (more ...)
Goal A: Explore the range and complexity of societal issues related to how life begins and evolves.
Examine the kinds of religious, ethical, legal, cultural, and other concerns arising from scientific research on the origin, evolution, and nature of life.
All three affinity groups focused on the need to clarify and compare definitions and understanding about life, its origins, and changes over time. They also emphasized the need to understand the different ways of “knowing”—and to anticipate how scientific discoveries will be translated and applied by scientists, nonscientists, and public groups, all from their different perspectives. The research objectives identified by each subgroup are summarized below.
The objectives identified by the Philosophy and Ethics group focused on examining the definitions of life, our varied and indeterminate understanding of the phenomenon, and the ways we value it. The group also highlighted the need to compare/contrast different methods of knowing, and the interpretations that follow from scientific versus other perspectives. In addition, the group noted the need to consider what ethical issues are associated with research aiming to “create” life in the lab.
The Science and Religion group emphasized the need to better understand the scientific versus nonscientific views of Creation/Origin and Evolution—addressing differences and similarities, and reconciling scientific views and different religious and cultural narratives. Their objectives sought to understand the impact of new scientific findings about life's origin/evolution on worldviews and interpretations within different cultural, religious, or secular groups. As scientists seek to identify different biochemistries (a “second genesis”), synthesize life in the lab, and determine whether we live in a biological universe, it will be important to examine whether and how this new information could challenge religious and cultural views of Creation as purpose-driven and with special significance.
The Social Sciences and Humanities group focused on the need to compare and contrast definitions and understandings about life and evolution (physical, biological, and cultural evolution) as well as different views about life versus nonlife as interpreted through religious, cultural, historical, and scientific approaches. It is important to anticipate how changes in science explanations might translate to different interpretations and meaning about life, here and beyond. Understanding the different definitions, approaches, and interpretations about origin and evolution also has implications for how we make applied decisions about life in the legal, policy, and private sector spheres, from the individual to species and ecosystems levels.
Goal B: Understand how astrobiology research relates to questions about the significance and meaning of life.
Examine how astrobiology's search for extraterrestrial life and knowledge about its potential existence, distribution, and persistence relates to societal understanding of life's significance and meaning—scientifically and otherwise.
All three subgroups focused on the continuing need to recalibrate thinking about life (e.g., existence, distribution, persistence, involvement in global processes) and to proactively anticipate how an extraterrestrial discovery might alter our views or not. Considerations about significance and meaning must extend well beyond science per se and include dialogue with ethicists, theologians, and other disciplines/communities interested in broad cultural and societal implications.
The Philosophy and Ethics group identified three important areas of attention, two linked with environmental ethics and the third with social justice. Any discussions of possible extraterrestrial life must be linked with the extensive literature and research on human and environmental ethics. The existence of life beyond Earth would raise possible questions about “rights” and “personhood,” similar to current debates over complex or intelligent nonhuman life on Earth. Likewise, the prospect of finding microbial extraterrestrial life in the Solar System raises questions of its moral standing and our obligations toward it. In addition, there are numerous questions about the morality and ethical implications of expanding life's range onto other celestial bodies, with or without indigenous life, either deliberately or by accident. The group also raised questions of social justice, suggesting the need to examine expenditures for astrobiology research and exploration in light of other pressing societal needs.
The Science and Religion group identified the need to examine comparative views about life's features such as significance, meaning, “specialness,” rarity, naturalness, sustainability, and stewardship as explained by different religious traditions, cultural groups, and scientists. Furthermore, there are numerous questions about whether and how religious frameworks map onto different moral landscapes, touching on issues such as our obligation to protect, to explore, to avoid alteration or interference, and so on.
The Social Sciences and Humanities group focused on applied questions relating to how individuals, private and public sector organizations, societies, and cultures would react to a discovery of extraterrestrial life. Analyzing the magnitude and types of reactions anticipated from different groups and under different contact scenarios will be useful for developing strategies to minimize the negative impacts of a discovery and for considering in advance the development of protocols or response plans for actual discoveries. Research on communication and education will be important for broad understanding of the realistic possibilities associated with astrobiology sciences and associated risks, in contrast to popular views of aliens, UFOs, and interaction mythologies. It is equally important to acknowledge that discoveries in astrobiology science will not necessarily eliminate the need or desire for examination and interpretation consistent with religious or cultural traditions.
Goal C: Explore the relations of humans with Earth, its life and environments.
Examine our diverse relationships with Earth's life and environments of varied types and consider our responsibilities toward them.
It is appropriate to analyze the full range of relationships with life and environments on Earth and their foundational implications for questions about relationships with extraterrestrial or “other” life. While science information and legal/policy approaches guide how we treat living organisms as individuals or species, it is also important to understand how those fundamentals of relationships are linked with different cultural, religious, and political systems. Despite a preponderance of anecdotal evidence about how religious or cultural groups may react to astrobiology discoveries, we have yet to undertake a systematic and in-depth inquiry.
The Philosophy and Ethics group identified research questions in both ethical and non-ethical domains. The broadest ethical research questions aim at understanding moral constraints associated with historical exploration of various types (e.g., imperialism, colonization, manifest destiny). Near-term, practical questions relate to how scientific samples with possible living entities should be used and whether frameworks developed for terran life automatically or naturally apply to extraterrestrial life. We also need to examine how scientific and ethical interests are balanced in decision-making about research and activities. Finally, various social justice questions arise regarding our relationships with life and research on it. Because of the implicit assumptions by the scientific community about the value of progress in astrobiology, it will be important to examine underlying assumptions in relation to what they mean for life on Earth.
The Science and Religion group focused on understanding the diversity of views about current relationships, responsibilities, and religious interpretations associated with life as we know it—and whether and how scientific advances about life might challenge or alter individual, cultural, or religious interpretations of relationships. It will be instructive to examine the religious or cultural implications of acknowledging that life on Earth is temporary in a scientific sense and to consider our ability, and perhaps obligation, to intervene in human destiny against natural and manmade threats. Finally, astrobiology might raise questions about the nature of God, how views about deities are linked to life as we know it, and whether the discovery of extraterrestrial life would pose ideological challenges to some religious/cultural traditions.
The Social Sciences and Humanities group concentrated on the importance of engaging multiple disciplines—history, anthropology, law, economics, policy, social sciences, theology, art, and literature—to fully understand and characterize diverse views of life, relationships, and natural environments and how they have applied over time. They suggested the need to reexamine the basis for planetary protection policy under the Outer Space Treaty and how to incorporate ethical considerations within existing policy applicable during exploration for extraterrestrial life. They also noted the likely need for policy adjustments in response to possible conflicting uses or plans by different groups, including scientists, commercial and private sectors, the military, governmental bodies, and even future generations. Since both natural space phenomena and exploration activities may have effects on life and environments, it is advisable to explore planetwide decision-making and risk-management approaches in order to anticipate how to protect and sustain life. Finally, the group urged continued research on diverse analog living systems on Earth—past and present—to help reframe questions about evolution, intra- and interspecies communication, and our understanding of relationships across the diversity of Earth life and cultures.
The research objectives in Goals A–C aim to better organize and understand our current perspectives about life and relationships during the pre-discovery phase of astrobiology. Goals D and E are more forward-looking and consider alternative ways of responding to scenarios if and when extraterrestrial life is discovered.
Goal D: Explore the potential relationships of humans with “other” worlds and types of life.
Examine our possible interactions with other worlds—both with and without life—and consider the implications of our activities upon “other” worlds, life, and environments.
Numerous questions are likely to arise in the months to years post-discovery, including what foundational approaches should be used in considering relationships with other worlds, with or without life, whether microbial or intelligent. Research under this goal addresses how the confirmed extraterrestrial life might impact our values and views, our social structures for guiding interactions, and our plans for continued space exploration. As we learn more about the nature of extraterrestrial life, we will be compelled to address questions about rights and obligations, how those might impact humans or “other” life and worlds, and whether we can or should undertake or expand activities on other celestial bodies. Since all ethical, legal, cultural, and theological systems are based on life as we know it on Earth, it will be instructive to consider whether and how existing policies and approaches to life and locations on Earth have utility for “other” worlds and life. Moreover, since our current relationships with life are set largely in Western intellectual traditions, it is appropriate to consider whether framing relationships beyond Earth will require incremental adjustments or significant shifts in policies and approaches.
The Philosophy and Ethics group noted that discovery of life elsewhere would likely effect our view of self, our role and place in the Universe, our “rights” and obligations, societal structures, decision-making frameworks, and views of Earth and planetary stewardship. Certainty about extraterrestrial life is likely to prompt a reexamination of our approach to planetary protection for locations that are reachable by spacecraft. Plans for activities beyond Earth will be scrutinized and may be different depending on level of intelligence or other factors. Understanding the narrative or evolutionary history of the extraterrestrial life, its moral and theological value, and the overall significance of other worlds will be a challenge, especially in how they may impact human attitudes toward life, richness, diversity, and values.
The Science and Religion group noted that questions about the theological implications of verified extraterrestrial life will likely depend on whether it is microbial or intelligent and how the discovery is interpreted both across and within different religious traditions, both Eastern and Western. Each tradition will no doubt determine on its own whether a discovery undermines or strengthens individual faith and whether and how humans should interpret notions of stewardship and relationships. Questions may arise on the prospects of cross-proselytizing and impacts on the eventual fate of religion(s) as we know it. The involvement of diverse theologians and religious professionals can be anticipated during the communication and education process and will arguably be important during debates about any accommodation process.
The Social Sciences and Humanities group focused largely on institutional implications of a discovery of extraterrestrial life. Questions of many types arose about governance, jurisdiction, decision-making, management, protection, and control issues, particularly in light of planned future activities by different sectors and countries. Finally, the group discussed issues of information sharing and communication, including comparative multidisciplinary research on human historical analogues of relationships with “other” beings, from initial “contact” to subsequent exploration, migrations, expansions, or other activities on Earth. Such information may have applicability in thought experiments about “contact” and developing relationships with new “life” forms, and subsequent actions on Earth and beyond. In addition, there is need to consider broad communication about astrobiology discoveries and plans to reach diverse public and expert audiences worldwide.
Goal E: Consider life's collective future—for humans and other life, on Earth and beyond.
Understand the impacts on life and future evolutionary trajectories that may result from both natural events and human-directed activities in the short and long terms.
Thinking about life and its long-term future—decades or centuries hence—requires considering both diversity and locations, which translates into three separate scenarios: considering the fate of humanity and all life on Earth, the future of terrestrial life beyond Earth, and the fate of extraterrestrial or “other” life in its native or transplanted locations. Each perspective immediately conjures up critical unknowns about natural evolution versus human-directed evolution and the implications of deliberate versus accidental actions. In addition, the realization of new taxonomic diversity in other solar systems may alter many of our current ideas about “life” and its future. Although we will not be able to direct or predict all outcomes of astrobiology research and exploration, we can evaluate “preferred” future(s) as compared with alternative trajectories and timeframes, just as we are attempting with global warming deliberations. Rather than wait for issues to arise and confront us, it is advisable to proactively contemplate the implications of astrobiology findings and life's alternative futures from various perspectives—from the individual level to political and societal realms, and even planetary scales.
The Philosophy and Ethics group identified questions touching on the future of all life types and the need to rethink the nature of life, the implications of future migrations beyond Earth, possible transformations of humans, and impacts on Earth biota by extraterrestrial life and vice versa. Extended space exploration raises ethical questions about human experimentation, legal responsibilities, risks, and moral imperatives regarding life. The prospect of long-term changes in humans enters new conceptual territory, particularly with the possible engineering of new human, nonhuman, or hybrid forms. The implications of preempting “natural” evolutionary processes are many, raising questions about accidents, informed consent, control, oversight, and other ethically related questions. It is uncertain what principles and obligations should apply to migration, long-term settlements, and suggested planetwide resource exploitation and terraforming on other bodies. On Earth, there are questions about what ethical or moral obligations apply to protection of life from either technological or natural risks. Even in the long term, there are likely questions about social justice and the implications of one generation spending money on large-scale future extraterrestrial projects rather than directing efforts toward projects on Earth.
The Science and Religion group focused on three main questions related to life as we know it versus “other,” migration issues, and human knowledge about the end of life. Space exploration raises questions about how different faith traditions view the notion of interference with other worlds and how the existence of extraterrestrial intelligent life would be interpreted in theological terms. Demonstration of a new cosmological context would prompt reexamination of basic information associated with diverse religious traditions. Research questions also arise from our current knowledge of possible disasters and end-of-life scenarios, and what obligations might arise from them, if any. Finally, the group highlighted the apocalyptic beliefs of some cultures and religions—and suggested that special efforts may be needed to explain astrobiology findings and discuss steps for averting avoidable disasters rather than attributing predictable events to supernatural causes. Questions also arise about who should be involved in discussions within religious realms about the implications of astrobiology.
The Social Sciences and Humanities group concentrated on areas of deliberate actions, monitoring, and communications, as well as assorted questions related to proactively expanding beyond Earth. Given the significant questions about survival of life as we know it, the group recommended the conscious preservation of human history and knowledge in the event of our collective demise—essentially development of an archive of human history that could survive beyond ourselves. The group also indicated the importance of monitoring other technological fields whose developments have the potential for causing evolutionary changes in bodies and minds. Continued research is needed to understand the range of natural and technological threats to the continuation of life on Earth. A future with certain knowledge about extraterrestrial life will require reanalysis of information and policies for planetary protection, as well as deliberations about the political sector, governance in a cosmic world, and effects of extraterrestrial life on humans and vice versa. In addition, it will raise new questions about international cooperation, legal and ethical frameworks, military roles, and use of resources during exploration and settlement. Even deliberations about who gets to leave Earth or settle elsewhere will involve unusual ethical considerations. It will be important to communicate widely about the potential for rapid changes that may cause impacts to life as we know it—and to consider legal, ethical, and social systems that may require modification. Because of the diversity of issues involved, no single area or topic should eclipse others in importance.