March 16, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Astrobiology Justifying Itself

Is astrobiology a legitimate science?  Seth Shostak, director of the SETI Institute, tried to answer that question in the weekly SETI Thursday column on Space.com.  He estimates there are “approximately a thousand scientists who would be proud to print ‘astrobiologist’ on their business cards.”  Astrobiology still gets a cool reception in some quarters.  Shostak likened this reaction to the initial response to other new programs, such as women’s studies and quantum mechanics.  He recalled how a paper by Grote Reber on radio emissions from space (see 02/06/2003) – an epochal paper that opened up the field of radio astronomy – was “uniformly rejected” by the reviewers at the Astrophysical Journal.  (Thankfully, the editor published it anyway.  See also the quote at top right of this page.)
    Astrobiology, though, gets respect and funding without too much trouble, so why the need to justify it?  “The field is young enough to still have vocal critics,” Shostak replied, “in particular, those who think that ‘astrobiology’ is nothing more than a hope that life will someday be discovered beyond Earth.”  To calm the critics, Shostak produced a short list of achievements to show that astrobiology is producing scientific fruit in the process of looking for life.  In short, they are: (1) finding extrasolar planets, (2) refining the conditions for life, (3) and generating research on the origin of life and intelligence.  Furthermore, astrobiology is the “most powerful incentive for our explorations of the solar system,” he added as an encore.  “Why do we pay so much more attention to Mars, Europa and Titan than we do to Venus, Io, or Rhea?  It’s because the former worlds have the conditions that might foster and nurture the most compelling activity in the universe: life.”
    Shostak did not address whether the achievements in his list might have occurred without astrobiology, other than to suggest that astrobiology gives impetus to those research fields:

It’s true that incontrovertible proof of extraterrestrial life is still lacking.  But there are just two paths to the future: either we will eventually find biology elsewhere, or we won’t.  If you are among those who think that only Earth has spawned life, then astrobiology is, indeed, only useful in proving your hypothesis by enduring endless failure to reach its ultimate goal.  But if it seems plausible that, among the 10 thousand billion billion other star systems of the visible universe, there are some places where the remarkable chemical interplay we call life also occurs, than [sic] astrobiology research can only speed its discovery.

Shostak assumed that life and intelligence would have evolved by unintelligent causes.  He did not consider what a creationist explanation for extraterrestrial life might include, nor whether non-evolutionary assumptions might also speed the discovery of extraterrestrial life.

Shostak’s writings are usually stimulating and entertaining, but you won’t find much of substance here to prove his case that astrobiology is a valid science.  Consider the fundamental fact that it hasn’t found any life yet.  If you founded a branch of science to look for gnomes, and went for years without finding any, would it justify your funding to consider the spinoff discoveries along the way?

Suppose you discovered that the undersides of certain rocks have the conditions for gnomes.  Then, you found, serendipitously, a new species of toadstools growing in habitats thought inhospitable for fungi.  Gnomes love toadstools, you say, so this certainly shows you are making progress.  To top it off, your efforts spawned a number of other research projects, such as clarifying the conditions for gnomes and speculating about the evolution of gnomic intelligence.  Would these selling points qualify for respect in the research community?

Some of the marks on Shostak’s astrobiology scorecard are disqualified because they assume evolution to research on evolution – a circular and incestuous line of reasoning.  As for the remaining valid scores, is astrobiology the only contestant?
    A creationist worldview could just as easily have achieved the practical spinoffs Shostak claimed for astrobiology: discovering extrasolar planets, discovering extremophiles, exploring the limits of habitability, and promoting the space program.  Why?  Some creationists admit the possibility that God created life elsewhere than earth.  Wouldn’t that belief motivate efforts to find them and communicate with them?  Other creationists who feel life (especially intelligent life) is restricted to earth might still be fascinated to understand just what are the life-giving features of our planet by comparing it with others.  Finally, creationists are arguably more motivated to do pure research into all aspects of creation because they love and honor any handwork of the Creator.
    Unfortunately, we will never know how well creationists would have scored on these research programs, because they have been systematically expelled from the academic community and funding sources.  A hint at what might have been, however, can be seen by a look at their track record in history.

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Categories: Astronomy, Origin of Life, SETI

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