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ASTROBIOLOGY AND BIOCENTRISM

ROBERTO ARETXAGA Philosophy Department, School of Philosophy and Educational Sciences University of Deusto, Bilbao, Spain

1. Philosophical and Environmental Biocentrism The term biocentrism is polysemic in as far as it has, at least, three different meanings. One of them is to be found in the eld of Philosophy, another in the Environmental Sciences, and a third interpretation is also provided in the area of astrobiology. In the eld of philosophy, the term biocentrism is used to describe that ethical theory which denies that human beings occupy a privileged position with respect to other living creatures, as well as humankinds centrality as a source of universal values. Life at large is taken as the only source and holder of any value by biocentrism, which implies that humanity is displaced from its central position, and so biocentrism is anti-anthropocentric. This is the usage the term is given in the deep ecology and conservation movement, based on the theories developed by Aldo Leopold and Paul W. Taylor. The second use of biocentrism is opposed to that of functionalism. In this sense, these two designations refer to opposing views in the study and management of the environment, which, in turn, have generated two distinct scientic disciplines: population ecology and system ecology, respectively. Bearing this difference in mind, biocentrism is best characterized as focusing on organisms and taking the biota as its basic component. Besides, biocentrism relies on natural selection as its explanatory paradigm and defends biodiversity. Functionalism, on the other hand, conceives both organisms and the abiotic component as a whole (holistically), that is, not just a mere addition of the parts. It has also made of the owing of matter and energy its main object of analysis, and of the laws of thermodynamics its explanatory paradigm. Functionalism favors ecodiversity over biodiversity, and maintains that it is the preservation of the owing of matter and energy typical of any ecosystem that guarantees the survival of its organisms. Before I move on to discuss the astrobiological sense of the term biocentrism, I will consider some of the implications that the above mentioned usage of the term: (a) The philosophical conception of the term biocentrism brings up a relevant issue for astrobiology; since this science assumes the existence of a common ancestor and the evolutionary theory, it would seem natural to align it with the biocentristicantianthropocentricposition in the debate. However, under no circumstances could astrobiology ignore the fact that human culture represents a real peculiarity among the different forms of life and adaptation on our planet. If life is found on other planets, this fact would broaden the horizon of the philosophical debate started by ethical biocentrism, a horizon
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J. Seckbach et al. (eds.), Life in the Universe, 345348. C 2004 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.

346 that could then be opened to hitherto unheard-of ideas and views. One possible solution to the underlying philosophical dilemma may come from the distinction between strongly anthropocentric and weakly anthropocentric (Norton, 1984) proposed by Bryan G. Norton. (b) We may assume that the environmental conception of the term biocentrism has implications for astrobiology, too. Thus, since it takes an interest in the origin and distribution of life, and it focuses on the study of microscopic life and its exchanges with the environment, astrobiology seems to require a functional approach. But as it is also concerned with the evolution and destiny of life, and especially with multi-cellular intelligent organisms, the biocentric approach would be the most adequate. The conict between biocentrism and functionalism in the ecological sciences can be solved by emphasizing the complementary nature of both paradigms, and by arguing that the use of one or the other depends exclusively on the spatial and temporal parameters to be considered in each case. Thus, while the functional approach offers a better understanding in the study and management of large ecosystems with small organisms; the biocentric one, is rather more suitable for the analysis of ecosystems of a smaller size but with bigger organisms. With respect to astrobiology, its multi/inter-disciplinary character, and the diversity of its subject matter, also seem to encourage the integration of both approaches, depending on the spatial and temporal parameter that is necessary in each case.

2. Astrobiological Biocentrism The phrase astrobiological biocentrism (AB) or astrobiological conception of the term biocentrism refers to biocentrism in the sense in which Chela-Flores understands it when he denes it as the belief that life has occurred only on Earth (Chela-Flores, 1998), or the doctrine which defends the singularity of the biological evolution that has taken place on Earth, from a bacteria to human beings (Chela-Flores, 2003). Chela-Flores denition of the term biocentrism is likely to generate a philosophically relevant question. As a belief, biocentrism does not constitute in itself a rationally-based and articulated system of ideas, but rather an inner conviction of an individual or a community which, admittedly or not, consciously or not, justiably or not organizes and governs their thoughts and deeds. From this point of view, the term biocentrism may be analyzed in the light of Husserls lifes world (Lebenswelt) and Ortega y Gassets belief (creencia). As a doctrine, however, biocentrism is a theoryon the same footing as that built by J. Monod and otherswhich takes part in what T. S. Kuhn calls a scientic paradigm. In this sense, the term biocentrism would belong in the category that Ortega y Gasset refers to as idea (idea). However, in both cases biocentrism is one of the explanatory keys in our contemporary way of knowing, understanding, evaluating and explaining the universe, life and humankind. Consequently, biocentrism also becomes one of the main pillars of our contemporary conception of the world (Weltanschauung, Dilthey), and it is this aspect precisely that needs to be highlighted when talking about AB, which comprises both meaningsthat of belief and that of idea. With all this in mind, I will now dwell upon the relation between AB and astrobiology as a science. The issue of the existence of extraterrestrial life and of the plurality of worlds was already raised in ancient times (Dick, 1984), which means that astrobiology has its roots in an

347 age-old human quest. In any case, as a contemporary science, astrobiology is indebted to 20th-century theories, techniques and methods that have revolutionized the way in which human beings have access to and present the realphysical, or living. Moreover, astrobiology is likely to engage all the other disciplines of human knowledge in its investigations (Aretxaga, 2003). Copernicus and Galileo put an end to geocentrism. Darwin laid the foundations to leave behind anthropocentrism. In my opinion, what is really important about each of their scientic contributions in astronomy and biology is that they caused a radical change in our conception of the universe, of man and of mans role in this world, something that became apparent in profound cultural and sociological transformations. With regard to AB, it is still, as geocentrism and anthropocentrism were in their time, just one of the pillars of our civilization, since up to now there is no strong evidence for the existence of other life forms in different planets. But it is also well-known that the lack of any evidence of the existence of extraterrestrial life does not necessarily entail its absence. Astrobiological discoveries do not only support this hypothesis, but also begin to undermine the foundations of biocentrism as a scientic theory. As a result, such knowledge has historic relevance, since they constitute the basis to prove empirically the falsity of biocentrism. This fact allows us to nourish hopes that we are facing a futureand perhaps not a very remote oneof scientic contributions which, like Galileos or Darwins, will go down in history, not just on account of its scientic and technological signicance, but above all due to its new and revolutionary consequences for all the other aspects that constitute the different human cultures and societies (for instance, philosophy, art, religion, politics and literature). In view of what has been said above, it seems reasonable to consider biocentrism as an obstacle for human progress (Chela-Flores, 2001) because, similar to geocentrism and anthropocentrism in their heyday, at present, biocentrism would seem a hindrance to mankinds development of a more truthful image of itself and, therefore, to a ner understanding of its real place in the world, and of the new type of responsibilities that accompany this change. Furthermore, if as a general rule a reliable knowledge contributes to raising the levels of adaptability, learning the truth about biocentrism will ensure the survival of the human race. Taking the above arguments under consideration, the need to discover and analyze the role of biocentrism seems both inescapable and responsible, since it is one of the elements shaping the numerous and complex aspects that constitute human cultures and societies. This task leads to a better understanding of the character and depth of the changes and implications that the eventual decline of biocentrism would involve. This, in turn, makes it easier for the complementary task of investigating alternative models designed to approach future problems with more exibility and effectiveness. In this context, and although it is not the business of humanists, but rather astrobiologists to demonstrate the falsity of biocentrism, philosophers and humanists do have to exercise and to encourage thought processes that help mankind as a whole to understand and take in the implications that the effects of an eventual success of astrobiology in its quest for life, present or past, outside planet earth. In this particular area, some invaluable contributions have been made by the SETI Institute concerning extraterrestrial intelligence (Billingham et al., 1994; Tough, 2000). Considering everything that has been stated so far, there is little doubt of the necessity to strengthen and promote cooperation between astrobiologists and humanists.

348 3. Discussion and Conclusion The existence of three different conceptions of the term biocentrism has important implications for astrobiology. Thus, the philosophical and environmental conceptions have ethical and methodological consequences, respectively. In what concerns the conception, theories, methods and techniques of which astrobiology makes use can be said to offer us the historic opportunity of experimentally solving the question of whether we are alone or not in the universe or, the relation existing between our own evolution and that of other forms of life that may have developed somewhere else in the universe (Chela-Flores, 2001). The current state of the art suggests AB makes no reference to reality, but only represents an unjustied belief and a scientic theory based on partly out-dated knowledge. Thus, speaking of an incipient crisis of biocentrism brought about by the new astrobiological contributions does not seem hasty. Given the important role played by AB in the shaping of our culture and society, the possibility of its demise as a belief and as a theory would cause not only profound scientic changes, but also, and perhaps more importantly, cultural and social ones. Astrobiology then, far from being a eld of specialization only open to scientists, should also hold great interest for humanists since this theory may compel humankind to readjust their own perceptions as a race and to question their place in the universe, which will eventually contribute to their progress. This insight implies a responsible and efcient practice of reection and investigation that requires, in turn, increasing cooperation between astrobiology and the humanities that should draw closer in order to make the aforesaid progress evident in all the dimensions that constitute the different human cultures and societies. To conclude, and in an attempt to avoid problems of terminology, I would recommend that the term biogeocentrism, which has already been employed by Chela-Flores himself occasionally, be used to refer to what I have called here astrobiological biocentrism.

4. References
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