Eo-, Eso-, Exo-, Astro-

11 September 2012


NASA has published a number of astrobiology graphic novels that are well worth taking a look at.

Last spring in Eo, Exo-, Astro- I discussed the importance of the distinction between eobilogy, exobiology, and astrobiology as representing a truly Copernican conception of the life sciences, as well as the applicability of concepts from astrobiology to the study civilization. This discussion was partly an outgrowth of my continuing work on the idea of spacefaring civilization, which I discussed when I spoke at last year’s 100 Year Starship Study symposium (100YSS). Now that I am preparing to speak at the 2012 100YSS (my topic this year will be “The Large Scale Structure of Spacefaring Civilization”) I have been working on these ideas again and I found a problem with my previous formualtions.

Joshua Lederberg in front of Mars Lander chart, from Profiles in Science, National Library of Medicine

I mentioned in my previous post on this topic the work of Joshua Lederberg, one of the founders of exobiology. I was lead to Lederberg’s work by the excellent book The Living Universe by Steven J. Dick and James E. Strick, which noted how Lederberg had contrasted eobiology and exobiology. I jumped to the conclusion that eobiology and exobiology were contrasted as terrestrial biology to non-terrestrial biology. While I was right about astrobiology being the more comprehensive synthesis, placing terrestrial biology in its cosmological context, I got Lederberg’s contrast of eobiology and exobiology wrong.

Lecture notes of Lederberg for his Cartwright Lecture at Columbia University on18 November 1981.

Joshua Lederberg wrote this about the formation of his ideas in the immediate post-Sputnik period:

At around this time, I coined the term “exobiology”, a smaller mouthful than “the scientific study of extraterrestrial life”. Exobiology has been panned as one of the few scientific disciplines that may have an empty set as its experimental objects. Regardless, what we have called biology until now should be limned “esobiology”, which can be backformed into “earth’s own biology”. It may be unique in the solar system, perhaps even the cosmos — howbeit, it is still parochial.

Joshua Lederberg, Terry Lectures, Yale University, Thurs – Fri: April 6, 7 and April 13, 14, 1989, “Origin and Extent of Life” (Notes for Terry Lecture #1)

Most if not all of Lederberg’s papers are available online, including several early articles in which he formulated his ideas of exobiology before the idea of astrobiology had emerged. The papers available at Profiles in Science are well worth reading.

Lederberg’s contrast between eobiology and exobiology was intended as a contrast between origins of life research and research into life in the universe beyond the earth, and hence beyond eobiology as the origins of biology. There is almost an element of csomological eschatology present in Lederberg’s visionary compass taking in the breadth of life from it earliest origins to its far-flung possibilities in the depths of space. Lederberg called eobiology “the ultimate creation myth of science,” and exobiology might in the same spirit be called the ultimate eschatological myth of science. Here is how Lederberg formulated the distinction between eobiology and exobiology in 1995:

The reconstruction of life’s origin, eobiology, is the ultimate creation myth of science — certainly it places the most stringent demands on the method of science. On the one hand, DNA and RNA are the most durable physical features of the planet: they have evolved in every detail, but their basic architecture can be inferred to have survived at least 3 billion years of terrestrial history…

Three avenues remain open to us. 1) The reconstruction of plausible emulations of biopoiesis in the laboratory. 2) Observational evidence and palaetiological interpretation of geo- and cosmochemical history of organic molecules: in free space and in condensates such as meteorites and comets. 3) The search for independent evolutions of life beyond narrow terrestrial limits, for an exobiology beyond our own esobiology…

As for exobiology, our principal avenues are 1) telescopic observations from earth, or near orbit, now mainly focused on the substantiation of circumstellar planetary systems like our own; 2) radio-telescopic surveys for possible intelligent signals, and 3) spacecrafted instrumentation visiting the surface of nearby planets, notably Mars.

Joshua Lederberg, Pasteur Centenary Rio February 19-25 ff 1995, I have edited the above remarks but you can read the original in its entirety at the link provided

Term “eobiology” comes from the work of N. W. Pirie, a scientist and philosopher of science — at least, The Living Universe, cited above, attributes “eobiology” to N. W. Pirie, though I was only able to find the term “eobiont” (and not “eobiology”) in Pirie’s work. In any case, with my improved understanding of Lederberg’s formulations of exobiology and related concepts we have the following four concepts that are of particular importance:

● Eobiology: the prefix “eo” means early, so “early biology” or the origins of life

● Esobiology: the prefix “eso” means “inner” or “within” so, in a sense, “our biology,” in other words, terrestrial biology

● Exobiology: the prefix “exo” means “outer” or “outside” so “outer biology” or, if you will, biology in outer space

● Astrobiology: the prefix “astro” means pertaining to the stars, so biology as it pertains to the stars, or biology in a cosmological context

Although I got the original contrast between eobiology and exobiology wrong, I can easily reformulate the distinction I wanted to make in Lederberg’s terms as the contrast between esobiology and exobiology, that is to say, the distinction between terrestrial biology and extraterrestrial biology, which taken together constitute the more comprehensive domain of astrobiology.

I characterized the emergence of astrobiology as being of great importance because it constitutes a fully Copernican science liberated from the prejudices of geocentric biology. My concern was to employ parallel concepts to formulate a similarly fully Copernican Conception of Civilization, and this I see I must now do with the following four concepts:

● Eocivilization the origins of civilization, wherever and whenever it occurs, terrestrial or otherwise

● Esocivilization our terrestrial civilization

● Exocivilization extraterrestrial civilization exclusive of terrestrial civilization

● Astrocivilization the totality of civilization in the universe, terrestrial and extraterrestrial civilization taken together in their cosmological context

Originally I contrasted eocivilization to exocivilization as synthesized in the greater whole of astrocivilization; it is obvious now that the contrast I should have made was that between esocivilization and exocivilization, these two latter of which are unified in astrocivilization.

Although the concepts of esobiology and exobiology can be considered to have been superseded by the concept of astrobiology, the earlier concepts remain useful distinctions within the field of astrobiology, and the same can be said of esocivilization, exocivilization, and astrocivilization: astrocivilization is the comprehensive, Copernican conception of civilization, but it is supplemented by the useful concepts of esocivilization (which for us is terrestrial civilization) and exocivilization (extraterrestrial civilizations), which continue to be valid and useful concepts for the study of civilization.

The original visionary contrast of eobiology and exobiology in Lederberg’s work can be reformulated in the context of civilization as the breadth of civilization from it earliest origins to its far-flung possibilities in the depths of space, which is a sweeping eschatological conception of civilization.

There remains a further subtle distinction that can be made here. Once we understand that the complementary concepts of esocivilization and exocivilization concern the distribution of civilization in space, we recognize that eocivilization is concerned with the distribution of civilization in time. This suggests another concept that would stand opposite that of eocivilization identifying the opposite pole of civilization’s origins — would this be the destiny, aim, or goal of civilization? Such terms are, of course, loaded, and we would be better to avoid them. I discussed in yesterday’s The Industrial-Technological Thesis the tendency of contemporary historians to avoid any mention of “progress,” and for similar reasons we might want to avoid any formulation that suggests a telos of civilization — but this is an interesting question that deserves its own separate discussion rather than a mere aside in passing.

What neutral term could be employed to indicate the opposite of eocivilization, and what term could be employed to indicate the synthesis of eocivilization and its other? The obvious choice would be the prefix “post-” except that I really don’t like the sound of “post-civilization” and what it implies (though I have used in on many occasions, as when I reference post-civilization successor institutions). I think I would prefer some Latinate formulation like Res cultus futurae, but this is awkward contrast to “eocivilization” and “cultus” is a very imperfect translation of “civilization” since ancient Latin had no word for civilization. So I will continue to think about the terminology, but I do want to get the concepts out there while I have them in mind:

● Eocivilization the origins of civilization

● After-civilization that state toward which civilization is evolving, and perhaps also that which comes after civilization

● Metaphysical civilization the totality of civilization in history; the temporal whole of civilization from its earliest origins to its transition into another kind of institution

Thus while I had originally been mistaken in contrasting eocivilization to exocivlization, which I now realize should be the contrast between esocivilization and exocivilization, the term and the concept “eocivilization” turns out to be very useful and highly suggestive (and from it we can arrive at the terrestrial eocivilization thesis).

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Grand Strategy Annex

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project astrolabe logo smaller

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