The Biocentric Thesis

19 July 2016

Tuesday


The biocentric character of contemporary civilization is strikingly evident in aerial photographs.

The biocentric character of contemporary civilization is strikingly evident in aerial photographs.

The Centrality of Biology to Civilization

Beyond the formulation of the biological conception of civilization and the ecological conception of civilization, both of which employ concepts from biology, we can identify a particular thesis (or particular theses) addressing the centrality of biological relationships and biological entities to civilization (as we have known civilization to date). I have expressed the centrality of biology to civilization as the biocentric thesis.

Although I have not previously formulated the biocentric thesis explicitly (here I will attempt to do this) though I have used the idea many times. Previously I wrote about biocentric civilizations in From Biocentric Civilization to Post-biological Post-Civilization, Addendum on the Stages of Civilization, and Another Way to Think about Civilization, inter alia, without attempting to clarify my use of “biocentric,” while in The Biological Conception of Civilization and The Ecological Conception of Civilization I considered biologically-derived conceptions of civilization.

Even our mythologies have involved the close association of human beings with fellow biological beings, as in this depiction of the earthly paradise. ('The garden of Eden with the fall of man,' Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1615)

Even our mythologies have involved the close association of human beings with fellow biological beings, as in this depiction of the earthly paradise. (‘The garden of Eden with the fall of man,’ Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1615)

On Being Biological

Let us begin with the basics: human beings, the progenitors of terrestrial civilization, are biological. Being ourselves biological entities, human life has been integral with the biological world from which it arose. We live by consuming other biological entities, and, when we die, our bodies decompose and their constituents are reintegrated with the biological world from which we sprang. When human beings began the civilizational project, we remained integral with the biological world, exapting it for our new-found purposes, which involved the tightly-coupled coevolutionary cohort of species that I employed as the biological conception of civilization. In western thought it as been traditional to oppose nature to culture, but, being biological, we understand our civilization by understanding ourselves, and we understand ourselves by understanding biology.

Biology is both an old and a young science. Plato had little use for biology, and in reading Plato’s dialogues one could be forgiven for supposing that the Greeks had ever lived in any condition other than a civilization in which nature is kept at a certain distance. Aristotle, on the contrary, was a careful observer of nature, thus we may say that biology as science goes back at least to Aristotle’s treatises The History of Animals, On the Parts of Animals, On the Motion of Animals, and On the Gait of Animals.

Biology in its contemporary form goes back to Darwin, from which time biology has rapidly advanced and is today a mature science, as sophisticated in its own way as particle physics. And while we do not usually think of the growing rigor and sophistication of a body of scientific knowledge as an exercise in introspection, in the case of biology we can think of it in this way — if only we have the hardihood to apply what we have learned from biology to ourselves and to our biologically-based civilization. Because we are biological beings, knowledge of biology is knowledge of ourselves.

In this photograph we not only see the human imprint on the landscape, but also the projection of human civilization into Earth orbit.

In this photograph we not only see the human imprint on the landscape, but also the projection of human civilization into Earth orbit.

Being Biological in an Astrobiological Context

Astrobiology is a very young science, but in so far as it takes up the torch of biology and extrapolates biological concepts to their ultimate cosmological context, astrobiology is simply a greatly expanded biology, and in this sense not a new science at all. In From an Astrobiological Point of View I characterized the emergence of astrobiology in this spirit of continuity as the fourth of four great revolutions in biology, the previous three revolutions being Darwinism, Mendelian genetics, and evolutionary developmental biology (better known as “evo-devo”).

In the context of astrobiology, understanding the conditions for life in the universe is a greatly expanded form of human introspection, in which an evolving body of scientific knowledge has the capability of demonstrating the cosmological context of human life. Once again, in understanding astrobiology we can better understand ourselves, if only we have the willingness to understand ourselves scientifically. Beyond understanding ourselves, astrobiology also holds the promise of better understanding our civilization. An astrobiological formulation of the biological conception of civilization would extrapolate this conception of civilization to a cosmological scope.

In Astrobiology is island biogeography writ large I suggested that spaceflight is to astrobiology as flight is to biogeography, which is an application of the principle that technology is the pursuit of biology by other means. Given technologically-enabled spaceflight (made possible by a technological civilization), terrestrial life can expand beyond Earth and beyond our planetary system to other worlds, just as the innovation of flight made it possible for terrestrial organisms (even those that do not fly) to establish themselves on distant, isolated islands — hence the analogy between biogeographical distribution patterns and astrobiological distribution patterns. This is still a biocentric paradigm, but extrapolated to cosmological scope.

8x10.ai

Biocentric Theses

With these considerations of what it means to be a biological being in an astrobiological context, I will attempt an explicit formulation of weak and strong biocentric theses. All of these formulations involve what I have earlier called planetary endemism.

The Weak Biocentric Thesis

All civilizations during the Stelliferous Era begin as biocentric civilizations originating on planetary surfaces.

This thesis is “weak” because it addresses only civilizations during the Stelliferous Era. A corollary of the weak biocentric thesis excludes the possibility of any Stelliferous Era civilization that does not arise from biology, as follows:

Corollary of the Weak Biocentric Thesis

No civilizations during the Stelliferous Era existed prior to the advent of Stelliferous Era biota.

The weak biocentric thesis and its corollary implies a strong biocentric thesis, not limited to the Stelliferous Era:

The Strong Biocentric Thesis

All civilizations in our universe begin as biocentric civilizations originating on planetary surfaces.

The strong biocentric thesis also has a strong corollary:

Corollary of the Strong Biocentric Thesis

No civilizations existed in our universe prior to the biocentric civilizations of Stelliferous Era.

Both strong and weak biocentric theses and their corollaries entail that the emergent complexity of civilization arises from the previous emergent complexity of life, and, in their strongest formulations, that it could be no other way. This excludes the possibility that there exist forms of emergent complexity other than life — sufficiently distinct from life as we know it than any identification of this emergent complexity as life would be problematic — from which civilization might independently arise. This is a rather sweeping claim, and, though it is supported by our parochial knowledge of life and civilization on Earth, it would be quite a stretch to assert this for the universe entire. On the other hand, we would still want to entertain this possibility, as there may be universes in which the only emergent complexity upon which civilization can supervene is life, more or less as we know it.

If the Strong Biocentric Thesis and its corollary are true, then there are no pre-Stelliferous Era civilizations, and all post-Stelliferous Era civilizations are derived from Stelliferous Era civilizations having their origins in planetary endemism. Post-Stelliferous Era civilizations would include Degenerate Era civilizations, Black Hole Era civilizations, and Dark Era civilizations. This might be formulated as another thesis in turn.

According to this understanding of civilization, the Stelliferous Era is uniquely generative of civilizations. In so far as we understand civilizations to belong to a suite of emergent complexities, we might say instead that the Stelliferous Era is uniquely generative of emergent complexity. At least, we say that now, prior to the emergent complexities unique to the Degenerate Era. It seems likely, however, that at some point the universe will reach peak complexity, and after that point it will begin to decay, and emergent complexities will begin to disappear, one by one.

Earth-Moon-System

The Terrestrial Eocivilization Hypothesis and Darwin’s Thesis

The above is closely related to what I have previously called the Terrestrial Eocivilization Hypothesis, which I characterized as follows:

“I will call the terrestrial eocivilization hypothesis the position that identifies early civilization, i.e., eocivilization, with terrestrial civilization. In other words, our terrestrial civilization is the earliest civilization to emerge in the cosmos. Thus the terrestrial eocivilization hypothesis is the civilizational parallel to the rare earth hypothesis, which maintains, contrary to the Copernican principle, that life on earth is rare. I could call it the ‘rare civilization hypothesis’ but I prefer ‘terrestrial eocivilization hypothesis’.”

This might, more simply, be called the “priority thesis,” and is to be distinguished from the “uniqueness thesis,” i.e., that there is one and only one civilization in the universe, and that one is terrestrial civilization. Thinking over this again in retrospect, I realize that priority, uniqueness, and biocentricity can be distinguished. A civilization might be unique in virtue of being first (i.e., having priority), or by being the only civilization, or by being the last of all civilizations. Thus priority is only one form of uniqueness among others. And priority and uniqueness can both be distinguished from biocentricity: according the biocentric theses above, biocentric civilization has priority (at least during the Stelliferous Era) but it not necessarily unique in the universe, nor unique to Earth. Terrestrial civilization is a biocentric civilization, and it may also have priority and it may be unique.

The biocentric theses are also related to what I have called Darwin’s Thesis on the Origins of Civilization, according to which civilization emerges from non-civilization, much as naturalistic accounts of life hold that life emerges from non-life (sometimes called abiogenesis). Whereas the priority thesis (i.e., the terrestrial eocivilization hypothesis, that the earliest civilization is terrestrial civilization) is specific to Earth, Darwin’s thesis, like the biocentric theses above, can be applied universally without reference to the historical accidents of civilization on Earth (including its emergence, and whether this emergence was earlier than or later than any other emergence of civilization).

From a scientific standpoint, then, it is more important to determine the exact logical relationships between the biocentric theses and Darwin’s thesis, as the details of what happened on Earth belong to the accidents of cosmological history. As I said in my post on Darwin’s thesis, these ideas about civilization are rudimentary in the extreme, but since a science of civilization does not yet exist, we must begin with these simplest of concepts if we are ever to think clearly about civilization.

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Tuesday


Copernicus

Today we celebrate the 540th anniversary of the birth of Nicolaus Copernicus. The great astronomer was born 19 February 1473 in Toruń, now part of Poland. The name of Copernicus belongs with the short list of thinkers who not only changed the direction of civilization, but also the nature and character of Western civilization. Copernicus as the distinction of having a cosmology named in his honor.

We would do well to recall how radically our understanding of the world has changed in relatively recent years. Up until the advent of modern science, several ancient traditions of Western civilization had come together in a comfortingly stable picture of the world in which all of Western society was deeply invested. The Aristotelian systematization of Christian theology carried out by Thomas Aquinas was especially influential. Questioning this framework was not welcome. But science was an idea whose time had come, and, as we all know, nothing can stop the progress of an idea whose time had come.

Copernicus began questioning this cosmology by putting the sun in the center of the universe; Galileo pointed his telescope into the heavens and showed that the sun has spots, the moon has mountains, and that Jupiter had moons of its own, the center of its own miniature planetary system. Others took up the mantle and went even farther: Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and eventually Newton and then Einstein.

Copernicus was a polymath, but essentially a theoretician. One must wonder if Copernicus ever read William of Ockham, since it was Ockham along with Copernicus who initiated the unraveling of the scholastic synthesis, out of which the modern world would rise like a Phoenix from the ashes of the medieval world. Ockham provided the theoretical justification for the sweeping simplification of cosmology that Copernicus effected; it is not outside the realm of possibility that the later theoretician read the work of the earlier.

Today, when our knowledge of cosmology is expanding at breathtaking speed, Copernicus is more relevant than ever. We find ourselves forced to consider and to reconsider the central Copernican idea from every possible angle. The Fermi Paradox and the Great Filter force us to seek new insights into Copernicanism. I quite literally think about Copernicanism every day, making Copernicus a living influence on my thought.

As our civilization grows in sophistication, the question “Are we alone?” becomes more and more pressing. Arthur C. Clarke wrote, “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” This insight is profound in its simplicity. Thus we search for peer civilizations and peer life in the universe. That is to say, we look for other civilizations like ours, and for life that resembles us.

SETI must be considered a process of elimination, which I take to already have eliminated “near by” exocivilizations, although we cannot rule out the possibility that we currency find ourselves within the “halo” of a vanished cosmological civilization.

A peer civilization only slightly advanced over our own (say 100-500 years more industrial development), if it is in fact a peer and not incomprehensibly alien, would also be asking themselves “Are we alone?” They, too, would be equally terrified at being alone in the cosmos or at having another peer civilization present. Because we know that we exist as an industrial-technological civilization, and we know the extent to which we can eliminate peer civilizations in the immediate neighborhood of our own star, we can assume that a more advanced peer civilization would have an even more extensive sphere of SETI elimination. They would home in on us as incredibly interesting, as an exception to the rule of the eerie silence, in the same way that we seek out others like ourselves. That is to say, they would have found us, not least because they would be actively seeking us. So this may be considered an alternative formulation of the Fermi paradox.

Despite the growing tally of planets discovered in the habitable zones of stars, including nearby examples at Tau Ceti which lies within our SETI exclusion zone (which excludes only civilizations producing EM spectrum signals), there is no evidence that there are other peer civilizations, and advanced peer civilizations would already have found us — and they would be as excited by discovering us as we would be excited in discovering a peer civilization. There are none close, which we know from the SETI zone of exclusion; we must look further afield. Other peer civilizations would also likely have to look further afield. In looking further afield they would find us.

I don’t believe that any of this contradicts the Copernican principle in spirit. I think it is just a matter of random chance that our civilization happens to be the first industrial-technological civilization to emerge in the Milky Way, and possibly also the first in the local cluster of galaxies. We are, after all, an accidental world. However, it will take considerable refinement of this idea to show exactly how the uniqueness of human civilization (if it is in fact locally unique) is consistent with Copernicanism — and this keeps Copernicus in my thoughts.

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Monday


nuclear_explosion_on_earth_from_space small

What are the consequences from a cosmological point of view when an industrial-technological civilization comes to an end, whether destroying itself or succumbing to outside forces? What kind of trace will a vanished industrial-technological civilization leave in the universe?

halo of a vanished civilization

An industrial-technological civilization that masters electromagnetic spectrum communications — i.e., ordinary radio and television signals — generates an expanding globe of EM signals as long as it is transmitting these signals. If an industrial-technological civilization that has been transmitting EM signals comes to an end, these signals cease to be generated, and the expanding globe of EM signals tapers off to silence at the interior of this globe, which means that there will be an expanding sphere of weakening EM signals. The thickness of this three-dimensional halo in light years will correspond to the age in years of the now-vanished industrial-technological civilization.

If precise measurements of the EM halo were possible, and its exact curvature could be determined, it would be possible to extrapolate the original source of the signal. Once the curvature of the halo has been determined, and therefore also the source, the measurement of the distance from the source to the inner boundary of the halo to the source in light years will yield the number of years that have elapsed since the end of the industrial-technological civilization in question.

While such signals would be very faint, and largely lost in the background radio noise of the universe, we cannot discount the possibility that advanced detection technology of the future might reveal such EM structures. The universe might contain these ghostly structures as a sequence of overlapping bubbles of EM radiation that describe the past structure of industrial-technological civilization in the universe.

It has been said that astronomy is a form of time travel, and the farther we look from Earth, the farther back we see in time. (This is called “look back time.”) Thus we can think of astronomy as a kind of luminous archaeology. Another way to think of this is that the sky reveals a kind of luminous stratigraphy. The EM halos of vanished civilizations would also admit of a certain stratigraphy, since these halos would possess a definite structure.

The outermost stratigraphic layer of an EM halo would likely consist of the simplest kind of high energy radio signals without any kind of subtle modulation of the signal — like Morse code transmitted by radio, rather than vocal modulation. This would be followed, deeper within the EM halo, by analog radio modulation corresponding to spoken language. Next within the EM halo would be analogue television signals, and then digital television signals and data signals of the sort that would be transmitted by the radio link for the internet.

This, at least, is the approximate structure of Earth’s expanding EM halo, and if our civilization destroys itself (or is destroyed) in the near future, our EM halo would be approximately 100 light years thick. The longer we last, the thicker our EM halo.

An EM halo may drop off as an industrial-technological civilization makes the transition from openly radiated EM signals to the pervasive use of fiber optic cables, but if that civilization begins to expand within its solar system, and possesses numerous settlements in EM contact with each other (as I described in Cyberspace and Outer Space), then the halo will reflect these developments — this is further historical structure layered into the EM stratigraphy of the halo.

Given that the structure of a large EM halo would consist mostly of space empty of intelligent EM signals, much of the structure of these halos would be void. It is entirely possible that Earth at present lies within the void of an EM halo that both began and ceased to transmit prior to our ability to detect such signals.

EM halo 1

In the event of human exploration of the cosmos, as we move outward within a possible void within a halo, it is possible that our first contact with a xenomorphic exocivilization will take the form of encountering the inner boundary of an EM halo, which as we pass through it, will reveal in reverse order the development of that civilization, beginning with its destruction and ending with its emergence.

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EM halo 2

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A revised, updated, and expanded version of this post is available at The Halos of Vanished Civilizations: Revised, Updated, and Expanded. A spoken word version of this updated formulation is available at Burst 9 — The Halos of Vanished Civilizations.

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Wednesday


The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Industrialization

In the Past, Present, and Future


In several posts I have discussed the Fermi Paradox, which, stated in its simplest form, is this: if the universe if full of life and full of technological civilizations, then where are the aliens? My posts on the Fermi Paradox include:

Silent Worlds, Empty Worlds

Methodological Naturalism and the Eerie Silence

Why the Fermi paradox must be taken seriously

Addendum on the Fermi Paradox

I have also, in a number of posts, reflected on how the progress of scientific knowledge in cosmology has continued to affirm and to follow a Copernican trajectory, consistently demonstrating to us that the cosmological context of the earth is not unique and not even especially rare. These posts have included:

Other Worlds

Twenty Years of the Hubble Space Telescope

More Evidence for the Copernican Principle

Given the success in extrapolating the Copernican principle, and knowing that small, rocky planets with an atmosphere circling sun-like stars in their habitable zones are not rare, the same Copernican principle ought to allow us to posit the non-rarity of life, of sentience, of civilization, and of technology. If this is the case, why are we not hearing the EM (electro-magnetic spectrum) broadcasts of other industrial-technological civilizations in our neck of the woods, galactically speaking?

It was my point in SETI as a Process of Elimination that the attempts to detect the EM signatures of alien civilizations, while very limited in extent to date, would have told us by now if there had been an advanced industrial-technological civilization on a planet orbiting, say, Tau Ceti or Epsilon Eridani. If there were such a civilization “close by,” say, within 25 light years of us, you would probably be able to listen to their radio broadcasts or watch their television shows with an especially sensitive receiver. Thus we can eliminate the possibility of an advanced technological civilization that is “close” to us in galactic terms.

We cannot, at least not yet, rule out peer industrial-technological civilizations farther afield in the Milky Way, much less in other peer galaxies throughout the universe. We can, however, say a few things about the possibility that remains of contacting other industrial-technological civilizations.

I have come to realize that the Fermi paradox can be expressed according to a law of trichotomy of exocivilizations. Taking our terrestrial industrial-technological civilization as the base line (not because we should count it a privileged civilization, but only because it is the one civilization of which we know something, and whose time and place of origin we can definitely assert), any other industrial-technological civilization would have to have appeared either…

1.prior to the appearance of terrestrial industrial-technological civilization…

2. …at roughly the same time as the appearance of terrestrial industrial-technological civilization… or…

3.after the appearance of terrestrial industrial-technological civilization…

Here we must carefully define the time-frames we will be discussing, because without being careful about the time-frame of the trichotomy we will quickly descend into incoherence.

In terms of the individual human life, civilization is very old; in cosmological terms, civilization is very young, and its few thousand years of development on the earth is nothing but the blink of an eye in the cosmic scale of things. Taking this cosmic perspective, the few thousand years it takes a species to go from essentially nothing to industrial-technological civilization is negligible. This is one of the sources of the Fermi paradox, because it is sometimes asserted that earlier civilizations could have or even should have emerged and colonized the galaxy before us.

Recent cosmological thought, however, with a greater appreciation for the natural history of the universe, has come to realize that an industrial-technological civilization cannot emerge until the heavier elements that fuel such a civilization are available, and these heavier elements can only come about through several generations of stellar nucleosynthesis, meaning that several generations of stars must be formed and then scatter their substance through going supernova before the heavier elements are available in sufficient amount to create both life as we know it and industrial-technological civilization as we know it.

This point has been made in relation to the anthropic cosmological principle. I haven’t yet taken the time to write in any detail about the anthropic cosmological principle (except for the short note Formulating an Anthropic Principle Worthy of the Name), but I have mentioned on several occasions that, while I consider strong formulations of the anthropic principle to be seriously wrong, weak formulations of the anthropic principle seem to me to be tautologically true: only a universe consistent with the existence of observers can be observed. Here is how Barrow and Tipler formulate a weak version of the anthropic principle as it relates to the age and size of the universe:

“…for there to be enough time to construct the constituents of living beings the Universe must be at least ten billion years old and therefore, as a consequence of its expansion, at least ten billion light years in extent. We should not be surprised to observe the the Universe is so large. No astronomer could exist in one that was significantly smaller. The Universe needs to be as big as it is in order to evolve just a single carbon-based life-form.”

John S. Barrow, and Frank J. Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986, p. 3

What this means is that we cannot simply extrapolate backward in time and assert that an industrial-technological civilization might have emerged at any time in the history of the universe. The universe has to be approximately as old as old as it is now — old enough to produce our sun and our planets with their relatively plentiful mineral resources — for a civilization to emerge with a technological infrastructure capable to creating radio transmitters and receivers.

This argument — it could be called an anthropic argument, but I would call it the argument from natural history — can be extended to the appearance of terrestrial civilization, which, since the industrial revolution that made contemporary technology possible, has been powered by fossil fuels. A civilization that exploits fossil fuels to bootstrap itself to rapidly achieve high technology cannot come about until these fossil fuels have been laid down and fossilized. So no more than the age of the universe being arbitrary is the age of the earth arbitrary when it comes to the production of industrial-technological civilization.

It would certainly be possible to have a technological civilization without fossil fuels, but there is still a temporal constraint on the emergence of a sufficiently sophisticated biological infrastructure to support a brain of sufficient complexity for sentience, consciousness, and instrumental intelligence to emerge.

Thus in terms of the first division of the trichotomy of exocivilizations, industrial-technological civilizations would be limited to the recent past, with “recent” understood on a biological time scale. It would be unlikely that another industrial-technological civilization would have emerged in the Milky Way, or in another galaxy of approximately the same age as the Milky Way, beyond, say, 10-20 million years ago. This still means that there could be a civilization in the Milky Way millions of years old, which would seriously out-class our terrestrial civilization. The point here is that we don’t have a past of 13.7 billion years (the current estimate for the age of the universe) possibly filled with civilizations.

In terms of the second division of the trichotomy of exocivilizations, industrial-technological civilizations roughly contemporaneous with our own — and here I place the emphasis on roughly — would presumably be of a roughly similar character to our own, having emerged in a similar cosmological context and at a similar age of the universe. Seeing civilization in its cosmological context, like seeing biology in its cosmological context as I wrote about yesterday in Eo-, Eso-, Exo-, Astro-, means that we understand exocivilization to have been constrained by the same physical laws and material resources as our own civilization, i.e., esocivilization (which I now realize might also be called endocivilization).

Once an industrial-technological civilization emerges, it progresses rapidly (as I discussed in The Industrial-Technological Thesis), so that an industrial-technological civilization a mere few thousand years more mature than our own — a very real possibility in cosmological and biological terms — would possess a significant technological advantage over terrestrial civilization. However, as contemporary civilizations on a cosmological time scale, we must think of exocivilizations a few thousand years older or younger than terrestrial civilization as near-peer civilizations.

Because of the size the universe, and the great gulf between galaxies, between galactic clusters, and between super-clusters, and because of the constraints placed on communication and transportation by relativistic physics, it may be that near-peer civilizations are prevented from talking to each other for all practical purposes by virtue of the light cone in which each civilization finds itself embedded. The light cone not only describes the propagation of light but of all EM spectrum radiation, including radio signals.

The third division of the trichotomy of exocivilizations, regarding exocivilizations that emerge after our terrestrial esocivilziation, would involve different consequences for the possibilities open to the development of contemporary industrial-technological civilization, which would include:

After the end of terrestrial esocivilization, precluding the possibility of communication

After the end of terrestrial industrial-technological civilization, which is to say, a stagnant successor to contemporary terrestrial civilization, capable of being “discovered” in its dotage (imagine all of human civilization as a terrestrial India, with ancient and venerable traditions but a marginal role)

During the existence of an intact terrestrial industrial-technological civilization, which implies a spatially expanding terrestrial esocivilization, and therefore exocivilizations subordinate to, and perhaps even subject to, human civilization

Once one begins thinking about the possibilities there are two many to list, and providing some kind of typology of the interrelationship of civilizations would require a significant investment of time. For example, an expansionary exocivilization might exapt terrestrial civilization, expanding through and around and on top of that which came before, as later cities have exapted earlier cities and grown through them. The effort to formulate the interrelationships of esocivilization and exocivilizations would be the project of astrocivilization, i.e., the totality of civilization in the universe.

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Eo-, Eso-, Exo-, Astro-

11 September 2012

Tuesday


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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