In the framework of an interdisciplinary program on the conditions of appearance and origin of life, social sciences and humanities contribute to understand how the social determines or influences construction of knowledge about life, while offering an expertise on the modalities of the diffusion of such knowledge among non-specialists. But, more fundamentally, despite the differences in the methods and objects, it is relevant to note homologies between scientific fields: certain intellectual operations, crucial for the development of exobiology, also appear to be at the heart of social sciences’ approaches. For exemple:
– Adoption of a “the view from afar” (Lévi-Strauss) to study distant phenomena, but also to shift the perspectives on the phenomena closest to the observer.
– Reflection on the constraints (perceptual, psychological, cognitive, environmental) which determine construction of knowledge and development of explanatory systems.
– The systematic use of comparison and examination of variations to organize similarities and differences within an analytical framework.
In particular, through the use of empirical data (ethnographic, sociological, archival, artefacts), anthropology and history have developed methods to study variations, in time and space, in the conceptions of life. In association with an epistemological reflection, investigations in theses fields allow to explore this diversity systematically. While questioning the plurality of conditions for the appearance of life beyond Earth, it appears indeed essential to explore the complexity of knowledge forged by humans to make sense of this protean phenomenon. It is from such a base, combining an empirical approach and a fundamental and reflexive research on intellectual categories, that relations between science and society may indeed be treated.
One of the aims of this project is to analyse what it means to elaborate a definition of life. Instead of identifying relevant criteria to say what is life, it is possible to have definition describing what are the functions of living systems. From this standpoint, a meta-analysis on the different way of conceiving the activity of definition and delimitation of an object according to the diverse scientific fields (astrophysics, chemistry, biology) should be carried out.
The Historical construction of knowledge (history of science, history of technology, history of ideas, epistemology)
The history of the research on the origin and conditions of emergence of life should not be limited to the identification of a chronological succession of hypotheses and discoveries, approached merely through the publication of texts. An interdisciplinary approach must thoroughly investigate the connections and co-determinations between the history of ideas and the history of technology and institutions. Beyond the official literature, historians also rely on archival sources (research diaries, correspondence, grey literature, etc.) or physical and visual material (architecture, technical instrument, drawings, photographs) to trace how scientists build their knowledge, combining heterogeneous elements from various orders of facts. This is, for example, the case of surveys on the technique of observation and measurement to better understand how definitions of life depend on the ability to detect the signs –new definitions may actually change the observation’s practice.
To address the specificity of the circularity between formulation of theories and data collection regarding research activities on the origin of life on Earth and beyond Earth, an epistemological reflection should also be initiated. Firstly, in order to study how intellectual operations, apparently homogeneous and timeless –for instance: observation, measurement– involve technical and institutional arrangements depending on historical contexts. Secondly, in order to study the activity of defining life –and fixing criteria for identifying this phenomenon– so that different epistemological cases may be distinguished. Sometimes, new empirical data make it necessary to revise existing theories but it also exists situations, less radical, where scientists propose to focus attention on new signs, like, when at the end of the nineteenth century, the collection of astronomical data via spectrometry replaced the use of photography. Interestingly, the discovery of historical explanatory models –and, therefore, the restitution of marginal theories, forgotten at times –accounts for how astronomy has built common objects with other disciplines (physics, chemistry, biology). Instead of building a disciplinary history, it is then fruitful to systematically analyze the similarities and differences in the definitions of life as they have appeared in these areas, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the long term, the link between discourse on life –on Earth and beyond– and religious, Western and non-Western ideas, should also be examined.
Studying the history of practices and ideas, as well as works in Visual Studies in this broader context, also offers insights and conceptual tools. In all sciences, the construction of objective knowledge is based on the use of images (drawings, diagram, photograph, etc.). In life sciences in general, and especially regarding life beyond Earth, the question of the visual representation is crucial as it is connected with epistemological issues scientists are tackling: transition from quantitative to qualitative variations, relationships within a living system, dynamic process. The decisions, of which scientists are more or less aware, related to representing life or properties of living systems, go beyond illustrating: they have implications for the scientists’ conceptions. Therefore, in addition to a reflection on technical devices of observation, images –and other sensorial data-capturing devices– are good objects to trace the evolution of these concepts.
Cultural variation in the conceptions of life (anthropology, ethnology, sociology of science, cognitive science, epistemology)
When history of science is investigating on different classes of facts to study the construction of knowledge of life, investigations in the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) can be carried out by sociologists and anthropologists in places where science is built and diffused: laboratory, observatory, conferences, etc. Observation and description of actual practices rather than the chronological review of the succession of discoveries, help to grasp how scientists are elaborating their knowledge of life, especially by bringing to light implicit categories at work when humans are dealing with this topic. From this standpoint, it is relevant to compare these conceptions with non-Western conceptions of life, which appear both in traditional and modern societies.
In so doing, rather than talking about life in general, it is also more accurate to focus attention on the diversity of life processes -such as growth, reproduction, metabolism, regeneration or degeneration for instance- that appear in the human body and the environment. Cognitive sciences offer interesting data to articulate the universal dimension of the recognition of these processes and cultural variations of their explanations. Without questioning the specificity and effectiveness of scientific rationality, anthropology, which grounds its knowledge on ethnographic surveys, provides a comprehensive analytical framework for undertaking a systematic comparison of inference systems developed by humans to account for these processes. It is even truer that anthropological approaches have multiplied over the last twenty years to describe and analyse life phenomena. Beside classical approaches, studying life cycles (anthropology of rite), creation (anthropology of mythology) or classification of living things (ethnobiology), new theoretical proposals have been made that focus on specific dimensions of life:
– Perception of living beings (phenomenology);
– Sign systems used for the communication between living beings (semiotics);
– The actions and interactions between living beings, particularly in the efforts of humans to orientate life processes (pragmatic);
– Ecosystem functioning (ecology).
There are three levels of multiplicity (vital processes, inference systems developed by humans, and approaches developed by social sciences) that anthropology, especially the anthropology of life, strives to articulate conceptually. It is from this wider framework that the conceptions of life developed by exobiology would benefit from submitting to comparison, in order to identify theoretical options, sometimes implicit, used by scientists, among a set of possible choices that human thought has already begun to explore.
Transfer of representations (science and visual studies, art history, art schools, sociology of art, aesthetics)
By highlighting contexts of emergence of conceptions of life in general and of knowledge related to life beyond Earth in particular, it appears crucial to consider art/science relations, firstly to study how representations, especially visual representations, circulate between science and society. At the crossroads of the Sociology of Art, History of Art and Visual and Cultural Studies, this implies to determine how scientific activity may be influenced by images and imaginary related to the representations of life in art (for instance: cinema, painting, music or literature). Secondly, it conducts to explore possible correlations between representations of terrestrial and extra-terrestrial life that appear through history or in different cultural contexts, and hypotheses or motivations guiding scientific investigations.
Moreover, it is relevant to conduct investigations on how scientists are transmitting to an audience of non-specialists the concepts of life they develop. This step is not to be considered as a marginal activity that should be added, from the outside, to scientific activity. On the contrary, in a reflexive approach, specific issues raised by that passage from one register to another deserve to be articulated with those that drive scientists when deciding on the most appropriate visual and sensory devices they are using to objectify extra-terrestrial life. Due to its inventiveness and its ability to create worlds, art is a fertile field of experiences to investigate the powers of imagination, particularly those used by theoretical imagination. Several intellectual and physical operations, able to reveal the potential of beings and living systems for adaptation and transformation, are crucial to explore plasticity of these phenomena:
– The decomposition of sensitive data and the selection of some of them to recombine them into new expressive sets.
– The creation of new “life forms” and “forms of life”, articulating different aspects of life, such as relationships between form and matter or between individual and environment.
– The exploration of possibilities of new universes and their internal consistency within specific regimes of truth and verisimilitude.
Artistic creation is therefore a place of research and experimentation in itself. Through it, the goal is not just to look at the representation of life as it is -by illuminating some aspects of the phenomenon- but to wonder what it could be. Science-fiction and digital creation of virtual worlds are good fields to tackle these issues, due to their efforts to create coherent systems, even when certain variables deemed to be necessary for life as it is known by humans are changed. Together with “space art” and planetarium as a traditional way of displaying knowledge and images, immersive devices could be invented to help audiences to familiarize themselves with scientific conception of life. Furthermore, the interventions of bioartists and biodesigners on biomaterials or vital processes attest that, beyond the logic of representation, humans can act directly on life, using it as a malleable medium in which they can reveal or display specific properties (brightness, movement, etc.).