Metalaw -- Kathryn Denning of York University and Margaret Race of the SETI Institute -- have published a paper on the website of the National Science Foundation entitled Rethinking Life: Astrobiology and the Future of the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (SBES). The paper explores the question of how advances in astrobiology research will affect humanity, and proposes that the field offers SBES researchers (including those in law) an opportunity to forge an interdisciplinary community to address the profound questions that astrobiology poses to humanity.
The urgency of the issues Denning and Race address is underscored, of course, by this week's announcement of the discovery by the Kepler space telescope of more than 1200 exoplanet candidates, including 54 orbiting in the habitable zone of their parent stars -- of which 5 are approximately the size of Earth. In other words, we may be on the verge of discovering the first reasonably Earth-like exoplanet. Remarkable, considering it has only been 16 years since the discovery of the first extrasolar planetary system.
"[A]strobiology is causing us to rethink life itself, in myriad ways," Denning and Race write. "And whether or not a detection of extraterrestrial life is imminent – as many scientists expect it to be – this re-visioning will involve SBES in every way imaginable. The rate of life-related discoveries is rapidly outpacing our human frameworks. Accordingly, this area – involving planetary protection, UN conventions and treaties concerning space, metalaw, and bioethics – is an incredible opportunity for SBES researchers: their perspectives and contributions are greatly needed."
Denning and Race argue persuasively that astrobiology and related studies in the SBES are about more than extraterrestrial life: "We live in the Anthropocene era: we are changing our world, and with it, ourselves, at an
unprecedented rate. The culture/nature divide, such as it was, is collapsing. Through research within and connected to astrobiology, we are also coming to understand planetary scale phenomena, the limits of habitability, and life’s fragility on Earth. What are the likely impacts upon human consciousness, behaviour, culture, and social systems? How should they be studied?"
Among other measures, Denning and Race call for the integration of perspectives from fields as diverse as ethics, religion, law, science policy, anthropology, moral philosophy, international governance and the history of science. To this end, Denning and Race have started a NASA Astrobiology Institute Focus Group on Astrobiology & Society.
"We need researchers who can address the issues that will arise from humanity’s altered views and relationships with life... in whatever diverse forms we find it," Denning and Race conclude. "This is, in the end, a matter of utmost practicality. The decisions humanity makes now about how we choose to relate to life, and to the solar system and space beyond, will affect all our descendants."
What is Metalaw?
According to Dr. Ernst Fasan, Metalaw is “the entire sum of legal rules regulating relationships between different races in the universe.” Metalaw is the “first and basic ‘law’ between races” providing the ground rules for a relationship if and when we establish communication with or encounter another intelligent race in the universe. Dr. Fasan envisioned these rules as governing both human conduct and that of extraterrestrial races so as to avoid mutually harmful activities.