Institute for Research in the Humanities Seminar

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Room 212, University Club
@ 3:30 pm - 5:00 pm

‘The Universe Belongs to Life’: Interplanetary Contamination, Astrobioethics, and the Universe of Moral Consideration


Image: Henrique Alvim Corrêa, illustration from H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (1906, Belgian edition).

Monday Seminar:

Jenell Johnson

Resident Fellow (2019-2020)

Mellon-Morgridge Professor of the Humanities; Associate Professor of Communication Arts, UW-Madison


If there is native life on Mars, should we leave it alone? If there isn’t native life on Mars, do we have a moral obligation to bring it there? Or have we already brought life to Mars in the form of microbial hitchhikers? In this talk, I examine the issue of interplanetary contamination from the perspective of astrobioethicists: scientists and other academics, policymakers, and fiction writers who grapple with questions about the rights of, and our obligations to, microbial extraterrestrial life. Far from a fringe idea, I show how these concerns have shaped space science and policy from the very beginning—from international space treaties to the development of the field of astrobiology— and discuss how they have the potential to reshape how we think about life on Earth.

Jennell Johnson‘s research focuses on the circulation of scientific and medical information in the public sphere, with an emphasis on the social and political dimensions of nonexpert engagement with science, medicine, and technology. She is the author of American Lobotomy (U Michigan, 2014), editor of Graphic Reproduction (Penn State, 2018), and co-editor of The Neuroscientific Turn (U Michigan, 2012), Biocitizenship (NYU, 2018), and The Rhetoric of Health and Medicine As/Is (OSU, forthcoming). Her current book project “On Behalf of Life” examines how life itself becomes an object of ethical consideration and political mobilization.

(Refreshments offered in room 211 at 3:00 P.M.)