Astrobiology is usually defined as the study of the origin, evolution and distribution of life in the universe. As such it is inherently interdisciplinary and cannot help but engender worldviews infused by cosmic and evolutionary perspectives. In this respect, astrobiology has strong synergies with 'big history', another new academic discipline which aims to integrate human history with the deeper history of the universe. I will explore the relationships between astrobiology and big history, and argue that both are acting to widen human perspectives in intellectually and socially beneficial directions. These include stimulating the (partial) re-integration of scientific disciplines after a period of extreme specialisation, breaking down (albeit again only partially) some of the barriers that exist between the sciences and the humanities, and enhancing public awareness of cosmic and evolutionary perspectives which, I shall argue, comprise a strong implicit argument for the eventual political unification of humanity.
Astrobiology and big history are also concerned with the future of humanity. I will argue that this future will be richer, at least culturally and intellectually if not economically, if it includes an ambitious programme of space exploration. The continued exploration of space, in large part conducted for astrobiological purposes, will result in an influx of new intellectual and cultural stimuli that will not be available by any other means. Ultimately, an ambitious programme of space exploration may be the only way for human (and post-human) societies to avoid the intellectual stagnation once predicted for the 'end of history'.
Ian Crawford is an astronomer and planetary scientist by training, and is currently Professor of Planetary Science and Astrobiology at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is also currently a vice president of the Royal Astronomical Society. Ian's 'day job' at Birkbeck focusses mainly on teaching astronomy and planetary science to undergraduate and postgraduate students, and conducting research on lunar geology (including the possibility of finding economically useful resources on the Moon) and on the search for life on Mars. However, for many years he has also had an interest in the wider societal implications of space exploration and astrobiology, and has escaped to the HRC for ten weeks this (southern!) winter in order to spend some quality time researching these aspects in more detail.