Feminist Astrobiology

Feminist Astrobiology

A little over halfway through Marc Kaufman’s First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Hunt for Life Beyond Earth, the recently disgraced exoplanet hunter and serial sexual harasser Geoff Marcy makes a brief cameo as an intrepid scientist about to embark on the research that would make him famous. I followed the revelations of Marcy’s decades-long campaign of sexual misconduct with disgust last year, and I reacted viscerally to seeing his name in Kaufmann’s innocuous recounting of the adventurous work of astrobiology pioneers. Written in 2011, four years before the sexual harassment scandal broke, Marcy appears in Kaufman’s book as simply another character in a cast of relatively charismatic researchers all working in the loosely conglomerated interdisciplinary field of astrobiology.

Astrobiology, the study of the origin and characteristics of life on earth and and its possible existence elsewhere in the universe, is highly interdisciplinary, and it incorporates methods and models from a variety of different subdisciplines. It began to emerge in its present form, stripped of much of the slightly science fictional qualities that had previously marginalized the search for extraterrestrial life, in the mid to late 1990s.

Kaufman’s journalistic approach to narrating astrobiology’s story mirrors much of the contemporary science writing in that it spends no time at all on the embedded dynamics of power and gender that we know are foundational to all sciences. The style of the book effects a smoothing and leveling, which  places all the players on the same field and positions any conflict squarely around the interpretation of data. A truly ideal scientific origin story that completely lacks petty human constructions.

Part of the reason for the lack of criticality in First Contact has to do with the nature of the so-called “hard” scientific sub-disciplines that make up astrobiology. There seems to be few objects of study in astrobiology to which gender or power might affix itself. Astrobiologists of various stripes study caves, rocks, searing thermal vents in the ocean floor, meteorites, and planets whose existence is sometimes the most we are able to know about them. Moreover, the current form of astrobiology departs from its ancestral “exobiology” in that the field mostly agrees that any life detected in space will be microbial and, thus, not intelligent or even sentient. And regarding the practices of scientists themselves, the long-held and increasingly dangerous assumption that scientists are above such subjectivities seems to hold.

But I know better because I visited this book from the future where everyone knows what Geoff Marcy did. For the determined feminist killjoy, there’s always a way in.

While the work of astrobiology may look less science fictional than its disciplinary predecessors, its aims are as lofty as ever. Its central questions overlap significantly with the foundational questions of all sciences: What is life and how can we recognize it on other worlds? Are we alone in the universe? Why is there something rather than nothing? This gives astrobiology incredible institutional clout, as well as making it extraordinarily attractive to the public. Astrobiology’s most famous practitioners are illuminated by the blinding glow of its ambitious research program.

This blinding glow is part of the reason why Geoff Marcy’s ongoing sexual harassment went unreported for so many years. In addition to the license that always seems to accompany men’s fame and professional accomplishments, his victims were unwilling to report his crimes because his position in the field and as their mentors gave him incredible power over their careers. Marcy’s ability to harass his students and colleagues with impunity for decades was in part a consequence of the nearly incomprehensible significance of the discoveries that astrobiology promises.

We shouldn’t stop at the implosion of one horrible man’s career, however. The interconnections between researchers, scientific knowledge, and the structures of power that shape our world are deep, but they, like Marcy’s cameo in First Contact, leave little traces for us to follow. In an essay for the Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism, Stacy Alaimo, a literature scholar and eco-cultural theorist, lays out one of the central tenets of feminist science studies: “...to search for the prior or primary field of science studies as that which transcends gender is to reestablish the very hierarchies that feminist theory and cultural studies critique.” If we think of feminist science studies not as an extra disciplinary framework that we graft onto our investigation of astrobiology rather as a key to deciphering the patterns of power that already exist, we begin to see them everywhere.

Astrobiologists, having yet to find any extraterrestrial life to study, focus a great deal of effort on understanding “extremophile” species that live in harsh environments on earth. In some of Kaufman’s more lurid passages, he follows a team of extremophile researchers who are looking for microbes in the deepest parts of mine shafts, a place where life was always assumed to be impossible. Researchers utilized these modern mine shafts, which were conveniently pre-dug by the capitalist engines of resource extraction, to collect microbes to study. Kaufman writes, “maybe it was to redeem the dark history of those mines—flashpoints during the apartheid era and still controversial because of the pay and inevitably harsh conditions—that operators took a chance and allowed the scientists in.” The focus of the extremophile narrative is on the scientists and their observations and the labor and exploitative process that makes them possible are simply rendered as the setting for discovery. Any complicity the sciences might have in the dark history that Kaufman alludes to is quickly scattered again by the blinding significance of its potential findings.  

When astrobiologists do achieve their goal and begin to describe the other forms of life in the universe to us, we can expect to hear the echoes of those very social constructions that the critics of science studies insist are too small and petty to apply to such cosmic questions. We  can see right now the way that they affix themselves to the practices of astrobiology, almost without notice. Marcy and his ilk, those scientists who are at the top of highly influential fields, and whose misogyny and sexism are on full display, are only the most visible parts of the systems of gender and power on which all sciences are built. The sexual harassment scandals that have come to light in the past several years are symptoms, not the root cause, of the systems of power and domination that are baked into the practice of science.

This essay as part of Issue no. 36 was published in syndication with The New Inquiry