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Reversibility: Future of Life on Earth

What is the compelling question or challenge?

What mechanisms, motivators, and tipping points determine reversible versus irreversible changes - in organisms, behaviors, and systems - for the future of life on planet earth?

What do we know now about this Big Idea and what are the key research questions we need to address?

We have a promising foundation for paradigm shifting ways of approaching the transformational dynamics of the many kinds of systems shaping life on earth now and in the next several decades. We have increasingly nuanced understandings of human, animal, and environmental interactions and their impacts within and across ecosystems over time. A key aspect of these interactions is social, and collaborations between moral philosophy, economics, biological, and behavioral sciences have afforded us critical insights into what motivates organisms, including humans, to engage in seemingly altruistic, not just selfish behavior, with important implications for evolutionary theory and consequences for how we make predictions about phenomena as seemingly disparate as educational policy, market trends, and responses to epidemics and challenging environments. Similarly, epigenetic research that fosters collaborations between researchers in biology, chemistry, engineering, geoscience, and social science has altered the way we understand what is meant by environment as well as its role in shaping phenotypes: We are now examining the simultaneous impact of diet, toxic exposures, and even emotional experiences on the phenotypes of organisms as well as their offspring across generations. Interdisciplinary research is also transforming our understandings of other kinds of networks and their interactive effects on systems, whether in quantum physics, engineering, neuroscience, or behavioral sciences. Understanding patterns of interaction in driving or motivating change is at the core of science’s most enduring debates but as we consider the future of life on planet earth, we need to know with precision the thresholds and determining factors for reversible and irreversible changes. Key research questions include: What are the mechanisms for reversibility for different kinds of systems, whether disease processes and epigenetic changes or pending failure of systems whether they are biological, social, environmental, or artificial? What determines, and how do we measure, the tipping points for irreversibility?

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