It’s crucial for educators to make complex subjects intelligible and interesting to nonspecialists. But there is a trade-off between the accuracy of information and the ease with which others can understand it. To find this balance, I’ve given myself an arbitrary 30-second limit to try to explain my work to others. Here are four attempts.
My topic is universal biology– or what we can expect would be the case for all biology everywhere. Many philosophers like JJC Smart have denied that biology could ever be interestingly universal in the way of physics or chemistry. There is an epistemic burden: the only life we know is here on Earth, so it’s hard to separate the features unique to Earth from the ones we expect to occur elsewhere as well. Nevertheless, many scientists and philosophers have proposed some candidate universal generalizations in biology. I’m interested in collecting these, understanding how they could be justified, and their underlying structure.
I am interested in the biological models and descriptions that don’t depend on any facts unique to our evolutionary heritage. Consider that all organisms on Earth share a genetic code. Francis Crick says our particular genetic code is a “frozen accident,” and so would likely not occur again if we rewound the tape of life. Nevertheless, John Maynard Smith argues that the fact that there is some genetic code is no accident. It is a universal expectation. I’m interested in the difference between these two kinds of claims and understanding what all claims of the second sort have in common.
For the Public
We think physics applies everywhere. Take Gravity: when I drop a pen, that’s evidence for gravity not just on Earth, but everywhere in the universe. Biology, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be like that. As far as we know, the only life that exists is on Earth. But even if that’s the case, there ought to be some facts of life that we would expect would be the case if there were life elsewhere or if we created new life here. I’m interested in what kinds of facts those would be.
For Skeptical People
One thing we don’t yet know is the nature of life. All of our cases are too related (literally) to count as independent evidence. Nevertheless, life on Earth must obey physical and metaphysical laws. And we at least think we can see the impact of these laws on the phenomena. So I want to understand biological null models. When studying creatures in new areas, its important to know whether what you are studying could have been otherwise or if it is the way it is because it couldn’t be any other way. Similarly, if we ever create or find new life, it would be a boon to know what we expect to not be violated and why.