Research

 

In August 2017, I organized a first-of-its-kind workshop on Universal Biology at ELSI in Tokyo, Japan. This was the group of hyper-multidisciplinary scholars who attended.

This page is about my current and future research. See a shorter version of my dissertation, teaching, or my cv elsewhere.

For detailed descriptions and links to my Papers, click here.

My recent experience as a philosopher in a microbiology lab has shown me the value of translating philosophy for scientists. I am now very interested in using philosophical distinctions to advance scientific discussions and developing a philosophy of science discourse focusing on new scientific frontiers. My work addresses deep philosophical questions with new empirical evidence with the aim of synthesizing and justifying scientific practice. For example, my recent paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B questions the assumption that life continues to increase in complexity over evolutionary time. Much of our evidence would also fit a view that life reached a high level of complexity early on and then ‘streamlined’ into microbes in some lineages while our own remained complex. The paper explores how parsimonious such views can be, given key constraints of life as we know it. Another of my papers, in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, explores issues in convergent evolution and provides criteria by which the repetition of biological forms and functions is good evidence for the universal nature of those features.

Much of my current work explores universal biology. This is a level for which a philosopher is particularly well suited, as it requires synthesis of many distinct areas of theoretical understanding. It is my hope that a scientifically informed and philosophically rigorous approach to universal biology can ask and answer questions that would be considered too risky for most biologists. To this end, I’ve been involved in numerous projects as the sole philosopher. I’ve served in this capacity a part of two grant proposals (on marine diversity and on the extremes of life) as well as in the Earth-Life Sciences Institute Origins Network (EON), a group that is trying to advance research on the origins of life. I have one major paper from that group is now published, another is working its way through the system, and the last project will be a special issue currently in preparation.

I am one of the only philosophers of astrobiology, especially with respect to issues in synthetic biology. Astrobiology is a discipline developed by NASA after a series of discoveries about life in the universe in the mid-1990s. Astrobiologists include biologists, planetary scientists, and chemists. Synthetic biology is a major area of research in astrobiology, as well as a promising area in its own right. Synthetic biology has only become practicable in recent decades and carries with it many remarkable opportunities for biological change and novelties. Because these areas are so new and so broad, there are many philosophical issues as yet unexplored. Furthermore, there is much reason to believe the near future will produce a wealth of philosophically rich topics. In only the past few months, scientists have discovered the existence of rivers of briny water on Mars, announced an expedition to Europa, and tested gene editing biotechnologies on human embryos.

Since most astrobiologists and synthetic biologists are not trained in philosophy, the subject promises plenty of opportunities to collaborate on new philosophical research projects. I’ve been involved in co-organizing an astrobiology graduate conference, participate regularly in an online journal club, and co-direct an online group focusing on astrobiological issues. I’ve also participated in workshops on synthetic biology’s role in astrobiology, the impact of discovering life beyond Earth, the origin of life, and the role new biotechnologies may have on life on Earth (see my CV for details). I am now working on organizing a workshop to develop new philosophical questions in these topics. It is my hope to leverage this into a guest edited journal issue as well as a book proposal for an academic book on the limits of biology. I am continuing to develop these connections as I work through the unexplored philosophical issues in astrobiology and synthetic biology, such as in what sense can synthetic life be alive?, what is an extremophile?, and how do Earth-based analogs justify claims about other planets and other life?

  • My research addresses the gap between conceptual innovation in philosophy of science and advances in astrobiology in order to develop a practicable notion of universal biology.
  • In my research, I map and develop under-researched philosophical issues in the new sciences of astrobiology, microbiology, and synthetic biology, specifically with respect to philosophical issues surrounding the origins of life, creating life, the extent and nature of life, and more.

Title: Universal Biology

Committee: Robert Brandon (co-chair), Alex Rosenberg (co-chair), Karen Neander, Dan McShea (in biology dept.), Tyler Curtain (at UNC), V. Louise Roth (in biology dept.)

Abstract: Our only example of life is the one we have on Earth– which shares a single ancestor and thus forms a single lineage. We know little of what life would look like if evolved from a different origin. Still, there are common pressures in the universe life must address if it is to persist, such as entropy, radiation, and populational capacity. The possible solutions to these problems will be constrained by universal factors, like geometry, mechanics, and chemistry. The surface-to-volume ratio property of geometry, for example, limits the size of unassisted cells in a given medium. This effect is universal, measurable, and specific. If universal problems in biology have a limited set of possible solutions, some common outcomes must consistently emerge.
In my dissertation, I developed and defended an account of universal biology, the study of non-vague, non- arbitrary, non-accidental, biological generalizations. In my account, a candidate biological generalization is assessed by the assumptions it makes. With a clear statement of the underlying justifications, we can assess the descriptive specificity and counterfactual support for each biological generalization, which may vary wildly. I focus on particular claims of these sorts, assess the conditions under which they might apply, and attempt to draw general conclusions for biology. I contend that using a stringent, causal analysis of this sort, we can have insight into the nature of life everywhere. Life on Earth may be our single example of life, but this is only a reason to be cautious in our approach to life in the universe, not a reason to give up altogether.


Chapter 1 – Can we Regard Biology as Universal?

I begin my dissertation with a discussion of skepticism about universal generalizations in biology. Most notably, J.J.C. Smart, who argued that biology was akin to engineering in scope. Smart alleged biology will not have laws and thus not be universal. He claims that all biological generalizations will be vague, arbitrary, or false. I show him to be wrong by example and provide an analysis as to how thinking in terms of physics and natural kinds is liable to lead us astray when it comes to biology.

Chapter 2 – A Review of Alternative Universal Biologies

In this chapter, I do a critical literature review of the various accounts of universal biology that have been proposed since Darwin. I find many of the accounts underdeveloped or improperly grounded. I then sketch what would be accomplished in an ideal account of universal biology.

Chapter 3 – Regarding Biology as a Universal Science

This chapter, a version of which is included as a writing sample, develops my positive proposal. I show what aspects of prior views I have retained, give guidelines as to what in biology can count as universal, show the payoffs of my account, and defend it from preliminary objections.

Chapter 4 –Life Eliminativism in a Universal Context

I follow my account with a novel way of understanding evolution in continuous (rather than binary) terms. This understanding of evolution has a payoff in effectively justifying the arena of cultural evolution, stellar evolution, and chemical evolution: areas that have been thought of as evolutionary but don’t actually fit the standard Darwinian model.

Chapter 5 – On Possible Biology with Non-Actual Physics

The prior two chapters have an interesting consequence of showing the principles of evolution to ultimately be justified by a form of probability calculus. In this chapter, I argue that evolutionary systems are not a proper subset of physics and therefore the universality of biology is not derivative of the universality of physics.

Chapter 6 – Spaces of Possibility for Evolutionary Biology

I end with an exploration of how broadly evolution could vary and an assessment of which claims in universal biology would be expected to deviate under probable, nomically possible, and conceptual changes in the initial setup. This truly lets us explore the universality of universal biology.

 

The new sciences and technologies I investigate are not just interesting from the perspective of philosophy of science. I’ve also become interested in other humanistic issues raised by this new research. Astrobiology and synthetic biology both raise questions about valueshould we commercialize outer space?, should we actively send signals into space?, and should we modify our biology? I’ve recently become fascinated with this last question as new gene-editing technologies have revolutionized what is possible in biology. I wrote a paper on that issue recently. I’m also a founding member of Social and Conceptual Issues in Astrobiology (SoCIA), and I will host our next conference in Reno in April.