Universal Biology: Assessing universality from a single example

In The Impact of Discovering Life Beyond Earth. Cambridge, UK: pp. 113-126 (2015)
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Is it possible to know anything about life we have not yet encountered? We know of only one example of life: our own. Given this, many scientists are inclined to doubt that any principles of Earth’s biology will generalize to other worlds in which life might exist. Let’s call this the “N = 1 problem.” By comparison, we expect the principles of geometry, mechanics, and chemistry would generalize. Interestingly, each of these has predictable consequences when applied to biology. The surface-to-volume property of geometry, for example, limits the size of unassisted cells in a given medium. This effect is real, precise, universal, and predictive. Furthermore, there are basic problems all life must solve if it is to persist, such as resistance to radiation, faithful inheritance, and energy regulation. If these universal problems have a limited set of possible solutions, some common outcomes must consistently emerge. In this chapter, I discuss the N = 1 problem, its implications, and my response (Mariscal 2014). I hold that our current knowledge of biology can justify believing certain generalizations as holding for life anywhere. Life on Earth may be our only 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. In my account, a candidate biological generalization is assessed by the assumptions it makes. A claim is accepted only if its justification includes principles of evolution, but no contingent facts of life on Earth.

Author Profiles

Carlos Mariscal de Gante
National Autonomous University of Mexico (PhD)
Carlos Mariscal
University of Nevada, Reno


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