Dreaming of a Universal Biology: Synthetic Biology and the Origins of Life

Hyle: International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry 27:91-116 (2021)
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Synthetic biology aims to synthesize novel biological systems or redesign existing ones. The field has raised numerous philosophical questions, but most especially what is novel to this field. In this article I argue for a novel take, since the dominant ways to understand synthetic biology’s specificity each face problems. Inspired by the examination of the work of a number of chemists, I argue that synthetic biology differentiates itself by a new regime of articulation, i.e. a new way of articulating the questions and phenomena it wants to address. Instead of describing actual existing biological systems, the field aims to describe biological possibilities. In the second part I corroborate this hypothesis through a comparison between early research in the field of the origins of life and contemporary synthetic biologists, who are not so much interested in the historical origin of life on Earth, but rather in a universal biology of the possible origins of any life whatsoever.

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Massimiliano Simons
Maastricht University


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