, Volume 28, Issue 2, pp 189-204

Pluralism or unity in biology: could microbes hold the secret to life?

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Abstract

Pluralism is popular among philosophers of biology. This essay argues that negative judgments about universal biology, while understandable, are very premature. Familiar life on Earth represents a single example of life and, most importantly, there are empirical as well as theoretical reasons for suspecting that it may be unrepresentative. Scientifically compelling generalizations about the unity of life (or lack thereof) must await the discovery of forms of life descended from an alternative origin, the most promising candidate being the discovery of extraterrestrial life. Nonetheless, in the absence of additional examples of life, we are best off exploring the microbial world for promising explanatory concepts, principles, and mechanisms rather than prematurely giving up on universal biology. Unicellular microbes (especially prokaryotes) are by far the oldest, metabolically most diverse, and environmentally tolerant form of life on our planet. Yet somewhat ironically, much of our theorizing about life still implicitly privileges complex multicellular eukaryotes, which are now understood to be highly specialized, fragile latecomers to Earth. The problem with pursuing a pluralist approach to understanding life is that it is likely to blind us to the significance of just those entities and causal processes most likely to shed light on the underlying nature of life.