Biological Theory

, Volume 13, Issue 2, pp 121–130 | Cite as

Why We Should Care About Universal Biology

  • Carlos Mariscal
  • Leonore Fleming
Thematic Issue Article: Astrobiology


Our understanding of the universe has grown rapidly in recent decades. We’ve discovered evidence of water in nearby planets, discovered planets outside our solar system, mapped the genomes of thousands of organisms, and probed the very origins and limits of life. The scientific perspective of life-as-it-could-be has expanded in part by research in astrobiology, synthetic biology, and artificial life. In the face of such scientific developments, we argue there is an ever-growing need for universal biology, life-as-it-must-be, the multidisciplinary study of non-contingent aspects of life as guided by biological theory and constrained by the universe. We present three distinct but connected ways of universalizing biology—with respect to characterizing aspects of life everywhere, with respect to the explanatory scope of biological theory, and with respect to extending biological insights to the structure of nonbiological entities. For each of these, we sketch the theoretical goals and challenges, as well as give examples of current research that might be labeled universal biology.


Astrobiology Cosmological natural selection Definition of life Extended evolutionary synthesis Minimal genome Universal biology 



The authors would like to thank Kelly C. Smith and several anonymous reviewers for helpful comments and suggestions.


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Copyright information

© Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of NevadaRenoUSA
  2. 2.Department of PhilosophyUtica CollegeUticaUSA

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