Published: Sept. 27, 2019
Carol Cleland's book, The Quest for a Universal Theory of Life, has been published by Cambridge University Press.  Cleland argues that not only does familiar Earth life represent a single example of life (the infamous 'N=1' problem of biology) but, even worse, there are compelling scientific reasons to suspect that it may be unrepresentative of life considered generally.  She also argues that much of contemporary biology is based upon a defective theoretical framework for biology dating back to Aristotle.  Among the issues that she discusses are differences between definitions and scientific theories, the function of theoretical ontologies in theory development, the self-defeating nature of a pluralist perspective on the prospects for universal biology, and the role of anomalies in scientific discovery. Cleland concludes that what is needed to develop a truly general theory of life is examples of life as we don't know it.  She explores four strategies for acquiring such examples:  (1) constructing novel (artificial) forms of life ("soft, hard, and wet"), (2) searching for extraterrestrial life, (3) hunting for a "shadow biosphere" right here on Earth, and (4) rethinking the antiquated (neo-Aristotelian) theoretical framework currently dominating biology in light of what we are learning about the microbial world.