2023-10-01 - 2024-09-30 | Research area: Philosophy of Biology
The theory of evolution has a tremendous explanatory power when it comes to understanding the biological world, yet its basic conceptual structure appears to be fairly simple. In this light, attempts to apply evolutionary theory outside the context of classical, organismal biology – to topics such as economics, epistemology, literary theory, and many others – are hardly surprising. Yet these attempts rely on an important assumption, namely that evolutionary theory is sufficiently ontologically and epistemically domain independent to be applied to domains other than biology. That is, it relies on the assumption that even though evolutionary theory is based entirely on biological phenomena (ontology), synthesizing fields such as population genetics, paleontology, geology, ecology, molecular biology, and the like (epistemology), this nevertheless does not restrict its application to other domains.
If we want to understand whether and how evolutionary theory can be applied outside biology, one strategy is to look at its application to an ontologically and epistemically closely neighboring domain. One such domain is the emergence and early development of life as studied within Origins of Life (OoL) and synthetic biology research. In both of these fields, complex molecular systems ranging from autocatalytic reaction networks to minimal protocells are routinely described in terms of evolution, selection, heredity, and others. This raises the question whether this use of language is merely metaphorical, or if it is indicative of the use of actual evolutionary concepts in explaining and understanding the early, chemical emergence and development of life on Earth. More generally, it raises the question what constitutes the lower limit of evolutionary theory in terms of the scale and complexity of living (or life-like) entities.
Thus, in this project, the following question takes center stage: How can evolutionary theory be applied to the pre-biological emergence and development of life? Answering this questions requires answering three further questions, namely: (i) What constitutes the proverbial hard core of contemporary evolutionary theory? (ii) How should we conceptualize the pre-biological emergence and development of early life? (iii) In what way, if at all, can contemporary evolutionary theory be applied to this development?
Due to its strongly interdisciplinary character, the relevance of this project is threefold. First, it allows us to get clearer on the nature of evolutionary theory at the early stages of life, as there must have been some point during the transition from prebiotic chemistry to cellular life at which evolutionary theory began to apply. Second, it allows us to understand how contemporary scientists working on early life use evolutionary language to describe their work – metaphorically or otherwise. Third, an analysis of the application of evolutionary theory to early life research potentially allows valuable crosspollination, where evolutionary theory is modified by insights from early life research and vice versa.