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Philosophical Foundations of Astrobiology
Lead Supervisor: Tim Lewens, Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Co-supervisor: Oliver Shorttle, Institute of Astronomy/Department of Earth Sciences

Brief summary
This PhD project will broaden the basis of interaction between philosophy and the study of life in the Universe by taking a practice-focused approach, which pays closer attention to the conceptual dimensions of live questions within astrobiology and the biological sciences more generally. An example project that connects well with the expertise and teams of Lewens and Shorttle concerns the relationship between astrobiology and controversial calls for an ‘Extended Evolutionary Synthesis’ (EES). In this approach (e.g. Laland et al 2014) natural selection need not be the only agent of adaptive change.  Instead, EES foregrounds the importance of niche-construction in evolutionary change and stasis. This places emphasis on the planetary context as a driver of adaptive change, raising the prospect of essentially different factors influencing biological change across the galaxy.  By revisiting this underlying account of evolution, a new and more universal set of approaches to what life is may come into view.

Importance of the area of research concerned
Much philosophical work on astrobiology has been focused on two interlinked themes. These are the questions of (i) how ‘life’ should be defined in the context of the search for living things elsewhere in the Universe, and (ii) whether our engagement with organisms that have all (so far at least) been restricted to just one planet biases our understanding of life in problematic ways. These very general topics are important, but they need to be supplemented by closer attention to conceptual problems that arise in the course of astrobiological practice (see Cirkovic 2012). Candidates will be invited to propose a specific formulation of a practice-oriented philosophical project that suits their interests and their training. The expectation of this project is that by expanding beyond astrobiology’s classic conceptual repertoire, it will be possible to formulate valuable new hypotheses for subsequent testing in the field of life in the Universe (Lewens 2020).

What will the student do?
As a philosophical project, it is essential that a significant element of the conception of the project comes from the student (guided by the project supervisors). The first year will consist of producing a refined vision for the research questions to be asked,. This will be generated via a literature survey of existing philosophical work on astrobiology, coupled to close engagement with astrobiological practice (achieved through regular sessions with Shorttle’s group). Applicants will be asked to articulate a potential approach at the moment of application. The student will be expected to participate in relevant LCLU reading groups and other events, and also to attend the regular weekly meetings of Lewens’s research group (which currently includes two other PhD students working on astrobiology). The student will be expected to complete two articles by the end of the tenure of the studentship, with one placed in a leading philosophy of science journal, the other (co-authored) in a relevant science journal.

Cirkovic, M. (2012) The Astrobiological Landscape. Cambridge: CUP.
Kevin Laland, Tobias Uller, Marc Feldman, Kim Sterelny, Gerd B. Müller, Armin Moczek, Eva Jablonka, John Odling-Smee, Gregory A. Wray, Hopi E. Hoekstra, Douglas J. Futuyma, Richard E. Lenski, Trudy F. C. Mackay, Dolph Schluter and Joan E. Strassmann (2014) ‘Does Evolutionary Theory Need a Rethink?’ Nature 514: 161-164.
Lewens, T. (2020) ‘How can conceptual analysis contribute to scientific practice? The case of cultural evolution.’ in T. Uller and K. Kampourakis (eds.) Philosophy of Science for Biologists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: pp. 146-167.

Requirements as to the educational background of candidates that would be suitable for the project
The successful candidate should have a Masters-level qualification with distinction in philosophy of science, ideally with sub-specialisation in philosophy of biology. Some level of background training in areas of basic science linked to the study of life in the Universe would also be valuable. The overall area of research for the student is specified broadly in this proposal, and the more detailed EES project suggested above is merely indicative. Prospective candidates should submit their own specific proposal for practice-based work on the philosophical foundations of astrobiology, which will be assessed by the supervisors.

You can find out about applying for this project on the Leverhulme Centre for Life in the Universe widening participation PhD Studentships page.