Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres

, Volume 49, Issue 3, pp 111–145 | Cite as

Hidden Concepts in the History and Philosophy of Origins-of-Life Studies: a Workshop Report

  • Carlos Mariscal
  • Ana Barahona
  • Nathanael Aubert-Kato
  • Arsev Umur Aydinoglu
  • Stuart Bartlett
  • María Luz Cárdenas
  • Kuhan Chandru
  • Carol Cleland
  • Benjamin T. Cocanougher
  • Nathaniel Comfort
  • Athel Cornish-Bowden
  • Terrence Deacon
  • Tom Froese
  • Donato Giovannelli
  • John Hernlund
  • Piet Hut
  • Jun Kimura
  • Marie-Christine Maurel
  • Nancy Merino
  • Alvaro Moreno
  • Mayuko Nakagawa
  • Juli Peretó
  • Nathaniel Virgo
  • Olaf Witkowski
  • H. James CleavesIIEmail author
History and Philosophy of Origin of Life Studies


In this review, we describe some of the central philosophical issues facing origins-of-life research and provide a targeted history of the developments that have led to the multidisciplinary field of origins-of-life studies. We outline these issues and developments to guide researchers and students from all fields. With respect to philosophy, we provide brief summaries of debates with respect to (1) definitions (or theories) of life, what life is and how research should be conducted in the absence of an accepted theory of life, (2) the distinctions between synthetic, historical, and universal projects in origins-of-life studies, issues with strategies for inferring the origins of life, such as (3) the nature of the first living entities (the “bottom up” approach) and (4) how to infer the nature of the last universal common ancestor (the “top down” approach), and (5) the status of origins of life as a science. Each of these debates influences the others. Although there are clusters of researchers that agree on some answers to these issues, each of these debates is still open. With respect to history, we outline several independent paths that have led to some of the approaches now prevalent in origins-of-life studies. These include one path from early views of life through the scientific revolutions brought about by Linnaeus (von Linn.), Wöhler, Miller, and others. In this approach, new theories, tools, and evidence guide new thoughts about the nature of life and its origin. We also describe another family of paths motivated by a” circularity” approach to life, which is guided by such thinkers as Maturana & Varela, Gánti, Rosen, and others. These views echo ideas developed by Kant and Aristotle, though they do so using modern science in ways that produce exciting avenues of investigation. By exploring the history of these ideas, we can see how many of the issues that currently interest us have been guided by the contexts in which the ideas were developed. The disciplinary backgrounds of each of these scholars has influenced the questions they sought to answer, the experiments they envisioned, and the kinds of data they collected. We conclude by encouraging scientists and scholars in the humanities and social sciences to explore ways in which they can interact to provide a deeper understanding of the conceptual assumptions, structure, and history of origins-of-life research. This may be useful to help frame future research agendas and bring awareness to the multifaceted issues facing this challenging scientific question.


Theories of life LUCA Multidisciplinary science Prebiotic evolution Self-organization Artificial life Epistemology 



The authors wish to thank the Earth-Life Science Institute Origins Network (EON) at the Tokyo Institute of Technology for hosting the meeting History and Philosophy of Origins Research Workshop that took place on August 2016 in Tokyo, Japan, which this publication is based. This project/publication was supported by the ELSI Origins Network (EON), which is supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation. T.F.’s work on this article was supported by an ELSI Origins Network (EON) Long-Term Visitor Award and by an UNAM-DGAPA-PAPIIT project (IA104717).


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Carlos Mariscal
    • 1
  • Ana Barahona
    • 2
  • Nathanael Aubert-Kato
    • 3
    • 4
  • Arsev Umur Aydinoglu
    • 5
    • 6
  • Stuart Bartlett
    • 3
    • 7
  • María Luz Cárdenas
    • 8
  • Kuhan Chandru
    • 3
    • 9
    • 10
  • Carol Cleland
    • 11
  • Benjamin T. Cocanougher
    • 12
    • 13
  • Nathaniel Comfort
    • 14
  • Athel Cornish-Bowden
    • 8
  • Terrence Deacon
    • 15
  • Tom Froese
    • 16
    • 17
  • Donato Giovannelli
    • 3
    • 18
    • 19
    • 20
    • 21
  • John Hernlund
    • 3
  • Piet Hut
    • 3
    • 18
  • Jun Kimura
    • 22
  • Marie-Christine Maurel
    • 23
  • Nancy Merino
    • 3
    • 24
  • Alvaro Moreno
    • 25
  • Mayuko Nakagawa
    • 3
  • Juli Peretó
    • 26
  • Nathaniel Virgo
    • 3
    • 27
    • 28
  • Olaf Witkowski
    • 3
    • 18
  • H. James CleavesII
    • 3
    • 5
    • 18
    • 28
    • 29
    Email author
  1. 1.Department of Philosophy, Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology (EECB) Program, and Integrative Neuroscience ProgramUniversity of Nevada, Reno (UNR)RenoUSA
  2. 2.Department of Evolutionary Biology, School of SciencesUNAMCDMXMexico
  3. 3.Earth-Life Science InstituteTokyo Institute of TechnologyTokyoJapan
  4. 4.Department of Information SciencesOchanomizu UniversityTokyoJapan
  5. 5.Blue Marble Space Institute of ScienceWashingtonUSA
  6. 6.Science and Technology Policies DepartmentMiddle East Technical University (METU)AnkaraTurkey
  7. 7.Division of Geological and Planetary SciencesCalifornia Institute of TechnologyPasadenaUSA
  8. 8.CNRS, BIP, IMMAix Marseille UniversityMarseilleFrance
  9. 9.Space Science Centre (ANGKASA), Institute of Climate Change, Level 3, Research ComplexNational University of MalaysiaUKM BangiMalaysia
  10. 10.Department of Physical ChemistryUniversity of Chemistry and TechnologyPragueCzech Republic
  11. 11.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of ColoradoBoulderUSA
  12. 12.Howard Hughes Medical Institute Janelia Research CampusAshburnUSA
  13. 13.Department of ZoologyUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK
  14. 14.Department of the History of MedicineJohns Hopkins UniversityBaltimoreUSA
  15. 15.Department of Anthropology & Helen Wills Neuroscience InstituteUniversity of CaliforniaBerkeleyUSA
  16. 16.Institute for Applied Mathematics and Systems Research (IIMAS)National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM)Mexico CityMexico
  17. 17.Centre for the Sciences of Complexity (C3)National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM)Mexico CityMexico
  18. 18.Institute for Advanced StudyPrincetonUSA
  19. 19.Department of Marine and Coastal ScienceRutgers UniversityNew BrunswickUSA
  20. 20.YHouseInc.New YorkUSA
  21. 21.Department of BiologyUniversity of Naples “Federico II”NaplesItaly
  22. 22.Department of Earth and Space ScienceOsaka UniversityOsakaJapan
  23. 23.UMR 7205-ISYEB, CNRS-MNHN-UPMCParisFrance
  24. 24.Department of Earth SciencesUniversity of Southern CaliforniaCaliforniaUSA
  25. 25.Department of Logic and Philosophy of Science, IAS-Research Centre for Life, Mind and SocietyUniversity of the Basque CountryDonostia-San SebastianSpain
  26. 26.Department of Biochemistry and Molecular BiologyUniversity of Valéncia and Institute for Integrative Systems Biology I2SysBio (University of Valéncia-CSIC)ValènciaSpain
  27. 27.Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in the SciencesLeipzigGermany
  28. 28.European Centre for Living TechnologyVeniceItaly
  29. 29.Center for Chemical EvolutionGeorgia Institute of TechnologyAtlantaUSA

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