Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres

, Volume 36, Issue 5–6, pp 515–521 | Cite as

Definitely Life but not Definitively

  • Joan D. Oliver
  • Randall S. Perry


Although there have been attempts at a definition of life from many disciplines, none is accepted by all as definitive. Some people believe that it is impossible to define ‘life’ adequately at the moment. We agree with this point of view on linguistic grounds, examining the different types of definition, the contexts in which they are used and their relative usefulness as aids to arriving at a scientific definition of life. We look at some of the more recent definitions and analyse them in the light of our criteria for a good definition. We argue that since there are so many linguistic and philosophical difficulties with such a definition of life, what is needed is a series of working descriptions, which are suited to the audience and context in which they are used and useful for the intended purpose. We provide some ideas and examples of the forms these may take.


definition of life definitions living systems living entities working descriptions what is life origin of life life lexicology astrobiology science definitions 


  1. Benner SA, Hutter D (2002) Phosphates, DNA, and the search for nonterrean life: a second generation model for genetic molecules. Bioorganic Chem 30:62–80CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Borquez E, Cleaves J, Lazcano A, Miller SL (2005) An investigation of prebiotic purine synthesis from the hydrolysis of HCN polymers. Orig Life Evol Biosph 35(2):79–90PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bridgeman PW (1927) The logic of modern physics. Macmillan, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  4. Cleland CE, Chyba CF (2002) Defining ‘life.’ Orig Life Evol Biosph 32:387–393PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Furuuchi R, Imai E-I, Honda H, Hatori K, Matsuno K (2005) Evolving lipid vesicles in prebiotic hydrothermal environments. Orig Life Evol Biosph 35(4):333–343PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Hazen RM, Sholl DS (2003) Chiral selection on inorganic crystalline surfaces. Nature Materials 2:367–374PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Joyce GF (1994) Forward. In: Deamer DW, Fleischaker GR (eds) Origins of life: the central concepts. Jones & Bartlett, BostonGoogle Scholar
  8. Joyce GF (2004) Directed evolution of nucleic acid enzymes. AR Reviews in Advance 73:791–836Google Scholar
  9. Kolb VM, Colloton PA, Rapp KJ (2003) Reactions of urazole and its analogs with sugars and metals under prebiotic conditions. In: Hoover RB, Paepe RR (eds) Perspectives in Astrobiology, Proceedings from the NATO ASI on Astrobiology in Crete, 2002Google Scholar
  10. Korzniewski B (2001) Cybernetic formulation of the definition of life. J Theor Biol 209:275–286CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Kripke SA (1999) Naming and necessity. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  12. Lazcano A (1994) The transition from living to non-living. In: Bengton S, Bergström J, Vidal G, Knoll A (eds) Early life on Earth. Columbia University Press, New York, pp 60–69Google Scholar
  13. Luisi PL (1998) About various definitions of life. Orig Life Evol Biosph 28:613–622PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Mahner M, Bunge M (1997) Foundations in biophilosophy. Springer, Berlin Heidelberg New YorkGoogle Scholar
  15. Maturana HR, Varela FJ (1998) The tree of knowledge. Shambhala, BostonGoogle Scholar
  16. Palyi G, Zucchi C, Caglioti L (eds) (2002) Fundamentals of life. Elsevier, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  17. Perry RS, Kolb VM (2004a) From Darwin to Mars: desert varnish as a model for the preservation of complex (bio)chemical systems. In: Hoover RB, Rozanov A (eds) Instruments, methods, and missions for astrobiology VII, vol 5163. SPIE, Bellingham, pp 136–144Google Scholar
  18. Perry RS, Kolb VM (2004b) The importance of chemicals from the transition zone to chemical evolution. In: III European Workshop on Exo-Astrobiology. Mars: The Search for LifeGoogle Scholar
  19. Perry RS, Kolb VM (2004c) On the applicability of Darwinian principles to chemical evolution that led to life. International Journal of Astrobiology 3(1):45–53CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Popa R (2004) Between necessity and probability: searching for the definition and origin of life. Springer, Berlin Heidelberg New YorkGoogle Scholar
  21. Poundstone W (1984) The recursive universe: cosmic complexity and the limits of scientific knowledge. Contemporary, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  22. Rizzotti M (1996) Defining life – the central problem in theoretical biology. University of Padova Press, PadovaGoogle Scholar
  23. Schulze-Makuch D, Guan H, Irwin LN, Vega E (2002) Redefining life: an ecological, thermodynamic, and bioinformatic approach. In: Palyi G, Zucchi C, Caglioti L (eds) Fundamentals of life. Elsevier, New York, pp 169–179Google Scholar
  24. Szostak JW, Bartel DP, Luisi PL (2001) Synthesizing life. Nature 409:387–390PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Tolstoguzov V (2004) Why were polysaccharides necessary? Orig Life Evol Biosph 34(6):571–597PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, B.V. 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Planetary Science InstituteSeattleUSA
  2. 2.IARC, Department of Earth Science and EngineeringSouth Kensington Campus Imperial CollegeLondonUK

Personalised recommendations