Towards a Definition of Life: The Impossible Quest?
“Life” is an empirical concept whose various definitions and phenomenological characterizations depend on historical frameworks. Although analysis of existing literature suggests that attempts to define life will remain, at best, a work in progress, the history of biology shows that some efforts have been more fruitful than others. There is a major distinction between natural selection—which is clearly a defining trait of biology—and the changes that result from purely physical chemical evolution, which can be observed in nonbiological complex systems. Accordingly, it can be concluded that life cannot be understood without considering the presence of genetic material and Darwinian evolution. This shows the usefulness of the suggestion that life can be considered as a self-sustaining chemical system (i.e., one that turns environmental resources into its own building blocks) that is capable of undergoing natural selection.
KeywordsLife’s definition Autopoiesis Complexity Natural selection
Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.
- J.D. Bernal, The problem of stages in biopoiesis, in The Origin of Life on the Earth, ed. by Oparin et al. (Pergamon Press, London, 1959), p. 38 Google Scholar
- A. Brown, J.D. Bernal: the Sage of Science (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005) Google Scholar
- C.E. Cleland, C.F. Chyba, Defining “life”. Orig. Life Evol. Biosphere 35, 333–343 (2002) Google Scholar
- T. Fenchel, Origin and Early Evolution of Life (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002) Google Scholar
- E. Fox Keller, Making Sense of Life: Explaining Biological Development with Models, Metaphors, and Machines (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2002) Google Scholar
- I. Fry, The Emergence of Life on Earth (Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 2002) Google Scholar
- S.J. Gould, “What is life?” as a problem in history, in What is Life? The Next Fifty Years, ed. by M.P. Murphy, L.A.J. O’Neill (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995), pp. 25–39 Google Scholar
- G.F. Joyce, Foreword, in The Origin of Life: The Central Concepts, ed. by D.W. Deamer, G. Fleischaker (Jones and Bartlett, Boston, 1994) Google Scholar
- S.A. Kauffman, The Origins of Order: Self Organization and Selection in Evolution (Oxford University Press, New York, 1993) Google Scholar
- A. Lazcano, Aleksandr I. Oparin, the man and his theory, in Frontiers in Physicochemical Biology and Biochemical Evolution, ed. by B.F. Poglazov, B.I. Kurganov, M.S. Kritsky et al. (Bach Institute of Biochemistry and ANKO, Moscow, 1995), pp. 49–56 Google Scholar
- A. Lazcano, Prebiotic evolution and the origin of life: is a system-level understanding feasible? in Systems Biology. Volume I: Genomics, ed. by I. Rigoutsos, G. Stephanopoulos (Oxford University Press, New York, 2007), pp. 57–78 Google Scholar
- P.L. Luisi, A. Lazcano, F.J. Varela, What is life? Defining life and the transition to life, in Defining Life: The Central Problem in Theoretical Biology, ed. by M. Rizzoti (University of Padova, Italy, 1996), pp. 149–165 Google Scholar
- L. Margulis, D. Sagan, What is Life? (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1995) Google Scholar
- H.R. Maturana, F.J. Varela, Autopoiesis and Cognition – The Realization of the Living (Reidel, Boston, 1981) Google Scholar
- G. Pályi, C. Zucchi, L. Caglioti (eds.), Fundamentals of Life (Elsevier, Paris, 2002) Google Scholar
- M. Rizzoti (ed.), Defining Life: The Central Problem in Theoretical Biology (University of Padova, Italy, 1996) Google Scholar