A Caltech Library Service

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

Mariscal, Carlos and Barahona, Ana and Aubert-Kato, Nathanael and Aydinoglu, Arsev Umur and Bartlett, Stuart and Cárdenas, María Luz and Chandru, Kuhan and Cleland, Carol and Cocanougher, Benjamin T. and Comfort, Nathaniel and Cornish-Bowden, Athel and Deacon, Terrence and Froese, Tom and Giovannelli, Donato and Hernlund, John and Hut, Piet and Kimura, Jun and Maurel, Marie-Christine and Merino, Nancy and Moreno, Alvaro and Nakagawa, Mayuko and Peretó, Juli and Virgo, Nathaniel and Witkowski, Olaf and Cleaves, H. James, II (2019) Hidden Concepts in the History and Philosophy of Origins-of-Life Studies: a Workshop Report. Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres, 49 (3). pp. 111-145. ISSN 0169-6149. doi:10.1007/s11084-019-09580-x.

Full text is not posted in this repository. Consult Related URLs below.

Use this Persistent URL to link to this item:


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.

Item Type:Article
Related URLs:
URLURL TypeDescription ReadCube access
Mariscal, Carlos0000-0001-6912-1319
Barahona, Ana0000-0001-7765-6444
Aubert-Kato, Nathanael0000-0002-9100-1855
Aydinoglu, Arsev Umur0000-0001-8857-6001
Bartlett, Stuart0000-0001-5680-476X
Nakagawa, Mayuko0000-0003-3611-8118
Additional Information:© 2019 Springer Nature B.V. First Online: 09 August 2019. 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).
Funding AgencyGrant Number
John Templeton FoundationUNSPECIFIED
Earth-Life Science Institute Origins Network (EON)UNSPECIFIED
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM)IA104717
Subject Keywords:Theories of life; LUCA; Multidisciplinary science; Prebiotic evolution; Self-organization; Artificial life; Epistemology
Issue or Number:3
Record Number:CaltechAUTHORS:20190809-130729115
Persistent URL:
Official Citation:Mariscal, C., Barahona, A., Aubert-Kato, N. et al. Orig Life Evol Biosph (2019) 49: 111.
Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:97722
Deposited By: Tony Diaz
Deposited On:09 Aug 2019 20:26
Last Modified:16 Nov 2021 17:33

Repository Staff Only: item control page