International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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WEDNESDAY, JULY 8  /  11:00 - 12:30  /  DS-R515
Organized session / diverse format
Explaining a four billion year old phenomenon (2): Paradoxes and theories on the origins of life

Christophe Malaterre (Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada); Carol Cleland (University of Colorado Boulder, United States)


Elizabeth Griffith (University of Maryland, United States)
Steven Benner (Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, United States)
Carol Cleland (University of Colorado Boulder, United States)
Christophe Malaterre (Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada)

Life’s originated on Earth around four billion years ago. How do scientists go about explaining this ancient event for which no telling traces remain? Several contemporary theories currently coexist, some favouring metabolism-first approaches, others genes-first approaches. All aim at bridging the gap from non-living matter to living matter. In this session and round-table, three philosophers and two scientists investigate some of the key problems that arise in origins of life research: What considerations ground the distinction between metabolism-first and genes-first theories? Is the origin of life distinct from the origin of evolution? How does chemical evolution relate to biological evolution? What role does thermodynamics play in chemical evolution? How do scientists test hypotheses about the origins of life? And do they? After an introductory talk by Steven Benner and commentaries by Carol Cleland, Elizabeth Griffith and Christophe Malaterre, an open discussion will follow.

Paradoxes and theories on the origins of life
Steven Benner
The question: “How did life originate?” is phrased as a historical query. To answer it would require the recounting a sequence of events that occurred perhaps four billion years ago, and most likely in an isolated environment that occupied a geographically negligible portion of the geosphere. Accordingly, most scientists rephrase the question to ask: “How might life have originated?” Here, the origin of life is tied closely to the origin of Darwinian evolution, as neither theory nor experience has so far identified another way in which matter might self-organize to create systems that behave as we expect life to behave. The “RNA first” model has the virtue of providing a clear path connecting non-Darwinian precursors to Darwinian outcomes. Unfortunately, numerous efforts to reconstruct in the laboratory key intermediates along that path have failed. Those advocating a “metabolism first” model point to the ability of prebiotic Earth to generate small molecules. However, they have not provided, even conjecturally, any path from pre-Darwinism to Darwinism. This talk will concentrate on the research strategy problems that these facts create, in a field where “hypotheses” that might be followed are few and fragmentary.