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Life

 

Is life a central fact of this universe, woven inseparably into the properties of its materials? Or is biology a quirky, emergent oddity, highly contingent upon local conditions of no broader significance to a vast cosmos? Could other perspectives advance science beyond this dichotomy?

Here we ask thinkers from any STEM discipline, or from disciplines which study the history and process of science, to propose projects for exploring such questions. Three specific areas of inquiry are highlighted: first, a call to integrate our understanding of life into continuity with the non-living universe; second a call to balance a sense of life’s complexity with a clearer view of its simplicity and, third,  a direct call to reconcile differing views of our universe’s tendency to produce life;

Potential Questions

  • What ideas could usefully “undefine life” by integrating its emergence and persistence with the emergence and persistence of the non-living universe?
    Context: All efforts to define life, by necessity, assume a difference between biology and the non-living universe. Certainly it is easy to assume that life is qualitatively different from non-life. We inherit a strong tradition of a self-evident distinction: even the word “abiogenesis” implies the start of something new, a significant change or transition between two different states. But a host of phenomena have been suggested to exhibit at least some“life-like” properties. Viruses are a timely case in point. The broader category of such phenomena, which range from cities, languages and societies to fire, crystals and hurricanes, collectively imply the existence of a gray area between life and lifeless states. Moreover clear reasons exist to perceive continuity between life and non-life – both evolutionarily (i.e. abiogenesis) and within the lifetime of a single organism (in terms of physiology, ecology and so on) For example, one influential definition of life as “a self-sustaining system capable of Darwinian evolution” identifies two specific criteria that become murky under scrutiny. No organism is self-sustaining in the absence of a specific, external environment and phenomena other than biological organisms can evolve by processes similar to natural selection. Together, these observations suggest that presupposing a sharp discontinuity between life and non-life may foreclose productive thinking that rejects such a presupposition.
  • How might life be considered a simplification of the non-living universe rather than something more complex?
    Context: it is easy to assume that life is more complex than non-life, and western scientific culture has inherited more than 2000 years of subtle confirmation bias. The words animate/inanimate, for example, translate literally that life is matter with the addition of a soul. Even the words “lifeless” and “abiotic” imply that non-living things lack something. More pragmatically, considerable bodies of theory have been developed to measure and explain life’s complexity. But some straightforward observations question whether this is the only objective perspective. For example, life as we know it uses just six chemical elements (CHNOPS) to build all key macromolecules (proteins, lipids, nucleic acids and carbohydrates). These macromolecules certainly coordinate a dozen or so further chemical elements, in trace amounts, to catalyze chemical reactions in specific patterns. The entire chemical repertoire amounts to a fraction of the periodic table, and suggests that biological evolution has acted to reduce the “messy chemistry” of the non-living universe into metabolism. On another front, specific examples of comparative morphology (from vertebrate skulls to ammonite shells) and genetics (from HOX gene counts to overall genome size) illustrate clear examples of evolutionary elimination (simplification). More generally, a foundation of neo-Darwinian evolution is that natural selection forms genetic instructions by filtering an indefinitely complex environment into the few, key elements which most influence a population’s reproductive success.
    What developments of theory could unite such observations into a coherent account of life’s simplicity with which to balance descriptions of life’s complexity?
  • What ideas could help resolve differing views regarding the tendency of our universe to produce life? Projects may focus upon our planet, our star system, our galaxy or the cosmos as a whole but are discouraged from extending to a multiverse and the different topic of fine tuning.
    Context: For decades, different scientists have asserted with equal confidence that life is a highly unlikely outcome of the physical universe, or an inevitable outcome or that the topic is refractive to objective calculation, and unsuitable for scientific discussion. Clearly different emphases on data and/or assumptions are at work and a well defined challenge of interdisciplinary scholarship is that different standards of evidence, different methods and different terminologies (including different meanings for the same language) cause different disciplines to talk past one another. A stronger claim is that we are navigating an under-developed framework of theory with which to weigh and compare alternatives. How can we move beyond a debate in which different assumptions or choice of mode of calculation leads directly to radically different conclusions?

Instructions

Compelling responses to this research track will prioritize clear, bold and actionable projects. Some potential respondents may believe that their previous work has already addressed one or more of the overlapping questions posed above. Such individuals are encouraged to apply, providing they address why such answers have yet to gain broader traction within the relevant professional communities and provided that they propose what could be done to increase such traction. Successful outcomes will not only fuel increased insight but garner sufficient attention to change the status quo of thinking on these frontiers.

Submission Form

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