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The nature of physical materials in relation to living systems has been interrogated aggressively for thousands of years. Aristotle provided an account of material complexity that attributed dispositional properties such as elasticity to flesh and bone, but thought that the distinctive arrangement and maintenance of these properties in biological functioning was derived from a teleological rather than compositional order. In the early modern period, there was vigorous debate about matter and life: is there anything distinctive about animate systems, any difference between inorganic compounds and living things (e.g., crystal “growth”)? Is matter completely passive, requiring animation from some vital agency, or does it have intrinsic powers such as sensibility or irritability? Recently, discussion of these issues has reappeared surrounding so-called “active matter,” which refers to materials that somehow behave differently from what is expected for “passive” matter. These material systems—some living, some not—“extract” energy from their surroundings and harness it for mechanical work. The statistical physics of non-equilibrium systems that contain self-driven components and self-organize into specific patterns or dynamical states reinvigorates discussions over whether material organization directly confers a capacity to act (agency, autonomy) or only potentiates reactions to circumstances.

Hans Jonas claimed that for contemporary science: “Death is the natural thing, life is the problem. From the physical sciences there spread over the conception of all existence an ontology whose model entity is pure matter, stripped of all features of life.” Our understanding of the distinctive contributions of material organization to life is lacking in many ways. Does the study of active matter or other materials suggest reducing properties distinctive of life to physics? Perhaps signature aspects of living systems, such as apparent purposiveness or goal-directed behavior, are ultimately oriented by material complexity not yet fully understood. Or do the properties of physical materials prime the possibilities for biological systems yet not fully account for what makes them animate or end-directed—agents with the capacity for the self-maintenance of order? What kinds or combinations of constraints (if any) need to be imposed on material structures for them to be genuinely animated? Can we probe the ambiguous relations between aspects of material complexity (e.g., active matter) and living organization through new concepts to secure novel empirical insights into these perennial questions?

Potential Questions

  • What kinds of organizational properties or causal powers in physical materials make possible the distinctiveness of living systems? Are these properties specially maintained by living systems? To what degree are they a consequence of the nature of matter itself? How are the organizational properties of physical materials co-opted by living systems in evolutionary processes? How do these properties shape the possibility space and trajectories of evolutionary outcomes?
  • Are the organizational properties of matter in living systems primarily localized or systemic? Are any systemic patterns or localization a direct consequence of the physical materials and their dynamics? Are there any causal powers of matter uniquely present in living systems? If so, is this because of unique physical circumstances found in living systems? Is there arbitrariness in how material organization is harnessed or employed to accomplish some goal-directed behavior or maintain a capacity for agency or autonomy?
  • Are there constraints on matter that make it possible for physical materials to serve as sources of potentiality in living systems? If so, how are they structured (e.g., hierarchical composition or concatenated in dependency relations)? Are they intrinsic to living systems or do they arise (at least sometimes) through interactions with environmental circumstances? How does this illuminate expectations for the origins of living systems? Would we expect “active matter” to play distinctive roles at particular evolutionary junctures in the history of life? What do we still not know that would make answering this type of question possible?
  • At what scales, if any, are the organizational properties of materials relevant to living systems predominant? Are there counterintuitive relationships between scale and the potentiality of matter contributed to living systems (e.g., is behavior at higher scales, such as in bulk materials for tissues, more germane than at smaller scales, such as nanoscale dynamics inside cells)?
  • Can unique or distinctive organizational properties or causal powers derived from physical materials be engineered into or experimentally manipulated effectively within living systems? What barriers or limitations are faced in attempting to move from theoretical models into controllable implementations of material complexity that account for or even recapitulate living phenomena, such as goal-directed behavior or purposiveness?


Compelling responses to this research track will prioritize clear, bold and actionable projects related to organization, physical materials, and the distinctive characteristics of living systems (e.g., self-maintenance). This excludes the simple reiteration of extant models from studies of active matter or other physical materials, as well as broad generalizations about the distinction between life and non-life. The aim is to identify and characterize novel conceptions of these ideas for new scientific research that directly addresses empirical relationships between material organization and goal-directed behavior in living systems. 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 both why such answers have yet to gain broader traction within the relevant scientific communities and how they propose to increase such traction. Successful outcomes will not only fuel increased insight, but garner sufficient attention to change the status quo of scientific thinking on these frontiers.

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