The Origin of Life: What Is the Question?

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The question of the origin of life is a tenacious question that challenges many branches of science but is also extremely multifaceted. While prebiotic chemistry and micropaleontology reformulate the question as that of explaining the appearance of life on Earth in the deep past, systems chemistry and synthetic biology typically understand the question as that of demonstrating the synthesis of novel living matter from nonliving matter independently of historical constraints. The objective of this contribution is to disentangle the different readings of the origin-of-life question found in science. We identify three main dimensions along which the question can be differently constrained depending on context: historical adequacy, natural spontaneity, and similarity to life-as-we-know-it. We argue that the epistemic status of what needs to be explained—the explanandum—varies from approximately true when the origin-of-life question is the most constrained to entirely speculative when the constraints are the most relaxed. This difference in epistemic status triggers a shift in the nature of the origin-of-life question from an explanation-seeking question in the most constrained case to a fact-establishing question in the lesser-constrained ones. We furthermore explore how answers to some interpretations of the origin-of-life questions matter for other interpretations.

This content has been updated on 22 August 2022 at 10 h 53 min.