What is Life?


What is Life?

Wednesday 4 June 2014

What is life? was an EMBL Science and Society event organised by EMBL-EBI and held at the Cambridge Union Society on Wednesday, 4 June 2014. It was an evening of talks by expert speakers on philosophy, chemistry and astrobiology, and centred on a lively discussion about the nature of life.

The question 'What is life?' has long puzzled humankind. We all feel that we have an innate understanding of what makes a living entity. But the exact nature of life, the story of its origins, and its potential presence on other worlds remain enigmatic.

On the 70th anniversary of Nobel prize-winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger’s seminal book, ‘What is Life?’, we host this Science and Society evening, in which we hope to touch on key themes surrounding the nature of life. We will consider questions such as: What distinguishes life from inert matter? Where did life originally come from? Is life some form of essence - a vital force - or is it encoded information? Is life on Earth unique? Will we be able to eventually create life artificially - and if so, should we?


Chair: Katrina Costa

Time Title Speaker
18:15 - 18:20 Welcome  Halldor Stefansson
18:20 - 18:50 What is Life? A philosophical perspective  Samir Okasha
18:50 - 19:20  Why the origin of life had to be inorganic  Lee Cronin
19:20 - 19:50  Astrobiology: the search for life on other worlds  Lewis Dartnell
19:50 - 20:00  Break  
20:00 - 20:45 Questions and discussion  
20:45 - 21:15  Refreshments  


Samir Okasha

Samir Okasha: What is Life? A philosophical perspective

This talk focuses on the question of how to define life. The question has a long and interesting history, in both the life sciences and in philosophy. Samir Okasha will briefly survey this history before turning to the current status of the issue, focusing on the contrast between 'metabolism-centric' and 'reproduction-centric' definitions. Samir will suggest that the quest to find the 'essence' or the 'defining features' of life is not ultimately well-motivated, and that there is no particular reason to think it will be successful.


Samir Okasha is Professor of Philosophy of Science at the University of Bristol. He is the author of a number of books and over 80 articles on various aspects of the philosophy of science, with a particular emphasis on evolutionary biology. His book 'Evolution and the Levels of Selection' (OUP 2006) was awarded the 2009 Lakatos Prize for an outstanding contribution to the philosophy of science. He is currently the Director of a 5 year project entitled 'Darwinism and the Theory of Rational Choice', funded by and Advanced Investigator Award from the European Research Council.

Lee Cronin

Lee Cronin: Why the origin of life had to be inorganic

What is life? How did life start on planet earth 3.5 billion years ago, and which molecules/chemical systems led to biology? Is there any general theory of evolution that extends to all matter? In asking these questions, we are also trying to explore the development of inorganic systems capable of evolution - as a less complex, ‘emergent’ model of prebiotic evolution, which pre-dates the RNA/DNA world. This is because RNA/DNA is so complicated, that if life were to start with these building blocks it would be like randomly assembling a Jumbo-Jet plane from sand. Rather than depend on such an extremely unlikely event, we propose that a series of simpler (and random) ‘sand-castles’ could form. These would then allow more and more complicated parts to form, each built upon the former, until the RNA ‘Jumbo-Jets’ that we now find in biology are formed.


Lee Cronin is Regius Professor of Chemistry at the University of Glasgow. The focus of Lee’s work is to understand and control self-assembly and self-organisation of molecules, with the aim of creating molecular chemical systems. His research group is unique in bringing together experts in inorganic chemistry, chemical engineering, complex system modelling, evolutionary theory, robotics and Artificial Intelligence. He has won numerous awards, including the Royal Society of Edinburgh BP Hutton Prize for energy innovation in 2013, and in 2009 he was elected as Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Lewis Dartnell

Lewis Dartnell: Astrobiology: the search for life on other worlds

'Astrobiology' is a brand new field of science, encompassing research into the origins and limits of life on our own planet, and where life might exist beyond the Earth. But what actually is 'life' and how did it emerge on our own world? What are the most extreme conditions terrestrial life can tolerate? And where in the cosmos might we reasonably expect to find ET? Join Dr. Lewis Dartnell on a tour of the other planets and moons in our solar system which may harbour life, and even further afield to alien worlds we have discovered orbiting distant stars, to explore one of the greatest questions ever asked: are we alone...?


Dr Lewis Dartnell is a UK Space Agency research fellow based in the Space Research Centre at the University of Leicester. His field is astrobiology and the search for life beyond Earth; his research focuses on the planet Mars, and how long hardy microbial life, or signs of its past existence, might persist in the cosmic radiation of the martian surface. Lewis also holds an STFC Science in Society fellowship and speaks regularly at schools and science festivals, as well as freelance writing for newspapers and magazines. He has published three books, including ‘Life in the Universe: A Beginner’s Guide’.

The Cambridge Union Society
9A Bridge Street Cambridge CB2 1UB United Kingdom

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About the EMBL Science and Society Programme

What is life? is a Science and Society event organised by the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI). The event is part of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory’s Science and Society programme. This initiative was established in 1998 to promote the growing social and cultural relevance of the life sciences.