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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Examining life's origins : history and epistemic principles in the search for the origins of life

  • Author(s): Martin, Eric Collin
  • et al.

My dissertation provides a novel philosophical and historical analysis of origins of life research, a scientific field that poses significant conceptual challenges to evolutionary theory, standard experimental methodology, and theory integration across disciplines. The origin of life is sometimes considered "the most fundamental problem in biology." Despite its theoretical significance, the field of study is fraught with fundamental disagreements over theories, methods and approaches. The origin of life presents a boundary problem for central biological processes, including natural selection, which presupposes the existence of an enormously complex physical system of replication that must have been absent in the emergence of life. Without natural selection, other forces must have driven the origin of life, and I illustrate which alternative explanations are may be involved in explaining life's origin. Such explanations have sometimes been associated with critical receptions of standard neo-Darwinian theory, so far from being independent of evolutionary principles, they have been connected with evolutionary theory in complex ways. I further investigate the heuristics used to evaluate the new discoveries in the origin of life. One of the most important such heuristics is continuity : an insistence that transformations in the path to life display no saltatory transitions. I use case studies to show how the principle of continuity is not used consistently across research groups in origin of life research, and how its invocation depends on background assumptions about the likelihood of success of alternative research programs. I conclude that the principle of continuity has been, in practice, either unhelpful or even positively harmful to research into life's origins. The topic of the origin of life underwent a remarkable transformation in the 20th century, from a question disparaged as speculative metaphysics to a legitimate field of scientific inquiry. Central to this transition was the British polymath J.B.S. Haldane. Haldane brought the question of life's origin into mainstream scientific investigation with his 1929 hypothesis of life's emergence from the "hot dilute soup" of Earth's early environment. This theory arose in the context of a protracted debate on holism and mechanism. I show how that philosophical debate figured in Haldane's philosophy and science, and what intellectual and social forces were acting on Haldane's novel chemical-evolutionary proposal for life's genesis

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