What is life? A Historical Survey


Notions about life adopted within different cultural traditions reveal similarities. According to anthropologists, these similarities show that humans share a basic apprehension of the world, allowing them to tell the living from the nonliving. Some scholars consider this an outcome of evolutionary adaptation. The present article offers a survey of the views of life formulated over the past twenty‐four centuries that retain a bearing on the life sciences as they are practiced today. It will be argued that, at least since Charles Darwin and Louis Pasteur, notions about life and the uses of life in the social and economic sphere have been woven into a common fabric.

Key Concepts:

  • From Aristotle onward, answers to the question of what is life have displayed some recognisable, recurrent patterns.

  • At least since Darwin and Pasteur, the notions about life and the uses of life in the social and economic sphere have been woven into a common fabric.

  • During the twentieth century several circumstances favoured an intertwining between the research tools of the physicists and those of the biologists, often resulting in a gene‐centered view of life.

  • Over the past few decades emerging specialties such as evo‐devo and systems biology have harboured growing dissatisfaction with the gene‐centered view.

  • The achievements associated with the Human Genome Project at the turn of the century were technological as well as scientific.

  • Answers to the question ‘what is life?’ are increasingly coming from technologically oriented approaches to the life sciences, sustained by the expanding bioeconomy.

Keywords: Aristotle; Descartes; Kant; Darwin; Pasteur; Schrödinger; molecular biology; Human Genome Project; bioeconomy


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Pancaldi, Giuliano(Dec 2012) What is life? A Historical Survey. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0023957]