Detail of Sunrise III (1936-37), by Arthur Garfield Dove. (Yale University Art Gallery)

How does life originate? It’s a question for which science has no definitive answer.

When scientists study the origin of life on Earth, they typically approach the problem in one of two directions. They work backward through the fossil record, to the oldest geochemical signatures of life, or they work forward, hypothetically, to try to understand how life must have originated given the probable conditions of early Earth. To date, however, there is no way to access directly the specific way that life formed on Earth — or how it might have formed anywhere else. Scientists call the origin of life an event horizon: a boundary in time and space beyond which we can make no observations.

Recently, a number of SFI scientists have brought new research frames to bear on the origin of life puzzle. For SFI Professor Chris Kempes and SFI External Professor David Baum, evolution might help us understand life’s origins. The law that explains the origin of species, could also show us how life begins simply. For SFI External Professor Sara Walker, and SFI President David Krakauer, information theory provides a fertile frame for studying life’s origins. If we look beyond the biological world to the physical world, and to the way that information copies itself in physical systems more generally, we can begin to develop a stronger theory of life’s emergence that is rooted in first principles.

The work of these scientists, along with the research of SFI External Professor Eric Smith and physicist Jeremy England, is highlighted in a recent Aeon essay that tells the long story about how we have searched for the origin and principles of life since Darwin.

Read the article in Aeon (September 8, 2020)