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What Is Life? — Biology Through History

(The title of the course is What Is Life? but this wiki can't have question marks in its page titles.)

Ormond College, summer 2017—2018

Blurb — short version

Central question: How can we give a biological definition of life without including too much or too little?

Main topics:

ancient views, including the theory that living things must have a special essence ("vitalism"); the collapse of vitalism; the modern consensus on Darwinian evolution; astrobiology; the Fermi paradox; robots, simulated life, and other epiphenomena of life; ethical implications; conscious life; units of analysis for life.

Course structure: readings, daily seminar-style meetings, informal exercises, and one essay or project.

Blurb — long version

Definitions of life have always been problematic.

If you look up at a definition of life now, in a textbook or on Wikipedia, you'll see something that works very well for some purposes but is useless for others. Definitions vary, but they're always too broad or too narrow ... mostly too narrow, assuming very specific chemistry: cells surrounded by fatty membranes and energy metabolism based on adenosine triphosphate. (Excercise: check that I'm telling the truth by looking up a definition of life now.) We're going to try to find a definition that's not too broad or too narrow, and that will work in the future as well as the past (hint: astrobiology).

Main topics:

  • Ancient views, based on various religions and the obvious fact that only living things move of their own accord, and therefore living things must have a special essence: this theory is called vitalism.

  • The early 20th century: vitalism collapses, largely thanks to the delayed effects of (a) the invention of the microscope and (b) Darwinism.

  • Maybe life can be defined by something to do with Darwinian evolution, so we'll look at Darwinism in some detail.

  • Maybe there is nothing special about life!

  • BUT if there is nothing special about life, what are we looking for when we look for life elsewhere in the universe? Huh?

  • So, astrobiology. The Fermi paradox: why are we not receiving signals from aliens? (Possibly because advanced civilisations tend to very quickly blow themselves up?)

  • Robots, simulated life, and other epiphenomena of life.

  • Ethical implications of definitions of life. Conscious life. (We'll definitely look at these topics, but we won't have time to do them justice, sadly. They'd need a whole course each.)

  • What is the unit of analysis for life? Is it the individual or the biosphere or what? Are we sure what counts as a biological individual? Does a living system even have to have individuals?

Course structure: readings, daily seminar-style meetings, exercises like the above, and one essay or project. This intensive course will be full time, and you should plan to be available for seminars, and for meetings with other students, all day.

Coordinator: Jason Grossman, Australian National University