Re: [asa] Origins of Life

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Thu Jun 04 2009 - 21:35:27 EDT


Jonas was a noted German-Jewish-American scholar of antiquity (wrote a
classic book on Gnosticism) and also a philosopher who had studied with
Heidegger -- though he was not a Heideggerian. In the last few decades of
his life he wrote extensively on the history and philosophy of science,
ethical issues connected with science and technology, and the phenomenology
of life. Summarizing his views on the nature of life would be like trying
to summarize the views of Kant on the nature of knowledge. His writing is
meant to be wrestled with, not epitomized. I mentioned him only as an
example of someone who characterizes life phenomenologically -- based on its
observable features -- as opposed to offering a reductionist account of it
in terms of its alleged origins. The tendency of modern thought has been to
explain away, rather than to explain, life, mind, and soul, and Jonas is
happily not inclined to that mode of analysis. He writes for those who are
interested not just in the mechanics of life, but in thinking deeply about
the nature of life, about what makes life life, about the "what is" or
essence of life. Earlier writers in this tradition would be Henri Bergson
and Aristotle.

Though Jonas is informed about the basic facts of the life sciences, he does
not contribute, and does not try to contribute, anything to what is normally
thought of as "biology". Rather, he offers a philosophy of biology, a
philosophical analysis of the phenomenon of life. As someone who thinks
that "science" should include a philosophical reflection upon the subject of
study and not merely an efficient-cause dissection of it, I approve of
Jonas's project, even if I don't agree with everything he says. I would
recommend the reading of Jonas to thoughtful life scientists who are not
averse to the way philosophers approach things. But Jonas's implied
criticism of the epistemological shortcomings of Cartesian science may be
too much for some members of this list (I'm not referring to you personally,
George) to endure.

I actually did not mean that Jonas's characterization of life was "correct"
in the sense of absolutely true, since his phenomenology of life differs
from that of Bergson, Aristotle and others. What I meant was that one
could, in principle, come up with a correct answer to the question "what is
life", without necessarily being able to answer the question "where did life
come from". Thus, my criticism of the quotation in question in no way
depends on the success or failure of Jonas's philosophy. Rather, it depends
upon a more general criticism of the "historical" orientation of modern
philosophy, a criticism springing out of the tradition of Greek and Medieval


----- Original Message -----
From: <>
To: <>; "Cameron Wybrow" <>
Sent: Thursday, June 04, 2009 8:08 PM
Subject: Re: [asa] Origins of Life

Cameron -

For those not familiar with Jonas' _The Phenomenon of Life_, perhaps you
could tell us his supposedly correct characterization of life & distinction
between life & non-life. The it will be interesting to see how well these
hold up in the view of those here familiar with biology.


---- Cameron Wybrow <> wrote:
> I can't help but note the metaphysical assumptions made in the quoted
> passage.
> "I believe that any attempt to formulate an absolute definition of life,
> any definition that makes a sharp distinction between life and non-life,
> must represent a similar false dichotomy. Here's why I say that, I think
> it's obvious that the first living cell did not just appear fully formed,
> with all its chemical complexity and genetic machinery intact. Rather, I
> suspect that life must have arisen through a step-wise sequence of
> emergent events. I see life's origin as a process of increasing chemical
> complexity."
> The writer thinks that it is wrong to make "a sharp distinction between
> life and non-life", and gives, as a reason for this, the statement that
> "the first living cell did not just appear fully formed", a statement
> which he terms "obvious".
> Metaphysical assumption #1: That the question whether there is a sharp
> distinction between life and non-life -- what philosophers would call a
> metaphysical or ontological question -- can be settled by an appeal to the
> historical process by which life first arose. The assumption is then that
> in order to understand the essence of a thing -- in this case, the essence
> that separates life from non-life -- we must understand its origin or
> genesis. This is an assumption typical of modern thought, which is
> radically historical and tends to reduce all questions of essence to
> questions of origin. That it is not necessary for biology to understand
> the origin of life in order to correctly characterize life and distinguish
> it from non-life is shown by works such as Hans Jonas's *The Phenomenon of
> Life*.
> The writer also suspects that life "must have arisen" through a process of
> chemical evolution. But the "must have" is only justified if a designed
> origin of life is ruled out. Otherwise, it is possible that the first
> cell arose through a process of guided assembly.
> Metaphysical assumption #2: The origin of life can and should be
> explained without reference to design.
> Needless to say, "science", in the narrow sense of the word that ID's
> critics employ, cannot justify either of these metaphysical assumptions.
> And if they are false assumptions, then biologists who work under their
> influence will be led to false conclusions.
> Note that I am not arguing that chemical origin-of-life scenarios are
> false. I am merely pointing out that the above passage makes metaphysical
> assumptions in arguing for such scenarios. These should be honestly
> admitted, and not passed off as cool, dispassionate, "objective" science.
> It would be more intellectually scrupulous to say: "*If* we are to
> explain the origin of life without appeal to any notion of design or
> planning, and *if* we are to rule out the hypothesis of a freak sudden
> origin, *then* we must *assume* that it arose through a gradual increase
> in chemical complexity." Thus, "gradual increase in chemical complexity"
> would be seen for what it truly is, i.e., not a scientific hypothesis
> proper -- all proper scientific hypotheses can at least conceivably be
> disproved -- but an undemonstrated assumption which the origin-of-life
> scientists have taken as the basis for their research program.
> Cameron.
> ----- Original Message -----
> From: Randy Isaac
> To:
> Sent: Thursday, June 04, 2009 4:23 PM
> Subject: [asa] Origins of Life
> The frequent posts on the topic of the origin of life finally prompted
> me to listen to the Teaching Company course entitled Origins of Life,
> taught by Prof. Robert Hazen from George Mason U/Carnegie Institution of
> Washington. He's a geologist who has devoted his career to the study of
> the origins of life and wrote, among others, the book "Genesis: The
> Scientific Quest for Life's Origins"
> I've just listened to the first
> half dozen or so lectures but I'm already very impressed with his balanced
> and professional approach. Two concepts from his early lectures are
> noteworthy for this list, I think.
> First of all, in discussing the definition of life, he stresses the
> gradual, virtually seamless transition from non-life to life. He notes
> that once-sharp distincions between plants and animals or single-celled
> and multi-celled organisms have become blurred. He says "I believe that
> any attempt to formulate an absolute definition of life, any definition
> that makes a sharp distinction between life and non-life, must represent a
> similar false dichotomy. Here's why I say that, I think it's obvious that
> the first living cell did not just appear fully formed, with all its
> chemical complexity and genetic machinery intact. Rather, I suspect that
> life must have arisen through a step-wise sequence of emergent events. I
> see life's origin as a process of increasing chemical complexity. That
> process began with diverse processes of molecular synthesis in a variety
> of environments. Synthesis was followed by the selection, concentration,
> encapsulation, and organization of those molecules into diverse molecular
> structures. Next was the emergence of self-replicating molecules of
> increasing complexity and mutability. Then, self-replicating molecular
> systems evolved through the process of natural selection, driven by
> competition for limited raw materials. That sequential process provides
> the organizing theme for much of this lecture series."
> I mainly want to note the emphasis on the gradual rather than sudden
> transition. This is similar to the message Denis Lamoureux emphasizes in
> his book Evolutionary Creation when he repeatedly notes the gradual
> transition from non-human to human, embryo to human, etc. In his
> polysyllabic words, "...gradual polygenism vs punctiliar monogenism".
> The second aspect of note were the two lectures he devotes to two
> particular scientific announcements in the last dozen years or so. He
> articulates very well the essence of the scientific method, the role of
> subjectivity in science, and the importance of peer review. The first
> incident was the NASA announcement of the discovery of life on Mars.
> Published to great fanfare in Science in 1996, the analysis of the
> meteorite from Mars dubbed ALH84001, found in the Allan Hills region of
> Antarctica, NASA claimed to have discovered evidence of life on Mars. The
> relevant peer review in this case is not whether or not to publish in a
> noted journal, but the response of colleagues. One of the most vocal
> critics reviewing the findings was UCLA paleontologist William Schopf. In
> his book published in 1999, "Cradle of Life", he criticized the NASA team
> for inadequate analysis. Today that "discovery" is no longer credible.
> The other announcement was by Schopf himself back in 1993 when he
> claimed to have discovered the oldest fossil evidence for life on earth.
> He identified single cells in Apex Chert in Australia, dating to 3.465
> bya. Schopf was known to be a very scrupulous and careful scientist and
> his findings were widely accepted. Until another paleontologist, Martin
> Brasier, reexamined the fossils and challenged Schopf on every point of
> analysis in what Hazen describes a "dramatic high on April 9, 2002, at the
> second biennial NASA Astrobiology Science Conference." (Were any of you
> paleontologists at that meeting?) Today, the conflict is not definitively
> resolved but the two scientists have turned it into a constructive channel
> for vigorously searching for new fossils.
> These are quite dramatic examples of how science works. The intense
> desire to be the first to find evidence of life leads to dramatic
> announcements and tremendous hype while any extraordinary claim draws
> extraordinary close examination. I recall reading about the above
> announcements but, not being active in the field, I hadn't appreciated the
> way in which it had played out in the scientific community.
> Randy

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Received on Thu Jun 4 21:36:50 2009

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