IAS-Research Talk by Mª José Ferreira: “Disentangling causation and information: informational parity at issue”


Date and Time: May 16, Tuesday, 11:00 a.m.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14.

Speaker: Mª José Ferreira, Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA) y Conicet

Disentangling causation and information (full text)


The notion of an informational parity between genes and non-genetic
factors appears in two ways in the literature. On the one hand, it is
claimed to follow from an information-theoretic approach to account
for the notion of information in biology. This consequence, as we
shall explain, is considered to be unacceptable for some authors
which, therefore, took a different approach in order to save the
informational exclusiveness of genes. On the other hand, informational
parity is one of the many versions of the causal parity thesis,
according to which genes and other developmental factors are causally
on a par. According to this view, causal parity is an actual feature
of living systems and the concept of information needs to be congruent
to this fact. We will argue that in both cases there is a deep
conflation between the concepts of information and causation (as
concepts undisputedly related) that has not been sufficiently
addressed, especially with respect to the quarrel over parity. Such a
conflation has a twofold origin: (i) a rough understanding of
causation and (ii) a misreading of information theory.

Seminar on “The history and theory of vitalism, from Descartes to Canguilhem” by Charles Wolfe (University of Ghent)

Date and Time: May 8, 11 & 12 (11:00 a.m.)

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14

Speaker: Charles T. Wolfe, Ghent, ctwolfe1@gmail.com

Title: The history and theory of vitalism, from Descartes to Canguilhem

Abstract: In this series of talks I try to reconstruct something like a vitalist conceptual tradition, present both in a subterranean form in the Scientific Revolution period, despite the fact that, as I suggest in the “Life” paper (text 1), there can be no ontology of Life in this period, and increasingly with the emergence of a science of biology in the late 18th century (and here I ask: what do we do with the growing obsession with ‘life science’ from the 1740s onwards, with people like Buffon and Diderot – Diderot who in his 1753 Pensées sur l’interprétation de la nature dismisses the mathematical sciences as somehow ‘done’ and asserts that ‘life science’ is a new revolutionary area (*)). In the late 19th century vitalism becomes something of a dogmatic concept, with people like Hans Driesch (**), but in the 20th century there is a new, less metaphysical form of theory of organism, sometimes with vitalist ambitions, culminating perhaps in the idiosyncratic theory of Georges Canguilhem, himself influenced by Kurt Goldstein (text 5 and see Ferrario and Bianco’s papers – on Goldstein and Canguilhem respectively, in Normandin and Wolfe eds., 2013, and Wolfe 2015). And in recent years it is possible to see a new kind of ‘organizational’ concept emerging in theoretical biology, eg in the work of Moreno and collaborators (***), discussed by the philosopher William Bechtel (text 6), which is light years removed from metaphysical vitalism, but is perhaps closer to what I have called the ‘functional vitalism’ of the 18th century Montpellier medical vitalists, with references to concepts such as the ‘animal economy’ (texts 2, 3, 4). I do not argue here that we need to be vitalists, or that mechanistic science (whatever that means) is bad, indeed there has been much good work on mechanistic explanations in recent years, sometimes with reference to biology (****). And perhaps we should reflect on ‘words’ themselves (text 7) and the problem of how vitalism has been treated and defined (texts 8, 9). But nevertheless, I believe a historico-philosophical investigation and evaluation of these episodes – are they are a tradition? a discontinuous tradition ? – helps us have a more diverse, less stubborn and dogmatic conception of the philosophy of biology and its orthodoxies and heterodoxies.

Texts discussed

(There will be a folder with readings available in dropbox)

1. Charles Wolfe, “Why was there no controversy over Life in the Scientific Revolution?”, in V. Boantza & M. Dascal, eds., Controversies in the Scientific Revolution (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2011), pp. 187-219

2. Jean-Joseph Ménuret de Chambaud, ‘Œconomie Animale (Médecine)’, Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des arts et des métiers, eds. Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond D’Alembert, 35 vols. (Paris: Briasson, David, Le Breton & Durand, 1751-1780; reprint, Stuttgart/Bad Cannstatt, 1966), vol. 9, 1765, 360-366.

3. Charles Wolfe and Motoichi Terada, “The animal economy as object and program in Montpellier vitalism,” Science in Context 21:4 (2008), 537-579

4. Charles Wolfe, “Models of organic organization in Montpellier vitalism,” Early Science and Medicine (2017)

5. Georges Canguilhem, “Aspects of vitalism.” In Canguilhem, Knowledge of Life, translated by Stefanos Geroulanos and Daniela Ginsburg (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 59-74. (First published 1952)

6. William Bechtel “Biological mechanisms: Organized to maintain autonomy.” In F. Boogerd et al., eds., Systems Biology: Philosophical Foundations (New York: Elsevier, 2007). PDF online : <http://mechanism.ucsd.edu/~bill/research/bechtel.biologicalmechanismsorganization.pdf>

7. Susan Oyama, “Biologists behaving badly: Vitalism and the language of language,” History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 32 (2010): 401-423.

8. Scott F. Gilbert and Sahotra Sarkar, “Embracing Complexity: Organicism for the 21st Century.” Developmental Dynamics 219 (2000): 1–9

9. Charles Wolfe, “Vitalism without Metaphysics?”, introduction to Vitalism Without Metaphysics? Medical Vitalism in the Enlightenment, special issue of Science in Context 21:4 (2008), 461-463

General background

Sebastian Normandin and Charles Wolfe, eds., Vitalism and the scientific image in post-Enlightenment life science, 1800-2010 (Dordrecht: Springer, 2013)

Additional (optional)

Roselyne Rey, Naissance et développement du vitalisme en France de la deuxième moitié du 18e siècle à la fin du Premier Empire (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2000) (originally a PhD dissertation in 3 volumes, University of Paris, 1987)

Kurt Goldstein, The Organism: a holistic approach to biology derived from pathological data in man (1934) (translation reprint, New York: Zone Books / MIT Press, 1995)

Moritz Schlick, “Philosophy of organic life.” In H. Feigl & M. Brodbeck, eds., Readings in the Philosophy of Science (New York: Appleton-Century Crofts, 1953), 523-536.

Pascal Nouvel, ed., Repenser le vitalisme – Histoire et philosophie du vitalisme (Paris: PUF, 2011)

Charles Wolfe, “Was Canguilhem a biochauvinist? Goldstein, Canguilhem and the project of ‘biophilosophy’,” in Darian Meacham, ed., Medicine and Society, New Continental Perspectives (Springer, Philosophy and Medicine Series, 2015), 197-212

(*) Diderot, Pensées sur l’interprétation de la nature, § IV, in Diderot, Œuvres complètes, DPV, IX, 30-31. See for discussion Charles Wolfe, “Epigenesis as Spinozism in Diderot’s biological project,” in Ohad Nachtomy and Justin E.H. Smith, eds., The Life Sciences in Early Modern Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 181-201.

(**) see the papers in F. Burwick & P. Douglass, eds.,The crisis in modernism. Bergson and the vitalist controversy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), including on Bakhtin’s critique of Driesch.

(***) see the many excellent papers by Moreno, Etxeberria, Ruiz-Mirazo et al., and also A. Moreno and M. Mossio, Biological Autonomy. A Philosophical and theoretical enquiry (Dordrecht: Springer, 2014).

(****) P.A. Braillard, C. Malaterre, Explanation in Biology (Dordrecht: Springer, 2015)

IAS-Research Talks by Charles Wolfe (Gent) and Fred Keijzer (Groningen)

Date and Time: May 9, Tuesday.

10:15 – 11:30: Charles Wolfe: The organism as hybrid: the organism without idealism.

11:30 – 11:45: Pause

11:45 – 13:00: Fred Keijzer: Why we may want a science of cognition that is not a science of mind

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14

Speaker 1: Charles T. Wolfe (Ghent)

Title: The organism as hybrid, the organism without idealism

Abstract: The organism is neither a discovery like the circulation of the blood or the glycogenic function of the liver, nor a particular biological theory like epigenesis or preformationism. It is rather a concept which plays a series of roles – sometimes overt, sometimes masked – throughout the history of biology, and frequently in very ‘valuative’ or normative ways, often shifting between realms or registers (Wolfe 2004, 2014), with all sorts of interesting semantic shifts (Cheung 2006). Indeed, it has often been presented as a key-concept in life science and the ‘theorization’ of Life (for instance, in the sense that biology is a science of organisms or is nothing; Grene and Depew 2004). In addition, perhaps because it is experientially closer to the ‘body’ than to the ‘molecule’, the organism is often the object of quasi-affective theoretical investments presenting it as essential, perhaps even as the pivot of a science or a particular approach to nature (from Hegel onwards, and explicitly with thinkers such as Kurt Goldstein, see Goldstein 1995, and, with more metaphysical investment, Hans Jonas; see Wolfe 2004, 2010 and many of the papers in Gambarotto & Illeterati, eds. 2014 as well as Huneman and Wolfe eds., 2010). Conversely, it has also been the target of some influential rejections, classically in Dawkins’ vision of the organism as just an instrument of transmission for the selfish gene (Dawkins 1976), with the ‘organismic’ or ‘holistic’ rejection of the latter view in Oyama et al.’s work (e.g. Oyama 2010). Here, instead of defending one or the other of these clearcut ontological positions (which runs the risk, when defending various versions of organicism, of giving ‘laundry lists’ of irreducibly organismic properties, condemned to be refuted or otherwise reduced: Di Paolo 2009), I reflect on the hybridity and ‘go-betweenness’ of the category of organism, from the standpoint of a mildly historicized form of ‘historical epistemology of the life sciences’.


Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Di Paolo, E. (2009). Extended Life. Topoi 28: 9-21.

Gambarotto, A., Illetterati, L., eds., (2014). The Notion of Organism: Historical and Conceptual Approaches. Special Issue of Verifiche, 48(1-3).

Goldstein, K. (1995). The Organism: a holistic approach to biology derived from pathological data in man. New York: American Book Company / New York: Zone Books. (A translation of Der Aufbau des Organismus, 1934)

Grene, M. and Depew, D. (2004). The Philosophy of Biology: An Episodic History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Huneman, P., Wolfe, C.T., eds. (2010). The Concept of Organism: Historical, Philosophical, Scientific Perspectives. Special issue of History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences (32:2-3).

Oyama, S. (2010). Biologists behaving badly: Vitalism and the language of language. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 32(2–3), special issue on The Concept of Organism: Historical, Philosophical, Scientific Perspectives, 401–423.

Wolfe, C.T. (2004). La catégorie d’‘organisme’ dans la philosophie de la biologie. Retour sur les dangers du réductionnisme. Multitudes 16, 27-40, online version at http://www.multitudes.net/La-categorie-d-organisme-dans-la/

Wolfe, C.T. (2010). Do organisms have an ontological status? History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 32(2-3), 195-232

Wolfe, C.T. (2014). The organism as ontological go-between. Hybridity, boundaries and degrees of reality in its conceptual history. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 48, 151-161

Speaker 2: Fred Keijzer is Associate Professor at the Department of Theoretical Philosophy, University of Groningen. His research focuses on issues within the philosophy of cognition and biology. Starting out from work on neural networks and embodied cognition his interest shifted to the many biological examples of intelligence such as they occur in bacteria, plants and other organisms. In this broader perspective, the animal condition stands out and his main research focus is on clarifying the connections as well as the differences. Main topics here are early nervous systems, the animal sensorimotor organization, and biologically embodied cognition.

Title: Why we may want a science of cognition that is not a science of mind

Abstract: How can cognition be interpreted in such a way that it takes in intelligent phenomena in a wide diversity of organisms, ranging from bacteria, protists, plants and fungi to animals? After its rise to prominence in cognitive science, the word cognition can now be seen as a general term to refer to the various mental processes that make us – humans – intelligent. However, the word cognition is less easily applied to intelligent phenomena in other organisms despite an increasing amount of research that would warrant such a description. One issue here is that the application of the word cognition remains elusive. Several closely related commitments are important: (a) cognition is closely linked to mind, a notion that is not self-evidently naturalistic; (b) like mind, cognition is by default tied to the human condition; and (c) the lack of empirical specificity is not considered highly relevant as cognitive phenomena can be recognized ‘on sight’. In this talk, these three commitments will be set aside and an alternative interpretation of cognition will be proposed. This proposal construes cognition explicitly as a technical cognitive science concept that can be dissociated from (a) the notion of mind; (b) from taking humans as its default target; and (c) from an intuitive demarcation. While mind and its characteristics remain in place, cognition comes to articulate a newly demarcated domain that consists of the many different ways by means of which all organisms interact with their environments to maintain and reproduce themselves; humans included. Cognition thus acquires a new and fundamentally different empirical meaning independent from mental concepts. The word cognition can be maintained nevertheless as it still refers to the processes that make humans intelligent. When this proposal is followed, cognition can become a more definite empirical domain that is both conceptually and empirically integrated with the other natural sciences, which does justice to the wide variety of intelligent phenomena that is now being uncovered among nonhumans, and which opens up a broad variety of new conceptual and empirical options in studying this diversity.

Talk by Davide Vecchi: “Challenging the consensus: intrinsicalism and the minimal genome”

Date and Time: April 24, Monday, 16:00 p.m.

Location: Facultad de Educación, Filosofía y Antropología. Aula Polivalente (tercer piso).

Speaker: Davide Vecchi (Centre for Philosophy of Sciences, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Faculty of Sciences, University of Lisbon, Portugal)

Title: Challenging the consensus: intrinsicalism and the minimal genome

Abstract: The consensus in philosophy of biology is based on the tenet that biological species are individuated only by relational properties (relationalism) and not by intrinsic ones (intrinsicalism). In this article I argue that the supporters of relationalism have not taken into account the possibility that minimal species genomes might exist. A minimal genome is a set of genetic properties that all and only the organisms belonging to a certain organismal lineage share. Hereby I critically analyse some prominent arguments that have been proposed to show intrinsicalism’s fallacy. I aim to show that the empirical evidence and the theoretical considerations in support for these arguments are weak. In particular, I show that gene conservation is a powerful evolutionary force able to preserve minimal genomes. I also consider in what sense the existence of a minimal genome would support intrinsicalism.

IAS-Research Talk by Davide Vecchi: “Biological individuality and the challenge posed by the ubiquity of multi-species partnerships”

Date and Time: April 25, Tuesday, 11:15 a.m.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14

Speaker: Davide Vecchi (Centre for Philosophy of Sciences, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Faculty of Sciences, University of Lisbon, Portugal. In collaboration with Isaac Hernández, Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès, Laboratoire ERRAPHIS, PhiSciVi, France)

Title: Biological individuality and the challenge posed by the ubiquity of multi-species partnerships

Abstract: There exist at least two traditions approaching the problem of biological individuality differently. On the one hand, an evolutionary tradition. From this perspective, organisms are only one among many kinds of biological individuals, and individuation is an evolutionary process. On the other hand, a physiological tradition. From this perspective, individuation is an ontogenetic process that can be viewed as an act of closure from an ever-changing environment. The problem of either view is that partnerships between organisms belonging to different species are ubiquitous in the biological world. The first tradition is forced either to downplay the frequency of partnerships, or their evolutionary significance. The second tradition is forced to relinquish the autonomy of the partners and admit their reproductive, metabolic, developmental and physiologically openness, ultimately characterising closure more prosaically as a tendency rather than as an essential categorical property of biological systems. We shall propose that the many examples of partnership where the metabolic, reproductive, physiological and developmental limits of the partner entities cannot be precisely drawn are an ideal test case to think about biological individuality in new terms.

IAS-Research Seminar by Ramiro Frick: “Comunicación biológica: hacia una perspectiva organizacional”

Date and Time: April 4, Tuesday, 11:00 a.m.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14

Speaker: Ramiro Frick (ramirofrick@gmail.com)

Title: Comunicación biológica: hacia una perspectiva organizacional


Ejemplos de comunicación biológica (CB) ocurren entre diferentes organismos multicelulares de las misma o diferentes especies, entre diferentes células de un mismo organismo multicelular, entre diferentes organismos unicelulares,  e incluso entre distintas partes de una misma célula. El estudio de la CB, por tanto, es un área de investigación altamente interdisciplinaria, donde convergen elementos teóricos, metodologías, énfasis e intereses muy diversos  (D’Ettorre & Hughes 2008). Esta situación, por un lado, puede ayudar a explicar el “caos semántico” y la escasa nitidez conceptual en el estudio de la CB (Maynar Smith & Harper 2003, Hurd & Enquist 2005), y por otro lado, plantea la necesidad de un análisis filosófico (Scott-Phillips 2008).

Respecto de cuestiones tales como ¿qué es la CB? ¿en virtud de qué un cierto proceso es un proceso de CB?, hasta el día de hoy no existe consenso ni suficiente claridad. No obstante, en la literatura científica y filosófica es posible distinguir dos grandes aproximaciones: aquellas que conceptualizan la comunicación en términos de transmisión de información (e.g. Seyfarth et al. 2010), y aquellas que rechazan una caracterización informacional en favor de una concepción de la comunicación basada en nociones como manipulación o influencia adaptativa (e.g. Dawkins and Krebs 1978; Rendall et al. 2009).

En esta presentación i) se examinaran críticamente las dos grandes aproximaciones a la CB, atendiendo al significado y rol explicativo que en estas aproximaciones desempeñan los conceptos de información e influencia, respectivamente; ii) se señalaran distintos tipos de problemas de estas aproximaciones, muchos de ellos derivados de confundir dimensiones últimas con dimensiones próximas del fenómeno de la comunicación, y en particular, de un compromiso con la noción etiológica de función; y iii) se mostrará cómo una aproximación organizacional a los fenómenos biológicos permite articular una concepción de la CB libre de estos problemas.


Dawkins, R., & Krebs, J. R. (1978). Animal signals: information or manipulation. Behavioural ecology: An evolutionary approach, 2, 282-309.

D’Ettorre, P., & Hughes, D. P. (2008). Sociobiology of communication, Oxford University Press.

Hurd, P. L., & Enquist, M. (2005). A strategic taxonomy of biological communication. Animal Behaviour, 70(5), 1155-1170.

Maynard-Smith, J., & Harper, D. (2003). Animal signals. Oxford University Press.

Rendall, D., Owren, M. J., & Ryan, M. J. (2009). What do animal signals mean?. Animal Behaviour, 78(2), 233-240.

Rendall et al (2009) “What do animal signals mean?” Animal Behaviour 78: 233-240.

Scott-Phillips, T. (2008). Defining biological communication. Journal of evolutionary biology, 21(2), 387-395.

Seyfarth, R. M., Cheney, D. L., Bergman, T., Fischer, J., Zuberbühler, K., & Hammerschmidt, K. (2010). The central importance of information in studies of animal communication. Animal Behaviour, 80(1), 3-8.

From organization of processes to organisms and other biological individuals

Seminar on Thursday, 2nd of February at 11:15am at the Carlos Santamaria (IAS room)

Argyris Arnellos (UPV/EHU): From organization of processes to organisms and other biological individuals


The emphasis on the collaborative dimension of the living world overlooks the importance of biological individuals (conceived as highly integrated and self-maintaining organizations) as the very conditions of possibility for the subsequent buildup of more complex collaborative networks in the course of evolution. Acknowledging the importance of collaboration in life, I briefly explain a process-based organizational ontology for biology, according to which I suggest that the essential features of unicellular organismality are captured by a self-maintaining organization of processes that is integrated on the basis of a special type of collaboration (realized through regulatory processes entailing an indispensible interdependence) between its constitutive and interactive aspects. I then use this ontology to describe different types of unicellular collaborations and to argue that it takes a certain type of collaboration among cells to yield a multicellular organism. The suggested organizational framework is used to critically assess and provide clearer and specific alternatives for several implications raised from the consideration of a mainly and ‘excessively’ collaborative view of life, and especially, issues related to the identification of biological individuals and their boundaries, the distinction between biological individuals and organisms, the organismal status of symbiotic multicellular systems, and the distinction between life and not life, avoiding the problems of pluralism but without however ignoring, neither underestimating nor undermining the central role of the concept of collaboration in understanding the biological realm.

IAS-Research Talk by Francesca Michelini: “Keywords in Philosophy of Nature and Autonomy in Biology. On Hegel and Plessner’s Theories of Living Beings”

Date and Time: November 8, Tuesday, 11:30 a.m.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14

Speaker: Francesca Michelini teaches philosophy at the University of Kassel (Germany). She is co-founder member of the project cluster “Integrative Biophilosophie“ and member of the research program “Animal – Human Being – Society“ of the Hessen State Ministry of Higher Education, Research and the Arts. Her main subject of research is the intersection between History of Philosophy and Philosophy of Biology, and she is author of many publications in the fields of Philosophical Anthropology, Philosophy of Nature and Classical German Philosophy. In the field of Philosophy of Biology she has coauthored the books “Frontiere della Biologia“ (2014, with Jonathan Davis, in Italian) and “Oganisms: The Explanation of Aliveness“  (2016, with Georg Toepfer, in German).

Title: Keywords in Philosophy of Nature and Autonomy in Biology. On Hegel and Plessner’s Theories of Living Beings


In their recent volume Autonomy in Biology, Alvaro Moreno and Matteo Mossio emphasize that biological autonomy has two equally important and closely connected dimensions: the “constitutive” one, which determines the identity of the living system, and which fundamentally derives from what they label “closure of constraints”; and the “interactive” one, also called “agency”, which „far from being a mere side effect of the constitutive dimension, deals with the inherent functional interactions that the organisms must maintain with the environment“ (Moreno and Mossio 2015, VIIII). Furthermore, in their assessment of the specific nature of the biological organization of living systems, they make reference especially to Kant’s legacy in the current debate.

Without neglecting Kant’s importance, in my talk I would like to focus on two historical positions in philosophy of nature, such as Hegel’s and Helmuth Plessner’s, that – I think better than Kant – may fruitfully contribute to the current debate on autonomy in biology, especially in regard to the “interactive” dimension of autonomy. Both philosophers arguably aimed, in different ways, to continue Kant’s enquiry on living organism, going however beyond Kant in some important respects, notably concerning the relationship between the organism and the environment, an aspect neglected by Kant himself. More precisely, my aim is to show the connection between two key categories they elaborated for the conceptualizing of what life is: Plessner’s “boundary” (Grenze/Begrenzung) and Hegel’s idea of “deficiency” (Mangel), or, to say it better, Hegel’s “activity of deficiency”. First of all, I will try to explain the meaning of these categories in their respective philosophies of nature, consequently showing to what extent the two categories are closely interrelated; I will then point to the most significant similarities between the two approaches, and finally I will briefly outline what their contribution to today’s debate on autonomy in biology can be.

First Bordeaux-San Sebastián Workshop on Philosophy of Biology

Date and time: October 20-21, 2016. Centro Carlos Santamaría (Aula A.4). Campus de Gipuzkoa – UPV/EHU, Donostia-San Sebastián

Speakers: Lynn Chiu (CNRS, Université de Bordeaux), Martha Susana Esparza Soria (UPV/EHU), Arantza Etxeberria (UPV/EHU), Sara Green (University of Copenhagen), Alvaro Moreno (UPV/EHU), Laura Nuño de la Rosa (UPV/EHU), Thomas Pradeu (CNRS, Université de Bordeaux), Marie-Elise Truchetet (University Hospital of Bordeaux)

Organizers: Leonardo Bich (CNRS, U. Bordeaux) Arantza Etxeberria (UPV/EHU)

Info: leonardo.bich@immuconcept.org

Flyer: Here

Program and abstracts: Here

IAS-Research Talk by Wim Hordijk: “Autocatalytic Sets: The Origin and Organization of Life”

Date and Time: October 11, Tuesday, 11:30 a.m.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14

Speaker: Wim Hordijk (KLI)

Title: Autocatalytic Sets: The Origin and Organization of Life


Life is a chemical reaction. Or, more precisely, life is a functionally closed and self-sustaining chemical reaction network. In other words, living systems produce their own components, insuch a way as to maintain and regulate the chemical reaction network that produced them.

During the 1970s, several researchers independently developed formal models of a minimal living system based on the above definition. However, most of these models do not explain how these systems could have emerged spontaneously from basic chemistry. They provide insights into the organization of life, but not necessarily its origin.

Now, a new mathematical framework, based on the original notion of autocatalytic sets, is able to shed more light on both of these aspects. Autocatalytic sets capture the functionally closed and self-sustaining properties of life in a formal way, and detailed studies have shown how such sets emerge spontaneously, and can then evolve further, in simple models of chemical reaction networks. Furthermore, this new framework has been applied directly and successfully to real chemical and biological networks. Thus, the autocatalytic sets framework provides a useful and formal tool for studying and understanding both the origin and
organization of life.

In this talk, I will give a non-technical overview of the background, concepts, and main results of the formal framework, and how it can perhaps be generalized beyond chemistry and the origin of life to entire living systems, ecological networks, and possibly even social systems like the economy.