22000 Definition of Life
Credits: 3 graduate credits in Biological Thought
Prerequisite: Admission to the graduate program in Biological Thought
This course, the first of three core courses in the program, is based on a reader edited by Simona Ginsburg and Sara Schwartz, and on selections from books that change from semester to semester.
The aim of the course is to outline the characteristics of life which differentiate them from nature in general. The difference between the meaning of life and the phenomenon of life is clarified at the outset of the course, which then proceeds to discuss the topic of definitions in general and the definition of life itself. The process of defining life invokes various metaphysical and epistemic views. What are the objects, the processes and the phenomena that "life" refers to? What are the common features of these, and the special characteristics, which differentiate the animate from the inanimate? The course discusses the definitions suggested by notable biologists and philosophers – from Aristotle to Maynard Smith – examines their ontological and epistemological dimensions, and tries to unravel their implicit suppositions. Finally, the most common definitions of life at present – those based on heredity and on metabolism – are presented and analyzed. The course examines whether the definition of life is essential and whether it is possible. The issues of artificial life and the origin of life are also touched upon.