Enactivism and the Origins of Life

from Nathaniel Virgo “While enactivism is increasingly influential in cognitive science, it has its roots in a theory of biology. Enactivism characterises living systems in terms of self-maintaining networks of processes, or perhaps equivalently, as homeostatic machines that have their own organisation as the essential variable that they maintain constant. A topic of intense current research focus is the origin of life, i.e. the question of what led to the emergence of living organisms around 3.8 billion years ago on Earth. I believe that the enactive perspective has a key role in answering this. To do so we must address the question of how a new autonomous agent can emerge where none existed before. Enactivism identifies certain properties of living systems as being their important defining characteristics. These include precariousness – the possibility of death – and what I term individuation, the ability of organisms to form themselves into distinct individuals in space. These phenomena may be observed in the non-living natural world, for example in the case of hurricanes or sand dunes. From these observations I will argue for a softer (but no less radical) approach to enactivism’s foundations, in which we proceed not from abstract definitions but from concrete observations, and in which life is seen not as special but as an extreme example of a class of phenomena that are common in the physical world. From this point of view, the origin of life is not a question of how the first autopoietic system arose, but of how physical systems can progress in complexity and precariousness to reach anything approaching the organisation of a living cell. I will briefly summarise some of my modelling work that attempts to address this.”

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