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Cooperation and Interpretation at the Emergence of Life

Cooperation and Interpretation at the Emergence of Life

The Darwinian research program has been very successful over almost 150 years. But two of its core presumptions militate against pursuit of one of the John Templeton Foundation’s key areas: ‘the exploration of the evolution and fundamental nature of life, especially as they relate to meaning and purpose’. These Darwinian presumptions are: the centrality of competition, and the need to avoid teleological explanations.

This project works at the transition from non-life to life, to clarify key characteristics of life at its origin, and therefore its fundamental nature. We draw on published work, especially the theoretical work of Andrew Robinson and Christopher Southgate, and experiments from the lab of Niles Lehman, showing the importance a) of cooperation between RNA fragments in developing catalytic ability and correct folding, and b) of purposive responses to signs in the environment (interpretation) understood within a naturalised teleology, also demonstrated in single RNA molecules. Showing interpretation in proto-life implies that meaning-finding and purpose goes ‘all the way down’.

Through empirical research and computer modelling, the present project seeks to answer the question: can a cooperative system of RNA catalysts be constructed capable of two modes of action based on interpretation of the state of the environment? Using proven experimental systems, computer models and game theory, we will explore adaptive interactions between these two behaviours in evolutionarily ancient molecules.

The project aims to show that cooperation (rather than mere competition) and interpretation (which is inherently purposeful) may together have been intrinsic to the emergence of life.

Project researcher: Christopher Southgate
Project funded by: the Templeton Foundation