How can a chemical system act purposefully? Bridging between life and non-life

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25 Scopus citations


One of life's most striking characteristics is its purposeful (teleonomic) character, a character already evident at the simplest level of life - a bacterial cell. But how can a bacterial cell, effectively an aqueous solution of an assembly of biomolecules and molecular aggregates within a membrane (that is itself a macromolecular aggregate), act purposefully? In this review, we discuss this fundamental question by showing that the somewhat vague concept of purpose can be given precise physicochemical characterization, and can be shown to derive directly from the powerful kinetic character of the replication reaction. At the heart of our kinetic model is the idea that the stability that governs replicating systems is a dynamic kinetic stability, one that is distinctly different to the thermodynamic stability that dominates the inanimate world. Accordingly, living systems constitute a kinetic state of matter as opposed to the thermodynamic states that dominate the inanimate world. Thus, the model is able to unite animate and inanimate within a single conceptual framework, yet is able to account for life's unique characteristics, amongst them its purposeful character. As part of that unification, it is demonstrated that key Darwinian concepts are special examples of more general chemical concepts. Implications of the model with regard to the possible synthesis of living systems are discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)724-730
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Physical Organic Chemistry
Issue number7-8
StatePublished - 1 Jul 2008
Externally publishedYes


  • Emergence of life
  • Kinetic selection
  • Kinetic stability
  • Kinetic state of matter
  • Natural selection
  • Teleonomy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physical and Theoretical Chemistry
  • Organic Chemistry


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