What is Life? Ancient Answers to Modern Questions

Martin Devecka
UC Santa Cruz

The conference addresses problems and inconsistencies in modern definitions of life by appealing to explicit and implicit definitions of life offered in ancient texts. This problem is becoming increasingly urgent as astrobiologists come closer to being able to detect biosignatures or signs of life on extrasolar planets, since the forms of life that exist on these planets may not fit within definitions of life generated by biologists for studying life on Earth. We think that ancient answers to this definitional problem may suggest fruitful directions in which contemporary, operating definitions of life could be expanded. Participants include experts on a wide array of ancient cultures whose work addresses concepts of life from a range of theoretical perspectives; we pay particular attention to speakers whose work addresses gendered and racialized views of life in antiquity. We also engage modernist scholars whose work has critiqued contemporary definitions of life. Finally—and most essentially—the conference is coordinated with UCSC’s astrobiology initiative and includes several speakers from scientific fields who can address the role of definitions in the search for extraterrestrial life.