“…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved…” (Darwin, 1859)
But what about the time before the ‘so simple’ beginning? Is evolutionary thinking relevant there too? In this Review paper, Schoenmakers et al. explores whether evolutionary theory can be fruitfully extended to the origins of life. Did living systems become evolutionary after crossing some important threshold sometime after life originated, or were living systems evolutionary from the start?
While it is very likely that Darwinian evolution applies to the Last Universal Common Ancestor, it is still a mystery whether the same can be said of the prebiotic and protocellular phases. Drawing on philosophy and scientific findings, Schoenmakers et al. highlight the various ways in which evolutionary theory has applied at and before the origin of life and point to difficulties in such applications that call for further conceptual, theoretical, and empirical work.
The paper also delves into the realm of chemistry, particularly in relation to the role of catalysis in (proto)metabolism, and discusses the application of evolutionary language and concepts in current empirical research into the origins of life.