Initiative questions foundations of life

21 October 2016
Emily Parke

Philosopher Dr Emily Parke is a member of the Foundational Questions Initiative, which recently received funding from the Vice-Chancellor’s Strategic Development Fund.

The cross-disciplinary initiative plans to ask big questions about the origins of life in the universe. These foundational questions bridge science and philosophy.

The initiative is directed by Professor Kathleen Campbell from the School of Environment, and she is joined by Emily, Professor Richard Easther from the Department of Physics, and Dr Daniel Hikuroa of Anthropology on the executive group.

It also brings together researchers from Biological Science, Business, Computer Science and Engineering Science.

Emily explains that they plan to use the funding to start a research centre, and to engage in regular brown bag lunches, meetings and seminars in order to dig down to the conceptual and ethical foundations of life. They hope to encourage and facilitate researchers who want to tackle these big problems.

“These questions are easy to ask, but hard to answer. We will work together towards the difficult answers to these questions.”

Emily specialises in the philosophy of science and biology, and says that she was pleasantly surprised by how keen the scientists were to have a philosopher involved.

This year she has been co-teaching a postgraduate course in the School of Biological Sciences alongside Dr James Russell, and says that it has been a lot of fun.

“It’s already a very philosophically based course, and gives students a taste of the philosophy of biology.”

Between her undergraduate study and her doctorate, Emily worked for five years on the Programmable Artificial Cell Evolution (PACE) project in Venice, an EU-funded programme that aimed to recreate life from scratch.

“They haven’t created life yet, but they have all the pieces.”

She says that this raised all sorts of interesting questions; if it is possible for researchers to recreate the most basic forms of life, this can tell us a lot about the conditions under which life first appeared on Earth.

“There is a relationship between building something and understanding how it works. By building from scratch we can really deeply understand the origins of life and where it came from.”

These are among the questions that the Foundational Questions Initiative will be tackling.

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