Experimental biology, evolution, and artificially creating life around 1900: Research and reflections by Jacques Loeb

Ute Deichmann
Jacques Loeb Centre for the History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
Presented in the Embryo Physics Course, August 18, 2010


Dissatisfied with the descriptive and speculative methods of evolutionary biology of his time, the physiologist Jacques Loeb (1859–1924), best known for his “engineering” approach to biology, reflected on the possibilities of artificially creating life in the laboratory. With the objective of experimentally tackling one of the crucial questions of organic evolution, i.e., the origin of life from inanimate matter, he rejected claims made by contemporary scientists of having produced artificial life through osmotic growth processes in inorganic salt solutions. According to Loeb, the answer to the question of whether or not life could be created artificially had to come from macromolecular chemistry, in particular from the research on the recently discovered DNA. He was convinced that a prerequisite for making living matter from inanimate substances was the chemical synthesis of nuclear material capable of selfreplication. Moreover, Loeb, experimentally refuting some vitalistic explanations as well as colloidal chemists’ far-reaching claims that biologically relevant macromolecules follow colloidal rather than chemical laws, pioneered research on the physical and chemical explanations of biological phenomena.




Chemistry and the Engineering of Life Around 1900: Research and Reflections by Jacques Loeb, Biological Theory 4(4) 2009, 323-332.

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