Life is more than the sum of its constituent molecules. Living systems depend on a particular chemical organization, i.e., the ways in which their constituent molecules interact and cooperate with each other through catalyzed chemical reactions. Several abstract models of minimal life, based on this idea of chemical organization and also in the context of the origin of life, were developed independently in the 1960s and 1970s. These models include hypercycles, chemotons, autopoietic systems, (M,R)-systems, and autocatalytic sets. We briefly compare these various models, and then focus more specifically on the concept of autocatalytic sets and their mathematical formalization, RAF theory. We argue that autocatalytic sets are a necessary (although not sufficient) condition for life-like behavior. We then elaborate on the suggestion that simple inorganic molecules like metals and minerals may have been the earliest catalysts in the formation of prebiotic autocatalytic sets, and how RAF theory may also be applied to systems beyond chemistry, such as ecology, economics, and cognition.
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