To develop a comprehensive ‘cells-first' approach to the origin of life, we propose that protocells form spontaneously and that the fission and fusion of these protocells drives the dynamics of their evolution. The fitness criterion for this evolution is taken to be the the stability (conservation) of domains in the protocellular membrane as determined by non-covalent molecular associations between the amphiphiles of the membrane and a subset of the macromolecules in the protocell. In the presence of a source of free energy the macromolecular content of the protocell (co-)evolves as the result of (domain-dependent) membrane-catalysed polymerisation of the prebiotic constituents delivered to the protocell by fusion. The metabolism of the cell therefore (co-)evolves on a rugged fitness landscape. We indicate how domain evolution with the same fitness criterion can potentially give rise to coding. Membrane domains may therefore provide the link between protocells and the RNA/DNA-world.