Using a high-throughput chemical screen, we identified two small molecules that enhance the survival of human embryonic stem cells (hESCs). By characterizing their mechanisms of action, we discovered an essential role of E-cadherin signaling for ESC survival. Specifically, we showed that the primary cause of hESC death following enzymatic dissociation comes from an irreparable disruption of E-cadherin signaling, which then leads to a fatal perturbation of integrin signaling. Furthermore, we found that stability of E-cadherin and the resulting survival of ESCs were controlled by specific growth factor signaling. Finally, we generated mESC-like hESCs by culturing them in mESC conditions. And these converted hESCs rely more on E-cadherin signaling and significantly less on integrin signaling. Our data suggest that differential usage of cell adhesion systems by ESCs to maintain self-renewal may explain their profound differences in terms of morphology, growth factor requirement, and sensitivity to enzymatic cell dissociation.