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Sunday, 3 July 2016

No, but seriously: What is “Life”?

Attempts to define life in terms of humans thinking about defining life in terms of egotistical individuals, genes, species or whatnot have failed for what should be obvious reasons.
Life is a natural phenomenon no different to any other.

It can be regarded as an abstract concept referring to an energy exchange process rather than any given chemical, object, individual or concrete material arrangement.

The temptation to define life as such has been merely a bias of the definer, of our individual consciousness taking place in an individual body. While bodies may exhibit life, as they are alive, they are not as such life itself, as life itself does not operate in any significant way on a given object: not individuals, nor species, nor size scales, chemicals nor arrangements of matter. The failure of life at any of these levels (think individual death, species extinction or even mass extinctions) does not overall hinder the process of life through time, for as long as any single thread of life is unbroken e.g. a monophyletic tree.

Illusions of object dependency or the specifics of life expression are the result of a specific form of life i.e. humans, trying to define life which inevitably does pass through them. A life form looking upon itself and others unlike it, trying to define it all. Many biases emerge.

No object as such satisfies the shockingly simple prerequisites of the life process in abstraction, that is, survival at one level (genetic, individual, ecosystem or other) for reproduction at another (most often thought of at the individual level; reproduction at one level is merely survival at another, so the two concepts are subtly the same thing, for example reproduction of the individual is survival of the population, or reproduction of the cell is survival of the individual).

Evolution transcends these discrete objects. It has transcended even DNA, where any combination of RNA and intermediate molecules have shaped up the processes of heredity and the production of biologicals based on amino acids. The process of life simply does not adhere to a strict form that we have tried to impose on it, be it a set of base chemicals, protein products, anatomical setups or behavioural assumptions.

Regarding the simple prerequisites of the life process, energy transfer via persistence at one level for reproduction (whether for maintenance of the life process, or for expansion purposes which are dependent on the environment and hence not purely inherent to the life process in isolation) at another level:

These conditions may be ascribed to non-life processes in the current sense, for example products of humans, artificial intelligence, inorganic type items. In this case the definition ca be freely adapted. Either these are equally part of the life process, especially if they are energetic descendants of initial life forms like humans; or just treated based on the conclusion of the definer’s (humans’) inherent bias regarding what is to be acceptably taken under the simple and generic umbrella definition of the life process.

Essentially, “What is life?” passes through the human lens. The bulk of the answer separating life from non-life is therefore a reflection of human self-reflection, validation and perception. In reality, such steep distinction between the living and non-living does not exist. For, as per the start of the essay, life is a natural process fundamentally no different to any other in the universe.

Image credit: Scott Eaton,