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Friday, February 4, 2011

The Meaning of “Life”…

You’d think it’d be easy defining “life” - by that I mean the actual processes of living.

Think about it, as living beings, each of us is intimately acquainted with what it means to be alive and exhibits the traits or processes of living entities. 

The concept of life seems so obvious.

But if you think back to your freshman biology the differences between living and non-living entities were determined by the various life functions that were exhibited.

Here’s a short list of those most life functions in question:
  • Metabolism – living entities must intake or consume forms of energy (food) and convert them chemically;

  • Holism – an organism can’t be subdivided and still survive;

  • Mortality – all living systems are mortal, they will ultimately break down and decay;

  • Growth and reproduction – these are necessary characteristics for any individual or population to continue the process of life;

  • Inherent stability – this simply means the organism can maintain its structure within an environment that changes;

  • Active information – DNA or the instruction manual working with feedback loops for all life functions that occur within the being;

  • Flexible control – the ability for the various systems within the organism to regulate and adapt to allow the entity to flourish;

I bring this up because there is a wide disconnect among the scientific community as to what actually constitutes life.

Cases in point, astro-biologists are scouring the skies looking for planets, asteroids or moons that might have conditions (i.e. water, ice, etc…) that could sustain life in its most basic and simplest forms of single-celled existence. The thinking being, that if such alien life was confirmed then it would support the hypothesis that alien space spores may have seeded life on earth. 

Furthermore, a growing number of scientists support the idea that life on earth didn’t start in a post-Big Bang primordial soup that was sparked by lightning into being, but rather “life” somehow piggybacked onto the pre-historic reproducing properties of microscopic clay crystallites – which are able to spontaneously grow, evolve and self select – thus enabling a reproductive vehicle that facilitated trial and error.

Lastly, other scientists are working night and day to replicate organic life in laboratories using amino acids as well as virtual life via super-computer labs using software and computer code.  These herculean efforts are all pushing toward an ultimate goal of finding even the most basic and rudimentary forms of life.

To help expand the inclusive definition of “life” some scientists, in extreme cases, have argued that a candle flame exhibits certain life functions such as a basic type of metabolism in that a flame consumes and converts energy; it preserves its form; it can grow as well as die – such arguments absurdly lower that scientific bar as to what defines life.

However, rest assured that if such a simple, single-celled life form is discovered or found in the lab – it will be celebrated as a milestone in the ultimate mystery as to how life began on this earth without the need of divine intervention.

What’s interesting is that all of this energy and focus trying to discover the most basic forms of alien life or un-evolved protozoa of antiquity are woefully inconsistent with the legal and scientific definition of life as we currently know it in society.

It’s hard to ignore the hypocrisy of science – as it awaits the celebration of the “birth” of a single, extraterrestrial bacterium because currently any gestationally-viable, second-trimester infant is still not classified as human but rather as “human tissue” – even though those infants manifest all of the requisite, aforementioned life functions.

All I’m saying is let’s equitably apply the label of “life” where its most appropriate, because I truly believe where there is life there is hope – and I would rather light a candle rather than curse the darkness.

However – in light of this discussion – lighting a candle might actually spark the debate as to whether or not extinguishing the candle would be considered murder.  

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