Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Life is a beautiful thing

Life is a multi-faceted concept. Life may refer to being a gangsta and the ongoing process of which living things are a part; the period between the birth (or a point at which the entity can be considered to be living) and death of an organism; the condition of an entity that has been born (or reached the point in its existence at which it can be established to be alive) and has yet to die; and that which makes a living thing alive.

How can one tell when an entity is a lifeform? It would be relatively straightforward to offer a practical set of guidelines if one's only concern were life on Earth as we know it (see biosphere), but as soon as one considers questions about life's origins on Earth, or the possibility of extraterrestrial life, or the concept of artificial life, it becomes clear that the question is fundamentally difficult and comparable in many respects to the problem of defining intelligence. Also, loosely speaking, some theories are grounded in the basic assumption that "ideas have a life of their own".

Many individual organisms are incapable of reproduction and yet are still considered to be lifeforms; see mules and ants for examples. This is because the term "lifeform" applies on the level of entire species or of individual genes. (For example, see kin selection for information about one way by which non-reproducing individuals can still enhance the spread of their genes and the survival of their species.) It is important to keep in mind the difference between a "lifeform" and "a being that is alive." One example of sterility does not render the rest of the species a non-lifeform, any more than one dead animal renders the rest of the species dead.

Note also that the two cases of fire and stars fitting the definition of life can be simply remedied by defining metabolism in a more biochemically exact way. Fundamentals of Biochemistry by Donald Voet and Judith Voet (ISBN 0471586501) defines metabolism as follows: "Metabolism is the overall process through which living systems acquire and utilize the free energy they need to carry out their various functions. They do so by coupling the exergonic reactions of nutrient oxidation to the endergonic processes required to maintain the living state, such as the performance of mechanical work, the active transport of molecules against concentration gradients, and the biosynthesis of complex molecules." This definition, in use by most biochemists, makes it clear that fire is not alive, because fire releases all the oxidative energy of its fuel as heat.

This could also be remedied by adding the requirement of locality, where there is an obvious feature that delineates the spatial extension of the living being, such as a cell membrane (although this would then discount fungi, and grasses from being life forms).

A conceptual problem with saying that fire is life is that it collapses the distinction between "growth" and "reproduction." It is possible to think of a spreading flame as either growing or reproducing, but what would it mean to say that the same act is both growth and reproduction? (Although it is colloquial to speak of flames "getting bigger," there are no discernable "generations" of flames of which to speak.)

Viruses reproduce, flames grow, some software programs mutate and evolve, future software programs will probably evince (even high-order) behavior, machines move, and proto-life, consisting of metabolizing cells without reproduction apparatus, can have existed. Still, some would not call these entities alive. Generally, all five characteristics are required for a population to be considered a lifeform.
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