|A PLAIN GUIDE TO
The pace of change in our expanding local worlds is increasing
rapidly. As it does, many are becoming more aware of the great varieties
of life on our planet. Television programs about nature have raised the
profile of the natural world, while economic globalisation is ensuring
greater contact between cultures. Pressures on the environment are posing
the possibility that our planet may be under threat. Suddenly life itself
is pushing to the forefront of our concerns.
The slogan "pro-life" has been seriously devalued
of late. It has been perverted to refer to a narrow band of human concern
- namely, the anti-abortion lobby. The pity of the devaluation is that the
phrase could be used to refer to Life with a capital L, arguably the most
important aspect of the universe we live in.
Until very recently the
word "life" has usually referred to a mysterious force which activates
otherwise dead matter. Aristotle, some 2 300 years ago, thought that life
generated itself spontaneously. His opinion prevailed until the middle of
the 19th century, before which it was thought that some mysterious "vital
principle" was behind the observed growth of bacteria in various scientific
Many theories were advanced about how life began on earth,
including that of Svante Arrhenius who in 1907 proposed that life had always
existed in spores floating in space, driven across the universe by solar
winds and eventually landing in earth's atmosphere. This theory mutates into
various forms from time-to-time even today.
Since then it has been shown,
conclusively in my opinion, that it's probably impossible to specify an
exact on-off line between life and non-life. The origin of life is almost
certainly the gradual build-up of complex chemicals which, at some unknown
point, display characteristics of what we usually call "life". That is, they
- replicate themselves;
- they swap energy with their surroundings;
and in the process they gradually increase levels of
Viruses pose a problem to this definition. This is because they are
fundamentally non-living chemicals which do reproduce - but only when in
contact with certain other chemicals, usually those within a biological
system. An influenza virus is not activated until it lodges in a living
being. Some complex chemicals display characteristics of life, but can't
easily be called alive in the usual sense of the word .
Eventually, over some 2.5 billion years, simple living entities
(single-cell amoeba and the like) on earth have increased the levels of
organisation and developed into human beings, the most complex form of
life we know. (This statement is less profound than it appears. The
chances of humans being able to recognise living systems significantly
more complex than themselves may be slight. Does a chimpanzee think you're
human, or just a strange type of chimp?)
There is a sense in which, given that it consists mostly of non-living
matter, the otherwise inanimate universe has, through human beings, begun
to "think" and be self-reflective. But it's worth noting at this point
that we don't know what comprises some ninety percent of the universe.
When we add up the mass of all known matter and compare it with other
measurements, about four-fifths of "everything" is missing. At present
this is called "dark energy" - which, as far as I can tell, really means
that nobody knows what it is.
The above starting point for the huge subject of life was chosen to
eliminate the likelihood that life can be created, ended or manipulated by
magic or by other ritualistic or mental powers. The bottom line is that
life is chemically-based. Even in the most sophisticated forms of living
organism, the disruption of certain simple but key chemical processes can
Before discussing the possible meaning and value of life, it's useful
to pay a short visit to a very new way of perceiving life - that of life
as a type of electro-chemical system. Some think that this way of
perceiving the universe is about to revolutionise human thought and
society. Be that as it may, a systems view of life is profound at one
level, and practically useful at another.
The possibility of describing reality in terms of systems was first
proposed in the early 1920s by biologists. But it had been foreshadowed by
Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, whose new ways of describing the planets
implied a complex solar system, even though they didn't think of it
exactly in that way. A living system can be described like this (covering
only the basic aspects) :
- A living system, like all other systems, consists of a number of
elements which combine and interact to produce an entity which is more
than merely the adding together of those elements (i.e. "more than the
sum of the parts"). So a human being is more than its arms and legs and
all its other parts.
- Like all other systems, living entities seek a state of equilibrium
("homeostasis"). That is, when they are disturbed or unbalanced they
attempt to restore the state which existed before the disturbance. Few,
if any, living systems ever achieve absolute homeostasis. Rather, they
constantly seek to approximate it as an ideal state.
- When a living entity is disturbed far enough from its ideal state,
the interactions between its parts may cease to be viable. That which
enables it's parts to interact can no longer function and the the entity
ceases to operate as a working system. We usually call this state
"death", and it implies the dissolution of the living being into its
basic constituent parts.
- Sustained homeostasis can spell the end of life because the
environment is always changing. That is, while individual systems seek
to maintain themselves in a state of equilibrium, constant adaptation by
an entire species to changes in the environment is critical.
Environmental change is a given constant. If environmental changes are
too great to adapt to, an entire species of living systems may
disappear. In short, all systems and especially living systems tend
towards greater complexity.
- All life exists through a process of negative-entropy. That is, it
survives by drawing energy from its environment and so increasing the
rate at which energy gradients in matter are constantly being evened
out. Negative entropy is, I would propose, the one aspect by which one
can differentiate life from non-life.
- All living (negatively-entropic) entities are therefore open to
their respective environments. They affect and are affected by their
surroundings. But not all open systems are alive. A rock satisfies this
criterion and (although some would consequently describe rocks as
"alive") is not usually thought of as living.
This brief excursion into systems theory has, I hope, served to
illustrate that radically new ways of understanding life are still
evolving in the mind of mankind. Neither Darwin's theory of natural
selection nor any other is likely, I would say, to bring this process to
If life as we know it is an entirely natural phenomenon, and it cannot
satisfactorily be explained by reference to some internal "spirit" or
"life force" or "soul" as Aristotle and other ancients thought, then the
question of its meaning and value becomes even more pressing than before.
The presence of an indestructible "inner person" is a type of dualism
(animism) which allows some to minimise the value of the material and
exalt the value of the so-called "spiritual".
But if humans are perceived as electro-chemical systems and no more,
it becomes easier to define them as therefore of no more value than any
other physical system.
Why should life be valued more than anything else? Is a person
intrinsically more valuable than a dog and is an amoeba intrinsically more
valuable than a grain of sand? Is humanity to be more valued than the
entire Amazon forest? And if so, what might justify an assertion that life
is more valuable than non-life, that negatively-entropic systems are
intrinsically more valuable than entropic ones? Would it matter in the
greater scheme of things if all life on earth were wiped out tomorrow?
The traditional Christian position is that life is to be valued because
it was created by God, and because it continues after death - even when
everything else may have disappeared.
On the other side of the fence, Bertrand Russell wrote in the early
... all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the noonday
brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death
of the solar system, and the whole temple of man's achievement must
inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins
C H D Clark thought that Bertrand Russell's assertion is a "doctrine of
If we are asked to believe that all our striving is without final
consequence, [then] life is meaningless and it scarcely matters how we
live if all will end in the dust of death ... God's grand design is life
eternal for those who walk in the steps of Christ ... As life is seen to
have purpose and meaning, men find release from despair and the fear of
Arthur Schopenhauer sums the opposite position up by:
That which has been exists no more; it exists as little as that which
has never been ... [so] nothing at all is worth our striving, our
efforts and struggles ... All good things are vanity, the world in all
its ends bankrupt, and life a business which does not cover its expenses
The novelist Leo Tolstoy thought there were four possible responses to
this pessimistic assessment of life's value:
- Ignore the problem, as do women, the very young and the dull.
- Enjoy life's pleasures at full blast until the end.
- Commit suicide.
- Acknowledge the truth, and cling to life because you're too afraid
to do anything else (which was his position).