The Ninth Greatest Mystery of All Time:  What is Life?

lifePeculiar that question is!  Perhaps it is the most peculiar of all the mysteries.  Life is life is it not?  I am either dead or alive.  When I stop living my heart stops beating.  I stop breathing.  My mind dies.  Rigor mortis sets in and my limbs become rigid.  My body begins to decay — BUT STOP– We are describing death not life.

Life is joy.   Life is action.   Life is love.  Love is friendship.  Love is compassion.  Life is charity.  Life is pain and life is pleasure.  Life is complex and life is simple.  Life is toil and life is rest.

In the famous story Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, a number of graves are robbed to provide body parts for a scientific experiment.  The goal of the experiment is to create life.  The patched up body is connected to a bunch of electrodes which are connected to some electrical conductors that are fed by huge electric generators.  At some point in the experiment, the generators explode amidst a large amount of sparks and electrical charges.  Somehow this has the effect of giving life to the dead body which is subsequently named Frankenstein monsterFrankenstein after the scientist who created him.  Of course, a body that is stitched together with multiple body parts lacks a certain symmetry that is considered necessary for human beauty.  Thus, Frankenstein is labeled a monster since he does not conform to traditional norms in terms of his physical appearance.

It is interesting that we find electricity to be connected with life.  Atoms resonate at a certain speed and when they stop resonating death ensues.  If we can mix the right ingredients in a petri dish or a test tube (some call it primal soup) and then run an electric current through it, will we create life?  We have described life earlier but we did not really describe life.  What we described were the symptoms of life, the effects of life.  Animation as opposed to stagnation.  Life is movement.  Death is stillness.  But what is life itself?  What is that spark that we think is connected to an electrical current?

See http://whatislife.stanford.edu/LoCo_files/What-is-Life.pdf  — This is the famous lecture given by Erwin Schrödinger in 1943 at Trinity College in Dublin.

While we live, we defy the logic and order of the universe.  We defy entropy and we defy chaos.  We defy all the known laws of existence.  On this planet, third from the Sun in a not so unique solar system in one of a zillion galaxies in perhaps one of a zillion universes, life has sparked.  Was it electricity, solar energy, geothermal heat, magnetic waves, primal radiation, DNA or will power?  What was the key which created animation from inanimate matter?

Genetics pioneer J. Craig Venter announced Thursday that he and his team have created artificial life for the first time.  Using sequences of genetic code created on a computer, the team assembled a complete DNA of a bacterium, then inserted it in another bacterium and initiated synthesis, or in Venter’s words “booted up” the cell.  In a statement, Venter called the results “the proof of principle that genomes can be designed in the computer, chemically made in the laboratory and transplanted into a recipient cell to produce a new self-replicating cell,” controlled only by the synthetic genome.   Time.com: Scientist creates life.

So we have self-replicating computer cells, interesting but the snag is that they started with a living cell.  They created a new cell out of an already living cell.  Quite a feat but not the same as creating life.  If we are going to create life, it seems we must first find out what life is.  Philosophers, scientists, generals and theologians will all have a different definition of life.

Socrates:  Life is honesty. Life is integrity.  Life is the search for truth.  Life is understanding yourself.

Edwin Schrödinger:  Life seems to be orderly and lawful behavior of matter, not based exclusively on its tendency to go over from order to disorder, but based partly on existing order that is kept up.

General George S. Patton Jr.:  Better to fight for something than live for nothing.

St. Thomas Aquinas:  The soul is like an uninhabited world that comes to life only when God lays His head against us.

DNASeems kind of funny, that no one whether they are a philosopher or scientist can answer the question “what is life?”  Well, they actually do answer the question, but it really tells us little or nothing about what “life” is.  Is life some type of electricity, organic plasma, atoms with a soul, a spirit or the breath of God?  What magic elixir or unknown form of energy renders inert matter into something living, learning and loving?  We can create babies but we cannot figure out how life begins or where the will to live comes from.

“It is interesting that Hindus, when they speak of the creation of the universe do not call it the work of God, they call it the play of God, the Vishnu lila, lila meaning play. And they look upon the whole manifestation of all the universes as a play, as a sport, as a kind of dance — lila perhaps being somewhat related to our word lilt”  — Alan Wilson WattsZen and the Beat Way

I remember years ago (from biology) that it was thought that the smallest unit of life was the cell.  Bacteria were considered to be alive but viruses were in some kind of limbo.  I still don’t really understand this since viruses seem to be doing the same think humans do: Replicating, killing and dying.  Here is what they say about viruses:

Viruses, like bacteria, are microscopic and cause human diseases. But unlike bacteria, viruses are acellular particles(meaning they aren’t made up of living cells like plants and animals are), consisting instead of a central core of either DNA or RNA surrounded by a coating of protein.

Viruses also lack the properties of living things: They have no energy metabolism, they do not grow, they produce no waste products, and they do not respond to stimuli. They also don’t reproduce independently but must replicate by invading living cells.

cold-virus-virus-The above sounds like a reasonable argument to make that viruses are not “living” in the same sense that cellular creatures are.  Nevertheless, they replicate, die and seem to have some will to live or at least as much will as many humans have.  If we assume that the opposite of living is dead, viruses are certainly not dead.  If one were to ask what the “life force” in a virus was or what motivates a virus to take over another organism’s cells, one would have to know what creates life.  The same problem with defining the life force in humans applies to viruses.

“For about 100 years, the scientific c community has repeatedly changed its collective mind over what viruses are. First seen as poisons, then as life-forms, then biological chemicals, viruses today are thought of as being in a gray area between living and nonliving: they cannot replicate on their own but can do so in truly living cells and can also affect the behavior of their hosts profoundly. The categorization of viruses as nonliving during much of the modern era of biological science has had an unintended consequence: it has led most researchers to ignore viruses in the study of evolution. Finally, however, scientists are beginning to appreciate viruses as fundamental players in the history of life.”  — http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/are-viruses-alive-2004/

So, where does that leave us with the initial question “What is life.”  I think the answer must remain we don’t know.  Is it willpower?  Is it a germ that we have not found yet?  Is it some chemical that when mixed with something else creates animation and sentience?  Is it some mysterious force in the universe that we have not yet identified?  Why are animals alive and rocks dead?  Could this mysterious force create “living rocks.”

I promised an answer to the 12 greatest mysteries of all time when I started this series of blogs.  In each one to date, I have attempted to provide some sort of an death-07answer.  Until now, I was fairly happy with my responses to each question.  This ninth question has me stumped.  I cannot think of any place to find an answer.  What makes life for humans may not be the same thing that makes life for a virus or a bacterium.  Goats and dogs might have very different definitions of life but seldom write books or poems about their feelings.   We may someday find out how to extend life but I think we are a long way from finding out what creates life.

“To be alive, it seemed to me, as I stood there in all kinds of sorrow, was to be both original and reflection, and to be dead was to be split off, to be reflection alone.”  ― Teju ColeOpen City

Time for Questions:

What do you think creates life?  Do you think humans will ever be able to create life? Why or why not?  What do you think living means?  Do you live to the fullest or do you take life for granted?  What is the secret to your life?  If you could redo one thing in your life, what would it be?

Life is just beginning.

“The beginning is always today.”  ― Mary Shelley

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