What Is This Life?

According to a recent science article at the Huffington Post, Sara Walker, an astrobiologist at Arizona State University, along with some of her colleagues, has arrived at a fresh definition of life as seen through the prism of information processing:

Walker’s team created a simple mathematical model to capture the transition from a nonliving to a living-breathing being. According to the researchers, all living things have one property that inanimate objects don’t: Information flows in two directions.

For instance, when a person touches a hot stove, the molecules in his hand sense heat, transmit that information to the brain, and the brain then tells the molecules of the hand to move. Such two-way information flow governs the behavior of simple and complex life forms alike, from the tiniest bacteria to the giant humpback whale. By contrast, if you put a cookie on the stove, the heat may burn the cookie, but the treat won’t do anything to respond.

Another hallmark of living beings is that they have different physical locations for storing and reading information. For instance, the alphabet of letters in DNA carries the instructions for life, but another part of the cell, called the ribosome, must translate those instructions into actions inside the cell, […]

The new model […] lays out the behavior needed for a system […] to be considered living, Walker said.

I like this definition a lot, and would put it in my own words this way: life is a gatekeeper; it means saying ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to things. To indiscriminately go with the flow means death. Flow must stop, be evaluated, and sometimes get sent back, via force, to where it came from. That’s life and power–the will to power. Yes, I’m thinking of Nietzsche here.

But I’m also thinking of President Obama. Life is a president with veto powers. The buck stops at its desk, its bar. Stimuli, like bills from Congress, receive evaluation and response. They get ping-ponged back to where they came from if the president reads them and doesn’t like them, or they are dealt with in some other way (as when a president sets forward his hand to sign a bill). In either case, information is received by life, processed, moved about among its “staffers” (synapses, protein machines, ribosomes, etc.), and acted upon.

Here’s another metaphor. If going with the flow means death, life is “a river that flows uphill.” You don’t defy entropy (the river flowing downhill) without some DNA, some blueprint, some plan, some information processing. That information processing runs on energy, so you’ve got to capture energy, store it, and enlist it in the communication and carrying out of your plan. That’s what it means to be alive: to defy entropy; to move information about so as to put your plan in effect with the energy you’ve managed to corral.

Here’s yet another metaphor. Life, like Iago in Othello, reads its situation, puts its ducks in a row, and acts.

Here’s still another way to put it: life receives (notices) messages, interprets them, and sends them back or otherwise reacts to them from an interested vantage. By an “interested vantage,” I mean the one that concerns you, as to your own curiosity, desire, aversion, preservation, or growth.

You may also be given over to the concerns of another. That too is life. But now I’m thinking of Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic. Life is Master to its own purposes or Slave to other purposes–the purposes of some more complexly organized, stronger, or greater life (as when the ribosome, as part of the larger cell’s “team,” reads off the DNA, translates it, and sends that information off and into the service of making protein machines for that team’s greater good).

A living thing, in short, is always identifiable and situated in time and space–not nowhere, but somewhere, and it’s always seeking to increase its range; its power. If it’s not doing this, it’s being enlisted into the service of some other power. But so long as it is alive, it is motivated, interested. It has some interest at stake (its own or that of a greater life).

And this brings us to the definition of consciousness. Like life, consciousness too is a gatekeeper; a locus for attention, discrimination, translation, interpretation, judgment. It arrests the flow of habit and says ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to things. It’s selective; both a witness and an actor. Attentive to the theatre of passing forms, it has preferences. It receives and sends information, makes plans, and executes them.

Consciousness, in other words, is also a river that flows uphill, dependent on capturing and using the body’s stores of energy against the easy entropic dissipations of nondiscrimination, habit, instinct, and sleep. Maintaining conscious attention and purpose, like maintaining life, is work. Work against entropy. And like life, consciousness can associate itself with narrow boundaries or expansive ones, with competition or cooperation. Consciousness, as it were, is spiritual life; a realm of selfish memes, not genes; of qualia, not unconscious and mechanical stimuli and responses.

Consciousness sometimes (often?) functions as a counterlife to your long evolved instincts, checking them, vetoing their impulses. It’s as if, being both a conscious being and a biological being, that you are a mini-Congress; a divided government. That’s interesting, isn’t it?

David Goodsell, a molecular biologist at The Scripps Research Institute in California, in his introductory text to molecular biology, The Machinery of Life (2nd edition, Springer 2010), which Scientific American calls “an impressive and original book,” offers the following definition of life (29):

In 1944, the physicist Erwin Schrödinger presented a very simple definition of life that has withstood the test of time. He identified one property that all life shares: living things avoid decay into equilibrium.

I like this, but it sounds a bit conservative to me. Life, after all, isn’t just about checking the flow of energy to make sure it isn’t causing the status quo to fall apart. It’s also about growth and expanding power (and yes, I’m back to Nietzsche again). A DNA program’s mission is biased to expansion; to exploiting resources wherever possible; for getting what it wants. It is not merely in the business of survival. Grow or die.

I suppose this post has been a kind of sermon to my soul (and to any soul that made it this far with me). So I’ll wrap it up like a preacher, pointing to a bit of verse. This is the opening couplet to W. H. Davies’ poem, “Leisure” (1911):

What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare?

I read the poet’s provocation this way: sometimes you should use your veto powers; sometime the life of consciousness checks the urgent missions of its biological life, preferring visual pleasure–the aesthetic consciousness–to the urgent and evolved agendas of the instinctual organism. Consciousness is a life form that frequently hijacks the body’s mission of growth and survival to other purposes (or tries to). This makes for the dance–sometimes harmonious, sometimes not–of will and instinct (Nietzsche yet again).

This is life. The buck stops with you. How will you fashion and command, and to what purpose?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to What Is This Life?

  1. I think Nietzsche gets a bad rap that he doesn’t deserve.
    On a similar vein, the simplest definition of intelligence that I could come up with is a ‘thing’ that can react to changing input. A kind of primary intelligence would be a thermostat with slightly more intelligence being the act of a flower opening it’s petals and turning toward the sun and so on.

    If defined well, life then would be anything with at least primary intelligence. To quell the obvious question, non-life with primary intelligence would lay life-less in the absence of changing input where life attempts to change its environment to achieving changing inputs that can be used by its intelligence.

    If you place a flower in the shade, it will grow itself toward sunlight. If the temperature stays static, the thermostat will simply sit there.

    Or something like that.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Your distinction between a thermostat and a flower is interesting, but where do the intricate and purpose oriented mechanisms–the entropic resistant mechanisms–come from? In the case of the thermostat, they have a human mind behind them. In the case of the flower, natural selection. Anything humanly manufactured that resists or shapes or manipulates the course of things is a sign of life (as a termite mound is a sign of life). The life is in the telos, purpose, blueprint, DNA, genius. The products of that genius manifest in the environment, in the swerve from entropy. If life (that is, a blueprint) hasn’t placed something in the environment, chance has.

      And life needs information to flow between the blueprint and its body, as well as between its body and the environment.

      So the primary intelligence is not in the thermostat or in the movement of the flower toward light. These are displays of mechanisms born of intelligence of some sort. The primary intelligence is in God (if God exists, making life blueprints), natural selection, or the human mind.

      This raises questions about where the cell wall and skin really stop and start. Marshall McLuhan famously called human artifacts like media and tools the “extensions of man.” All of life is an extension of some purpose from some blueprint or genius (contained in DNA or a mind).

      Sometimes there are happy coincidences born of life’s activity that aren’t explicitly written anywhere, but born of competition by natural selection (the temperature of Earth’s atmosphere is regulated by life; ecosystems cannot be traced to a blueprint, but are balanced by natural selection, etc.). In this sense, planet Earth is an extension of life in a way that Mars is not. Does this mean Earth itself is Gaia–a living mother?

      Where are the boundaries in a web of relations driven by blueprints?

      • I call primary intelligence that minimum ability of being able to react to changing input data. Neither the thermostat nor the flower will move if you place them on a hot stove. They are not mobile intelligence in any short term meaningful way. They are simply examples of that primary intelligence. This then adds a caveat to minimum definition of life if we consider that a plant’s ability to spread it’s countenance in different directions and its seed to the wind then a plant’s resistance to entropy moves on a much slower time scale. Giant tortoises move at a much slower time frame but are indeed conscious life. Time frame must be considered.

        This resistance to entropy is perhaps not defined as well or as simplistically as it need be? Some examples are extensions of life/living while others are constructs to preserve life. Perhaps there are classes or types of resistance to entropy where one is a resistance and the other a reshaping of entropy. A termite mound is one kind while the pyramids at Giza are another type. A glove is the extension of the skin which protects the human skin while a ring does not, yet both can be signs or indications of life. It was, after all, 40,000+ year old cave paintings which gave indication of intelligence in some human species. These did not protect or extend life yet are visible outward signs of life and consciousness.

        Perhaps the class distinctions lay in how we define entropy that is resisted. The pyramids resist the entropy of the desert physically and the entropy of death in conscious thought. The ring on a finger can resist some forms of entropy. Do the signs of resistance need to be so permanent or long lasting? Even the smallest of birds build nests.

        You seem to be striving to use the word design but restrict yourself from using it. I.E. the flower moves but not by a design of it’s own. This might also imply conscious intelligence. We can agree that plants, except in bad movies, do not have conscious intelligence of any kind that we would consider here. They have the primary intelligence but not much more.

        The mention of a cell wall drags us kicking and screaming into biological processes to discover how cells interact with one another. At the moment the most pertinent example that I can think of is the experiment of cutting a sponge into its individual cells and watching it reform.

        The basic cell has both primary intelligence and mobility. It has processes which give it abilities we are still discovering. The argument that we mobile life forms are merely collectives of cell colonies has some strengths to it. This would make all life (as we know it Jim) an extension of the basic or primary life: DNA and of course evolution. This then makes a glove, car, hammer, and the pyramids signs of DNA. It is DNA and the various expressions of DNA that instills or places design and pattern in the way of entropy. Certainly everything that meets both our criteria contains DNA.

        The exact origin of DNA is not understood, though we have learned much in recent years as to the possible ways to form a cell wall and how proteins can occur naturally etc. It should be noted that DNA is one form of this expression. It should not be long before we find or create other forms in which to express DNA’s essence. AI might yet find a form of expression that works.

        On reflection, this seems to be what you were driving at: DNA
        It is central, for life as we know it, to the resistance of entropy and to conscious intelligence. I’m kind of okay with being the result of a hive mind collective of cells designed to perform given tasks so that the trillions of cells in the colony that we call me can survive and thrive.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        That video is interesting, and yes I’m insisting that entropy is not resisted unless there is some DNA or mind causing and directing the “river to flow uphill.”

        In a sense I’m arguing for Aristotle: there is some form (a formal cause) through which matter (material causes) manifest. That form that draws the seed into a tree, a baby into a woman, etc. is tugging at matter, as it were, like a magnet tugs iron shavings into a pattern. Iron shavings will not come into the magnetic pattern of forces absent a magnet and neither plants nor animals will come into their forms absent a formal cause (DNA). Sponge cells do not come together absent DNA either.

        Likewise, the DNA must have some final cause, some telos or governing principle (God, mind, or natural selection) bringing it into being. Otherwise, matter would fall into randomness (a river that flows downhill).

        Science has long ignored all but Aristotle’s efficient cause (immediate cause and effect). But really, life cannot be fully thought about without resort to information and information processing (wherever it comes from).

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