by | Mar 4, 2017

Merrian-Webster Definition

  1. The quality that distinguishes a vital and functional being from a dead body
  2. a principle of force that is considered to underlie the distinctive quality of animate beings
  3. an organismic state characterized by capacity for metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction.

Webster provides additional definitions that are not descriptive of what life actually is.

This Engineer’s Definition

  1. a state of matter/energy continuously running a vital, intelligent process in a cell or organism that sustains and perpetuates itself as distinguished from dead matter/energy.

The definitions in textbooks tend to be a long list of characteristics.  For example, Biology1 devotes a page to the definition in a section entitled “Life defies simple definition.”  It then describes “seven characteristics:” Cellular organization, Ordered complexity, Sensitivity (response to stimuli), Growth, development and reproduction, Energy utilization, Homeostasis, and Evolutionary adaptation.  Biochemistry2 devotes three pages in a section entitled “What is Life?”  The characteristics it describes are Complex and dynamic, Organized and self-sustaining, Cellular, Information-based, and Adapts and evolves.

The posited definition that life is an intelligent process whose purpose is to sustain and propagate itself is concise and accurate.  Life is an intelligent process at all levels.  Life’s creation was an intelligent process.  Early life cells were intelligent processes used to tera-form the earth’s atmosphere, oceans, and soil.  The creation of multicelled organisms that created a food-chain was a process.  The creation of abstract intelligent mankind was a process.  The creation-to death of each type of life form and each individual of the life form is a process.

Realizing that life is an intelligent process defines functionalities that must exist in it. Past wisdom was that life was all chemistry.  The tide is turning toward the realization that machinery is involved. We have learned a lot about life especially considering the fact that it is molecular machinery at the boundary of the micro and macro world. But the obstacles to instrument and measure at this size and speed scale make it impossible to reverse engineer life to any measure close to what we can with human creations. It appears that we learning a lot at the high, systems-level, but much less regarding how the molecular machinery works in detail.

However, knowing that life is a process implemented by molecular machinery, coupled with our ability to understand the functionalities required to make such machinery work, we can answer some questions such as whether or not the life machinery can be created, initial conditions for the life process set, and started by natural causes. We do not need to all the details how life achieves these functionalities – just whether natural causes are capable of creating them.   This knowledge defines the elements of functionality that must exist in the cell.  It also tells us that certain initial conditions had to exist to start life. Before we know what these conditions are, we need to better understand the process itself, including languages, algorithms, and protocols that exist to control and coordinate the process.

© 2016 Mike Van Schoiack

  1. Biology, 8th Edition Losos, Johathan B., Mason, Kenneth A., Singer, Susan R., pages 2-4
  2. Biochemistry, The Molecular Basis of Life, McKee, James R and Trudy, sixth edition, pages 1-4
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