February 4, 2008


After much deliberation, I have come to the conclusion that life does not exist (Matthew Parriss, 1/30/08, The Spectator)

This January Prometheus paid our era a call. Scientists (it was reported at the end of the month) have ‘announced the creation of a synthetic chromosome, knocking down one of the final hurdles to building the world’s first artificial life form’. In Maryland, at the institute of an American biologist and entrepreneur, Craig Venter, a team are now working on the final step to ‘create’ life. They aim to transplant into a cell the synthetic DNA they create, in the hope it will ‘boot up’ the cell and take control of its growth and reproduction.

At last. The breathing-into-clay of the Promethean fire; the insertion of the ghost into the machine. Already a name has been suggested for this putative organism, ‘Synthia’, the suggestion coming from ETC, a Canadian bioethics group who protest that Dr Venter is venturing where mankind should never go. ETC’s head said: ‘ For the first time, God has competition.’

Unquestioned in the commentary that has followed is the assumption that some kind of a Rubicon is about to be crossed: that science stands at the threshold of a qualitative leap. Across what chasm are we to leap? This is the question which has teased me since.

To adjudicate between Venter and ETC one must first define terms. What, then, does this word ‘life’ mean? What it is about the idea we think so special? Lying awake in the small hours last week, I tried to dissect the word and its many uses, and extract the essence of meaning linking all of them. But I could not. Finally, laid out on the laboratory table in my mind’s eye, were all the ways we use the word, all the associations it carries, all the things it can seem to mean. But not one of them on inspection appeared critical, the key to our understanding of the term, the irreducible core of its meaning.

And I had to conclude that not only can the question ‘What is life?’ not be answered, it cannot even arise. This is because the word ‘life’ is, quite literally, meaningless. There is no fire. There is no ghost.

Ask yourself, as I did, what might be the essential characteristic of what we mean by ‘life’.

Is it consciousness? No. Bacterium are not conscious. Nor can the characteristic be ‘feeling’ because lichen cannot feel.

Is it mobility? No, plants and clams cannot move. Icebergs can.

Self-propulsion, then? No, geysers do that.

How about the ability to grow? No, I’ve watched feathery strands of sulphur, for all the world like yellow tendrils, growing in the sulphur-dioxide wind on a volcano’s edge.

Is it an object’s ability to respond to its environment? No, a weather-vane does this, as do waves in the sea, or the shifting crescents of sand dunes. There are rocks which absorb sunlight when the sun shines, and luminesce in the dark. Water finds its path to the sea, feeling its way round obstacles.

Is it an element of selfishness, self-defence, self-promotion? No, a flag, flapping with the wind, is taking the only course which will protect it from ripping. Volcanic plugs promote themselves above a landscape where softer rocks have crumbled.

Is it the ability to propagate and make copies? No, a mule or a eunuch, or the last man on Earth, can do neither, yet they are alive. A fire, which is not, can shower sparks and be reborn; an echo can re-echo; a rolling snowball can grow and fragment, and the fragments roll and grow likewise. And is there any reason in principle why we might not design a machine which could manufacture a replica of itself? We would not call that ‘life’.

Is it the ability to evolve, through succeeding generations creating and honing altered versions? No, some of the most determined advocates of the unique and divinely given nature of ‘life’ deny evolution altogether, so this cannot be what they mean.

Is it (perversely) the ability to die — the ghost which is given up? This interesting suggestion points more accurately than most to the circumstances when we commonly do need words associated with ‘life’ to describe the difference. If nothing alive ever died, we would have little or no concept of life. But an engine can be killed, too; and the Duracell Bunny dies eventually; and life is not petrol, or electricity, or wind.

The dictionary is no help at all, offering either synonyms, tautological definitions, or — and this at first looks interesting — oblique references to something called ‘the soul’,’ ‘spirit’ or ‘animus’. But when you examine these terms you find they too relate to nothing experience can capture: these are not new ideas, but new words for the idea we are failing to identify.

We are chasing our tails. I conclude there exists no thing or quality, or combination of things and qualities, whose presence always indicates life, and whose absence always indicates its lack. Life does not exist. It is a misconception, like phlogiston, or the bodily humours, or the edge of the universe, or magic, or witchcraft, or Evil, or possession by demons, or growing pains, or (arguably) God.

Why, if we do not have the thing, do we have the word? By mistake, I conclude.

...if very nearly the entirety of the difference between the Anglosphere and the Continent can't be traced to this skeptical denial of Cartesianism.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 4, 2008 8:36 PM

Rationalism is psychological autoeroticism.

Posted by: ghostcat at February 4, 2008 10:33 PM

Ghostcat: Well said.

Two quibbles - a geyser is not self-propelled; it is a steam explosion. And an engine can 'fail', but it is not capable of self-healing, quite unlike you or me (or that tree).

I also suspect this 'definition' of life would be tightened considerably if someone put a knife to child's throat in front of Mr. Parriss. And it would be deepened if he had to suffer a profound grief, and find his way through.

Posted by: ratbert at February 5, 2008 1:32 AM

But an engine can be killed, too; and the Duracell Bunny dies eventually...

Rarely, if ever has the written word been so evocative. Sheer poetry. Unmitigated genius.

(Pity the author doesn't exist.)

Posted by: Barry Meislin at February 5, 2008 8:30 AM

Clams can too move!They even have a foot to do so. So there.

Posted by: Genecis at February 5, 2008 11:27 AM