Defining Life – Does Its Origin Matter?

Diatom with beautiful symmetry

This is part of a series: Define Life

Over the past week, I asked a few people my question:

“If an inventor says that he’s created a new kind of life, how can you know if he’s right?”

The results were rather interesting. Even with a small sample size, I had quite diverse answers. When I think of life, I usually think of it in the same way that I think of cars, computers, houses, etc. I think of it as a type of machine or system. Thus, when I ask about an inventor making a new kind, I ask it expecting the same kind of response that I’d expect if I asked how one could recognize a completely new kind of computer. I expect some attempt to define what processes, characteristics or functions separate life from non-life. I expect to hear only about the properties of the creatures themselves.

One person looked at it in this way, but most of the people who had an opinion thought of life in a fundamentally different way. For them, life is defined not only by the machinery of biology, nor is it only defined by the things that only living things can do. They also believe that life only counts as life when it has the correct origin.

Here are the responses I got:

  1. The perspective of someone who hadn’t ever thought of this before, and couldn’t think of an answer off the cuff:
    I don’t know
  2. A couple of fellow Christians’ perspectives:
    In addition to doing things unique to life, life is, by definition, made by God

    • Thus we humans can never create life
    • It’s very arrogant to think that we – God’s creatures – could ever equal our creator.
    • Any attempt to create artificial life must, therefore, be an attempt to “play God” – that is, prove that I’m God’s equal, by creating my own version of something that he made.
    • They softened on this part of their position some after I explained that it is possible for such an inventor to not be trying to “play God”
    • Even if we synthesize every part of God’s creatures, and put them together manually, and turn them on, it’s still not life – because God didn’t create it.
  3. An Atheist’s perspective:
    In addition to doing things unique to life, life cannot have a creator. It must appear by natural processes only.

    • Thus, we humans can never create life, because any such “life” would have a creator.
    • A big part of life is self-determination. If I have a creator, then I don’t determine my own life and choices, he does. Thus, “life” that was created by any sentient being is not truly “life”, even if it’s otherwise identical to biological life.
    • Even if we synthesize every part of a living thing, and put them all together, and turn them on, it’s still not life – because it has a creator.
  4. One of my siblings
    Life is hard to define, because there are so many corner cases.

    • Some characteristics of life are:
      • Reproduction
        Reproduction doesn’t have to be perfect. A mutant is still (hopefully) alive.
      • Growth
      • Gathers its own materials
      • To a large degree sustains itself
        Something can be alive and depend on other creatures in some ways. For instance, herbivores are alive, even though they depend on plants for food. However, viruses don’t count as life, since they don’t even have the machinery to make their own parts.
      • Is autonomous
        Runs by itself, without requiring an operator or maintainer.
    • Computer malware, clanking replicators, grey goo, crystals, etc. aren’t the kinds of thing that one normally thinks of as life.
    • Be careful to not define life too broadly, lest everything that’s mass-produced be declared alive.

There was something wrong with definitions #2 and #3, but it took me awhile to figure out a way to articulate it:
They’re both reactions of people who are offended by the suggestion that humans can create a new kind of life. They stem not from any properties of the thing being defined, but from whether the hearer finds a claim offensive.

#2 says, in effect, that if God created something, nobody else can. Taken to its natural conclusion, it says that mass production and 3D printing are beyond the abilities of Mankind, since God’s creatures do both of them. Of course, we ought to honor our maker. And those who copy God’s creations to convince themselves that they don’t need God, forget that God gave them the intellect with which they create such wonders. Far from diminishing God’s glory, they increase it by the very achievements that they shake in his face. If the creature can do such great things, surely his maker must be even greater.

That being said, the fundamental problem with this definition is that it lies not in the properties or characteristics of life, but in its creator’s identity. If one was to apply this kind of reasoning to, say, a car, we would end up arguing that only cars made by [insert favorite auto company name here] are really cars, and cars made by the others are not.

#3 comes from a completely different belief system, but has the same flaw. It says, in effect, that life is not life without pride. In this view, life is not even worth calling life if God gets glory that would otherwise go to me. He said that the main reason “religion” doesn’t work for him is that if someone else created him, his choices are ultimately predetermined by his creator. And just as he believes that God is dead so he can make his life his own, he believes that life itself should only be called life if it has no maker. Like #2, this definition doesn’t describe living things. It describes the beliefs and preferences of those who use it.

The last one sounds like an early draft of NASA’s working definition. He had some very good points. The same things that I wrote about NASA’s definition apply to his. One of his most insightful comments is that when one thinks of something alive, one doesn’t think of grey goo or clanking replicators. Thus, he said, one should be cautious when claiming that such things are life.

I agree that I should be careful. And I agree that there are many things that should not be considered life, even though they have some of its characteristics. Crystals, for instance, are not alive. But it is my opinion that these two things have so many characteristics of life that they should be considered alive.

Photo credit:
The Gorgeous Daily – Scanning Electron Micrographs of Diatoms

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