Defining Life – Putting it All Together

Human egg being fertilized

This is part of a series: Define Life

I’ve listed the most common views on exactly what life is – now I’ll try to do better. But first, I’ll list my biases:

  1. In my opinion, there are a couple of inventions that will likely be created within the next 100 years which I think should be considered life. However, most people who I’ve met disagree. These inventions are:
    • Clanking replicators
      Self-sustaining, fully automated factories made of current human technology, or something not much more advanced. Each “cell” will be easily big enough to see, and would probably come in the form of a small building or a group of robots that can collectively sustain themselves, and even reproduce.

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Defining Life – Is it Only Physical?

This is part of a series: Define Life

As recently as 150 years ago, one of the most common scientific views of life was Vitalism. This view says that there’s something special about living things that distinguishes them from non-life, and causes them to do things and make substances that are found nowhere in nature. That “something”, they said, was its life force.

As scientists began to discover the chemical makeup of life, this view fell into disfavor. Today, if someone calls a biologist a vitalist, he usually means it as an insult.

In its place, most scientists now believe in a form of physicalism, which says that life is a machine. Furthermore, they tend to focus on the individual parts of living things much more than the whole. For example, it’s common to hear about someone discovering a gene that causes a disease or disorder, such as the most common type of mental retardation. But it’s much less common to hear about someone discovering exactly how and why that gene has its effect.

How did this happen? There were 2 main causes:

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Defining Life – Is It A Process?

Pond Scum Conduit

This is part of a series: Define Life

I found an interesting view on what life is: Life is a Process, Not a Thing – The Mantle. In it, JoJo Brisendine argues that life is best understood not as a system that copies and spreads a particular strand of DNA, but as a system that neutralizes free energy.

It’s a reductionist view that emphasizes the flow of energy in living things above all, and says that every other part and phenomenon related to life is a natural result of that process. It’s a reaction against 2 other views:

  1. Ferris Jabr – Life is nothing more than a concept – life does not really exist
  2. The currently popular view among evolutionary biologists that RNA is the original self-copying molecule that eventually turned into us

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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.

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Defining Life – The Current Working Definition

Exotic Alien Creature

This is part of a series: Define Life

The first definition of life that I’ll cover is the current working definition used by NASA.


  • Is complex
  • Is highly organized
  • Is diverse
  • Takes energy from its environment, and uses it
  • Tend toward homeostasis, where it is “normal” and “healthy”
  • Grows
  • Reproduces
  • Reacts to its environment
  • Adapts to its environment
  • Has a control system/nervous system


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Correctly Defining Life

The Many Forms of Life

This is part of a series: Define Life

In this series, I want to define life precisely enough to answer this question:

  • When an inventor says that his invention is a new form of life, is he right?
    Whoever answers should be able to reasonably and conclusively explain why, or why not.

One of the most profound scientific discoveries is that biological life is made of ordinary matter, and is an extremely advanced machine.  If life really is a machine, then human engineers will eventually be able to create it themselves.  I’m not talking about merely manually building and assembling the parts of God’s creatures, I’m talking about a truly new form of life that is radically different from what God made.  I’m talking about fully artificial life, designed and built by humans.

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