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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Problems Equating Life and Organism

1) Earth: alive but not an organism
In mathematics and logic, a paradox is a sign that we have screwed up. Something we assume to be true must not be so, or we would not have run into the contradictions in our equations or assertions.

In real life, paradoxes have a more interesting meaning, but here too they are a sign that something's wrong with our perspective. They mean we're onto something important, that something profound is trying to reveal itself through the flaws in our understanding that have obscured it until now.

Equating "life" with "organism" has created a raft of problems for biologists. Critics of biology are unerringly drawn to these problems, but biologists have defensively dug in their heels and tried to rationalize each one rather than deal with the the underlying common problem. Here are just a few:

1) If only the organism is alive, then that must mean that every living system is an organism. Thus we end up with James Lovelock's conclusion that since the biosphere is obviously a living system, it must therefore be an organism, which he calls Gaia. And yet, Gaia does not actually satisfy the classical definition of life; it fails the reproduction test, and many of the others it satisfies only vaguely or metaphorically. So, by the classical definition, the biosphere must be dead, even though it's obviously a living system.

2) Organs: not organisms; are they then dead?
2) The boundaries of this definition are filled with small things that seem to hover between being classically alive or dead. Is a virus alive or dead? How about a prion? What about a cell's organelles, like the mitochondria? Is it dead? As with division by zero, the only clear answer adherents of the classical definition can give is "Don't ask that question."

3) If it takes all these characteristics to count as alive, and anything less is dead, then how did life emerge? It is extraordinarily unlikely that they could all happen at once - we have been unable to make them all happen at once in an experimental setting, despite decades of trying. This is why critics of biology point to God - with the classical definition of life, nothing short of a natural-laws-defying divine miracle could create life. Since the proper realm of science is rational empiricism, it is ironic that biological scientists have settled on a definition of life that forces us to introduce unnatural interventions to explain the origins of one of the most everyday features of the natural world.

3) Waterfall, river, ecosystem: dead or alive?
4) In The Timeless Way of Building, architect Christopher Alexander set out to explore why some architectural spaces make us feel oppressed and dead while others fill us with wonder and vitality. This objectively observable effect architecture has upon our subjective life inhabits a gray zone where we lose our ability to describe what's happening, yet with photographs and language Mr. Alexander wrestles the problem into clarity for us. He tries to name this quality that good architecture has and even considers calling it "life," but in the end he accepts that according to the classical definition of life he cannot do it. By process of elimination, he is left having to call it "the quality without a name."

4) Staircase: dead?
In 1979, that classical definition paints him into a corner in which he has no name to describe a nonorganismic living system. The very same problem plagues those of us trying to describe organically organized complex software systems - the classical definition of life bans us from naming what can only be described as a form of life, unless we submit and agree not to name it at all.

By 2001, Mr. Alexander has rightly concluded the problem lies not with architecture (nor with software engineering) but with the classical biologist's false equation of life with the organism. If we break this arbitrary equation, all of these paradoxes disappear.

But without the classic definition, how should we define life?



1) Earth's biosphere as a whole contains all life and consists of complex living systems, but since it is not an organism according to the classic definition it must therefore be dead.

Photo: NASA/GSFC composite photograph from 20 June 2012. Synthesized view of Earth's Northern Hemisphere showing the Arctic, Europe, and Asia. Taken from the low-orbiting satellite Suomi NPP.
Source: Wikipedia (

2) Organs cannot survive on their own as independent organisms, and despite being made of cells they fail many of the other components of the classic definition of life. Therefore, they are dead. Therefore, human beings (who are alive) are made up of dead things, so we are - what? Zombies? Frankenstein's monsters? Paradoxes abound when the organism is the standard of life. Doctors and nurses intuitively understand that the classic definition of life is an obstacle to medicine, so they refuse to abide by it and insist on referring to hearts and lungs as being alive or not when doing transplants.

Image: Gray's Anatomy of the Human Body (20th U.S. edition), 1918. Etching of human heart and lungs.

3) A waterfall cannot be alive according to the classic definition of life. It is not an organism, no matter how many living characteristics it contains, no matter that it inspires so much awe in human beings that our natural response is to assume it has been touched by the divine, no matter how much life depends upon it. Dead dead dead. Likewise, an ecosystem cannot be alive, because only the individual organism is alive, so the combination of living things creates something supposedly dead: the ecosystem. It takes significant training to learn not to see any of this as alive, since its life is so obvious to anyone else.

Photo: The Fulmer Falls, a waterfall located in the Childs Recreation Area in the Pocono Mountains, Pennsylvania, USA. Photo by and ©2006 Derek Ramsey (see Wikipedia page for license and technical details).

4) According to the classic definition of life, nothing Christopher Alexander has written makes any sense. Architecture cannot be more or less alive. Space cannot be more or less alive. It does not matter whether every single human being who ever lived or will live can immediately feel the difference between the oppression of a prison staircase and the joyful vitality of this outdoor one - these are subjective feelings and therefore imaginary. The classic definition of life is itself a conceptual prison that teaches us to ignore the obvious reality before us, that there is more to life than the organism. The organism is a special case. Life is something more fundamental, something that boundary cases like organs and viruses can have, something that water can have, something that space can have, something a staircase can have. When we break out of this trap, we realize that the emergence of the organism stops being a baffling miracle and becomes a universal miracle, an inevitable miracle, because life is all around us to varying degrees. An organism is merely a more concentrated expression of life. Living things are drawn to life wherever we find it, whether in a loved one, in a flower, in a waterfall, or in a staircase. That "subjective" feeling is no more subjective than vision or sound. As Christopher Alexander has shown us it can be quantified and measured even more readily than the supposedly superior classic definition of life. A newly expanded and more mathematically rigorous science of biology awaits us if we recognize that the organism is an example of life, not the definition of it.

Photo: Outdoor stairs, photographer unknown.