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    The Problem With Defining Life
    By Steve Davis | February 4th 2012 07:08 PM | 15 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    The problem, in a word, is language.
    Carl Zimmer’s recent article Can Life Be Defined in Three Words raised just that issue.
    He referred to the many attempts that have been made by scientists to define what life is, and in doing so, unwittingly exposed some of the main problems in reaching a definition of life.
    He described Radu Popa’s study in which Popa went to the trouble of counting the definitions of life, and gave some of the definitions. For example, “Some scientists define life as something capable of metabolism.”

    Can you see the problem with that approach?

    Those who tackle the definition this way will get nowhere, because they are merely describing a living entity and its functions. They are not describing or defining the life of the entity. This misperception is widespread, and was displayed by several of those who submitted comments to Zimmer’s article.

    Zimmer then moved on to the scientist who stimulated the article, Edward Trifonov, who has a more realistic appreciation of what is involved in looking for a definition.

     “Trifonov acknowledges that each definition of life is different, but there’s an underlying similarity to all of them.”  So he set about analysing 150 definitions, and from these, found that what they had in common could be summed up in three words.

     "Life, Trifonov declares, is reproduction with variation."

    So close, and yet...

    Trifonov is close because he sees that life is not a “thing”, it’s a process. But metabolism is a process. Homeostasis is a process. No good reason was given as to why these are not part of the definition. And unfortunately for Trifonov, it seems he is not getting enthusiastic support for his definition from colleagues.

    One, a Nobel Prize winner no less, went so far as to say “Attempts to define life are irrelevant to scientific efforts to understand the origin of life.”

    It seems that even Nobel Prize winners can be wrong because this view does not stand up to scrutiny, although it does highlight another problem in defining life, that many who attempt a definition get sidetracked into unnecessary forays into the origins of life.

    But surely, although the origins of life are significant and worth exploring, those origins cannot be satisfactorily explained until we have a useful definition of life itself. It’s simply illogical to explore the origin of an unknown.

    Trifonov’s tactic of looking for what the many definitions of life have in common was the correct approach, but because he was in effect looking for a consensus view, all he succeeded in doing was to summarise the fallacies of the various attempts.

    If, instead of looking for common wisdom, Edward Trifonov had looked f
    is; “The possibility that proteins were the basis of life had made them...” (From A Guinea Pigs History of Biology by Jim Endersby. Don’t be fooled by the quirky title; this is a book that everyone with an interest in the subject should have on the shelf!)

    We see statements like these in newspapers, magazines, text-books, and on the television almost daily. But they are nonsense. Proteins and related compounds are not the fundamental units of life, or the basis of life, or the building blocks of life. They are the building blocks of living entities as we know them on this planet.

    Life and entity are completely different concepts.

    Because this flawed language is so frequent and pervasive, it has conditioned people to the point where they cannot properly discuss the matter.

    They cannot distinguish between life and entity. (Again, see the comments following Carl Zimmer’s article)

    Yet it’s such a simple distinction.

    When we ask “What is life?” we are in effect asking “What is the essence of a living organism; what distinguishes it from a non-living entity?”

    We would not proceed to describe enzymes or proteins or DNA, as these are also applicable to a piece of steak. Similarly, if we were asked to define the essence of an internal combustion engine for example, we would only describe the parts of which it is comprised as background information.

    We would not explain the essence of the engine until we described the conversion of energy and its transfer.

    In other words; the essence of the internal processes of the engine.

    The same situation exists in defining life.

    Trifonov needed to go one step deeper, to find the essence of the processes that make up a living system. Those processes are reproduction, metabolism and homeostasis, and they have the common base that Trifonov was looking for.

    All he needed to do was look here - What is Life? (http://www.science20.com/gadfly/what_life)
    Not only would he have found a practical, universal definition of life that is applicable to cells, organisms, communities and alien life if any exists, he would have also found to his delight that the definition has an additional feature of absolutely no importance at all – it is comprised of only three words. 

    Comments

    vongehr
    Am I misinterpreting or are you kind of on the side of Trifonov but brush the guy with the Nobel aside?
    "Life, Trifonov declares, is reproduction with variation" disqualifies Trifonov. Reproduction with variation (RWV) is RWV. Artificial animals that cannot reproduce are not alive? The point of such is what? Surviving in academia or gathering hits on the internet?

    “Attempts to define life are irrelevant to scientific efforts to understand the origin of life" is a grown up position. Why be obsessed with words? Enjoy "discussions" with religious nuts who want to ban abortion? The answer to pseudo-profound questions of the "What is Life" type is "Don't waste my time."
    Outline what meaningful question you are interested in; define useful terms and abbreviations; employ them to illuminate. If it illuminates the origin of "life", fine. That you used the letter combination L-i-f-e adds precisely zilch.

    Sorry to be so dismissive, but it looks like you are getting stuck in stale air - you are too young for that. If terms like "Life" or "Democracy" or "God" are confusing and everybody defines differently, don't use them! Define your own, better terms. So, your next post I suggest is: "'Davis-type' systems and how focusing on 'schnucledipicing' illuminates early stages in biological evolution and helps discovery of similar extraterrestrial systems and processes."
    Steve Davis
    "Am I misinterpreting or are you kind of on the side of Trifonov..." I'm not on the side of Trifonov at all. His "reproduction with variation" is no more than the sum of all the fallacies.
    “Attempts to define life are irrelevant to scientific efforts to understand the origin of life" is a grown up position. Nonsense. He's obviously only interested in the origins of life and is dismissive of a discussion he can't handle. 
    "The answer to pseudo-profound questions of the "What is Life" type is "Don't waste my time." Too hard for you also? 
    "Define your own, better terms." Errr, that's what I have done.
    If you find it to be less than satisfactory, let me know.
    vongehr
    a discussion he can't handle. ... Too hard for you
    In science, good terminology is a very important tool and not about some traditional combination of letters like L-i-f-e or J-e-h-o-v-a and then fighting about what to use it for. Holy words are the domain of religion. He can "handle it" and it is not "too hard" for him; he is simply elevated above such hickups that befall novices. In science, one first already found something, then one decides that it is important enough to deserve a name in order to refer to it. That name better be new if an otherwise suggested used one is too controversial. You have not done this here or in your linked article, simply because you have no new term! So it isn't "less than satisfactory", you simply did not do it at all.
    Steve Davis
    "...he is simply elevated above such hickups..."
    He made a mistake. He did not take the matter seriously enough and he made a mistake. I explained the fault in his reasoning but you have not addressed that.
    In fact, there's a lot you have not addressed because you've been too busy introducing irrelevant issues like "holy words".
    This is not about holy words, I'm not interested in your fascination with "new terms" so drop it.
    What I'm interested in is a theory of life that is useful, practical, universal, and understandable by anyone with an open mind.
    There's an elephant in the room that you are trying to ignore, take a look at it and tell me what you think.
    I think Mr Steve Davis even before you attempt this discussion, you should be very clear what a definition is. You can not impose your own fantasies upon definition of definition.
    If it is too difficult for you to understand this than the least you can do is to come out with a better definition of life that meets your parameters and yet perfectly defines the subject matter, intuitively or otherwise.
    It make no sense to me to indulge in reckless criticism of others without any positive contribution from your side, by rigidly taking a position which in it self is without any foundations in rationality.
    To enlighten yourself please read Chapter 2 of my book dealing with subject matter of truth.
    In my experience Einstein has provided the best description of a definition as a statement that comes to the emotional experience of learned. Even though Einstein could not offer a single definition in his life time that would meet his definition of definition
    visit: www.sciencengod.com/clipboard

    Gerhard Adam
    Sorry, but your logic is suspect.  I pulled this quote from your article:
    Hence, God can only be a fact and not fiction until and unless proved otherwise.
    http://www.sciencengod.com/whether-god-is-a-fact-or-fiction.html
    You have it exactly backwards, since it should be clear that one cannot prove a negative in this fashion.  So, your statement should read "Hence, God can only be a fiction and not fact until and unless proved otherwise".  In other words, any claim must be demonstrated by a positive assertion and evidence.  You cannot assume a default state of existence for anything.

    You wouldn't accept the argument that fairies and elves are real entities that live in the woods, and must therefore be considered fact until proven otherwise.   In addition, you have numerous other fallacies in your paper, but this is the most obvious to address as an example.

    Again, as an example:
    Even evolution of universe and biological evolution are beyond materialistic explanations.
    You're making this statement as axiomatic, which it is not.  Therefore unless you have evidence, your comment is attempting to make your argument by arbitrary definitions.

    So I hope you heed your own advice:
    You can not impose your own fantasies upon definition of definition.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Mr Gerhard Adam
    What do you have to say about concept of point, line and plane in Geometry?
    Further , what do you have to say about space time curvature of Einstein's theory of relativity?
    Further what do you have to say about anything multiplied by Zero is Zero and anything divided by Zero is infinity?
    Further what do you have to say about nonlinear character of growth curve i.e.sinuous curve with lag, log and plateau phase?
    Further what do you have to say about non-linearities in nature which have been wrongly admitted by physicists as singularities?
    What do you have to say about postulates in Geometry which are essentially unproven statements but have been found useful?
    What do you have to say about chapter 4 and chapter 5 of my book pertaining to mathematics and non-linearities respectively?
    What about big bang theory and string theory of universe?
    What do you have to say about punctuated evolution and biodiversity in Podostemaceae family of plants.
    Mr Gerhard Adam, comprehension of nature is not for minds that can think only along straight lines.
    Mr Gerhard Adam, you could have done much better for yourself and proved me wrong if you had provided simple materialistic explanations to the limitations of current scientific understanding, pointed out by me.
    To cut it short I again request you to visit www.sciencengod.com/clipboard

    Gerhard Adam
    I already pointed out your errors just in the sections I mentioned.  Furthermore it appears that you can't distinguish between axioms and evidence.  Since you even mentioned division by zero resulting in infinity, it suggest that you can't distinguish between "reality" and the imaginary solutions we can envision in our minds.
    What do you have to say about concept of point, line and plane in Geometry?
    What's to say, they are defined as imaginary, idealized concepts.
    Mr Gerhard Adam, comprehension of nature is not for minds that can think only along straight lines.
    It certainly isn't for people that simply make things up.
    What do you have to say about postulates in Geometry which are essentially unproven statements but have been found useful?
    It appears that you don't know what a postulate is either.

    You can change the subject, but you can't change your erroneous conclusions in that manner.  Wrong is wrong, and you haven't demonstrated anything that represents a logical argument.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard Adam
    I also noticed that you tend to abuse the word "truth" without specific definitions.  You're attempting to use it in the sense of "objective reality" which you also haven't bothered to define.

    In my view, "truth" can only mean "absence of deception" and has no other meaning that is useful.  To attempt to apply it to some kind of "objective reality" is incorrect since it is impossible to determine whether anything that can be measured or experienced is ever actually complete.  Therefore, to claim "truth" is meaningless. 

    The only useful discussion from a scientific perspective relates to the relative degree of accuracy that is being represented.  So that information can be evaluated, recognizing that it is subject to refinement and increased accuracy as better measurements and/or theories are presented.

    You seem to begin from the premise of a worldview that seems acceptable to you and then raise the challenge that it must be disproven.  This is patently wrong.  You must begin from nothing and then provide evidence for your assertions.  If you are formulating axioms then they must be clearly stated and a determination made whether anyone else is willing to accept those statements as axiomatic. 

    Statements like the following are simply naive.  For it to be an accurate description would negate evolution.
    Each and every organism is perfect of its type.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Mr Gerhard Adam , this is a blog, a thread bare discussion is not possible.
    For comprehensive arguments you have to read the book referred to in the link i.e.' Encounter of science with philosophy - A synthetic view"
    You have rightly pointed out our limitations in knowing truth of any subject matter and that is why I have introduced the concept of "deemed truth" which is comprehensive, consistent, coherent natural explanation of a natural phenomenon.
    I have brought consciousness/natural intelligence with in the rubric of natural causality since without it natural phenomenon can never be comprehensively explained.
    In my book I have a chapter on truth bearing chapter no2 which says that truth is not always known by evidence alone. Quite often we know the truth on a rational basis such as all the scientific theories and laws and on plausibility principle such as acceptance of Maxwell's equation by Hertz.
    Mr Gerhard Adams it is better that you read the book or at least the clipboard before commenting further. Do not comment on the basis of your personal views and/or borrowed wisdom.
    Since in my understanding my book provides a comprehensive view of nature and its phenomenon so I expect you to prove me wrong by improving upon it rather then just disagreeing since it is not in accordance with your pesonal views and borrowed wisdom.
    visit: www. sciencengod.com/clipboard

    PS: Mr Gerhard Adams you seem to approach any subject matter in the manner of a judge( as I find in Indian Courts) who is under no obligation to find out the truth and act accordingly and rather passes one line order that evidence placed before this Hon'ble court is insufficient. Regarding perfection of type have you understood contradictions inherent to existence of even the simplest of particles, HAVE YOU READ A. KOLLICKER WHO PUBLISHED HIS VIEWS IN 1864. CAN YOU MEET HIS ARGUMENTS. Can you explain how a gas in Brownian motion conserve its energy when gas molecules are colliding @ 10 raised to the power nine per second and are supposed to loose energy in accordance with Law of conservation of linear momentum. Can you explain what physicists mean by perfect elastic collision and how is this expression consistent with laws of physics.
    Lastly evolution has nothing to do with what you understand by imperfections.

    Gerhard Adam
    There's nothing more comprehensive necessary.  I quoted from YOUR work, and your article and your blog.  It seems that you'd rather sell a book than make a point.  Your logic is incorrect right from the beginning, so there's nothing to discuss until you get that right.

    If you can't make a single sentence logically correct, I'm certainly not going to bother reading chapter after chapter of such nonsense.  Unless and until you can rectify the problem in basic logic, you have nothing.

    Since you think that you can simply make up your own standards of evidence and logic, there's nothing to discuss.  You are clearly living in a fantasy and I won't engage in such conversations.  I've had quite enough of self-proclaimed geniuses that have re-invented science in their own image.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Mr Mr Steve Davis & Mr Gerhard Adam
    The nearest I can come to your fantasies is to identify ability to respond purposefully to environment as the core property of life.
    But that is not the definition of life and to Mr Gerhard Adam, I am sure this statement would appear as nonsense since this statement is beyond your understanding of logic, mathmatics, and evidence.
    I have published 3 blogs:-
    1) Whether God is fact or fiction?
    2) 36 Objections to Einstein's Theory of Relativity.
    3)Why do we need to understand God?
    Please visit: www.sciencengod.com/blog/ to read more

    Steve Davis
    Why are you misrepresenting my view of life?
    I provided a link to that view in the final paragraph of the article. Please read it before discussing this further. 
    I have gone through the link suggested by you and I understand that according to you co-operation is the core property of life. Therefore according to you molecular co-operation is what drives the phenomenon of life.
    In my book I have referred to this phenomenon of co-operation in terms of Law of harmony and relativity. Teilhard de Chardin also referred to this phenomenon in following words:-
    "distinct centre radiating at the core of system of centres"
    Therefore , if you think that co-operation is restricted only to what is living, then you are sadly mistaken. Co operation exists at all levels of nature's hierarchy whether animate or inanimate and is the mandatory condition for existence of anything material.
    Therefore molecular co-operation can't be regarded as defining/distinguishing feature of life. Hence I am not misrepresenting you. I simply don't agree with you. Further, I reiterate my definition of Life but only so long as one is able to improve upon the same.
    Mr Steve Davis, this is a multifaceted subject and a blog is not the forum for an exhaustive discussion, even though all the aspects have been discussed by me in the book "Encounter of Science with Philosophy - A synthetic view"
    I have takekn 35 years to be able to define life to my satisfaction.
    http://www.sciencengod.com

    Steve Davis
    Therefore , if you think that co-operation is restricted only to what is living, then you are sadly mistaken.
    But I did not say that. In fact, if you want to be pedantic about it, my explanation precludes just that, because the molecular cooperation had to occur before the resulting system could exhibit the functions we associate with life.
    Therefore molecular co-operation can't be regarded as defining/distinguishing feature of life.
    You are yet to refute it.
    Further, I reiterate my definition of Life but only so long as one is able to improve upon the same.
    I have explained to you elsewhere why your definition "Life is defined as a functional system consisting of an intelligent molecular ensemble capable of keeping its being and purposeful response to environment" is flawed.
    First, life is not a system, it's a process, but after further thought I'm happy to concede that "functional system" could be a verbose synonym for "process".
    But as I explained in the article above, in discussing life there is a language trap, and your "molecular ensemble capable of keeping its being and purposeful response to environment" is an example of that, because it leads the reader away from the underlying essence of the system.
    " I have taken 35 years to define life to my satisfaction."
    The 35 years have not been wasted; you are almost there.
    But you need to look at the underlying essence of the system, of the ensemble, of the purposeful response.
    That underlying essence is cooperation.