In an earlier article titled What is Life?, I took the reader through a reasoning process to finally arrive at the conclusion that, contrary to general expectation, finding a definition of life is not an overwhelmingly difficult problem at all because life  is a remarkably simple concept – independent spontaneous cooperation.
I think that finding a definition has been seen as difficult because those considering it have confused the definition with the underlying significance of life, which some might call life’s purpose, when the two are almost separate questions.
This confusion, this perception that life is just too hard to explain, has reduced our most inspiring thinkers to the status of mere mortals.
The great Stephen Jay Gould for example, without equal as a writer of science, wrote in his Ever Since Darwin essays, “Natural selection dictates that organisms act in their own self-interest. They know nothing of such abstract concepts as ‘for the good of the species.’ They ‘struggle’ continuously to increase the representation of their genes at the expense of their fellows. And that, for all its baldness, is all there is to it; we have discovered no higher principle in nature.”
You could be forgiven for thinking that this foolishness was written not by Gould but by a selfish gene theorist, but after all, it was published in 1978 at the height of selfish gene euphoria. I doubt he would have worded it quite that way a decade or so later after opposing the gene-centrics, but that view of life would, I think, have broad support in the science community.
So what’s wrong with it?
I referred earlier to the definition of life and the significance of life as being almost separate questions. The link between the two is found in the characteristics of life - metabolism, homeostasis and reproduction, consideration of which led to the definition of life as cooperation. In their most basic forms these characteristics are little more than chemical processes, but with the increasing complexity of life forms into “advanced” organisms and societies, we see that they are functions of considerable significance.
Metabolism refers to the intake, distribution, and consumption of energy within a cell or an organism. Homeostasis refers to the capacity to maintain the internal stability of the cell or organism. It does not take much thought to see that while these are not functions “for the good of the species” that so concerned Gould and many others, they certainly are functions for the greater good. Arguments over “the good of the species” have diverted everyone’s attention away from the significance of the indisputable cooperation and “greater good” activities that underpin all life.
The constituent parts of a cell or organism act in such a way as to protect and nurture the entity to which they belong. They cooperate to protect the life of the entity, and further, to extend that life by reproduction. This holds true even when considering the life of a community. Social contracts for example, are conscious and deliberate attempts to achieve social stability (homeostasis) through an equitable distribution and consumption of resources (metabolism) within the community. Social groups also reproduce, as we see for example, with the spread of human groups across the globe, or even with the spread of groups within groups such as Rotary and Lions clubs. (See Notes)
That’s where Stephen Jay Gould went so astray in the quote above. Life is not about gene increase because life is not confined to biological organisms. Even for biological organisms genes are merely a means to an end.
The “purpose” of life is life. To elaborate, the purpose of life is to produce further life.
Another great thinker, E. O. Wilson, came within a whisker of this conclusion in On Human Nature, but, like Gould, was distracted by the malign influence of selfish gene theory. He wrote in the opening pages; “The reflective person knows that his life is in some incomprehensible manner guided through a biological ontogeny, a more or less fixed order of life stages. He senses that with all the drive, wit, love, pride, anger, hope and anxiety that characterise the species he will in the end be sure only of helping to perpetuate the same cycle.”
There it is; life is about life, but expressed in negative terms due to the deficiencies of his theoretical base. If Wilson had focused on that passage his book could have achieved greatness, instead he drifted, with some extremely interesting and useful material, but all of it influenced by Hamiltonian theory.
In the chapter on altruism for example, we find this; “…a large percentage of medals were awarded to men who threw themselves on top of hand grenades to shield comrades, aided the rescue of others from battle sites at the cost of certain death to themselves, or made other extraordinary decisions that led to the same fatal end…One is tempted to leave the matter there, to accept the purest elements of altruism as simply the better side of human nature…But scientists are not accustomed to declaring any phenomenon off limits, and it is precisely through the deeper analysis of altruism that sociobiology seems best prepared at this time to make a novel contribution.”
Deeper analysis? Novel contribution? Sometimes it’s better to make no contribution at all than a novel one, for the explanation that followed for the outlined acts of heroism was based on kin selection! Kin selection as a stand-alone theory cannot be substantiated; so to use it as an explanation for altruism among non-kin is stretching credibility beyond breaking point. (See Evolutionary Biology – Home of the Idiot Savant for a demolition of kin selection.)
It’s clear from Wilson’s less-than-inspiring explanation for these types of behaviours that orthodox theory, even when resorting to novel contributions, cannot come up with an answer. But if we put orthodox theory to one side for a moment and focus on life itself, the problem of extreme altruism is solved.
The process at work is the universal tendency of all life to produce, protect, and nurture life. Differences between life forms do not seem to affect this tendency. We humans for example, like to keep pets and nurture plants not just because we enjoy doing so - we feel a need to have other life forms nearby and to interact with them. But this impulse is not restricted to humans. Instances of animals adopting the young of other species are well documented. These behaviours exist because organisms in their natural state feel a need to contribute to the greater good.
At this point some readers will be objecting that this view is incorrect because they feel no such need. But this is not an issue of ideology or philosophy or sentimentalism. We are dealing with an issue of basic biology. Whether you work for a business, own a business, or live alone on a mountain-top, you contribute to the greater good. This is a biological necessity. Committed individualists can be as contemptuous of this as they like, but every time a lone bear squats in the woods it is contributing to the cycle of life. Every time you break wind, you are speaking on behalf of the countless micro-organisms that call your gut home.
You are an eco-system within a system. Accordingly, the sense of individuality you hold so dear is no more than an evolutionary adaptation that works at one level of the chain of systems – it has no universal or enduring substance.
Of course, questions remain as to why this should be so. Why is it that the tendency to produce life and to nurture life is universal? Why is the concept of “the greater good” central to life?
Those questions will no doubt occupy the minds of the philosophers of science for a considerable period yet.
It might surprise some readers to see service clubs mentioned in this context, but they are actually remarkably relevant. Service clubs are a sub-group whose purpose is to contribute to the protection and nurturing of the greater group. They assist the stability of the greater group by channelling resources to areas of need. Metabolism and homeostasis in other words.  Service clubs are an example of life producing its own protective mechanisms.
During the writing of this piece I heard a story that’s worth pondering. It concerned a woman who recently died after sixty years attached to a life support system. She contracted polio at age twenty two, the year she was to marry. Her husband-to-be stayed with her for five years before leaving to raise a family. Despite being a keen dancer prior to her illness, for sixty years she kept at her bedside no mementoes of those happier times. Instead there was a single photo, a picture of her dressed in the gown she was to wear on the day of her wedding. I think that the responses of these two people to the circumstances of their lives, tells us a good deal about the need for life to create life. 
Comments following Dave Deamer’s article “Sergey Tsokolov: A Brief Life in Science” are also remarkably consistent with the view put here:
"Thanks for this moving article. What is life?… Look at the baby ( a mini Sergey!), he seems to be asking himself the same question—what the heck am I doing here? And at the same time, he is the answer. Perhaps that's what life is (not very scientific, i know, but that is what i felt finishing your article and looking at the photograph).
jpmrb (not verified) | 11/01/09 | 17:57 PM
To jpmrb -- Your comment captured beautifully what I was trying to express. Thanks so much -- I hope Lada will read what you have written.
Dave Deamer | 11/01/09 | 22:04 PM