The Sciences

Do I Not Live?

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollJan 13, 2012 12:38 PM

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Can we define "life" in just three words? Carl Zimmer of Loom fame has written a piece for Txchnologist in which he reports on an interesting attempt: biologist Edward Trifonov looked at other people's definitions, rather than thinking about life itself. Sifting through over a hundred suggested definitions, Trifonov looked for what they had in common, and boiled life down to "self-reproduction with variations." Just three words, although one of them is compound so I would argue that morally it's really four. We've discussed this question before, and the idea of reproduction looms large in many people's definitions of life. But I don't think it really belongs. If you built an organism from scratch, that was as complicated and organic and lifelike as any living thing currently walking this Earth, except that it had no reproductive capacity, it would be silly to exclude it from "life" just because it was non-reproducing. Even worse, I realized that I myself wouldn't even qualify as alive under Trifonov's definition, since I don't have kids and don't plan on having any. (And no, those lawsuits were frivolous and the court records were sealed.) It's the yellow-taxi problem: in a city where all cars are blue except for taxis, which are yellow, it's tempting to define "taxi" as "a yellow car." But that doesn't get anywhere near the essence of taxi-ness. Likewise, living species generally reproduce themselves; but that's not really what makes them alive. Not that I have the one true definition (and maybe there shouldn't be one). But any such definition better capture the idea of an ongoing complex material process far from equilibrium, or it's barking up the wrong Tree.

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