Is Life Essentially Different from Inanimate Matter?

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Discussion by: BillDixon

Science is now so close to constructing cells capable of reproduction from a feedstock of simple molecules that we have to acknowledge that it will eventually be done. In principle, such cells are just as alive as we are, because evolution could lead from them to something like us, albeit with a very large number of steps and over a long, long time. None the less, we know that evolution can do this.

So shouldn't we stop according a special status to "life"? Isn't it only about as logical as saying that there is something special about flight, and that flying machines have an essentially different character to say, steam-engines? It seems silly to us now, but there was a time when flying machines were considered impossible by many people, because flight was "special". Now we know better, and recognise that there are types and degrees of flight in both the natural world and in man-made machines.

If we make the same change in our attitude towards life, and appreciate that some things are not alive, some only just so, some pretty good and some very amazing, and that it's just a spectrum of degrees of organization of certain types of molecules, that would also go a long way towards removing the hocus-pocus associated with the idea that life is special. It would remove the tendency to view life as being in some way supernatural or implying the need for a supernatural agency, the Creator, who breathed "life" into inanimate matter. It's all the same stuff.

For a time, religious belief depended on the support of the anthropocentric view, that is, that God's existence could be deduced from the fact of the priviliged postion of human beings as something special – "a little lower than the angels". Now, many people infer it from the specialness of life, as being priviliged over inanimate matter. I argue that it isn't. Evolution goes right the way back to sodium chloride, methane and ammonia. These are our ancestors. What do people think?

Bill Dixon

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8 COMMENTS

  1. Good Afternoon –

    A question from a lay person with very little scientific background. Is it possible to extend the concept of evolution backward to a time before life existed? We’ve been taught that evolution began after there was life.

    Suppose that, just as there was no first human, there was no first living organism and that random combinations of molecules progressed to simple self-replication that led to organisms undeniably alive without any genesis instant?

    Reread first paragraph above. Should have seen that before posting. Same idea. More reasonable to me that some instant of nonlife to life.

    Just a thought.

    Richard Merrill
    Belize

  2. Richard #1
    Mar 24, 2016 at 6:18 pm

    Suppose that, just as there was no first human, there was no first living organism and that random combinations of molecules progressed to simple self-replication that led to organisms undeniably alive without any genesis instant?

    That is indeed what modern genetics is on the verge of demonstrating.

    There have been various experiments and models of abiogenesis, from the 1953 Miller-Urey experiment onward!



    The Origin of Life – Abiogenesis – Dr. Jack Szostak

    This has been CONFIRMED in Dr. Jack Szostak’s LAB. 2009 Nobel Laurette in medicine for his work on telomerase.

    It’s been 55 years since the Miller-Urey Experiment, and science has made enormous progress on solving the origin of life. This video summarizes one of the best leading models. Yes there are others. Science may never know exactly how life DID start, but we will know many ways how life COULD start. Don’t be fooled by creationist arguments as even a minimal understanding of biology and chemistry is enough to realize they have no clue what they are talking about.




    Jack Szostak (Harvard/HHMI) Part 1: The Origin of Cellular Life on Earth

  3. Richard #1
    Mar 24, 2016 at 6:18 pm

    A question from a lay person with very little scientific background. Is it possible to extend the concept of evolution backward to a time before life existed? We’ve been taught that evolution began after there was life.

    We can extend the history of the evolution of the Universe back for billions of years before the Earth and our Sun formed from their accretion disk.
    The Solar System is formed from primordial hydrogen from the Big-Bang, and the heavy elements created by giant supernova explosions of earlier stars.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graphical_timeline_of_the_universe

    There are also predictions of the Future of our planet, our sun and the Solar-System.

  4. Hi Richard,

    The simplest answer to your question is: yes.

    Evolution means simply: “change over time”.

    The Original Post (OP), or main story if you prefer, extends this model to pose the hypothesis that there is no dividing line between life and inanimate chemistry.

    It seems to me that the main story is both right and wrong.

    Looking at why it’s wrong first: The key word of here is animate. Life moves under its own direction, minerals (including the lumps we call rocks) do not. There is a clear difference between living things and rocks.

    Looking at why the OP is right: It answers the question neatly:

    … appreciate that some things are not alive, some only just so, some pretty good and some very amazing, and that it’s just a spectrum of degrees of organization of certain types of molecules …

    In other words, the difference between animate chemistry and inanimate chemistry is a broad spectrum, and all chemical things can be placed on that spectrum.

    This leads to the obvious thought – well, it’s obvious to you and me:

    … no first living organism … random combinations of molecules progressed to simple self-replication that led to organisms undeniably alive …

    Does this mean that life, or ‘animate chemistry’ is an inevitable consequence of chemistry?

    The short answer to that seems to be: No. But it’s a qualified no, because, well, here we are. The answer to this question is one of probability. Animate chemistry emerging from chemistry is not inevitable, just highly improbable.

    As cosmologists remind us: The Universe is vast. You may think it’s a long way to the Supermarket, but that’s just peanuts compared to the Universe. It is so mind-numbingly enormous that the opportunities for improbable things to happen are also staggeringly immense. In the Universe improbable things happen all the time.

    Peace.

  5. @garza

    Richard. The link in this New Scientist article is to an experiment where scientists spliced together all of the molecules required to re-create the polio virus successfully.

    Scientists have built the virus that causes polio from scratch in the lab, using nothing more than genetic sequence information from public databases and readily available technology.

    Paul and her colleagues used chemical techniques to produce large segments of DNA corresponding to portions of the polio virus. They made one segment themselves, then ordered the rest from a company that routinely machine-generates DNA.

    Once they had all the segments, the team pasted the pieces together to produce one long stretch of DNA. They then used a commercially available enzyme to convert the DNA into RNA – the genetic form of the polio virus.

    Finally, they added the RNA to a soup made from human cells. This enabled the RNA to use the cellular machinery to create the proteins that complete the virus particles. The result was an infectious agent that could destroy cultured human cells and paralyse or kill mice in much the same way as the normal polio virus.

    Life is just a self sustaining chemical reaction.

  6. I’m sure they had their reasons, but does anyone else feel it’s creepy (putting it mildly) that the team chose the polio virus. Instead of, oh, say a virus that affects wasps, or jellyfish, or rats, or some other critter that’s plentiful and annoying and isn’t us?

    Yes, of course, it’s perfectly safe. All that containment, all those precautions. Andromeda Strain? Nonsense, that’s just Fiction.

  7. One of the problems with answering this question is that we do not have an absolute definition of what constitutes life. Nor do I think such a definition would be necessarily either practical or helpful. The ability to reproduce is commonly quoted but that might even exclude myself if I were to have a severe enough testicular accident, or just a vasectomy. There are also problems which have been explored in the world of science fiction for many decades as to what point do intelligent machines attain the attributes of life, or consciousness. Iain M Banks based his Culture novels on advanced computers, Ship’s Minds, which were considered to be people every bit as much as organic beings. It may in fact turn out that the ultimate evolution of organic life is actually non organic life and that we are just stepping stones to super advanced computers that exceed our intellectual abilities while not being restricted by our fragile organic bodies.

    So we have a number of issues ranging from whether viruses are living or non living, whether intelligence and sentience alone is sufficient to be called life, how the ability to consume raw materials from the environment, grow, reproduce, affect ones own environment or improve it factor into any such definition.

    In the end all any definition does is exclude some things and exclude others from what is really just a spectrum of gray shades with no clear black and white. The definition just sets an arbitrary split point and such things tend to need to change over time as we learn more. Religion is notably bad at making sweeping definitions which are then considered as gospel and can never change. Science is much smarter and evolves over time, as indeed does life itself.

    I have little doubt that we will gradually become more adept at making molecules that display life like properties and that eventually we will find out how self replicating molecules can arise from individual chemical elements given a large enough “test tube” and sufficient time and then evolve further under their own steam. At this point all creation myths become redundant.

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