“Alive” is easy to recognize but hard to define.
by Jack Hoehn
The difference between an apple tree and a fence post, or a rabbit and a brick, is that one of those is alive and one is not. But what we can quickly recognize is not easy to define. What exactly is life?
The descendants of Shem, or Semites (or the descendants of Shem’s grandson Eber, Hebrews) identified life with respiration—breathing. Animals and mankind become a “living soul” (nephesh) when given the ability to respire or breathe. When they “give up the ghost,” or stop breathing, they die and are no longer alive.
The Greeks saw things made of four elements—earth, water, air, fire—that, in combinations, they speculated, made everything. Solids/liquids/gases/plasma are used to make living things but do not define what life is.
Daniel Koshland tells this story.
“What is the definition of life? I remember a conference of the scientific elite that sought to answer that question. Is an enzyme alive? Is a virus alive? Is a cell alive? After many hours of launching promising balloons that defined life in a sentence, followed by equally conclusive punctures of these balloons, a solution seemed at hand: ‘The ability to reproduce—that is the essential characteristic of life,’ said one statesman of science.
Everyone nodded in agreement that the essential of a life was the ability to reproduce, until one small voice was heard. ‘Then one rabbit is dead. Two rabbits—a male and female—are alive but either one alone is dead?’
At that point, we all became convinced that although everyone knows what life is, there is no simple definition of life.”
Eric Hedin suggests six characteristics that show the difference between a rock and algae on the rock. Living things are things that can:
- Take in food and metabolize it for energy.
- Respond to the environment.
- Change, grow, mature, adapt, or evolve with time.
- Store, organize, process complex specified information. Hedin explains that information is stored on the surface of the moon. There are pockmarks recording that there has been meteoric bombardment of the moon in the past. But that information is not organized, and the moon does not process or react to that information, it is not complex, and it is not specified. The letters of the alphabet can be stored randomly. But only when they have been processed and organized into a specific pattern recognizable to a reader as words in understandable sentences is that complex specified information.
- Reproduce. Queen Christina of Sweden, when told that French philosophers insisted that living organisms were merely chemical machines, pointed to her finely made mechanical clock and said, “See to it that it produces for me offspring.” She was right. Only living things can reproduce. Some, such as rabbits, need a sexual pair, but other living things split and reproduce without any partner. No material entity has ever been assembled that mimics the cell’s ability to self-replicate.
- Die. We know something was alive when we see the changes that start seconds after it dies. Life is powerful. Life is fragile.
Is fire alive? In some sense, fire can do five of the six [a forest fire takes in fuel and turns it into heat, responds (to rivers, rain, aircraft waterbombs by changing direction), changes, sort of reproduces itself or spreads, and, hopefully, finally dies]. But fire is not alive, because it does not store, organize, or process complex specified information.
All six of those things identifying life are amazing. We see them happen, we can study them, and we intuitively know what is alive and what is not. But how non-living materials such as carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur, and phosphorus became organized into complex specified information able to produce all those wonders life does is another piece I am using to construct a scientific temple fit for worship.
Chemistry had to be assembled to be fit for life, before the first cell was created. Six of the ten main life chemicals are in the “top 10” most abundant elements in the universe, so one could speculate that life just happened from what was common and lying around. But the 92 naturally occurring elements themselves appear precisely and elegantly designed. The periodic table is not random but very organized. And the elements used for life combine covalently, not ionically.
This version of the periodic table of the elements shows covalent bonding chemicals in yellow. The little blue stars show some of those used in life. (But more than 20 of them are necessary for complex life function.) It is a highly organized plan to build stable structures for life. If you are not a chemist, this means that the bonds between covalent atoms (those in yellow) such as carbon and oxygen and nitrogen don’t move. Like Legos, you can use them to build shaped molecules and polymers. These form structures whose shapes determine or make possible a function. They allow structures such as DNA and RNA and the many miracle machines in every cell to function as if they were locks, keys, gates, fences, gears, motors, zippers, elevators, scissors, or welding machines.
Click here to watch an animation of how these structured biochemicals work.
Biochemicals are the proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, and nucleic acids that perform the functions associated with life. They also manage metabolism to make cellular energy to do the work of the cell. Evolutionists were excited to find that these little but complex cellular batteries have their own genes separate from the DNA in the nucleus of the cell. Some of the mitochondrial genes in present cells are similar to some of the ancient bacterial cells, suggesting possible ancestry—that eukaryotic cells got their mitochondria by somehow capturing (eating?) ancient bacteria.
Evolution problem: where did mitochondria come from? Solved, they get them from ancient bacteria.
Okay, but pardon me, where did the ancient bacteria get them from?
Determined that all life evolved, evolutionary biologists offer suppositions and hypotheses for all of this, but at best the topic of how and when and why these things may have happened is at a minimum “controversial,” not by Creationists but among evolutionary biologists themselves.
The Anthropic Principle
Without religious bias, scientists have acknowledged that the universe seems finely tuned for the existence of life—with the precise fine tuning of the fundamental physical constants. Because this would imply that our universe was designed for conscious beings like us, the no-designer impulse has been forced to create multiverses—infinite other unconscious producing universes, and ours is just one lucky result that created consciousness. If you accept that an infinity of universes permits anything (that idea itself is controverted), this may have provided a possible “escape” from the implication that our universe is purposefully designed. A Wikipedia article on the Anthropic Principle partly explains the naturalist/materialist mind when it admits, “Accepting fine tuning as a brute fact is less astonishing than the idea of an intelligent creator.”
That is, they admit “fine tuning” only as “a brute fact” (in the sense of a “brute” as an unreasoning, unthinking creature), but their dogma stops them from admitting that whatever kind of “brute” might be behind this universe, it does not appear to be unreasoning, unthinking at all. Instead of a “brute fact,” how about “a very well organized and purposefully designed” fact?
So be it—I fully agree, an intelligent creator would be astonishing indeed. But I for one, and perhaps you, are not unwilling to be astonished. Life in its complexity in a universe that appears to be designed for it is a scientific inference that could lead one to respect, gratitude, humility, and even to worship.
This is #3 in series on worship guided by science. (#2 is here.) Jack is Dr. John Byron Hoehn, MD, CCFP (Canada), DTM&H (London). His book Adventist Tomorrow—Fresh Ideas While Waiting for Jesus is in its second edition and continues to be the most popular book Adventist Today has published. Jack’s wife, Deanne, has also published a book called Loving You—I Went to Africa, about their 13 years as medical missionaries. These books and others are available at SHOP in the menu.