Magazine article The Spectator

After Much Deliberation, I Have Come to the Conclusion That Life Does Not Exist

Magazine article The Spectator

After Much Deliberation, I Have Come to the Conclusion That Life Does Not Exist

Article excerpt

This January Prometheus paid our era a call. Scientists (it was reported at the end of the month) have 'announced the creation of a synthetic chromosome, knocking down one of the final hurdles to building the world's first artificial life form'. In Maryland, at the institute of an American biologist and entrepreneur, Craig Venter, a team are now working on the final step to 'create' life. They aim to transplant into a cell the synthetic DNA they create, in the hope it will 'boot up' the cell and take control of its growth and reproduction.

At last. The breathing-into-clay of the Promethean fire; the insertion of the ghost into the machine. Already a name has been suggested for this putative organism, 'Synthia', the suggestion coming from ETC, a Canadian bioethics group who protest that Dr Venter is venturing where mankind should never go. ETC's head said: ' For the first time, God has competition.' Unquestioned in the commentary that has followed is the assumption that some kind of a Rubicon is about to be crossed: that science stands at the threshold of a qualitative leap.

Across what chasm are we to leap? This is the question which has teased me since.

To adjudicate between Venter and ETC one must first define terms. What, then, does this word 'life' mean? What it is about the idea we think so special? Lying awake in the small hours last week, I tried to dissect the word and its many uses, and extract the essence of meaning linking all of them. But I could not.

Finally, laid out on the laboratory table in my mind's eye, were all the ways we use the word, all the associations it carries, all the things it can seem to mean. But not one of them on inspection appeared critical, the key to our understanding of the term, the irreducible core of its meaning.

And I had to conclude that not only can the question 'What is life?' not be answered, it cannot even arise. This is because the word 'life' is, quite literally, meaningless. There is no fire. There is no ghost.

Ask yourself, as I did, what might be the essential characteristic of what we mean by 'life'.

Is it consciousness? No. Bacterium are not conscious. Nor can the characteristic be 'feeling' because lichen cannot feel.

Is it mobility? No, plants and clams cannot move. Icebergs can.

Self-propulsion, then? No, geysers do that.

How about the ability to grow? No, I've watched feathery strands of sulphur, for all the world like yellow tendrils, growing in the sulphur-dioxide wind on a volcano's edge.

Is it an object's ability to respond to its environment? No, a weather-vane does this, as do waves in the sea, or the shifting crescents of sand dunes. There are rocks which absorb sunlight when the sun shines, and luminesce in the dark. Water finds its path to the sea, feeling its way round obstacles.

Is it an element of selfishness, self-defence, self-promotion? No, a flag, flapping with the wind, is taking the only course which will protect it from ripping. Volcanic plugs promote themselves above a landscape where softer rocks have crumbled.

Is it the ability to propagate and make copies? No, a mule or a eunuch, or the last man on Earth, can do neither, yet they are alive. A fire, which is not, can shower sparks and be reborn; an echo can re-echo; a rolling snowball can grow and fragment, and the fragments roll and grow likewise. And is there any reason in principle why we might not design a machine which could manufacture a replica of itself? …

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