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By Jim Downard
It’s a simple question with a very not simple answer. Scientists and philosophers have grappled with this for some time, so all I can do is weigh in with my take.
Life as an organic replicator seems as good a shorthand one as any, though even if a particular organism is incapable of replicating (some defect in its biology) that wouldn’t make it not alive, would it?
Note I naturally spoke of an organism. Living cells have interacting pieces that involve metabolism (shuffling chemicals around to perform the processes we call living) and replication (making offspring that carry on the processes after the generating organism is gone).
In a basic way, we know life when we see it, sort of. Crystalline growth doesn’t make the grade, but viruses (which often resemble little industrial machines) skirt the line because they have features (being RNA or DNA) that make them functionally a blueprint ready to be acted on by the machinery in the cells we all deem living. Scientists are still unclear whether all viruses are merely spin-offs of living systems, or whether some of them might be the holdover from the earliest time when life “as we know it” got started around 4 billion years ago.
Viewers of the classic 1970 film “The Andromeda Strain” will be familiar with the idea that life might occur in a crystalline form, rather than the bundles of amino acids that make up our protein-based system. That is science fiction, though, and such a critter may not be possible. We only know the DNA/RNA based replicators of life on earth, and cannot say with absolutely certainty whether or not other ways of being “life” are possible. At least not yet.
I will confess to be a carbon-water chauvinist, someone who suspects that all life everywhere will involve carbon polymers and water as a moderating medium, as the only system that will work. But until we can get out more in the neighborhood (to nearby stars at least) to check, there is peril to taking our local example as an absolute paradigm.
If you’d like an even glibber philosophical definition: just as I contend that the Universe is what Mathematics does for a living, and Time is how the Universe keeps everything from happening all at once, Life is what carbon, water and trace elements get up to in their spare time.