What Is Life?

Trigger warning for people who have been traumatized by or become anxious around animals.

Adalbert Dragon/Shutterstock

Life is incredibly precious, you realize seconds after meeting a cat like this and knowing that you might come out on the losing end here.

The usual way we see our lives — as something to get through each day — evaporates under this jaguar’s frank stare.

Welcome to the food chain, pal!

Like it or not, you and I are part of the great web of life.

Individually and as groups, we try to avoid the scary and unpleasant parts by insulating ourselves from Nature as much as possible. This often works, too.

However, Nature is bigger than us. Bottom line: like any other species, H. sapiens eats and can be eaten.

Now for the good news.

“Cave lions suck!” “Bears, too! — Prehistoric people. (Image:
EOL, CC 2.0)

Human beings have been dealing successfully with predators like this jaguar and even worse for hundreds of millennia. The survivors of such encounters have passed along to us a built-in emergency mode that gives our famously big brains a chance to think their way through a crisis.

Of course, since we live in a very different world from theirs, such responses sometimes do us more harm than good.

That’s rough for some people, but evolution works on groups, not individuals. (Fitch and Ayala; Simpson) It’s going to take a little more time for humanity to evolve better ways to deal with new kinds of stress.

An internal dialogue

Adalbert Dragon/Shutterstock

Meanwhile, there’s this jaguar.

Stress hormones surge and your brain immediately goes into overdrive:

  • Did I lock my car, out in the parking lot?” (Don’t panic. Focus.)
  • “Okay. Exactly how hungry is Life feeling at the moment?” (Can’t tell.)
  • “What’s its mood?” (Please. It’s a cat — who knows? But it’s definitely interested in you.)
  • “I can see that. Where’s the nearest tree?” (Over there, and it’s got a low-hanging big branch, you descendant of primates. But…)
  • “That’s enough. Can this cat climb?” (Unlike, say, a lion, jaguars can climb quite well, and evolution has also made them good sprinters. Note, too, the powerful and well-muscled body — “Will you shut up!!! — I was just pointing out that you can’t fight this beast; flight is your best chance. In any encounter with a cat big enough to harm you, just move away slowly. Don’t turn your back. If nothing else, each backward step gives you more of a head start. But…)
  • “Not now. All righty, I am now taking the first step back with one foot and — AAAGH! WHAT’S THAT!!! (Just the janitor’s cart, Tarzan. I was trying to tell you. You’re in the big cat pavilion at the city zoo. Your subliminal mind picked up those window reflections in the jaguar’s eyes and was trying to point out that you’re indoors.) “‘Car keys’ and ‘indoors’ are two different concepts! (Must have made sense subliminally.) You fell for it at first, too, Rational Voice In My Head! (Forget it. All that nervous energy you just burned needs to be replaced. Let’s find a food vendor.)

And off you go, continuing the inner dialogue that all of us sometimes have with ourselves.

But the jaguar continues to stare as you head towards the door (after you’ve apologized to the janitor, who seems amused: apparently other people get that primitive reaction to their first close-up view of a big cat, too).

This apex predator totally understood your instinctive fear, Monkey Person, and was ready to respond to any move you might have made. Its ancestors have passed down helpful genes, too.

Life is a little like an arms race that way. No one ever holds the advantage for long.

What this big cat does not understand are things like a protective glass panel to keep both visitors and animals safe, or what a zoo is, or firearms and snares, or why Monkey People are sometimes cruel, sometimes merciful.

Whatever. Since its evolution emphasized muscles over brain power, the jaguar quickly loses interest after you’re out of sight and eventually wanders off for a nap.

While dozing, perhaps it says to itself, “Funny old thing, Life. No matter where you are, whenever you look at it, there it is, looking back at you.”

Defining “life”

So, life is — genes? DNA?

Weeeeeelllllll. Think about that jaguar encounter. Could “polynucleotide chains”(as Dr. Wikipedia currently defines DNA) produce all that?

Just what is a nucleotide, anyway, and what does it have to do with jaguars, the world around us, and our own complexity?

The shortest, simplest answer I can give you is this: go get your PhD in molecular biology and apply for a grant, because all of this involves intense biochemistry and also is a very hot research topic right now.

There are more questions than answers, too.

Experts have learned a lot during their studies, but they still don’t know what Life is — other than that it usually involves, in each cell:

  • Molecules like DNA and/or RNA.
  • A variety of other molecules and tiny structures
  • Some incredibly complex biological mechanisms that copy the cell, check the duplicate one, and correct any errors they find.

Valentina Kru/Shutterstock

Cells are very complicated. Over geologic time, and with the right “game rules” (using our cat-on-a-sports-field analogy again), it’s quite possible that cells could be building blocks of a complex, diverse world.

For our simple purposes, let’s just call that intracellular material “stuff” whenever possible. Our questions, after all, have to do with the world outside the microscope.

Anyway, while scientists are very knowledgeable about the “stuff,” they still can’t agree on what Life is.

At least a hundred scientific definitions exist, but almost every one of them is different in important ways from the others. (Trifonov; Walker et al.)

What’s really interesting is that, while sorting through the cellular “stuff,” boffins have found some vitally important biochemical similarities among all three domains. (Maizels and Weiner)

Mike Goad, public domain.

In other words, they say that these three groups — now looking as different as a leaf, a jaguar, and some colorful microbe basking in the hot waters of Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring — all had a common ancestor — LUCA, or “last universal common ancestor” — back in the days when Earth was young.

We must be getting close to the start of it all, close to actually being able to say what Life really is!

But guess what? Walker et al. write that LUCA was already “a highly evolved cellular life form, complete with genetic translation machinery.”

In plain language, something or multiple somethings had to exist so that the cellular “stuff” that molecular fossils are made of could evolve. Without evidence from those fossils, we simply can’t know what that primordial material was. (Walker et al.)

But we do know it was alive, because the cellular “stuff” did evolve.

Sigh. Life is so very, very much older than us.

No matter how far back we go, trying to discover what it is, we find Life already in existence, staring back at us.

Of course they’ve tried lab experiments and computer modelling, too. This has been going on since at least the 1950s. But all anyone, even NASA in recent times, has been able to do is synthesize simple biomolecules, nowhere near the complexity of even the most basic living cell. (Walker et al.)

It would help to know what ancient Earth’s geochemistry was like, and what sort of biomolecules it could produce.

What with plate tectonics, weathering, the many physical effects life has on both land and sea, etc., such evidence is long gone.

But the whole Solar System formed at around the same time as Earth did, and in this System we have discovered extraterrestrial rocky (and icy) archives from those ancient times that are still well preserved.

If we can get there, is it possible to read the record correctly? Does it contain more information about our own beginnings?

This is perhaps the only scenario where it truly would be wonderful to find Life staring back at us.

Unless it attacked, of course. But that’s probably just a movie thing, too.

Right, NASA? Uh, NASA? SETI? Captain Picard? Greenpeace?

Wheeee! We’re having too much fun to come to the phone.

Read the whole thing

Featured image: Adalbert Dragon/Shutterstock


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Durzyńska, J., and Goździcka-Józefiak, A. (2015). Viruses and cells intertwined since the dawn of evolution. Virology journal, 12(1), 1-10.

Fitch, W. M., and Ayala, F. J. 1995. Preface. Tempo and Mode in Evolution: Genetics and Paleontology 50 Years After Simpson. Washington: National Academy Press.

Maizels, N., and Weiner, A. M. 1994. Phylogeny from function: evidence from the molecular fossil record that tRNA originated in replication, not translation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 91(15), 6729-6734.

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Walker, S. I., Packard, N., and Cody, G. D. 2017. Re-conceptualizing the origins of life. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rsta.2016.0337 .

Wessner, D. R. 2010. The origins of viruses. Nature Education, 3(9), 37. https://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/the-origins-of-viruses-14398218/

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