What Is Life?

By Andrew Rooke

Many of us have had the distressing experience of viewing the body of a deceased relative or friend at a funeral. We gaze down at the body with our mind's eye filled with scenes of the living person. At such a time it is very clear to us that the body before us and the living person of fond memory are not the same. The essence of our loved one has departed -- but how do we define that essence? What is life?

Most readers will be amazed, as I was, to learn that science has no definitive answer to this most basic question. Science minutely describes the mechanics of living but cannot say what is the motivating force driving the machine. Nor can science define life by the lack of it -- death -- for there is conflict in scientific opinion about what constitutes the moment of death in human beings. One hundred years ago doctors defined death as the moment when the heart stops beating, whereas today it is defined more in terms of brain activity, though some cells remain alive longer than that. It seems obvious to say that things like bacteria are alive, but how about most viruses, which have DNA but cannot replicate themselves without a living host, and prions which lack life-organizing DNA? How about computer viruses that have many of the features of living things, but have no form that we would recognize as a biological entity? Popular entertainment has taken up this theme in recent movies such as the Terminator and Matrix series which compare, contrast, and conflict biological and mechanized entities. Even here, both the machines and humans recognize that there are aspects of living organisms which machines don't seem to share. One poetically-minded scientist said recently: "we should never confuse a living creature -- a plant or animal or human -- with a machine; for a machine, although very complicated, has essentially lost its holistic, 'living' structure by decoherence and averaging out. A living creature is more like a poem, which reveals further dimensions and expresses new properties at every level of organization: letter, word, sentence, verse."*

*H.-P. Durr, "Inanimate and Animate Matter," What is Life?, p. 165.

A book I came across at the hospital library where I work, What Is Life?: Scientific Approaches and Philosophical Positions (H.-P. Durr, F.-A. Popp, and W. Schommers, eds., World Scientific Publishing Co., River Edge, NJ, 2002), gives a contemporary scientific view of this age old question. It is based on complex and technical discussions among German scientists and philosophers in the late 1990s which resolve themselves into three major areas of current scientific investigation:

Scientists have long known that living cells and organisms emit electrical fields. This fact has been used by doctors for more than fifty years with electrocardiographs and more recently with sophisticated mapping of electrical signals in the brain. Long ago Aristotle, building on Plato's theory of Forms (eide), speculated that the physical form of an organism is the actualized result of its potential form immanent in matter. In the 16th century the physician, naturalist, and philosopher Paracelsus referred to a spiritual body or "archeus" as the mold of the physical body. At the beginning of the 20th century this idea was revived by embryologist Hans Driesch, who believed that the chemical messengers of life processes, the genes, were only the material components of body building. The controlling factor was nonmaterial and nonphysical. In the 1920s biologist Alexander Gurwitsch introduced the term "morphogenetic fields" to describe the controlling force behind living forms, a term revived in the 1980s by biologist Rupert Sheldrake. While nonphysical, informational fields remain controversial, researchers today are studying how our cells use electromagnetic fields to communicate within each individual cell and at a distance to build organs and bodies; and how external electrical fields, such as those generated by power lines and mobile phones, may subtly influence the body's own electrical fields.

Light is inherently associated with electromagnetism. In the 1920s Gurwitsch pointed to the fact that cells emit light and that this might influence cell division and the construction of living organisms. He called this light "mitogenetic radiation," which has gained new scientific interest with improved instrumentation and become the science of biophotonics. Biophotons -- weak but coherent electromagnetic waves emitted by all living systems -- seem closely associated with the physiological and biological functions of cells as living things. Contemporary European researchers, primarily Fritz-Albert Popp and his team, have suggested that biophotons may provide the basis for understanding the high rate of information transference within and among cells necessary for triggering metabolism, growth, and differentiation.

Speculation on the importance of invisible bioelectrical fields and light in the construction and maintenance of living organisms may have a familiar ring to students of theosophy. Theosophical literature holds that the physical body is built and remains within the mold of an invisible astral body. Both bodies are sustained and animated with currents of life energy or prana interpenetrating and circulating within and beyond the physical body in a marvelous, kaleidoscopically changing interplay of light and color. Life, rather than being separate from its material manifestation, is the spiritual force behind everything, manifesting in a myriad of ways as the various lives and forms of energy no matter in what form, material or invisible. "Life as an entity or process is all that is, the basis or essence of all that is -- beginningless and endless. It is the spiritual electricity, or the vital swabhava, of the monad, which it pours forth out of itself and thus produces the individual characteristics of every entity, celestial or terrestrial" (Encyclopedic Theosophical Glossary). Life may be called the innumerable manifold phases of consciousness in time and space. G. de Purucker comments:

Consciousness is the Originant, and this Originant, by its own inherent powers and energies, faculties and attributes, produces life out of itself: not at any one time specifically, but continuously forever, and coincidently with its own existing duration. Consciousness and life together originate and produce thereafter from themselves what men call the manifestations of force or energy, which in its turn deposits or lays down, so to say, the matters and substances of the Universe much as wine will deposit its lees. -- The Esoteric Tradition, p. 749

The proposed existence of bioelectric and morphogenetic fields, with cells communicating along pathways of light, suggests a different view of evolution than the Darwinian. Instead of constant struggle and the survival of the fittest, the expansion of coherent states, harmony, and cooperative endeavor may be the dominant factors in evolutionary development. What Is Life? illustrates this with a variety of experiments and examples from recent observations in nature of social association, symbiosis, and cooperation between animals and animals, animals and plants, plants and plants, and plants and fungi found throughout the world. An impressive example from the microworld is related by journalist Reinhard Eichelbeck. The amoeba-like entities forming common slime mold normally pass their lives creeping about and feeding on bacteria. But when food runs short, a most amazing phenomenon is observed:

As soon as one of the amoeba starts to starve, it sends out a chemical message. Other amoeba that pick up the message pass it on by producing the messenger-substance too. As soon as it has reached a certain concentration, all the amoeba in the vicinity flock together -- sometimes up to 100,000 heads -- forming a sluglike creature.
All acting in a coordinated and synchronized manner, they now move like a tiny little slug, guided by their light- and heat-sensors, toward a warm and sunny spot. Having found one, they form a hemisphere out of which a stalk starts growing, by the way of some amoeba straightening themselves up, then becoming hard and dying. Others climb up on them, harden and die, too, and so on.
After about 20% of the amoeba sacrifice themselves like this in favor of the group, the remaining ones climb up the stalk, and form a capsule, and transform into spores. Sometime later the capsule opens and the spores are carried away, by wind and rain, to more abundant pastures. Each spore turns into an amoeba again -- and the game starts anew.
Famine and distress do not result here in a Darwinian "struggle for life," but are overcome by a peaceful solution, by cooperation and mutual aid, including self-sacrifice in favour of the group. -- What Is Life? p. 15

With such remarkable examples from contemporary research, is it too much of a stretch in imagination to envisage that one day science will recognize consciousness at work everywhere and that everything is "alive," though its level of consciousness and outward appearance may differ tremendously from ours?

(From Sunrise magazine, December 2003/January 2004; copyright © 2003 Theosophical University Press)

Science Menu

Consider the manifold consequences of our cooperation with one another. The stores are open; the buses are running; people show up for work; children are dropped off at school, educated, and picked up again; most people are fed, clothed, and housed, and those who can't do these things for themselves often receive help. Toddlers, sick people, and the senile elderly are not left to roam the streets unattended; their relatives, friends, or institutions care for them. Cooperation is the norm, an art form so commonplace and so expected that we are no longer even aware of it. We institutionalize our tending in professions such as nursing, teaching, child care and elder care. We institutionalize our aggressive and protective side as well, in military and civilian protective services, for example. But on the whole, daily life is largely devoted to the cooperative exchange of goods and services that help us to achieve a better life. The most marked characteristics of human daily life are caring and cooperation, not the unbridled selfishness that many describe as "human nature." -- Shelley E. Taylor