Thursday, October 21, 2021
What is the sense and significance of life
on Earth, and human life in particular? *

Sense and Significance

Gurdjieff's question (aka the meaning of life) has a large number of proposed answers from many different cultural and ideological backgrounds, and has produced much philosophical, scientific, and theological speculation throughout history (to no avail).
The Simple answer: Evolving from Unconscious Procreation to Conscious Procreation.

What is Life?
  Chapter 6 ♦ A Definition of Life    © 1979 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved   
6.0 A Definition of Life

The ubiquity of life

manfred clynes 283In earlier chapters we considered the astronomical environment which extraterrestrial lifeforms must cope with. Other galaxies, stars, and countless planets appear amenable, if not perfectly hospitable, to life.

Since no ETs have been detected outside the Earth to date, it might be argued that any statements regarding the ubiquity of life in the universe must necessarily be pure speculation. But this is not so. We have the incredibly good fortune to be alive at the first moment in history when this tantalizing question can be approached with rigor and in some detail.20 Not only can we draw certain tentative conclusions regarding the existence of extrasolar planetary systems, but we may also seriously discuss whether or not other worlds will possess environs which permit, encourage, or demand the emergence of life.

It is probably true that a good many planets are merely dead bodies of rock washed by sterile seas.939 Much depends on whether life originates quickly and regularly given suitable conditions, or if it requires an event so improbable that evolution in any reasonable time is scarcely possible on any world.


The study of the origin of life, called "abiogenesis" by many researchers in the field, is highly relevant to xenology and xenologists. By determining the conditions that existed on the primitive Earth, and by duplicating them in the laboratory, scientists can attempt to recreate events that must have occurred on this planet billions of years ago. Should these experiments indicate that the fundamental chemical building blocks of life are easy to generate — perhaps even inevitable under the proper circumstances — then we might well be justified in concluding that biology is a fairly widespread phenomenon among the many worlds of the Milky Way.

Studies in abiogenesis give some clues as to the universality of those processes which lead to the emergence of life. Of course, any rigorous discussion must include a good working definition of the subject of discourse. When we say we are searching for "life," what do we really mean? The traditional wisdom that "if it wiggles, it’s alive" is insufficient to deal with exotic lifeforms which may have little in common with organisms on Earth.50

We must also remain sensitive to yet another aspect of the problem of the origin of life. We 180-centimeter-high lifeforms with mere 70-year lifespans all too easily lose sight of the broader perspective we need to appreciate the vastness of space and time. This "chauvinism of scale" is simple to identify but almost impossible to overcome.

… in terms of mere planetary
spatial frames, biology is only
an impurity, a trace constituent
of the cosmos.

In one sense, life is both abundant and ubiquitous on Earth. The live weight of microscopic organisms in an acre of soil to the plow depth of 18 cm has been estimated as more than two tons.* But viewed from a slightly different perspective, life fades into obscurity. The entire Earth weighs 6 × 1024 kg, the whole atmosphere only 5 × 1018 kg. The total mass of the biosphere is no more than 1016 kg, about 0.2% as much as air or 0.0000002% of the entire planet. The mighty works of man and nature are a kind of biological rust, clinging doggedly to the surface of a small world.20

So even in terms of mere planetary spatial frames, biology is only an impurity, a trace constituent of the cosmos.

Perhaps an even more relevant problem of scale is what might be called "temporal chauvinism." Man tends to think in terms of timescales commensurate with his own puny lifespan. But if we are to comprehend the meaning and the magnitude of evolutionary processes that lead to the origin and development of life, it becomes necessary to overcome temporal chauvinism. Centuries are of little concern in this arena — it is only the millions and billions of years that count.

Events which seem unfathomable in the usual time frame become more sensible on geological timescales. Indeed, it appears that the key to evolution is time. As one scientist puts it,

… in two billion years the impossible becomes the inevitable.702

A proper sense of the passage of time enables us to firmly grasp, not only the origin of life and the evolution of intelligence in the universe, but also such seemingly diverse topics as comparative culturology, technology gaps and alien thought processes, suboptic communications lag times, and the mechanics of galactic colonization.

* This includes 900 kg of molds, 450 kg of bacteria, 450 kg of branching unicellular organisms (Actinomycetes), 100 kg of protozoa, 50 kg of algae, and 50 kg of yeasts. Viruses are present in great numbers, but their mass is insignificant.38

6.1 Chronology
Cosmic evolution

Figure 6.1 Timescale of Cosmic Evolution

(from Barney Oliver, in Duckworth2296)

figure 06 1
In 15 billion years the universe has evolved from the blazing inferno of the primordial fireball into galaxies of stars surrounded by planets, many of which may support intelligent life.
  • The earth has existed for approximately one-third this time or 4.5 billion years.
  • While man has been around for only 1.5 million years or one ten thousandths the estimated age of the universe.

In 1648 James Ussher, the Archbishop of Armagh, announced that the creation of Earth occurred promptly at 10 A.M., October 23, 4004 B.C. This span of roughly six thousand years was calculated in accordance with the descriptions and geneologies found in the Bible, and enjoyed wide currency until about two centuries ago.

Today we know that the material universe is far older. The primieval fireball is believed to have exploded perhaps sixteen billion years ago, the Milky Way coalescing a few eons later. Such vastness is scarcely conceivable in any meaningful terms.

How does one conveniently comprehend a span of time equal to millions of human lifetimes? Imagine that we draw a line from top to bottom of this page, a linear scale to portray the entire history of the universe.

On this map, the sum total of human civilization would be represented by an invisible sliver a few hundred atoms long. On the same scale, the time man has known electricity is measured by the span of two or three atoms. Even the segment illustrating the entire Age of Mammals would hardly exceed a millimeter in length (Figure 6.1).

A million years is just a day

Figure 6.2 Radical changes on the Earth due to 50 million years of continental

drift are predicted by three University of Chicago paleoclimatologists477

xenology fig 6 2 800

One rather well-known visualization was set forth by the famous British astronomer Sir James Jeans many decades ago. Imagine a penny carefully balanced atop the Washington Monument. Affixed to the cent is a postage stamp. Proportionately, the Monument represents the age of the Earth, the coin the entire age of the species of man, and the stamp the length of time since humans first learned to use tools.2109

Our minds are easily boggled. The whole history of the United States spans a mere two hundred years, a series of only eight generations of humankind. The differences between the late 18th century and the modern world seem immense. To contemplate our world as it may exist two hundred years hence sorely taxes our imagination (Figure 6.2).

But hundreds or even thousands of years are nothing to the xenologist.143 As biochemist and Nobelist George Wald aptly observes, "in geological time, even one million years is just a day.867 It is inconceivable that all other lifeforms throughout the Galaxy began evolving at exactly the same time as we, and at the same rate. If ETs do exist, many of them undoubtedly possess civilizations millions of years our senior — if not hundreds of millions or even billions of years more advanced.


Figure 6.3 Timescales of Responses to Change(from Wilson565)

figure 06 3 timescales of responses to change 500

Before such numbing timescales, humanity pales into relative insignificance in view of the mission of intelligence in the cosmos. Even if mankind were to be virtually annihilated in some terrible natural catastrophe, over a span of millions of years other mammals might evolve to take up the niche vacated by ourselves. Considering the broad sweep of the evolution of sentience, there seems no reason to doubt that higher intelligence would reassert itself on this planet.

Barring such catastrophes, humanity and its progeny may have literally eons of life and development ahead of it.* The Age of Dinosaurs lasted only a hundred million years, roughly 0.2% the age of the Earth. Says Arthur C. Clarke: "If we last a tenth as long as the great reptiles which we sometimes speak of disparagingly as one of nature’s failures, we will have time enough to make our mark on countless worlds and suns."81

Part of our problem in understanding time is due to the differing order of change in nature (Figure 6.3). Humans are accustomed to dealing with events that can best be classified as "organismic responses" — instincts and reflexes, learning, cycles of reproduction and so forth.565 We are only now, in the 20th century, becoming dimly aware of the concept of ecological time, the scale upon which demographic (population) and ecospheric changes take place. And the next highest levels — of evolutionary and geological times — still remain beyond our ken.

* Ultimately, we are limited only by the lifetime of our sun. Another 8-10 billion years remain before it flickers and dies, although Earth will probably become uninhabitably hot in 4-5 eons.20, 2056 Perhaps by then, humanity will have discovered a new homeland.

A brief history of Earth

One interesting example of a long-term trend is the change in the length of day. Every million years, because of tidal friction caused by the Moon, Earth’s day becomes about 3.3 minutes longer.2206 A couple hundred million years ago, during the Age of Dinosaurs, our planet revolved about one hour faster. In the steamy Carboniferous Period, when giant insects cruised forests of giant ferns, the day was only 22 hours long. One eon ago the components of Earth’s air were stabilizing near their present values and marine organisms were reeling with the discovery of sex. But they had to accomplish in only 18 hours what we take 24 to do.

Projecting into the future, a day in 1,000,000,000 A.D. will last about 30 hours. The Earth is gently slowing, a giant top marking time in eons.

"I perceived that I was on a little round grain of rock and metal," wrote Olaf Stapledon in his 1937 science fiction classic Star Maker,

filmed with water and with air, whirling in sunlight and darkness. And on the skin of that little grain all the swarms of men, generation by generation, had lived in labor and blindness, with intermittent joy and intermittent lucidity of spirit. And all their history, with its folk-wanderings, its empires, its philosophies, its proud sciences, its social revolutions, its increasing hunger for community, was but a flicker in one day of the lives of stars.1946

All of these considerations are of great significance to the origin of life on this planet. Until recently, scientists were of the opinion that the creation event itself might have taken place one or two eons after the formation of the Earth. But how much time was really required? As late as the middle of this century, no one really knew the answer to this question. The skeletal fossil record extends back only to the beginning of the Cambrian Period, about 600 million years ago. The Precambrian, comprising the first 87% of our world’s history, remained enshrouded in mystery and ambiguity.

In the last decade or two, improved techniques and several major finds have lifted the veil of ignorance. Scientists now hunt for molecular fossils, traces of the biochemical signatures left behind by the remains of microscopic organisms long dead.1420 The evidence now seems fairly clear that single-celled life existed some 3.4-3.6 billion years ago. (But note Schopf.2369) It is plausible that extremely primitive replicative lifeforms existed for several hundred million years prior to these earliest finds.41

Temporal chauvinism

We cannot even prove
that 10,000 years is
too short a period.

The implication is that life had half a billion years, perhaps even less, in which to assemble itself from nonliving chemical precursors. As two pioneers in abiogenesis research have noted:

There is no way at present to estimate when, during this (first) billion or so years, life arose. Periods of a hundred million years are so removed from our experience that we can have no feeling or judgement as to what is likely or unlikely, probable or improbable, within them. If the formation of the first living organism took only one million years, we would not be very surprised. We cannot even prove that 10,000 years is too short a period.521

The process of biological evolution must have begun as soon as the first living system emerged from the primieval "soup" four eons ago. Early forms of anaerobic photosynthesis probably arose three eons ago, in response to what one scientist has called "the world’s first energy crisis." Energy-laden molecules floating in the seas had become depleted. Photosynthesis allowed organisms to directly tap the power of the sun, which partially solved the crisis.

Unicellular life began to diversify about 2.3 billion years after the formation of the Earth, with the appearance of the first metazoans (multicellular animals).939 Aerobic photosynthesis was invented a short while later, and the concentration of oxygen — a harmful, poisonous waste product detrimental to most lifeforms in existence at the time — rose dramatically. In response to this "smog crisis," nature invented organisms able to consume the harmful oxidant and return carbon dioxide, thus detoxifying the air. These efforts were not entirely successful, however: Burning oxygen proved more efficient and made possible the conquest of land.

Man - footnote to history

Perhaps the vastness of time and our place in it can best be illustrated by the chronology in Table 6.1. Earth’s biography is plotted as a series of slow, painstaking steps from the formation of our planet 4600 million years ago up through the present. Truly, man is a mere footnote to history.

Our descendants …
will see our present age
as the misty morning
of human history.

Sir James Jeans gracefully surmounts the barriers of temporal chauvinism:

We are living at the very beginning of time. We have come into being in the fresh glory of the dawn, and a day of almost unthinkable length stretches before us with unimaginable opportunities for accomplishment. Our descendants of far-off ages, looking down this long vista of time from the other end, will see our present age as the misty morning of human history. Our contemporaries of today will appear as dim, heroic figures who fought their way through jungles of ignorance, error and superstition to discover truth.2109

Table 6.1 ♦ A Brief History of Earth
Geological Era
Period (Duration in Mys — millions of years)
Length of Day
and Major Events
Archean or 
(~1000 Mys)
  H2 CH4, NH3, H2O
(N2 CO, HCl, H2S
trace constituents)
Formation and 
of planet Earth 
-- none --
(~2100 Mys)





very highly reducing
solidification & 
stabilization of 
the crust
strongly reducing
Oceans filled to 
10% their present volume
      Great volcanic activity,
granite intrusions, some
sedimentary deposition,
and extensive erosion
    Great increase in 
N2 production
Oldest dated rocks
(~1100 Mys)
  H2 CH4, NH3, N2 
(CO2, H2O, HCN, 
H2S as trace 

Graphites of possible
organic origin
Oldest crustal rocks

"Age of 
Unicellular Life"
less reducing
      Oceans essentially filled   Onverwacht and Fig-Tree:
Organisms resembling
blue-green algae (chemical  molecular fossils)

Early protozoans
Nonoxygenic photosynthesis
    CO2 rises to 
1% of total 
      First limestone deposits   Microfossils and bacteria  
slightly reducing
    Bulawayan Group,
South Rhodesian limestones 
          Soudan Shale microfossils  
Early Proterozoic
(~300 Mys)
  N2, CO2 
(NH3, CH3, H2O, O2
as trace constituents)
    Wealth of evidence of
biological activity
Strikingly advanced flora,
Macro-fossils remain rare 
"Age of 
Primitive Marine Invertebrates"
(300 Mys)
Middle Proterozoic 
(~120 Mys)
(~600 Mys)
    Witwatersrand Supergroup,
South Africa (microbiota)
      Great sedimentation;
sedimentary rocks
extremely thick;
repeated glaciations;
extensive erosion
  Anaerobic and 
oxygenic life 
flourish, the former 
slowly giving way 
to the latter 
Gunflint Iron Formation
blue-green algae,
flagellates, & fungi
Invention and deployment of
    O2 begins a dramatic
rise CO2 drops to
present level
CH4, NH3 vanish
Invention of oxygenic respiration
    Some volcanic activity  
    Atmosphere oxidizing        
          Primitive aquatic plants, 
marine protozoa and 
aerobic metazoa




    Atmosphere strongly oxidizing        


Late Proterozoic 
(~400 Mys)
  N2  78% 
O2  21% 
Ar   ~1% 
CO  ~0.1% 
H2O (trace)

Modern atmosphere established

    Bitter Springs: 
blue-green algae, 
red algae, fungi, 
Mollusks, worms, & other
marine invertebrates
(sponges, brachiopods)
Invention of Sex
        Algonkian Ice Age      
          All animal & plant 
phyla established 
"Age of 
(~375 Mys)
Cambrian (100)   Climate warm;
formation of major
Paleozoic geosynclines
  Spores, tracheids 
Trilobites and brachiopods dominant 
Spread of land plants Freshwater fish, coral, 
Marine arachnids
  Ordovician (75)   Low continents; warm
Arctic; extensive land
submergence & flooding

Silurian (25)
Devonjan (50)
Carboniferous (75)


Eocambrian Ice Age
Land rises; mountain
building arid lowlands;

21 .7h
Wingless insects; 
amphibians, lungfishes, 
First reptiles
"Age of Fishes and Land Plants"
  Permian (50)   Climate warm & humid
 first, cooler later
Giant ferns, cool swamps 
Large insects, thernlonts
"Age of 
Insects and Amphibians"
(~150 Mys)
Triassic (50)   Dry and cool; continental 
uplifting, Pangea breakup
Modern insects 
First dinosaurs 
First mammals 
"Age of Reptiles"

Jurassic (50)
Cretaceous (50)

  Climate warm, last
shallow inland seas;
Alps, Andes, Himalayas,
Rockies rose
Giant dinosaurs, 
toothed birds 
Dinosaurs decline; 
first flowering plants
(~75 Mys)
Tertiary (75)   Climate cooler 
Quaternary Ice Age
(repeated global glaciation)
  Rise of birds, 
higher mammals, 
and arthropoids (including the genus Homo)
"Age of Mammals"
    Quaternary (1)    
6.2 What Is Life?
6.2.0 What is Life?
Differentiate the living from the nonliving

samuel butlerAnthropologists jokingly tell of two cannibals watching an airplane fly overhead. Eyeing the craft wistfully, one says to the other, "It’s very much like lobster. It’s hard to get into, but very good once you get inside."

Kenneth Boulding, Director of the Institute of Behavioral Science at the University of Colorado, insists that the cars, planes and factories which surround us bear an analogous relation to the life inhabiting them as the lobster’s shell does to the lobster. "If a being from outer space were observing this planet," Boulding suggests, "he might well report that the process of evolution had produced a species of large four-wheeled bugs with soft, detachable brains."30

How can we accurately differentiate the living from the nonliving? For years, science fiction writers have been teasing our imaginations, giving us stories about plants that act like animals,564, 2115 animals that act like plants,607, 2168 and other organisms that almost defy classification.1561, 2163, 2210, 2221 Countless stories have been written around the theme of "machine life,"983, 1755, 1836, 1912 and a well-known Stanford radioastronomer has speculated that there may exist aliens which are simply spherical balls. Instead of handling objects as we do, Dr. Ronald Bracewell suggests that "they might have to ingurgitate them and manipulate them as we can manipulate things with our tongues. Perhaps their tongues would be luminescent and there would be an eye in the roof of their mouth, or a microscope."1040

Science fictioneers have devoted a great deal of time to an attempt to identify some of the problems we may encounter simply in recognizing that an object on another world is alive. False calls in either direction are possible. We may, for instance, mistakenly ascribe life to what is in reality a purely physical process. Conversely, there is the more frightening possibility that we might fail to identify a fascinating but unusual lifeform, which could cause irreparable harm before the error was discovered.

Hypothetical organisms

Hypothetical organisms

  • ■ Polymorph
  • ■ Lithomorphs
  • ■ Macromorphs
  • ■ Amorphs
  • ■ Electromorphs
  • ■ Plantimals

Such hypothetical organisms generally fall into five broad categories (although there are numerous exceptions). First we have the polymorph, a creature having a plural or changeable form. In Olaf Stapledon’s First and Last Men, Earth is invaded by a host of microscopic organisms from Mars. On occasion, these microbes form themselves into a rational entity by solidifying as a kind of "intelligent cloud."81 Such is not without precedent even on Earth: It has long been debated whether the sponge (Porifera) is a true organism or a colony of unicellular organisms.443


Ralph Milne Farley wrote "Liquid Life" back in 1936, in which a virus in a pond achieves group-collective consciousness.581 This is similar to the "scum-intelligence" proposed by Bracewell80 or the "mold-intelligence" proposed by Academician A. Kolmogorov, a Soviet writer.1330 Perhaps easier to view as living but equally difficult to understand are Arthur Clarke’s Palladorians, each of which is described as possessing "no identity of its own, being merely a mobile but still dependent cell in the consciousness of its race."2207 Another class of exotic fictional lifeforms are the lithomorphs, organisms having the form of rock. Such creatures have actually been discussed in sober scientific circles.1238 The two extremes of the problem of false calls are nicely illustrated by a pair of science fiction tales involving lithomorphs.

The Star Trek episode entitled "Devil in the Dark" deals with the discovery of a silicon-based organism that lives in the rocky mantle of a small planetoid. The human miners had been collecting and destroying apparently useless spherical silicon nodules — which turned out to be the Horta’s eggs. In Clarke’s novel Imperial Earth, exactly the opposite difficulty is encountered. Early settlers on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, discover the "waxworms," entities snaking around on the surface at speeds up to fifty kilometers per hour and often pausing to climb over hills. "To the bitter disappointment of the exobiologists," Clarke writes, "they had turned out to be a purely natural phenomenon…"1947

Many variants


Macromorphs are beings having a large or elongated distribution. Typical of this class is the huge single-cell lifeform encountered in the Star Trek adventure "Immunity Syndrome," or the Gaia concept of the living planet sponsored by scientists Margulis and Lovecock.1293

Perhaps the most fascinating suggestion along these lines was made by the Swedish writer Gosta Ehrensvärd, who pointed out that organisms in the sense we understand may not even be a prerequisite for life.257 As an example, he envisions a coordinated network of lakes and streams covering a planet, participating in a complementary carbon cycle together with a sun-activated circum-planetary flow of water. Such a system, Ehrensvärd claims, "would undeniably constitute life, but it would hardly correspond to our idea of organism life. We could hardly recognize at first that we were dealing with something living, for we would not see any mass, body, or anything moving, but only a global activity in chemical serenity."


The fourth class of unusual creatures are the amorphs, those entities which exist without form or shape. Perhaps the best-known amorph is from the 1958 Paramount Studios movie "The Blob," the story line of which will not be gone into here. Suffice it to say that such organisms are not wholly without precedent on Earth. Slime molds are acellular plants which, because their construction is not unlike a sheet of water, find it possible to slowly creep about on the ground.


Blobs could also arise by natural evolution from Euglena ancestors (a photosynthetic microbial animal), or by artificial evolution as a direct consequence of genetic experimentation with "plantimal" cells. Plantimals are created by fusing animal cells with plant cells to form viable interkingdom protoplasts. To date, human tissues have been mated with carrot and with tobacco cells, and rooster cells have been joined with tobacco as well. According to Dr. James X. Hartmann of Florida Atlantic University at Boca Raton, a living, meatlike amorph might eventually be grown as livestock which could build animal protein by converting the sun’s energy directly into chemical energy — just as plants do.1617

Even this close it looked like a shadow. It also looked like
a very flat, monstrously large amoeba, or like a pool of oil
running across the ice. Uphill it ran, flowing slowly and
painfully up the side of a nitrogen mountain, trying
desperately to escape the searing light of my lamp. …
Helium II, the superfluid that flows uphill.548

There have been many variants on this theme in science fiction,1389 including petroleum-blobs such as in Brenda Pierce’s "Crazy Oil" on Venus.2071 In a familiar plot line, the human miners discover too late that the sticky black goo they’ve been extracting is part of a living organism. Still more fascinating is the possibility of superfluid amorphs, such as those described by Larry Niven in his "The Coldest Place":

Alien presence … might be undectable


Finally, we have the electromorphs — beings having the form of electronic energy, fields or plasmas. These ethereal creatures, first described by the Russian space pioneer K. E. Tsiolkovsky445 and later given a more public airing in the Kubrick-Clarke masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey,1912 are among the most beloved of science fiction writers. Hal Clement notes that "one must admit that very complex electric and magnetic field structures other than those supplied ready-formed by atoms and molecules are conceivable."878 One of the first science fiction novels the author ever read, decades ago, was about a form of intelligent ball lightning inhabiting the planet Mercury.*

Arthur Clarke has warned that we might not even be able to detect the presence of an alien species on a planet, save by the use of sophisticated electronic gadgetry. The lifeform could be gaseous, electronic, or could operate on timescales far faster or slower than our own.81 Hal Clement has fictionally created creatures constructed of densely packed electrons possessing quasi-solid properties and which live inside suns,2139 and still others that inhabit neutron stars, existing in a kind of superoptic quantum space and feeding directly on patterns and structures of information.2183

The classic electromorph of all time remains, however, astronomer Fred Hoyle’s Black Cloud — a kind of intelligent comet.62 (Being a lifeform of the dimensions of a solar system, it is also a macromorph.) In the novel, a great patch of ionized gas, which enters our solar system and engulfs Sol, is found to be alive when efforts to predict its movements using the simple laws of mechanics fail. Says the astronomer-protagonist in The Black Cloud: "All our mistakes have a certain hallmark about them. They’re just the sort of mistake that it’d be natural to make if instead of the Cloud being inanimate, it were alive."

It turns out that the biochemistry of this amazing organism is plasma physics instead of molecular chemistry. Memory and intelligence are stored on a conductive substrate of various solid materials, and are controlled, operated and manipulated purely by means of electromagnetic forces. Ionized gases carry substances to wherever they are needed, like a bloodstream. The Cloud must therefore be recognized as alive, at least in the sense of possessing intricate structures, a capacity for regeneration and energy utilization, and a complex behavior.

* I have since forgotten the title, which annoys me greatly. (Note added, 2 Jan 2011: Erik van Lhin (aka. Lester del Rey), Battle on Mercury, The John C. Winston Company, Philadelphia PA, 1953.)

6.2.1 The Traditional Answer
Finding a single definition

hw longfellow 305The possibility of discovering an exotic lifeform such as the above has spurred biologists to carefully reconsider their assessment of the nature of life. Scores of situations can easily be conjured up in which our tried-and true common sense rules break down horribly. The need for a more rigorous definition is clear.

If so many different kinds of life are possible, though, can we hope to reach them all with a single definition? Perhaps. For instance, one comprehensive characterization of life, at once exact and unsatisfying, might be: "Life is a highly improbable state of matter."1171 The difficulty arises when we try to be a bit more specific than this.

Some of the most generalized functional definitions have been rather ingenious. One author presents an ecological specification: A rock has small influence on another rock, but an organism profoundly affects all other living things around it. Living creatures alone can form ecological systems.64 Dr. Daniel Mazia has suggested that survival is the key to understanding what life is. As he correctly points out,

the living world thwarts time by survival, all the rest combats time by endurance.313

Another writer, Dr. V.A. Firsoff, has proposed that "mind" underlies all life, but is a quality denied to the nonliving.352 Others would claim that "the exclusive property of life is consciousness"171 or "self-direction."444 Still another definition hinges on the similar concept of "free will." As the late John Campbell, former editor of Analog, once put it: "Inorganic matter displays the characteristic that what it can do, it must. Any nonliving system always does everything it can do. Living systems don’t display that characteristic; if a living organism can do something, it — may."200

Life's unique properties

Life's unique properties

  • Growth
  • Feeding
  • Metabolism
  • Motility
  • Stimuli response
  • Reproduction w/ adaptation

The traditional biologist points out that all living things possess certain unique properties. One way to define life rigorously is in terms of specific, enumerated traits: Growth, feeding and metabolism, motility (physical movement), responsiveness to environmental stimuli, and reproduction with adaptation.

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

During the process of growth, a living organism takes in raw materials and integrates them into itself. Molecules of various substances are added, redistributed, or removed as the body changes shape and develops new structures. Growth also allows for replacement of old worn-out parts.

Unfortunately, many non-living systems also display growth. Crystals of table salt, for instance, or hailstones can be said to grow.

Reproduction is probably
the most frequently cited
"essential" defining characteristic
of living systems.

"Chemical gardens," made from heavy metal salts immersed in a bath of sodium silicate solution, also exhibit growth. It is true that most of these counterexamples involve only simple accretion from the outside, and the structure remains basically unchanged. But the flame of a candle appears to grow, and in a fire there is an actual throughput of new atoms. Hence, the candle flame is a valid exception to growth as a defining characteristic of life.

How about the criteria of feeding and metabolism? We know that living organisms eat primarily for two reasons. First, food is ingested and metabolized to provide an energy exchange with the surrounding medium. This gives a lifeform the ability to carry out any other functions it may wish to perform — reproduction, movement, thinking, more eating, etc.

Second, food must be accumulated to secure the raw materials necessary to effect repairs and to maintain growth. As has been pointed out, the kind of food consumed is really irrelevant. While humans and worms may prefer apples, some bacteria thrive on the most putrefactious sewage (and abhor oxygen), and plants "eat" carbon dioxide and sunlight.

But here again we note that the candle flame has a kind of metabolism. Fires may be said to digest their fuel and to leave wastes behind as chemical energy is converted to heat. Crystals too may eat, if we are willing to consider the saturated chemical solution in which they grow to be their food. Even machines metabolize their fuel, whether to manufacture spare parts or to build near-duplicates of themselves.

Replication plus adaptation

Motility is another oft-touted characteristic of life: Animals, and plants to a lesser extent, are capable of bodily movement. Yet there are many analogues in the world of the nonliving. Rocks and snow move in avalanches, cars travel highways, rivers flow, and under the proper thermal conditions metals will expand and contract. Granted, most of these are the result of the imposition of strictly external forces.444 Nevertheless, the fact that forest fires may spread under their own power constitutes an exception to the motility rule.

What about irritability? It has been said that if organisms are to profit from their association with the environment, they must be responsive to it at all times. Sensors and effectors thus become more and more highly developed as we climb the evolutionary ladder.

However, some non-motile bacteria show little evidence of reaction to stimuli,64 and plants are notorious laggard in their responses. Also, irritability is a property demonstrated by many nonliving systems. Crystals react quite sharply to changes in the solute concentration or temperature of their environment. The candle flame recoils when an open door admits a draft. A flask of nitroglycerine is highly responsive to certain environmental stimuli, particularly heat and shock.881

Reproduction is probably the most frequently cited "essential" defining characteristic of living systems.20, 521 Although a few scientists would demand the presence of DNA or RNA molecules, proteins, lipids, polysaccharides and the like as requirements for life, most stick to the basics: Replication plus adaptation.

According to these so-called "genetic" definitions of life, living things are entities capable of reproducing themselves, mutating, and subsequently re-reproducing the new mutated form. Organisms are required to multiply geometrically as well. Simple arithmetic reproduction, as in a printing press, is insufficient. The copies themselves must also be able to make more copies. When mutations arise, they are faithfully duplicated — variation is preserved in subsequent replications.

The central idea behind this attempt to define life by reproduction is that living organisms must be the subjects of natural selection, capable of adaptation and evolution. Any system that can replicate, mutate, and replicate mutations will be susceptible to normal evolutionary processes. Favored organisms with the highest potential for survival go on to multiply; others who fare more poorly in the struggle for existence eventually become extinct. Fundamental to the genetic definition of life, then, is the built-in and perhaps unwarranted assumption that a certain level of complexity cannot be achieved save by natural selection operating via adaptive replication.2358

Exceptions and objections to reproduction

It is entirely possible that some lifeforms may have no need to reproduce themselves. Such nonreproducers, if they exist, must be either immortal or very recent arrivals. One class of such beings would be self-creating but nonreplicating organisms, such as robots capable of making continual repairs and of upgrading their own mechanisms periodically, or such as astronomer Hoyle’s Black Cloud mentioned earlier.

There could even exist beings who evolve by means of acquired characteristics.2216 Such lifeforms could neither die nor reproduce, but would instead modify their parts in response to the changing environment. As Dr. P.H.A. Sneath of Leicester University puts it: "Evolution and selection would then operate internally on their constitution, rather than on a succession of descendent organisms."64 Dr. Sneath suggests that the closest analogy to this might be soils, which don’t reproduce in the usual sense but are complexly organized systems nevertheless. Soils respond to environmental changes, arise wherever there is rock and wind to erode it, and are virtually immortal. Organisms such as these would be unable to "compete" with their neighbors without blending together with a total loss of individuality.

Most bees, ants, wasps and
termites don’t reproduce…

There are other objections to the use of adaptive reproduction as the fundamental criterion for life. Mules, the offspring of a mare and a male donkey, are sterile and so technically are not "alive"- under the genetic definition. Most bees, ants, wasps and termites don’t reproduce either. Selection acts on the whole nest, rather than on individual units, so evolution proceeds through the queen and drones alone. Many varieties of hybrid flowering plants are similarly sterile.

The inorganic world too is rife with exceptions. Flames, driven by wind or with sparks, can reproduce and "mutate." Crystals placed in solutions doped with foreign ions are perfectly capable of reproduction, mutation, and of propagating the mutation (i.e., lattice imperfections).

We see that traditional concepts of life are unduly restrictive for our purposes. As Dr. Mazia laments: "The problem is not that our conception of a living thing is vague; on the contrary, our concern is that it is too definite because it is too provincial."313 We must seek more generalized means to identify and to define life.

6.2.2 Organization

Complex interrelatedness

minas ensanian 243Life is a process by which relatively unorganized environmental components are made more organized. That is to say, life is a building up-process, although to organize also means to cut down the possibilities. But certainly a basic characteristic of all lifeforms is that they are highly organized.2214

What do we mean by "organization"? The concept may be viewed in terms of what Sneath has called "complex interrelatedness.64

Interrelatedness means simply that all parts of the pattern are related to and somehow affect all other parts. Each component reacts to changes in its surroundings so as to preserve internal integrity and minimize the effects of any disturbances. This damping action is the principle of homeostasis, common among biological systems. Of course, biochemical homeostasis can be preserved only within certain critical tolerance limits. Death will rapidly overtake any system which is subject to stresses it cannot tolerate.

Complexity is the other facet of organization.64, 1643 "Complex" is used here in its normal sense, as opposed to "simple." Candle flames have a great deal of interrelatedness, yet they lack complexity and hence "organization" as well. Conversely, a lump of granite is highly complex, but because it lacks interrelatedness it cannot be considered "organized" in the sense of having life.

The key to life
may well be
information itself.

Dr. Sneath cites a most useful example of the role of complexity. If complexity is defined as the amount of information needed to completely characterize a system, the perplexing case of the growing crystal is greatly simplified. We might describe a small cube of rock salt as follows: "A simple-cubic Bravais crystal lattice structure with spacing of 2.82 × 10-8 cm, consisting of alternating sodium and chlorine atoms, containing a total of 1020 atoms of each kind." This requires only a few lines of print, and is complete.

On the other hand, living things are typically characterized by enormously more complicated descriptions. Life systems possess order on a scale far smaller than the macroscopic. Unlike the monotonous repetitiveness of the salt crystal, even the simplest bacterium needs some 103-104 different enzymes, each with a unique sequence of perhaps a hundred or so amino acids.64, 630 This is real complexity. On the microscopic level, life might best be characterized as a highly "aperiodic crystal."2213, 2364

The key to life may well be information itself. The living world is built from the stuff of the nonliving world, different only in its complexity and organization. Organisms find it possible to actually store and replicate the information that specifies their organization.

Yet it is purely capricious to set some arbitrary level of complexity as the threshold of life.1717 A frozen amoeba, for example, has an amazingly detailed and intricate structure without being alive — it has only the potential for life. Organization, as we shall see presently, is a most useful parameter for assessing the intensity or efficiency of life. However, it is more reasonable to base our definition on the fundamental processes and functions displayed uniquely by living systems.

6.2.3 Towards a Definition of Life
What is entropy?


  • Thermodynamic measure of energy
  • Statistical measure of disorder

Thermodynamic and statistical principles are among the most fruitful tools of scientific inquiry. They are equally applicable to simple and to complex systems, living or nonliving, terrestrial or extraterrestrial. As Dr. James P. Wesley, Associate Professor of Physics at the University of Missouri in Rolla, tells us:

The relationship of life to the environment is, above all, a thermodynamic relationship. Wherever man may go and whatever alien lifeforms he may encounter, the thermodynamic behavior of life will always be basically predictable.1717

The idea of entropy is often involved in modern discussions of the definition of life.

What is entropy? There are really two relatively straightforward aspects of this concept. The first ties in to the thermodynamic aspects of matter, having to do with heat and energy; the second pertains to statistics and order in any system.

Entropy in the thermodynamic sense is a distinct, physically measurable quantity, much like length, temperature, or weight. At a temperature of absolute zero, to take one example, the entropy in a lump of matter is exactly zero. If the temperature is slowly increased in tiny, reversible little steps, the increase in entropy is mathematically equal to the amount of energy (in joules) divided by the temperature at which it was supplied. This holds even if a change of state occurs, as from solid to liquid.

Suppose that we melt a cube of solid ice at 0 °C. If the mass is 1 kg, the increase in entropy can be calculated as exactly 1223 joules/degree. Entropy in the thermodynamic sense is thus a very real, physical quantity.

In the statistical sense, entropy is a measure of the disorderliness of a system. It seems rather clear that when we melt our 1 kg block of ice, the neat orderly arrangement of water molecules in the cube is destroyed. The rigid crystal lattice is converted into a less ordered system — the continually changing, sloshing, randomized distribution of molecules in a liquid.

When the orderliness of a system decreases, the entropy correspondingly increases. The situation is analogous to the state of the public library when the shelvers are out on strike. Books are removed from their proper places but are not returned. Disorder and randomness — entropy — increase.

The greater the structural complexity of a system, the more information is required to describe it. The more organization a system has, the more information and the less entropy it possesses. But information and orderliness, on the one hand, and entropy, on the other hand, are irreconcilable.

It is the business of the
universe to destroy complexity
and to become progressively
more randomized.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that entropy and disorder shall always increase and that information will naturally tend to be degraded and lost in any isolated physical system. (Such isolated systems drift from less probable states to more probable ones.) It is the business of the universe to destroy complexity and to become progressively more randomized.

How does this relate to life? Organisms appear to present a rather curious thermodynamic anomaly. Living systems "violate" the Second Law, by developing well-ordered systems (themselves) out of relatively chaotic systems (their food).85 At first blush, lifeforms seemingly oppose the "universal drive to disorder" mandated by thermodynamic principles. They organize their surroundings and produce order where there was little or none before. Entropy is actually reduced.

This apparent conflict has only been resolved in the last decade or so. Classical treatments dealt with idealized, isolated systems which transfer no energy or matter between themselves and the external environment.2213 In sharp contrast, most systems in nature are nonisolated "open" systems, exchanging matter and energy with the surroundings.

Energy flow

Energy emerges from the source,
flows to the sink,
and is there absorbed.

Energy by itself is not enough — there must be a useful flow of it. This means that to support life, an environment must possess both a "source" and a "sink." Energy emerges from the source, flows to the sink, and is there absorbed.

Living systems customarily establish themselves as intermediate systems, interposed between some source and some sink in the environment. Then, they utilize the energy flow from source to sink to power their own internal functions.

The total entropy of the entire system, which we shall label E, is the sum of the entropies generated in two separate places. First, there is the entropy caused by the source-to-sink energy flow which we shall call S. Then there is the entropy generated by the intermediate system (the living organism) due to exchanges of matter and energy with the surroundings. If we call this L, then we know that the change in total entropy DE = DS + DL.

The second Law of Thermodynamics demands that the total entropy E of any isolated system always increase. Hence, the amount of change must always be positive, so DE > 0. The flow of energy from source to sink (S) consists of irreversible processes, so it too must always cause entropy to increase: DS > 0. Consequently, -DL < DS is our only constraint.


Local pockets of negative entropy change.

What does this mean in plain English? The last equation above simply says that while the entropy of a living system is always permitted to increase by the Second Law (e.g., upon death), a short range of decrease is allowed as well. That is, it is thermodynamically permissible to have local pockets of negative entropy change — "negentropy."

… the essence of life is
that it feeds on negentropy.

Life involves a continuing struggle
against increasing entropy.

Dr. Erwin Schroedinger was really the first to point out that the essence of life is that it feeds on negentropy.1678 An organism able to transfer disorder from itself to its environment can reach a plateau for which the steady-state entropy within the living system is less than the formal entropy entering it.85 Life involves a continuing struggle against increasing entropy.

Living systems thus increase local order at the expense of a larger decrease in order within the environment.

Does life really violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics? We’ve seen that organisms can effect a local decrease in entropy by maintaining an energy flow.* This leads to an ordering of the intermediate (living) system. So the Second Law does not hold for nonisolated systems (L), but only for isolated ones (E). It is invalid for lifeforms alone, but does hold if that same living system is considered in conjunction with the medium in which it is immersed.

Life by itself is a nonisolated system capable of achieving negentropic conditions locally. Life plus environment is an isolated system, for which the total amount of entropy must always increase.

As one writer puts it:

Living systems convert order in their surroundings into disorder, and thereby increase their own internal order.
To say that living systems feed on negentropy is equivalent to saying that their existence depends upon increasing the entropy of the rest of the Universe.2213

* A probable corollary is the necessity for "phase separation." In some sense, the sources and sinks should be physically separated with the living system inserted between them. So we expect barriers to exist between an organism’s sources and its sinks. This prevents dissipation of the system, protects it from adverse changes in the environment, and insures the lifeform’s ability to exert and maintain control over its interior.2213 The exact nature of these barriers — whether gravitational, electromagnetic, or utilizing some hitherto unsuspected principle — has not been widely discussed.64

Negentropic processes

Figure 6.4 Life, Entropy, and Organizational

Structure(after Morrison1279)

Figure 6.4A

The first graph shows the population of structures — molecules, for instance — against some measure of size or complexity for a case where a free-energy flow has spread the composition to include species of high free energy.

Figure 6.4B

The second graph shows what happens when some autocatalytic process begins to increase the population beyond some level of complexity by further degrading the less elaborate, material present.

Figure 6.4C

figure 06 4 C 50pc

The last graph suggests how artifacts might be looked at in this process, a second and rarer, but more costly, bump.

At the most fundamental level, negentropic ordering processes are achieved by living organisms. Life drives its environment to physical or chemical disequilibrium, establishing an entropy gradient between itself and its surroundings.1144 All living systems possess this feature, and it is contended that any system engaging in such negentropic operations must be considered "living" to a certain extent (Figure 6.4).

It is the business of life to accumulate
information and complexity.

The question is, of course, to what extent?

Rather than viewing the question of life in absolutist terms, it seems more fruitful to establish the intensity of negentropic processes as a measure of the extent of the life-quality. One of the more fundamental distinctions between "life" and "nonlife" is the degree of organization and internal structure possessed by living systems. Order and structure are virtually synonymous with information content.1012

That is, living systems do more than merely establish a thermodynamic entropy gradient — they establish an organizational / informational gradient as well. As organisms feed on negentropy, they in effect remove information from the surrounding medium and store it within themselves. It is the business of life to accumulate information and complexity.

Aperiodic crystal
“It is the business of life
to accumulate information
and complexity.”

In a physical sense, these data bits which permeate all lifeforms may be thought of as being stored in an "aperiodic crystal" — a biological lattice with highly irregular small-scale nonuniformities.2213 The more effective the negentropic processes, the greater the organization which will arise and hence the more aperiodic the physical structure will become. Organization is maintained by the extraction of order from the environment.

If we consider every "autonegentropic" system to be alive, then its character or richness of expression may be defined along a spectrum from lesser to greater levels of organization. At one extreme are the viruses, which are not negentropic systems by themselves and thus cannot be considered alive in the absence of living hosts. At the other extreme are mules and bees, earlier rejected by the genetic definition of life because of their individual inability to reproduce. These animals are quite clearly auto negentropic systems possessing a vast degree of organization both in the macroscopic and microscopic realms. Thus they are not only "alive" (because they feed on negentropy to build internal complexity) but also "very alive" (because they are so internally complex).*

The refrigerator in my house technically should be considered a "live" system in the very broadest sense, as it is a well-defined intermediate system which uses an energy flow to decrease entropy within (the icebox gets colder, and well-ordered ice crystals collect on the freezer walls) at the expense of increasing the entropy in the external environment (the kitchen air gets warmer). Yet its organizational structure is minimal. Little information is stored, and there is only trivial interrelatedness even on the macroscopic scale. There is scant evidence of aperiodic crystal, no complexity at all on the microscopic stage. So the intensity of life in my refrigerator is negligibly small.

Note that "machine life" or "solid state life" per se is not ruled out. As machines become more and more sophisticated, complexity follows. Large-scale integrated circuits available today pack millions of components onto a tiny silicon wafer the size of a postage stamp. Under the microscope, significant aperiodicities have begun to appear in the latest generation of electronic devices. It is entirely possible that, in time, machines will evolve beyond the point of negligible life-quality. This is true, despite the fact that modern digital computers (which merely process data without adding any of it to their internal structure) are not yet alive at all.

* While evolution and the capacity to reproduce are of immense biological importance, a system need not be capable of reproduction for it to be classified as living.2213, 62


In conclusion, xenologists suspect that there are two fundamental properties any system must possess before it can be considered alive:

For those who prefer succinct and pithy definitions, the author would
like to offer the following as a starting point for further discussion:

Life is negentropic and self-organizing aperiodic crystal.

    • First, it must be thermodynamically negentropic, establishing an entropy gradient between itself and the environment.
    • Second, it must utilize the entropy gradient to create or to maintain structural order internally — that is, it must be autonegentropic or self-organizing.

Then there is the quality of organization, known as complex interrelatedness or aperiodic crystal, which reflects the intensity of the life process displayed by a given entity.

  The Beginning and the End ♦ The Essence of Life    © 2014 Clément Vidal   
About this book     [LINK] to book review

In this fascinating journey to the edge of science, Vidal takes on big philosophical questions:

  • Does our universe have a beginning and an end or is it cyclic?
  • Are we alone in the universe?
  • What is the role of intelligent life, if any, in cosmic evolution?

Grounded in science and committed to philosophical rigor, this book presents an evolutionary worldview where the rise of intelligent life is not an accident, but may well be the key to unlocking the universe's deepest mysteries.

  • Vidal shows how the fine-tuning controversy can be advanced with computer simulations.
  • He also explores whether natural or artificial selection could hold on a cosmic scale.
  • In perhaps his boldest hypothesis, he argues that signs of advanced extraterrestrial civilizations are already present in our astrophysical data.

His conclusions invite us to see the meaning of life, evolution and intelligence from a novel cosmological framework that should stir debate for years to come.  [From: Amazon]

9.1.3 The Case for Postbiology p. 214

Already in the 1980s, Feinberg and Shapiro (1980) stigmatized proponents of carbon-and-water life as “carbaquists” who fail to imagine that basic building blocks of life could be very different. But if the essence of life is not its chemical constitution, what is it? Feinberg and Shapiro (1980, p. 147) say it is the activity of a biosphere, which is itself “a highly ordered system of matter and energy characterized by complex cycles that maintain or gradually increase the order of the system through the exchange of energy with the environment”.

We can think much more systematically about life as we don’t know it. Freitas Jr did this when he wrote Xenology (1979), the most comprehensive and systematic study of extraterrestrial life, intelligence, and civilization I am aware of. This long volume covers a much broader scope than the classical (and also very good) book by Shklovskii and Sagan (1966). I consider it a rare scientific masterpiece. Most of the book was written in 1979, although Freitas is constantly updating it and has now made it freely available on the web (

9.1.5 Thermodynamic Criteria p. 219

From the point of view of classical thermodynamics, life is a miracle. Living systems are able to maintain a state that is very far from equilibrium, despite the second law of thermodynamics, which states that all systems tend to equilibrium.

This seemed deeply paradoxical. The key to unlocking the mystery of living systems was to consider them in a larger thermodynamic context. They should be modeled as open systems, meaning that a flux of energy goes through them, and not as closed systems. The second law only applies to closed systems, not to open systems. All in all, the second law is not violated because living systems increase local order at the expense of a more global disorder generated in the environment.

Additionally, energy flow regulation or control is a necessary condition for the growth, maintenance, evolution, and reproduction of complex systems (see e.g. Aunger 2007b; Chaisson 2011a). For example, a stone processes virtually no flow of matter-energy, and most people will agree that it is dead. On the opposite side, we have a wildfire, which grows and uses a lot of energy but is totally uncontrolled.

Whatever a shaman’s view on the matter, scientists generally don’t consider fire as alive. Living systems are in between these two extreme examples. They are able to regulate their energy flow. To take humans as an example, if we eat too little or too much, we die. We thus regulate the amount of food that we eat to stay alive.

9.1.5 Thermodynamic Criteria p. 220

Energy flow control: Living systems control their energy flow to grow, maintain themselves, evolve, and reproduce.

A living organism can be described broadly by three components: a source of energy, an organized entity, and a sink to waste (to export entropy). The living system increases its internal organization — or negentropy — thanks to this energy flow. As Freitas (1979, Sect. 6.2.3) puts it, life "drives its environment to physical or chemical disequilibrium, establishing an entropy gradient between itself and its surroundings". He adds that all living systems "possess this feature, and it is contended that any system engaging in such negentropic operations must be considered 'living' to a certain extent". This leads to the criterion of metabolism:

Metabolism: Living systems maintain their organization by using a source of energy and producing entropy.

The most straightforward astrobiological search strategy is thus to look for this kind of non-equilibrium system in the universe. We shall soon apply these criteria to high energy astrophysics, and see that they lead to promising and intriguing results (if you can’t wait, see Sect. 9.4).

But the thermodynamic criterion alone is insufficient. As Sagan (1975, p. 145) put it, thermodynamic disequilibrium ‘‘is a necessary but of course not a sufficient condition for the recognition of extraterrestrial intelligence’’. So what else do we need?

10.1.2 Thermodynamic Ethics p. 272

Freitas (1979, Sect. 25.1.3) proposed a similar principal thermoethic:

  • “All living beings should always act so as to minimize the total entropy of the universe, or so as to maximize the total negentropy.”

Freitas explains that "living beings should always act to further the mission of life in the cosmos, which is to reduce the universe to order by building the maximum complexity into the mass-energy available". He summarizes three thermoethical duties, to avoid harming, to preserve, and to create, which indeed are very similar to the infoethics principles of Floridi. A corollary of the thermoethical principal is what Freitas calls the Corollary of Negentropic Equality:

  • “All entities of equal negentropy have equal rights and responsibilities; the more negentropic an entity, the greater are its rights and the deeper are its responsibilities. (See Cocca 1962; Fasan 1968, 1970; Haley 1963, 1956; Nicolson 1978; Rhyne 1958.)
  The Need for a General Theory of Living Systems   Chapter 1 ♦ © 1978 James Miller   
Living Systems ♦ About this book

The 1100+ page Living Systems book published in 1978 by the founder of Behavioral Science in 1956, James Grier Miller, became available as a softcopy on the  Internet Archive in May 2017.

What is a living system and what does it do? Many scientists coming from diverse scientific backgrounds, when engaged in the search for general principles to integrate our understanding of the phenomena of life, have placed major emphasis on the notion of living systems composed of interrelated lmits. The various "systems theories" differ greatly in their concepts and definitions of basic terms. Their common goal is to organize the findings in some or all of the sciences of life and behavior into a single conceptual structure,

1. One general theory of living systems

Figure 1-1

A generalized living system interacting and intercommunicating
with two others in its environment.

Subsystems which process both matter-energy and information:
Reproducer (Re); Boundary (Bo).

Subsystems which process matter-energy:
Ingestor (IN); Distributor (DI); Converter (CO); Producer (PR);
Matter-energy storage (MS); Extruder (EX); Motor (MO); Supporter (SU).

Subsystems which process information:
Input transducer (IT); Internal transducer (IN); Channel and net (CN);
Decoder (DC); Associator (AS); Memory (ME); Decider (DE);
Encoder (EN); Output transducer (OT). [p. 2]

The general living systems theory which thiS book presents is a conceptuul system concerned primarily with concrete systems (see page 17) which exist in space-time. Complex structures which carry out living processes I believe can be identified at seven hierarchical levels (see page 25)-cell, organ, organism, group, organization, society, and supranational system. My central thesis is that systems at all these levels are open systems composed of subsystems which process inputs, throughputs, and outputs of various forms of matter, energy, and information. I identify 19 critical subsystems (see page 32 and Table 1-1) whose processes are essential for life, some of which process matter or energy, some of which process information, and some of which process all three.

Together they make up a living system, as shown in Fig. 1-1. In this table the line under the word "Reproducer" separates this subsystem from the others because that subsystem differs from all the others by being critical to the species or type of system even though it is not essential to the individual. Living systems often continue to exist even though they are not able to reproduce. Subsystems in different columns which appear opposite each other have processes with important simJlarities — for instance. the processes carried out by the Ingestor for matter and energy are comparable to those carried out by the Input transducer for information. In general the sequence of transmissions in living systems is from inputs at the top of Table 1-1 to outputs at the bottom, but there are exceptions.

Figure 1-2 Shred-out

The generalized living system (see Fig. 1-1) is here shown at each level.

The diagram indicates that the 19 subsystems at the level of the cell
shred out to form the next more advanced level of system, the organ.

This still has the same 19 subsystems, each being more complex.
A similar shredding-out occurs to form each of the five more advanced
levels — organism, group, organization, society, and supranational system.

Systems at each of the seven levels, I maintain, have the same 19 critical subsystems. The structure and processes of a given subsystem are more complex at a more advanced level than at the less advanced ones. This is explained by what I call the evolutionary principle of "shred-out," a sort of division of labor (see Fig. 1-2). Cells have the 19 critical subsystems. When mutations occurred in the original cells, the mutant could continue to exist only if it could carry out all the essential processes of life of the 19 subsystems; otherwise it would be eliminated by natural selection. The general direction of evolution is toward greater complexity. As more complex cells evolved, they had more complex subsystems, but still the same 19 basic processes.

Similarly as cells evolved into more complex systems at advanced levels — organs, organisms, and so on — their subsystems shredded out into increasingly complicated units carrying out more complicated and often more effective processes. If at any single point in the entire evolutionary sequence anyone of the 19 subsystem processes had ceased, the system would not have endured. That explains why the same 19 subsystems are found at each level from cell to suprasystem. And it explains why it is possible to discover, observe. and measure cross·level formal identities (see page 17).

For each subsystem I identify about a dozen variables representing different aspects of its processes. It would be easy to identify more if one wanted an exhaustive list. Each of these variables can be measured at each of the levels, and the sorts of variation discovered can be compared across the levels. The interactions between two or more variables in a single subsystem or in multiple ones can also be observed, measured, and compared across the levels. This is how cross-level formal identities, basic to a general theory of living systems, can be examined (see page 27).

This book is an effort to integrate all the social, biological, and physical sciences that apply to structure or process at any of the seven levels. Physiology, biochemistry, genetics, pharmacology, medicine, economics, political science, anthropology, sociology, and psychology are all almost entirely relevant. Physical science and engineering also contribute. Logic, mathematics, and statistics yield methods, models, and simuJations, including some involving the relatively new approaches of cybernetics and information theory.

Table 1-1

1. Reproducer, the subsystem which is capable of giving rise to other systems similar to the one it is in.
2. Boundary, the subsystem at the perimeter of a system that holds together the components which make up the system, protect them from environmental stresses, and excludes or permits entry to various sorts of matter-energy and information.

3. Ingestor, the subsystem which brings matter-energy across the system boundary from the environment.
4. Distributor, the subsystem which carries inputs from outside the system or outputs from its subsystems around the system to each component.
5. Converter, the subsystem which changes certain inputs to the system into forms more useful for the special processes of that particular system.
6. Producer, the subsystem which forms stable associations that endure for significant periods among matter-energy inputs to the system or outputs from its converter, the materials synthesized being for growth, damage repair, or replacement of components of the system, or for providing energy for moving or constituting the system's outputs of products or information markers to its suprasyslem.
7. Matter-energy storage, the subsystem which retains in the system, for different periods of time, deposits of various sorts of matter-ener8Y.
8. Extruder, the subsystem which transmits matter-energy out of the system in the forms of products or wastes.
9. Motor, the subsystem which moves the system or parts of it in relatiOn to part or all of its environment or moves components of its environment in relation to each other.
10. Supporter, the subsystem which maintains the proper spatial relationships among components of the system, so that they can interact without weighting each other down or crowding each other.

11. Input transducer, the sensory subsystem which brings markers bearing information into the system, changing them to other matter-energy forms suitable for transmission within it.
12. Internal transducer, the sensorv subsvstem which receives, from subsystems or components within the system, markers bearing information about significant alterations in those subsystems or components, changing them to other matter-energy forms of a sort which can be transmitted within it.
13. Channel and net, the subsystem composed of a single route in physical space, or multiple interconnected routes, by which markers bearing information are transmilled to all parts of the system.
14. Decoder, the subsystem which alters the code of information input to it through the input transduceror internal transducer into a "private" code that can be used internally by the system.
15. Associator, the subsystem which carries out the first stage of the learning process, forming enduring associations among items of information in the system.
16. Memory, the subsystem which carries out the second stage of the learning process, storing various sorts of information in the system for different periods of time.
17. Decider, the executive subsystem which receives information inputs from all other subsystems and transmits to them information outputs that control the entire system.
18. Encoder, the subsystem which alters the code of information input to it from other information processing subsystems, from a "private" code used internally by the system into a "public" code which can be interpreted by other systems in its environment.
19. Output transducer, the subsystem which puts out markers bearing information from the system, changing markers within the system into other matter-energy forms which can be transmitted over channels in the system's environment.
2. Problems in presenting a general theory

Presentation of a general theory covering the wide range of living systems from cells to supranational systems creates special problems in exposition, as readers of this book will discover.

First. the conceptual system must be stated in terms which are as nearly applicable as possible to all the Levels of living systems; otherwise it would not be general. No words, however, are designed or precisely adapted to describe comparable structures and processes at all these levels. The accepted specialized terms at one level are not exactly appropriate for another level. Consequently any term selected will appear a little inaccurate to specialists at one or more levels. I have tried to use the words which apply most satisfactorily to all levels. Nevertheless the reader will, unfortunately, have to adjust to certain awkwardnesses of language. They seem unavoidable in many sentences if the generality of the conceptual system is to be maintained.

Second, the book must be written for intelligent laypeople rather than for specialists at any level of living systems, because specialists at one level are usually not experts on the content matter of other levels. As a consequence, when specialists read chapters concerning their own fields. they will find that they already know much or all of their contents.

Some of the material is basic content in the field which has been taught in beginning courses for decades; other material is advanced and new. In order to keep the book within reasonable limitations of length, I have had to select for discussion only a few studies out of a wealth of alternatives. My selection of studies is almost certainly not exactly what the specialist would have made himself, and many details of the studies I do consider cannot be presented. But that is the nature of such a book as this. I hope that no inaccuracies or inappropriate popularizations appear in my surveys of the research in different fields and that my emphases on different aspects of the research are judicious. Beyond that, I ask the reader's patience in enduring the constraints inherent in the presentation of an embracing general theory.

3. The potential contributions of a general theory

In 1949 when our work in systems science began, an integrative theory of living systems seemed desirable, but barely possible. The outlook is better today. The potential of such general theory is more generally recognized.l

Many scientists have expressed the need for a commonly accepted language, systematic theories, and basic laws to organize the huge volume of research findings and bridge the gaps of our knowledge about living systems.2 George Miller's de5Cription of xientific journals as "… catalogs of spare parts for a machine they never build"3 is an eloquent statement of need for an integrative theory. Royce defines the place of theory in psychology:

The big contribution which theory makes is that it brings order out of chaos; it provides meaning where it had previously not existed. Note, however, thaI this orderliness cannot be provided unless the previously unrelated mass of facts has first been funnelled through the cortex of some thinking scientists … Empiricism without concious attempts at conceptualizing and showing logical relationships simply does not lead us automatically to theoretical unification. The history of science is replete with instances of all the facts being in. but because of the lack of an interested and insightful theorist, the development of the unifying concept, law, or theory was retarded. Facts remain isolated until some synthesizing mind brings them together.4

General theory has other important functions besides clarifying the meaning of established research findings, as Mendeleyev's periodic table of the elements did for chemistry. Like his theory it can also supply a structure into which new discoveries can be fitted. The sheer physical bulk of scientific and technical periodicals in the United States has been doubling approximately every 20 years since 1800.5 There are in the world at least 75,000 such journals, publishing about 1.2 million articles a year. Further. at least 60,000 books and 100,000 other research reports appear annually.6 The world list of scientific periodicals, like a colony of rabbits, has grown exponentially, doubling in number about every 15 years, increasing tenfold in 50 years, a thousandfold in a century and a half, and a millionfold in the 300 years since 1665 when the first such journal was published.7 The numbers of books and scientific abstracts grow at similar rates.

Moreover, though most aspects of societies double every 30 to 50 years, science is growing much faster. The number of scientists appears to be doubling in Western Europe every 15 years, in America every 10 years, in Russia every 7 years, and in China perhaps every 5 years. Moreover, more than 90 percent of all the scientists who ever lived are alive today. And they are hard at work. Twenty-five years ago a competent scientist had read most of the significant publications in his field. Today this is not possible even in sub-fields. Consequently, unless there Is an accepted structure into which each new finding can be fitted, the "immortality" of scientists' ideas will vanish. Experimenters sometimes unwittingly repeat research already accomplished by someone else, because the unsystematic arrangement of facts and the unclear relationships of concepts make it hard to remove earlier studies which, no matter how excellent, get buried under the avalanche of new researches. An organized theory allows new findings to be added to past knowledge in an orderly manner.

Perhaps the most valuable service of general theory, as Merton has observed, is suggesting how to make new observations or to conduct experiments on a wide range of phenomena in order to extend our grasp of the basic principles underlying them.8 Without such theory the scientist does not know how to decide which of an Overwhelming number of possible observations are worth making.

A general theoretical structure also provides common measurement units that make research at different levels comparable in a way they are not when each field has its own idiosyneratic measures (see pages 16 and 1026 to 1030).

The fact is that, while physical science is approaching the goal of an integrated mathematical theory of the co:;mos, the biological sciences today are a congeries of partial theories of varying degree:; of sophistication. And if an egg instead of an apple had dropped on Newton's head, physics might now be in the same state as the behavioral sciences. After a new theoretical integration, as the history of natural science repeatedly has shown. basic discovery, experimentation, technological advance, and isolated facts suddenly fit together 10 make new meaning.

4. Critiques of a general theory

There are various arguments against such a general theory as I shall present. Among these are (a) that the sciences of living systems, particularly social systems, are necessarily so vague and inexact that fundamental disagreements cannot be resolved; (b) that behavioral phenomena are too numerous and complex for meaningful classification and not available to exact measurement; (c) that living systems can be understood by "common sense" and that therefore scientific evidence about them is not necessary; (d) that man is unique in the scheme of nature and unpredictable, and that his inviolable subjectivity cannot be quantified; and finally (e) an emotional but forceful argument, that understanding means control so that a truly scientific approach to life would restrict rather than advance human freedom.

My answers to these arguments are:

(a)  The subject matter of the sciences of life and behavior, even social science, is not so intangible as it may seem. Tangibility is attested by measurable regularities, and living processes are both measurable and regular. There are, for example, regular relations of inputs and outputs from which intervening processes in an organism or social organization are inferred in the same way that the characteristics of a vacuum tube or amplifier are deduced from comparisons of its inputs and outputs. When a physicist reads a flickering needle, he is observing behavior — "motion" in the inanimate world — and drawing conclusions from it. Even the "subjective metrics" of psychometricians eventually reduce to behavioral indices and so are not exceptions to ordinary scientific practice. In the study of society the opinions and activities of people are becoming increasingly better understood as methods of sampling and analysis improve.

(b)  Man's complexity is great, but in the history of science everything which has not been thoroughly analyzed appears complex. I shall later demonstrate that behavior as purposive as man's-orientation toward fuhJre goals-appears in other living and non-living systems. And even subjectivity can, in a sense, be submitted to psychometric measurement.

(c)  Furthermore, "common sense" does not reign supreme in the sciences of life and behavior any more than it does in the physical sciences, where a pound of feathers is obviously lighter than a pound of lead. The commonsense approach was amusingly challenged by Lazarsfeld, who listed several commonsense, obvious generalizations about attitudes of American soldiers, such as:9 "Better educated men show more psyche. neurotic symptoms than those with less education," or "Men from rural backgrounds were usually in better spirits during their Army life than soldiers from city backgrounds." To those who know the Army these statements seem obviously correct. The only drawback is that an attitude survey among the soldiers has indicated them to be wrong.10

(d)  Man is unique. In fact, each man is unique. All particular things are unique. No two snowflakes and no two paramecia are alike.

Natural scientists attempt to view all phenomena dispassionately, somewhat as the supernatural observers looked down upon the Napoleonic era in Hardy's epic The Dynasts.11 These celestial beings watched the movements of human armies and the vacillation of men's fortunes just as the natural scientist views the stars. Such objective obselVation of man has not been part of our cultural tradition. A scientific attitude about man first emerged in the first half of the nineteenth century.12 At that time it became accepted that literary and philosophical discussion, scattered observations about behavior, and subjective experience were not enough.

To them must be added sophisticated quantitative empirical method and data analysis, specification and testing of propositions by collection of facts concerning individuals and their social interactions. (I use "empirical" here in the sense I shall use it throughout this book, meaning "originating in or relying or based on factual information, observation, or direct sense experience usually as opposed to theoretical knowledge," and not in its often derogatory other common meaning "relying on experience or observation alone without proper regard for considerations of system, science, and theory.")

There is still outcry against such an objective attitude by some social scientists. Adding detail to the contention that science cannot probe man's true nature, they maintain that his acts are not caused in the same way that the motions of non-living matter are caused. He is unpredictable; he can will to offset influences upon him; and he can produce novel solutions to his dilemmas. His behavior is purposive. He is too complex for analysis, and his subjective privacy cannot be penetrated. There has long appeared to be conflict between the search for general laws and the intensive study of individual cases, the "idiographic" and the "nomothetic" approaches. As Whitehead observed:13

… all the world over and at all times there have been practical men, absorbed in 'irreducible and stubborn facts': all the world over and at all times there have been men of philosophic temperament who have been absorbed in the weaving of general principles. It is this union of passionate interest in the detailed facts with equal devotion to abstract generalization which forms the novelty in our present society.

There are legitimate scientific approaches to details of individual cases and to the causal history of a single event. One may place the individual event under scrutiny and ask about its complex interactions, as does a psychoanalyst with his analysand or an anthropological field mission with an isolated tribe. One may apply statistics to an individual. Or, on the other hand, one may want to know in general how sense organs operate or how galaxies are formed. Both sorts of endeavor are part of science.

(e)  Perhaps harder to deal with is the question of the increased control by one man of another, which greater understanding and predictability may bring. Various warnings have been expressed about the dangers of this. For instance Whyte fears that many modern "organization men" may cease to make the distinction between right and wrong because of their belief that a precise science of man can determine ethics.14 A world like that or 1984 would make a nightmarish uncivilization of the society of the future.15

The more powerful and central to the human condition a new scientific discovery is, the more danger there is in its irresponsible misuse. We are acutely aware of the potentialities of expanded control in the field of atomic physics. Prediction, however, need not lead to control. As Harper said, because we can predict the course of the planets. we do not gain the ability to change thelI motions. He added:

This becomes knowledge to live by, not a tool for interplanetary dictatorship. … New scientific knowledge does not really mean the acquiring of an ability to exercise control according to whatever may be the wishes of the controller. It means, instead. learning the self-controlling laws of the universe, thus acquiring greater ability to adjust ourselves to things as they are — to live in greater harmony with our environment. That, I beLieve, is the way to greater freedom rather than less, in social science as elsewhere. The biological nature of man will not be eliminated by learning what it is. Development of the science of human affairs is, then, not something that must be feared by the lovers of freedom.16

5. Conclusions

Increasing understanding of the physical universe has provided the skills to engineer great monuments and public works, to communiCilte over vast distances, and to move into space with incredible speed. Atomic research has given us tremendous sources of power. All this has increased our ability to control our environment even though it has not provided freedom from fear, at least as yet. Physical science so far has been used more to help man than to harm him, in spite of some obvious and dangerous misuses of it.

The same is true with biological science. Medicine and biology know how to kill in more complicated and effective ways than were possible a hundred years ago, but medical and biological knowledge have been used for the public welfare vastly more often than for harm. While the specters of biological warfare and of starvation in overpopulated regions cannot be overlooked, the advance of these fields has freed man from many sorts of illness and pain and increased his span of life.

Unquestionably the science of living systems as it develops may give opportunities for intimate forms of control and drastic threat, but on the other hand, it can also serve to free us from emotional disturbance, problems of interpersonal relations, and ultimately from the international disease of war which has scourged man throughout history. The expansion of such science is not likely to be avoided long by any nation. We can view this eventuality constructively, willingly accepting the challenge of its inherent dangers in order to realize its potentials for expanding the quality of human life.

Somewhere in this suggestion lies the hope that the same method which has harnessed physical forces can give us control over ourselves, a hope that adequate understanding of man and society can ultimately lead to constructive freedom and avert mass destruction.

A general theory of living systems viewed, as in this book, as a particular subset of all systems — implies a unity of science. It contends that the method which has advanced physical science can also advance the science of living systems. As Oppenheimer has put it:17

In the whole of our knowledge of the natural world including ourselves as natural objects, this whole area that reaches from the earliest days of history, from the farthest our telescopes and imaginations can see to the most subtle question of human behavior, there are no signs of any unmanageable inconsistency.

Notes and References

1 Cf. Thorn, R. Stabilité structurelle et morphogenése. Reading, Mass.: W. A. Benjaminn. 1972.
Also Braham, M. A general theory of organization. Gen. Systems, 1973, 18, 13-24.
Also Laszio. C. A., Levine, M. D., & Mllsum, J.H. A general systems framework for social systems. Behav. Sci., 1974, 19, 79-92.
Also Glassman, K.B. Selection processes in living systems' role in cognitive construction and recovery from brain damage. Behav. Sci., 1974, 19, 149-165.
Cf. Baker | Baker, W.O. The paradox of choice. In D.L. Wolfle (Ed.). Symposium in basic research, Washington, D.C.; AAAS Publication No. 56, 1959, 62, 58 Copyright 1959 by The American Association for the Advancement of Science. Reprinted by permission. who writes: "While brilliant hypotheses and shrewd applications of statistics have dramatically advanced our understanding of biological events and effects, there is yet hardly a case where guiding theoretical precept is established. Further, the need is intense, because in the life sciences the fragmented structure of many gifted individuals working independently may be a problem in our present national position in science. … Another powerful way to harmonize the freedom of the individual scholar in science with the achievement of useful and desired products is to be sure that everybody speaks the same language. This is a simple convenience which is often overlooked. It means that basic expressions of scientific concepts ought to contain common units and, hopefully, common meanings."

2 Cf. also Lewin, K. Principles of topological psychology. (Trans. by F. Heider & C.M. Heider.) New York; McGraw Hill, 1936, 4.
Also Cattell, R.B. Concepts and methods in the measurement of group syntality. Psychol. Rev., 1948, 55, 48.
Also Cartwright, D. Social psychology and group processes. Ann. Rev. Psychol., 1957, 211.
Also Carmichael, L. Cobb's pyramid. Contemp. Psychol., 1959, 4, 238.
Also Easton, D. Shifting images of social science and values. Antioch Rev., 1955, 15, 17-18.
Also Rapoport, A. The systems view of the world. By Ervin Laszlo. (Book review.) Gen. Systems, 1973, 18, 189-190.

3 Miller, G.A. Psychology's block of marble. Contemp. Psychol., 1956, 1, 252.

4 Royce, J.R. Toward the advancement of theoretical psychology. Psychol. Rep., 1957, 3, 404. Reprinted by permission of author and publisher.

5 U.S. Library of Congress Reference Department, Scientific Division. Scientific and Technical Serial Publications, 1950-53. Washington; U.S. Government Printing Office, 1954.

6 Ki1lian, J.R. Report on scientific information of the President's Scientific Advisory Committee, 1958. Nature, Jan. 17, 1959, 136.

7 Price, D.J. de S. Science since Babylon. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1961, 100-113.

8 Merton, R.K. Social theory and social structure. (Rev. ed.). Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1957, 88.

9 Lazarsfe1d, P.F. The American soldier — an expository review. Publ. Opin. Quart., 1949, 13, 378-380.

10 Stouffer. S.A. The American soldier. In R.K. Merton & P.F. Lazarsfeld (Eds.). Studies in the scope and method "The American Soldier." Glencoe, lIl.: Free Press, 1950.

11 Hardy, T. The dynasts. New York: St. Martins, 1961.

12 Glazer, N. The rise of social research in Europe. In D. Lemer (Ed.). The human meaning of the social sciences. New York: Meridian, 1959, 45-47.

13 Whitehead, A.N. Science and the modern world. New York: Macmillan, 1925, 3-4. Copyright, 1925, by The Macmillan Company. Reprinted by permission of The Macmillan Company and Cambridge University Press.

14 Whyte, W.H., Jr. The organization man. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956, 28.

15 Orwell, G. 1984. New York: New Amer. Lib., 1954.

16 Harper, F.A. On the science of social science. Paper read at the Texaco Research Club, Beacon, New York. February 1956. Reprinted by permission.

17 Oppenheimer, J.R. Tradition and discovery. A.C.L.S. Newsletter. 1959, 10, 14. Reprinted by permission.
Cf. also Price, D.J. de S. Op. cit., 107.
Also Thorn, R. Op. cit., 325.

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