Home Forums Deep Time Journey Forum Is the universe a "living system"? Reply To: Is the universe a "living system"?

James MacAllister


It is true that there is no complete and agreed upon definition for life, but I think your statement that there is no commonly agreed to criteria for defining life is not correct. You began this discussion with a very poor definition of life according to David Christian, a Big Historian. There are certainly criteria for cellular life that I think most biologists, medical researchers, evolutionists, ecologists and others in “life sciences” would agree on. For example, life requires a source of energy, a source of electrons, a source of carbon (and other chemicals usually abbreviated as CHNOPS) and a terminal electron acceptor. I think Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela’s concept of autopoesis as described in their book The Tree of Knowledge – The Biological Roots of Human Understanding goes a long way in defining life as a property of cells. They would add that cells must structurally couple with their environment and that this is the most basic form of knowledge as action. Structural coupling is required in order for cells to have metabolism which is another criteria of life. Viruses do not have metabolism, so there is a difficulty with including them as living although there are those that would do so and that would mean that the biological definition of life would be different from a cellular definition of life. This gets into territory that is beyond my “pay grade”.

I think what you are doing is cherry picking quotes that in many cases are not scientific even if they are made by scientists. Freeman Dyson’s remark about electrons is not a scientific statement that electrons are sentient—he is speaking metaphorically. It is necessary to remember that most scientists are reductionists and their expertise is limited to their field or even less—to some subspeciality within a field. Physicists playing biologists gave us the gene-centered view of DNA as the “book of life” which has proved to be erroneous. So it really doesn’t matter what scientists say when they speak out of their fields because they are not experts. I am not sure about your five criteria (I don’t think they would pass muster with most folks in the life sciences). There is a bigger problem though which is that making the Universe “living” makes everything living. EVERYTHING? Yes, that is the meaning of Universe. Consequently, there is nothing that is not living with which to compare or contrast “living”, so the term “living” becomes meaningless. In order for “living” to mean something, it has to distinguish properties not found in inanimate objects or what I would more narrowly define as things that are not metabolizing cells since my claim is that life is a property of cells capable of metabolism.

I would ask why you want the define the Universe as alive? It is going to kill our exploration of the Universe in search of extraterrestrial life since by your definition the Moon, Mars, Venus, the Sun (the list really goes on and on and on….) are all alive.

Note- I did reply to the email you sent but apparently replies must be composed here, so the above was my reply.