Life: as we know it

Reporter: ‘What makes life alive?’

Professor: ‘All the things that constitute a living organism.’

R:  ‘But those things started out as non-living chemicals – so what makes the difference?’

P:  ‘Well, we now know that life evolved gradually and became more and more sophisticated.’

R:  ‘So did evolution make life?’

P:  ‘Not exactly.  It may be that life arose by chance to begin with – in a very primitive form – and evolution took over’.

R:  ‘And does evolution work by chance?’

P:  ‘Not exactly, but evolution makes the difference that enables life to change and become more complicated.’

R:  ‘Then can we understand life better in its simplest forms?’

P:  ‘As it happens, evolution tells us more about how life works, even at a basic microbial level.’

R:  ‘So what is the difference between a living organism and a non-living thing?’

P:  ‘The clue is in the name – in the way a living thing is organised.’

R:  ‘How does this show that chance might be the original cause?’

P:  ‘Because there’s nothing else to see.’

R:  ‘Does it mean that chance is organised?’

P:  ‘All we can say is that something happens.’

R:  ‘But how does not seeing a cause mean that it can be identified as chance?’

P:  ‘You need to understand that science is based upon a combination of observation and reason, and scientists are always ready to change their conclusions when new facts are observed.

R:  ‘So we can conclude this interview in the knowledge that evolution does and does not explain life, and chance may or may not be the cause – because the fact of an explanation does and doesn’t mean that the facts are explained.’

P:  ‘As it happens, there is no better explanation than the scientific one.

R:  ‘Is it the observation of life as different that causes the problem for explanation, especially when it is scientifically plausible to look at it in terms of something else – as if the problem can be reduced by identifying its non-living causes?  Is that why some scientists want to regard viruses as alive and computer viruses as forms of life created by us?’

P:  ‘Who knows what we might discover in the future.’

R:  ‘But surely it all goes back to the fact of life as something different, otherwise we would have no idea of what to look for or explain?’

P:  ‘Perhaps we will find new forms of life in the universe which will completely change our ideas about what life is’.

R:  ‘Except you must be able to spot a vital difference in order to identify it as alive, and we can’t avoid the problem of explaining that difference by finding out that life is really something else – it just shifts the burden of explanation onto something else.’

P:  ‘That’s the fun of doing science – we just never know for sure where the evidence might lead us.’

R:  ‘Then we will have to conclude by admitting that we don’t even know what amounts to a conclusion.’

P:  ‘Exactly.’

Mike Laidler

 

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