FALL, 2003

On "livingness" and "life"

Name:  Talia Liben
Subject:  Is there more to life?
Date:  2003-09-08 18:52:14
Message Id:  6379
The question is, is the list that was given in class all the is required in order to have life? Is life more than those stated (highly improbable assembly, bounded, energy dependent, semi-homeostatic, semi-autonomous, reproduces with variation)? The question is in fact quite philosophical. Is an unborn child (a fetus) a life? At what point does it become life? At the point when it fulfills all of the above requirements, when it was first conceived, or at a certain stage of developement? What stage of developement? Is a man alive when the only thing keeping him breathing is a tube in a hospital? Is he alive even though he may not be capable of thought? Is he alive because he fulfills all of the above requirements, or are more requirements needed in order for his life to be considered as valuable as someone elses? The questions go on. Every person will have a different view on the matter. Some people may be influenced by various matters such as religion and relevant life experiences. Some people will look at the question from a purely scientific view, others from a purely moral view. But most people will probably look from a myriad of different angles. So, I know that I have not answered the question. I do that intentionally, because I don't have the answer. I may have a personal answer. But no one person is going to have an answer that applies to everyone. It just isn't possible.
Name:  Shafiqah Berry
Date:  2003-09-09 19:05:55
Message Id:  6398
Today, we did a lab. ooolala. Okay so I was under the misconception that you need goggles and an apron and you know technical crap to participate in a lab. I also thought that labs were about testing, retesting that is, some already proven theory and making sure your results were as close to the "right" answer as possible. Today, I thought omg a bio lab, but this was like those exploration games you play at the park when your five. So, I renamed the ground, I was into the moment and we should do that more often... SO belated thinking about the whole science relating to life issue... exploration is a good thing. sometimes discarding the status quo and being creative is a must!
P.S.- this is an informal arena
Name:  Alison Jost
Date:  2003-09-10 10:40:49
Message Id:  6404
After looking over the list given in class, it seemed that the qualifications needed for something to be considered living was pretty accurate. Then, though, I remembered a (possible) exception to the rule from a 9th grade Bio class: fire. If asked whether fire was living, I think few people would answer in the affirmative. Yet, it really does seem to meet every criteria on the checklist. It is certainly dependent on other sources--oxygen is imperative to its "survival." It is bounded, too, in that one can certainly tell what is "inside" the fire and what is not. Fire is semi-homeostatic: it reproduces with variation almost constantly.
Although fire meets these requirements, I'm still not sure I'd call it living . . . maybe the thing to study next is energy, as it seems a more appropriate placement.
Name:  Patricia
Username:  ppalermo
Subject:  The funny list on the board...
Date:  2003-09-10 17:22:25
Message Id:  6417
At the end of class today, we placed diffrent animals in diffrent places on the board. At first what I thought was a very random thing to do, waiting patiently for a point. It was to make us think about why we place diffrent values on diffrent animals, plants, or really anything in our surroundings. I noticed that at first we wanted to group the animals accourding to size. Then, after class, a friend of mine commented that she had asked Grobstien to place one of the animals in between an animal she "liked" more and an animal she "liked" less. This made me think the following (which may or may not be connected to what we are talking about.)

Why do we place diffrent values on animals (or anything for that matter?)

For instance, why are we mortified at the idea of killing a bunny, but so comfortable with killing a spider? Do we judge value based on size? We clearly do not because we find ourselves far more "valuable" than whales? Do we value animals based on intelligence? Is it an inate value judgement, or are there diffrent cultures who would kill a bunny and be completely calm around a spider. I wonder what drives us to decide which animals deserves which value. Do we value the creatures that are more in our likeness? Do we value the creatures that have a bigger impact on our eco-system? I don't think any of these are can be proven to be correct, at least within our culture. The closest I can come to any value placement bias we might have is that we respect mammals more than we do insects, which may be because we are mammals. But why do we preffer one mammal over another? So when we are looking at "Life," and the process of studying and grouping life, I just wonder what our biases are. And how that has effected our study of biology. The world around us? How far away our grouping on the board is from a "scientific" grouping?

Name:  Maria Scott-Wittenborn
Subject:  general thoughts
Date:  2003-09-10 22:18:09
Message Id:  6422
This is a very very long posting. My computer seems to have developed a personality disorder over the last week and has not been cooperating with my efforts to post comments in this forum so these thoughts are in response not only to today's class, but also to the previous class sessions. I've always found it interesting that people thought that they were qualified to determine what is and is not alive; what does or does not constitute "life". I've always thought that the human mind tends to create a frame of reference--using its own experiences as a guide--through which to interpret anything we might encounter. Our concept of "life" or "living" is derived from our own highly subjective natures. I wonder if humans can ever really be trusted to observe or analyze and come to conclusions about the unfamiliar without attaching value judgments that stem from highly subjective personal values and experiences. I remember growing up that every now and then I would suddenly understand a puzzle or a game that I hadn't been able to before, usually because it involved some abstract concept that was simply over my head at the time. It was always shocking to me how when suddenly it 'clicked' and where previously I had seen no order or overriding principle I would suddenly be able to "connect the dots" and to identify consistent rules by which the players were abiding. As I've gotten older I've realized that those epiphanies occurred at developmental turning points when my ability to identify and comprehend abstract concepts would also have improved. Yet I've always wondered what else I'm missing, what concepts or activities are going on in the world around me that I simply cannot see or cannot identify in the same sense that there were things that I simply couldn't get my mind around as a young child. I suppose what I'm sort of getting at here is that while I feel that we are qualified perhaps to state what is "living" as we understand the concept, I would feel unqualified to state what is NOT living. Perhaps I'm just not able to see it or to comprehend the WAY in which it is living. That said, I'm not trying to suggest that rocks are alive. In terms of diversity: I do think that diversity is fundamental to life. The Earth for example is greater than the sum of it's parts because of the incredibly diverse range of organisms and life-systems that live on it. In terms of diversity among people I think that there is something fundamental within us that desires diversity. I mean, the Stepford Wives was considered a horror-type movie for a reason. In terms of the list of animals on the board today, I truly believe that Dolphins should have ranked above Lions. As soon as dolphins develop opposable thumbs, humanity is going to have serious competition.
Name:  MH
Subject:  General thoughts, etc.
Date:  2003-09-11 11:34:38
Message Id:  6436
On discussing the issue of "life", I find that it is exceptionally difficult to approach this word/topic from 1 singular meaning. I am not comfortable with a standard definition. While the list we have discussed in class outlines necessary "mechanics" of life, I have to question whether or not there isn't more to "defining" life.

I liked Patty's question about biases which we create in our own definitions of life. I feel that these biases are inherent as we personally categorize "life" into different levels of "living" via importance. Perhaps that can explain why one is more upset by the death of a human or dog than say an ant. But whats not to say that these standards for living do not vary from person to person.

In addition to these mechanics with which we were presented in class, I feel there is also a certain amount we allocate to the "essence" of something which we deem alive. For humans, this could perhaps be the personality. It is much easier for one to observe and interact with the personality of a cat or human than say an amoeba or insect. While this idea does not hold for all forms of life, I believe it makes them more approachable and recognizable forms than others.

Name:  Laura Wolfe
Subject:  Week 2
Date:  2003-09-12 13:24:28
Message Id:  6457
I've been thinking a lot about the meaning of "life" as we've been discussing in links a lot to what I've been thinking for my English class, which is the meaning of literature. Does a comic book count as literature? Or a piece of music? Is there a certain "essense" or style that makes us accept some things as literature and reject others? What about a grocery list - what makes that different from a poem? I think this is very pertinent to our Biology discussion, because it's all about how we see things. It's our interpretation of something that is all around us, that forms how we think of our surroundings. We could classify a piece of fungus as life, but then say that the rock it's growing on is not alive - it doesn't take part in the big picture of "life". The difference that I see between defining pieces of literature and pieces of life is that the human race created literature, or at least it is created through us. Life would be here whether we were here or not - maybe Biology wouldn't be here, or science wouldn't be (if you see science as the human study of life) but the truthful science of how things work would still be working. In my mind, that makes us less worthy of classifying and naming things in biology than in literature - we don't own it, we only control how we interpret it.
In that sense, I think we need to leave things more abstract than we do, with more room for creativity. In English we read an article called "Rhizome vs. Trees"; it basically says that instead of trying to force literature into a tree-like category, with roots, branches and leaves (a begining and end for every part) we need to think of it more as a rhizome formation, a horizontal root with sprouts and growths spurting in all directions, with no one beginning point and no ending (hypothetically) everything is connected, and part of the whole, but you can't ever say Yes, this deffinitely came from this point. So I think Biology could be more open to advancement if we included more stories as possibilities of explanation, instead of using one at a time, understanding exclusively one explanation until it is falsified.
Name:  Su-Lyn
Subject:  Seeking order & making sense...
Date:  2003-09-13 01:27:48
Message Id:  6460

An example of how technology changes our observations and therefore our stories...
      When did abortion and euthanasia become ethical issues? Why not stillbirth and old age? Where does contraception stand? And at the opposite end of the spectrum, what about artificial insemination? Cloning?
      Notice that it's the extremes of life and death that are being negotiated. Thanks to technology, "life" can now start earlier and end later than it would naturally. Our ability to intervene in this process, whether facilitating or interrupting life, requires that we reflect critically on what it is we are meddling with. Values and ethics develop with the technology to interfere in natural processes that we otherwise would probably take for granted.

"Life would be here whether we were here or not - maybe Biology wouldn't be here, or science wouldn't be (if you see science as the human study of life) but the truthful science of how things work would still be working." – Laura

      That's a really interesting idea. I'd like to suggest that science is a human construction and therefore wouldn't exist if we didn't. Science is one approach to the study of life and it has developed from the direct observations that we make. Technology has helped to expand the kinds of data we are able to collect, but the direction of change is grounded in our genetic make-up. It seems that we have developed technology to augment our basic senses, or at least to translate undetectable phenomena into a 'readable' form (e.g. thermal imaging, scans of brain activity).
      The ways in which we seek, classify and synthesize data are further influenced by the way our brain functions. From my limited understanding of neurobiology, if something doesn't make sense or fit the narrative that the brain is constructing from the glimpses of life, then the data is trashed. (That's why dreams are seldom remembered. Those that are remembered either make sense and therefore were salvaged from the floor of the neural editing room, or form mini-narratives – evidence that the brain has been at work – that don't fit into a cohesive whole.)
      This is very revealing of the way in which biology is conducted, seeking order in chaos and unity in diversity. I don't doubt that if some highly intelligent being evolved similar capabilities for abstract thought, then some form of a pursuit of knowledge would develop. But it's too far of a leap for me to imagine how different it would be from science as we know and practice it today.
      I only wonder if this tendency to synthesize is universal, if order exists at every level of organization, both living and inanimate, or whether it exists only in our minds... that, I think, would have the most significant impact on how the 'new science' would unfold. What got me started on this thought was the picture of the Milky Way in class today. Galaxies have highly improbable assemblies. Our brains are similarly organized in highly complex ways, processing information in a way that seeks order. I wonder if the way in which I'm struck by the Milky Way indicates the way in which order recognizes order... is that the most fundamental aesthetic appeal? Are we responding to the beauty of the galaxy because we're responding to the same order that exists within us?
      (Of course these observations are subject to my own assumptions about the way our brains work. Any correction would be greatly appreciated.)
Name:  Melissa Teicher
Subject:  Definition of a Living Thing
Date:  2003-09-13 10:35:49
Message Id:  6462
I thought our definition of a living thing was pretty extensive, but there's one thing i am not sure about. Isn't a characteristic of a living thing that it is made up of cells? would that be something that should be added to our list of characteristics that make up a living thing? I don't really know much about the whole "cell theory" thing, but I always thought that a living organism was made up of cells.
Name:  Julia Wise
Subject:  Diversity
Date:  2003-09-13 15:54:31
Message Id:  6464
I still think that you don't neccesarily need a variety of species to constitute life. Going on the theory of evolution, at some point when life was first starting on Earth, there were just a few little microbes or whatnot. Because the first little creepycrawly that we want to say was living made more like itself, and for a while they must have all been of the same species, until enough generations had gone by that there were seperate species. But I think that even if there was only one species at that point, I would still gasp and consider there to be "life" on Earth.
Name:  Brittany
Username:  Anonymous
Subject:  Uberlong post
Date:  2003-09-13 18:57:40
Message Id:  6465
I find Maria's point very interesting: "while I feel that we are qualified perhaps to state what is "living" as we understand the concept, I would feel unqualified to state what is NOT living. Perhaps I'm just not able to see it or to comprehend the WAY in which it is living. That said, I'm not trying to suggest that rocks are alive."

My question: How do we really know they aren't? From what we've been discussing in class lately, "life" as we know it is a term completely dependent upon individual perception. It's all semantics. For example, what if---and I know this sounds a little silly, but humor me here---rocks had some sort of sentience that we weren't able to identify with our limited technology? Suppose those little chunks of malachite sitting in the glass cases in Park were studying *us*? It's less a matter of how *advanced* our technology is than in what *area.* Despite our attempts to look at "life" objectively, we're still biased in that we can only view the term from our perspective, i.e. a Sol-stranded collection of energy-dependent, semi-autonomous, bounded, etc. etc. organisms. There could be a whole other level of "life" that remains invisible to us because of our natural biases.

The same thing goes for our methods of organization. In this case, I refer solely to our questionable definition of earthly "life." Because there is no truth in science, we can't ever be sure our classification systems are accurate---even if we accept the premise that we're going about them the "less wrong" way. For example, classification by intelligence was listed on the board this Wednesday as one of our methods of organization. So what's "intelligence"? The ability to do calculus? write literature? fly a plane? build a city? Like "life," "intelligence" is all definition and perception. I know this is an old saw, but consider house cats/dogs: evolved specifically to take advantage of humans who think they're "cuddly." Benefits: free food, free shelter, free medical care, and free love. Now *that's* intelligence. (I know, I know: there are a lot of animals for whom this system doesn't work: ie. stray dogs, cats, starving former housepets living off of garbage cans and kittens in boxes. But consider: the examples of human "intelligence" with regards to lifestyle have a similar, if not worse, failure rate. War? Poverty? Hate crimes? Pollution? At least house cats don't fire-bomb one another).

If we accept the idea that there is no truth, we must also accept the idea that all of our knowledge is in some sense flawed; also that we'll never know everything there is to know about anything. That, in turn, means that we can't ever totally falsify an idea. And that, finally, means that anything we dream up could be valid.

So, in conclusion, that rock sitting over there *could* be alive---just in a very different sense than we know it.

Oh, yes, and the Meaning of Life is either forty-two or "Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations," depending on who you ask. ^_____^

For a concise, hilarious overview/tour of the human race's total insignificance, go here:
Name:  Nancy
Username:  nevans@bmc
Subject:  Life defined?
Date:  2003-09-14 11:32:50
Message Id:  6471
I am having a hard time digesting these characteristics of life we have put forth. Perhaps this is a good thing, meaning I am challenging my previous notions as well as our new ideas, but nonetheless I am questioning. First of all, we really have not defined to what level of specificity these characteristics apply. What I mean by that is do we say that all humans match the characteristics, therefore they are alive? This became an important question to me last week, when I first read the list. It seemed that a car fit every characteristic except "reproduces with variation". Then I thought, what if we consider an infertile human. They cannot reproduce with variation, so are they just as alive as a car? Obviously not, but I am a little hesitant to throw out the notion that there is no essense of life. Beyond these qualities, which are of course fallacious to some extent (no true answers, right?), there just has to be something that screams "life" to us. Maybe this is something that humans, despite their fervent search to compartmentalize and catagorize, cannot bottle up and sell as truth. Perhaps we will never be able to understand life. Of course, this sounds very romantic and un-scientific, and i look forward to being proved wrong.
Name:  Lindsay
Subject:  Classification
Date:  2003-09-14 16:12:46
Message Id:  6473
I'm not really one to compartmentalize things; I hated putting plant life into different categories in our lab just as I hated the arbitrary divisions of classes in high school. Science, English, Pre-calculus...I just like to let them all run together. Academia often makes science out to be so black-and-white; I'd much prefer to regard it as a huge, wonderful gray area. However, I do understand that humankind has a habit of classifying life and everything about it. I suppose if we did not classify, we could not give things names (or meaningful names anyway) and therefore could have no discourse on any given subject. While we all bring our own ideas to the table, we need to have agreement on some fundamental premises. I think science attempts to provide a system, to give us the ability to do this, so that we can make progress as a species. And I am totally comfortable with the fact that this system is flawed. Funny—this system of improving life could always use some improvement.
Name:  Adina
Subject:  Classifications
Date:  2003-09-14 22:27:26
Message Id:  6475
Just as we have no other examples of life other than that of life on Earth, we have no other examples of being something other than human. For this reason, I think that many of our classification systems have something to do with how human-like the animals (organisms?) are. We think in human terms and have human priorities. Whether we like an animal usually has to do with its human-like or un-human-like qualities. We might find human-like animals cute and un-human-like animals exotic. We might classify according to color, but we classify according to the colors that we, as humans, see.
Username:  ajost
Subject:  No such thing as "life essence"???
Date:  2003-09-14 23:02:40
Message Id:  6476
Similar to the others who have posted, I am having a hard time accepting the idea presented last class--namely, that (and this is a direct quote) "there is no life essence. [Instead}, living things are everything which is part of this 'big thing.'" It seems to me quite dangerous to simply discard the notion that life shares a common essence. If there is no life essence, then how are we to classify life at all? If no essence is needed to qualify something as living, then what was the point of the list made in class a few days ago that was meant to be used as a general guideline for identifying something as living? Saying that life essence is nonexistent is extremely problematic; such a statement suggests that any qualifications made to distinguish between living and non-living things are arbitrary and without support. Having seen the list presented in class a few days ago, which hardly seemed arbitrary or unsupported, tells me that there is indeed a common life essence.
Name:  megan williams
Subject:  life
Date:  2003-09-15 10:16:14
Message Id:  6477
since class on friday, i have actually been thinking of the question of life. teachers always tell you, think about this over the weekend, and students never do. however, this topic actually has me thinking.

as we watched the screen on friday, and the earth got farther and farther away, and we travelled into first the milky way, then began to see other galaxies, the comment was made, we are all made of star dust, and that the sun will eventually explode or burn out. in an earlier class that morning, a teacher had pointed out that we, as humans, are on the road to extinction. not only did these two classes make me,a s a human, feel tiny and miniscle, but it also questions my beliefs.

many of us are raised with certain religious values and beliefs. some of us question these beliefs, some wander from them, and some follow blindly. i guess i would categorize myself in all three.

in bio 103, we are asked to define life and the living for ourselves. its hard not to draw from earlier conceptions of evolutionary processes or religious beliefs. can a biological view, an anthropological view, and a religious view all mesh to form one theory?

Name:  elisabeth py
Subject:  life essence
Date:  2003-09-15 10:38:13
Message Id:  6478
I do not fully understand the expression "life essence" (besides knowing it does not exist). According to the Oxford Encyclopedic English Dictionary:

life : the condition which distinguishes active animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, functional activity, and continual change preceding death.

essence : the indispensable quality or element identifying a thing or determining its character; fundamental nature or inherent characteristics.

life essence as the potential capacity of fulfilling given capacities or individual traits?

does life essence exist before the actual birth of a plant or human?

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