FALL, 2003

What IS Life? (continued)

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?

Name:  Nomi
Date:  2003-09-15 19:38:30
Message Id:  6484
A while ago Talia posed a question about what is required of a life form for it to be considered valuable. Today, we tried to distinguish between values and biases. While both are characteristics of human beings, I think value judgements are more conscious human constructions while biases are really inevitable. The always-relative construction of "value" or "worth" is one we use constantly on ourselves, each other and our wrold. (How useless!) Still, we don't have to judge: if we divide fruits into categories of apple, banana and so forth, we are making no inherent judgement of their values. Sure, we're biased, because we're using our human senses to differentiate among the colors, textures, and shapes of the fruits. Everything we perceive or say is biased in that it consists of a human perspective. There is, of course, no universal perspective to speak of; ants see one world, birds another, humans another, and each of us is biased.

So what of eliminating scientific bias? Well, we can't do that. However, it seems the more we observe and know, the smaller our bias becomes. The worm who sees a tree-top reduces his bias in perceiving that the world consists of more than dirt. For people, I think, technology has been a great reducer of bias -bringing us one level closer to objectivity than would unaided observation alone. Still, it is troubling to me that even though we humans can stand back and gaze at the entire universe (a seeming picture of objectivity), we will still be seeing it through our eyes.
* * *
Looking back on our reconstruction of the "scientific method," it occurs to me that the everyday sequence of make observations -> summarize observations -> repeat also speaks to way in which living organisms, according to old Biology textbooks, "respond to stimuli." The textbooks assert than any living organism must respond to stimuli like cold, shock, water, food and so on. So ... look at this. Say a turtle is basking in the sun. It observes [sunshine] and summarizes its observations [good for basking]. But then it starts to rain! The turtle makes new observations [rainfall, wet] and constructs a new summary [bad for basking]. It then responds to the latest summary of observations by withdrawing into its shell. Alternatively, a white blood cell stays calm as long as it observes no intruders, but when it observes a germ, it attacks. Simlple S-R (stimulus-response) functioning. Is that so very different from the observe -> summarize cycle of science? It's much faster when it's pysiological, but aren't the steps the same? Is science really a human construction? If all babies are scientists from birth, why not all organisms? Is the process of scientific inquiry innate in all life? Certainly, white blood cells do not perform in the name of "science." So ... what's the difference?

I just thought of something: our class definition of the scientific method did not involve acting. It involved only observing and summarizing (or thinking). What we learn through science might not actually change the way we act. Consciousness intervenes between perception and reaction; in simple S-R sequences consciousness might not play a part.

In that case: does the pursuit of science have to be conscious? Because that's the major difference between human inquiry and the reactions of a cell. And, if conscious, must we know we're doing science in order for it to count? Probably not. Babies don't know it.

Name:  Ramatu Kallon
Subject:  What is living?
Date:  2003-09-15 20:54:04
Message Id:  6485
I have been pondering upon the discussions we have had in class about life and whether we can tell if something is living or not living. Before the discussion I thought it was obviously easy to tell whether something is living or not. However, the discussion led me to question the meaning of life. And are there any other means of knowing someone is alive besides seeing if their hearts are beating? How do we justify life and its existence?
Name:  Anna Banana
Subject:  If you have a question, go and ask a tree
Date:  2003-09-15 23:12:35
Message Id:  6487
This addresses spirituality, the "essence of life", and acting...

From a Theater Major's standpoint: I think a little differently about the world around me, and am quite pleased that this homepage features quotes by theater heavies Stoppard and Brecht, both of whom occupy an existentialist / Heiddegarian outlook on life. Brecht had an idea of social theater (not unlike Grobstein's social based learning for this class) where the theater is not merely a source of entertainment, but for education, mostly political. The main idea was alienation from the characters so as not to sympathize or be moved by their plight, but to THINK and QUESTION as the familiar suddenly becomes strange. Through keeping an emotional distance from the events onstage, the audience was allowed to "break the illusion of the theatre." He created EPIC theater, which is essentially, thought over emotion: a new kind of spectatorship.
In response to Nomi's question, science is everywhere, it's a part of humanity--life. In Brecht theory, people who allow themselves to be caught up in the emotion of a situation lose the reality of it. The pursuit of life, however, is a conscious thing (except if you're Hamlet), but at moments, it may seem like a character is just simply- existing, and this is okay too, it's something everyone should feel sometime or another. I would say that a comified person can certainly feel the energy from a loved one in the room, even if at that moment he or she is "unconscious."
Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael, a book about our society as being made up of "Takers" and "Leavers" --With man gone will there be hope for Gorilla? --In response to the spirituality question, he brings up tribal communities. If you were to ask an aboriginal person if he/she considered themselves spiritual, they would be very confused. Plus, any definition of the word spiritual is "probably going to include people you don't want to include." He suggests you feel no more need to express your spirituality as you do your longetivity, or humanity. It's an animist theory. People who view the world as a sacred place and really feel no need for precise theological answers. In many ways, they believe in the interconnectedness of life, the spirits of a place/s. However, the terms 'universal consciousness' and 'soul of the universe' would make an animist conclusion, during the Renaissance, when experience and exploration and observation (3 main acting theories) became a chief new means of gaining knowledge, their theories and answers were "out of the box" and decidely required building on a previous framework of ideas, but experience, observation, and exploration will always be a surer guide to knowledge than authority and reason alone.
A New Way Of Looking At Lab Assignments: Imagine your doing Brecht theory. The next time you go outside Park Science to look at trees and shrubs, which seems like a pretty familiar thing, alienate yourself from the experience. Take on a new kind of spectatorship. Let the familiar become strange and uncannily, an un-at-home-like experience. Your critical attachment will amazingly, provoke you to action.

Name:  katie ottati
Subject:  science, religion and anthro
Date:  2003-09-16 16:34:10
Message Id:  6499
Sort of in response to Megan's earlier comments about science, religion and seems to me that the 3 fields are all based on the same basic search for understanding of origins and life (whatever "life" is). Religion, I think, is often considered the least "true" of the three because of its frequent failure to take into account new observations and to continue, despite the observations being made by other fields, to work with the same theory. Anthropology, both physical and cultural, tends to be more willing to take into account these observations; indeed, most people agree that it is a science of sorts. I'm sort of babbling here, but I think that most people probably do combine all 3, and that they have links to one another on a very basic level since they all seek the same thing.
Name:  Flicka
Subject:  What I learned from class
Date:  2003-09-16 17:48:56
Message Id:  6501
I've been thinking a lot over the past week about how I define life and how I categorize organisms. I think the hardest part about this process is that in order to define science, we must define life. And in order to define life, we must define living things. And because our observations are always changing, our beliefs and our definitions are always changing. Therefore it is hard for us to pinpoint the "correct" definition of science and of life because there is none. I thought that this meant that we would never learn anything about what we were trying to define. However, as Professor Grobstein pointed out, the object is not to use what observations we have to find a "right" definition, but to use them to formulate a theory that is "less wrong". We always have to be open to the idea that our theories will be proved wrong, and that over time, as technology changes, our defintions and our beliefs will change as well.
Name:  Manuela
Subject:  On order...
Date:  2003-09-17 00:22:10
Message Id:  6503
Our lab today dealt with categories, how we have found relationships between things in the world around us. This brought us to order in the universe... and whether it existed or rather was a reassuring convention we made up to understand things the only way we knew how. I think that I believe in order, just as long as the universe is endless and eternal. In that case, any number of patterns, relationships and combinations (limited) would necessarily repeat itself at least once in an infinite, limitless, period of time, creating a kind of sequence. So the only condition for order would be time, although I doubt we will be the witnesses of any visible repetition.
Name:  Enor Wagner
Subject:  evolution vs. creation
Date:  2003-09-17 01:55:06
Message Id:  6504
Megan brought up an interesting point in the forum as to where exactly religious beleifs fit into science and life; a question that has plagued people for centuries and been tirelessly debated. For if (most) religious assertations hold truth, then the theory of evolution is faulty. But for devout beleivers in evolution, religous explanations as to the origin of man must seem like mumbo jumbo.

On the first day of class we were asked if conclusions are ever correct (in an end all be all sense) to which we decided 'no' they are never final. It was determined that science is never conclusive because otherwise there would be nothing left to explore and we would still live on a flat earth with no gravity.

Ironically, now that I have come to understand that there is no definite conclusions when it comes to science - this non-conclusiveness brings a possible answer to the age old question of where faith and religion meets science. While evolution is a theory, it is just that. As is religion. While each may have evidentiary support, neither are right or wrong. They each hold a place in our lives - whether or not we feel convinced by their defenses.

Name:  Julia Wise
Subject:  Religion and life essence
Date:  2003-09-17 20:20:39
Message Id:  6521
Religion seems to be coming up in the forum a lot these days, though I don't think anybody's mentioned it in class lately. That's what I keep thinking of when people speak of a "life essence" - something beyond the physical that differentiates what's alive from what's not. Sort of like a soul, isn't it? I don't think most religions consider bacteria to have souls, but maybe some do. Madeline L'Engle included a farandola in a human cell as a sentient character with a soul in A Wind in the Door. I think the existance of any such soul or essence is impossible to prove scientifically - you can either believe it or not, which I guess is the definition of religion.
Name:  Melissa Teicher
Subject:  Evolution vs. Creation
Date:  2003-09-18 14:03:08
Message Id:  6529
Enor brought up something I'd like to respond to. In speaking about religion, she said, "If (most) religious assertations hold truth, then the theory of evolution is faulty." Keep in mind that what I am about to say is coming from a Jewish point of view.

In the story of creation in Genesis (the first book of the Jewish Bible), G-d is described to have created the universe in six days. However, we cannot say that a "day" as G-d means it, is a "day" as we mean it, meaning 24 hours. After all, the word "day" is stated before the creation of the sun. The time period between day one to day two, or day two to day three, and so forth, could have lasted long enough for something, say evolution, to occur.

Other ways of looking at it are as follows: When G-d created the birds on day five, we may interpret that as "birds" being the dinosaurs, which are most similar to birds than anything else within the last however many hundreds of years. Also, the creation of the sun on day four may have been that it was just a matter of the sky clearing and sun being visible that day on earth.

These are just a few examples of how one can compare science and the story of creation for them to be in agreement. However, these opinions are just an "understanding" of what G-d did. A few hundred years ago, these "understanding" were much different than they are today, and a few hundred years from now I'm sure they will be even more different. As science advances, our understanding of evolution and creation will change.

Name:  Charlotte Haimes
Subject:  Life, a human concept ?
Date:  2003-09-18 22:52:54
Message Id:  6531
I believe that it is hard to determine what is alive and what is not when we humans are the ones who created the notion of "life." Life is just a word that makes sense in a human's world to the extent of what we can see (even with the use of technology). Dogs are clearly alive to us because we see them at birth and at death, which is similar to our life pattern. But we are just specks in the univerise after all. So is this notion of "life" just limited to Earth? Well we know that would be a very egocentric thing to believe considering how vast the universe is and how unknown it is to us. Is life more than what we can see even with the use of technology? Is it possible that human beings might not have the capacity to comprehend existence? After all, we are the ones who label everything and try to determine what is and what's not. Maybe we are victims of our limited ability to comprehend.
Name:  abby fritz
Subject:  labs and bias
Date:  2003-09-19 09:56:41
Message Id:  6536
I found the labs these past two weeks to be very challenging. I understand that in order to categorize things that are on "another planet," we would have to separate ourselves as much as possible from the things we think we know to be true, the things we know to be living, and the names that we assign to these living things. One thing that was very difficult for me to get past, however, was the fact that we really just were not on another planet. We were on our own and we were looking at things that we see every day and assign names to every day, using vocabulary that we use every day. Therefore to follow Anna's advice to: "alienate yourself from the experience;take on a new kind of spectatorship; let the familiar become strange and uncannily, an un-at-home-like experience," presents itself to me to be nearly impossible. Surely I agree that it would be ideal, but how likely?
We have talked about our ability, or lack of ability, to separate ourselves from our bias. The only way that that seems possible to me is if we examine whatever it is that we are trying to categorize on a level that deals more with internal structures and makeup. I feel that we could fairly objectively categorize based on humans' DNA or the internal composition of plants, for example. It seems to me that any way we attempt to categorize strictly based on what we see with our eyes and no other tools, we are setting ourseleves up to be sucked back into the world of our bias.
Name:  nancy
Username:  nevans@bmc
Subject:  Im alive, now what?
Date:  2003-09-19 14:49:15
Message Id:  6538
As I begin "poking around" for a web paper topic, I am realizing more and more that the notion of 'life' is something that I, and many others (including many scientists) take as an point of finality. For example, earlier this week I was reading about Mars in Time magazine and the article quoted a scientist as saying that we will "absolutely find new discoveries" on Mars when the next explorer lands. This may even include life, the article noted, as the rover will cover area that looks to have once been covered in water. What the article failed to mention, and what we have not yet discussed in all our fervent efforts to define what is and is not life is what is the point of knowing what is alive and what isn't? Would anything in the world change if we did not say that an ant was living and a mountain was not. And why doesn't anyone talk about the impacts of finding life on other planets? Sure it would be pretty cool to know we were not alone in the universe, but why are we so anxious to find other life? It is because we want to further our understanding of ourselves or just because some scientist wants the glory of having found other life?
Name:  Flicka Michaels
Subject:  Eukaryotic vs. Prokaryotic Cells
Date:  2003-09-19 17:19:26
Message Id:  6539
I was really interested in our discussion today about eukaryotic vs. prokaryotic cells. The fact that you must have had a prokaryotic cell to get a eukaryotic cell, but that you could not start with one prokaryotic cell in the beggining makes me wonder about the long, unanswered question: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The chicken can't have been made with out an egg, but you can't have just had an egg to begin with. It makes me wonder about the implications of this knowledge to the creation of the earth and to its first organisms.
Name:  Nomi Kaim
Subject:  Life, Nonlife, and Consciousness
Date:  2003-09-20 22:59:22
Message Id:  6549
When Nancy asked,

"...what is the point of knowing what is alive and what isn't? Would anything in the world change if we did not say that an ant was living and a mountain was not?"

my immediate reaction was, of course it matters: we treat "living" things differently from the way we treat "nonliving" things. That is, we treat living things differently because we consider them to be sentient, or conscious.

Well -- not necessarily. There is considerable controversy as to whether or not mosquitoes are conscious, and few would claim that bacteria exhibit "consciousness" as we define it. So, it appears that we treat some living things differently from nonlife -- with more emotion? perhaps with greater respect? -- but only those things we consider to be conscious. For us humans, perhaps, the value of life lies in consciousness (maybe this is what we call the "life essence"?).

Do we then consider all nonlife to be non-conscious and, therefore, somehow less "important" than living things? Not necessarily! Religious people dating back to antiquity have worshipped non-living rocks and mountains, have bowed before idols made of non-living materials, have prayed to gods who lacked even any bodily form. These people do not call their gods living, for living would mean mortal, mortal means death-is-imminent, and this would mean the gods could not exist forever. Gods have to exist forever! But ask any religious person if her god or gods are conscious, are sentient beings, and you'll get an automatic Yes. We wouldn't pray to non-conscious things!

So, it seems to me that "livingness" and "consciousness," as perceived by human beings, are two separate qualities that only sometimes overlap (as in the case of people). This renders the definition of life, the distinction between life and non-life, all the more arbitrary. Also, if "life essence" equals "consciousness," then it might or might not have anything to do with actually being alive!

Name:  Ramatu Kallon
Subject:  Life after death
Date:  2003-09-21 00:37:47
Message Id:  6550
Last year in my C-Sem "Meanings of Death" someone posed the question of there being life after death.I Before the discussion I compltely disagreed with there being some form of life after death. However, I began to think maybe I am being pesamistic. Maybe some of us turn into some earthly form after we die. So, my question to everyone else is: Do you think there is truly life after death?
Name:  Lindsay Updegrove
Subject:  Phrasing driving me crazy
Date:  2003-09-21 14:18:55
Message Id:  6551
This problem of determining what is alive/ what is not alive is really bugging me--and maybe it's just the English Nerd in me coming out but isn't "alive" just a word someone came up with to describe what most people generally think of when they hear it? I think the question of "life after death" is interesting but that once again this is a strange choice of words. If we think of life and death as opposites, then of course there can't be life after death, at least not the life we have here as we have been trying to define it in class. There might be something different than we expect once we die...but please let's not call it "life"--that word already has too many definitions attached to it.
Name:  Laura Wolfe
Subject:  Bio 103
Date:  2003-09-21 14:26:08
Message Id:  6552
I really like what Nancy had to say about life on other plantes. What is the "point" of looking for life if we can't say for sure what life is? Why does the evidence of water make scientists so much more hopeful about finding life on that planet? Really, who knows what other beings need in terms of energy - maybe it's not water, maybe water is what killed the living things on that planet. There are so many possibilities, and yet it seems that people have their minds closed to only the possibilities which work on earth. The only reason we don't need to look for sunlight anymore is because we found creatures under the water on earth who survive with no sunlight. Why did we need that evidence to open our minds to the possibility of life with no sunlight? Even though it's hard to let go of biases, we can still try to look past them a little by using imagination.
Name:  Adina
Subject:  life on other planets
Date:  2003-09-21 23:24:31
Message Id:  6560
I've been thinking along the same lines as Laura. This is still dependent on the definition of life, but what if we already know of life forms that exist on other planets and we just don't know that they are other life forms because they are nothing like the life forms found on earth? Just how improbable do improbable assemblies have to be? Maybe we aren't simply looking for "life" on other planets, but we are looking for "life like us" (which includes plants, animals, and single-celled organisms).

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