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Define life.

“I’ll give two answers. The first as a scientist and the second as a religious person. The first answer is: life is an event in the history of the universe, which, so far as we know, occurred in only one place, at only one time, about five billion years ago. Life has never ended, although it is dependent on the death of lives. So, lives are mortal in that life will be able to persist through natural selection and the emergence of novelty through selection of variance. So, I would say, life is mortal, persistent, on this planet, and so far as we know unique in the universe. It is also the source of our brains. As Darwin said, ‘the mind is an excretion of our brains.’ And in our brains are ideas — ideas including notions of free will and notions of altruistic obligation to strangers, which seem to be free of any natural selective advantage. So, I would say, life as we know it is an historical event that has generated us, and through us, the burdens of free will…

Why do you muddy the problem of definition by postulating things for which you have no evidence? In the evidence we have, life is tragic. It began, it persists, it requires the death of all individuals, including individuals capable of self-awareness of their own death. It’s tragic therefore individually for us, and on the global scale, it’s tragic because every hundred million years or so, a disaster enters from outer space, which obliterates 90% of the families of living things, and provides a design space for the emergence of new novelty. That is not… that is not a difficult definition to make.

Life is the evanescent moment for the individual and the persistence of DNA replication with variation for the global definition. They don’t match up for anyone who is alive and self-aware. That’s the problem.”


Dr. Robert Pollack’s answer to the question “How do you define life?” at the Philoctetes discussion on Origin, Evolution, and the Future of Life on Earth.

Sorry… I know it’s heavy stuff for a Saturday afternoon.

But if you’re in the mood, the entire discussion, starting with Pollack’s opening, is below.