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April 22, 2014
Faith and Science
What is Life?
by Ami Chopine

What is life? At first glance, the answer is obvious. A rock is not alive. An oak tree is alive. Water is not alive. Insects are alive.

Once scientists thought that there had to be something inherently, even metaphysically different. Living things and any organic substances that came from them had the ‘vital spark.’ They could not be reproduced by manmade, artificial means.

Well, that theory died.

“What is life?” is a complicated question. The “alive or not” status of viruses is debatable. But go one step down in complexity, to proteins, and everyone pretty much agrees that they are not living organisms.

For example, prions (the cause for Mad Cow and Creutzfelt-Jakob disease) are proteins mutated from their original form. The healthy version of the protein is found in abundance in cell membranes and may be involved cell adhesion and/or cell-to-cell communication or even something else.

Molecular biology is still a mostly undiscovered country.

The misfolded prions have the ability to assimilate other proteins into its own misshapen and now totally useless fold.  

Folding is very important to the task a protein molecule has in the cell. It gives a protein the shape it needs to accomplish certain tasks like building and breaking down other molecules; transportation; and information storage, transcription, and translation into more useful proteins.

One could suppose that since they can reproduce through assimilation, that it might mean prions were alive.

If proteins (useful or not) aren’t alive, then what about cells?

All cells are is a combination of thousands of these molecular machines, all of them doing something towards the ultimate goal: the preservation and reproduction of a strand of DNA which describes how to create them.

Kind of circular isn’t it?

I sometimes wonder if the very first commandment given was “multiply and replenish.”

Which brings us back to: what is life?

The sum of the whole is greater than its parts, but it’s hard to say what the tipping point is. The traditional definition is something that grows, reproduces, takes in some form of food or energy, rids itself of waste, and dies.

But there is another aspect that I think is important. What about the ability to be aware of and interact with the environment around itself?

Cells do it. They’re aware of ionic and chemical differences of the environment outside the cell membrane. Some even have some ability to detect light, so that they can move towards it for more nourishment.

Ants have only 250,000 neurons. They have no self-awareness, no emotions. Their behavior can be simulated using simple electrical circuits or programming rules. But they do still interact with the environment with more awareness than cells or plants.

Vertebrates have even more awareness, and of all those, we with our 85 billion neurons are so aware of ourselves and our environment that we ponder the very meaning of our lives and the universe. “We are a way for the universe to know itself.”

We consider right and wrong and wonder how our own actions fit.

We reach out to our Creator.

Does any other creature do this?

As living things become more complex, they become more aware of the environment around them. So instead of this distinction between what is life and what is non-life, perhaps the distinction between awareness and non-awareness is a more essential question.

We also know that God created all things spiritually before they were created physically.

But life is an interesting thing. Live creatures come into new being all the time, each of them endowed with a spirit.

The exact nature of spirit and its connection to the substance of our world is very much speculation and not really worth much time in our life pursuing. But there is an observation I’d like to make.

Both their spiritual and physical creation (the event that fused their spirit forms to their physical forms) happened only through the power of God, which power we are given to understand is the power of the priesthood.

This event has happened to all of us. In some ways, gestation is a pattern of the events at the Garden of Eden.

There is an initial creation. Then there is existence in a state where it is impossible to do right or wrong or to even know them. The womb is a paradise where all the child’s physical needs are taken care of until it comes finally into this world.

We are all alive and with the ability to love and nurture through the grace of our mother, who was a vessel of the power of God. Giving life to beings who are the children of God, being a part of the bonding of spirit and physical is no small thing, even if that is all the woman did.

Nurturing those same eternal beings and awakening their conscience no matter how they came to be in our care, is a task of even greater effort and importance. It is only with a conscience that they become aware of our responsibility to others. It is only our awareness of others that allows us to love.

So, what is life? It is self-creation using our God given powers. It is interacting with our environment. It is awareness and ultimately love.

I’ve heard people scoff at the idea of sacred motherhood being a power. They refuse to be identified by their womb. Why? What else identifies us?

Is it our good looks or our talents? Is it our personality?

These are all aspects of our physical selves. They shape what we are and will continue to be through eternity.

Even if our mortal state has left us unable to live up to all the powers that God has endowed to his children on this earth, our physical selves still have within them the potential that will be fully realized when our spirit is eternally bonded with a perfected physical body.

To deny any aspect of what has made us who we are leads us to a lack of awareness of both self and environment, which reduces our ability to love.

To truly embrace what we are, with integrity in relation to our Heavenly Father and Mother and our great Intercessor, the Savior, leads us to a greater capacity to love our fellow humans. And that is the greatest life there is.

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