What Is Life?
March 24, 2014
The Huffington Post — Most of us recognize that there is a fundamental difference between mechanical objects designed and created by man, no matter how sophisticated, and the naturally derived complexity of living things.
Prof. Addy Pross, of BGU’s Department of Chemistry, elaborates on what life is and how living forms come to be in this column.
He tells the story of how his granddaughter at the age of two already understood one basic difference. She loved toy dogs, but was scared of real ones. Real dogs were unpredictable; she recognized that they had a mind of their own.
All living things act on their own behalf, doggedly pursuing their agenda. That’s true even for mindless bacteria – no designer, no creative sculptor required. Somehow the entire cornucopia of life, spectacularly complex and purposeful, comes about and maintains itself through natural processes. No wonder we’ve been transfixed by this question for over two millennia.
Living and non-living things are different, even if there are those pesky borderline cases, like viruses, which make a definitional distinction problematic. The real question is how matter of any kind can have an agenda, and, no less tantalizingly, how the objective laws of physics and chemistry could have transformed “dead” stuff into spectacularly complex, agenda-driven living stuff.
Well, through a relatively new area of chemical research, called systems chemistry, which deals with replicating molecules and the networks they establish, the answer to the “what is life?” question is coming into focus.
Recent advances now indicate that abiogenesis, the process of life’s emergence, and biological evolution are one continuous process with an identifiable driving force: the drive toward greater stability.