What is Life?

Is there a universal genomic information mechanism? The esteemed Venter (A Life Decoded) is of the view that life is in the DNA or in particular the genes (DNA includes non-gene coding). Genes are what code the proteins that are essential not only for life, but for living.

The difference? Unlike humans who are alive, viruses are, at some rudimentary level, essentially biochemical mechanisms. Therefore, in a previous article "Abortion?" I had proposed that life exists at four levels or states, biomechanical (virus), cellular (single celled organisms), multicellular aggregation (plants and animals) and entity (humans). Using the 7 rules of Emergence I had proposed that a stimulus is required for the next level of life to emerge from the previous level and it is different from the sum of previous levels. As Venter puts it, "We're clearly much, much more than the sum total of our genes,"

One of the thoughts that I took away from Venter's Life at the Speed of Light, is that even though genomics has made unbelievably incredible advances, it is still at a chemical understanding of the DNA. Now what if emergence transformed the DNA from a chemical double helix (CDH) to a biological computing system (BCS)? And proteins are biological subroutines, programs or "apps" as they are known today.

Why do I suggest this?

Many years ago I was the architect of Texas Instruments' Daily Factory Starts (DFS) factory planning system, a worldwide top ranked IT project to reduce work-in-progress (wip) in a 6,000/month SKU factories. We used mathematical programming techniques, push & pull scheduling and factory layouts to reduce wip by 30%. All this was implemented using C, SQL and a new language (DSW or DFS Sql Writer) we designed from scratch to solve problem structuring.

My extensive IT background leads me to infer that proteins are subroutines, and the similarities I observe are (1) Genes like subroutines can be reused as Prof. Marcus Kronforst reports his team is unclear how one gene controls so many different functions. (2) There is the equivalent of the "end of subroutine". These are stop codons (a codon is the four different base pairs, adenine, thymine, cytosine, guanine, in sets of three). (3) Information is stored not as binary (base 2) but as ternary (base 3) code. (4) Just as in programming, coding sequence accuracy is vital. Venter reports that a deletion of just 1 base pair in 1.1 million letters of genetic code, leads to death in bacteriophage phi X 174.

The DNA's sophistication would imply, that from the Chemical Double Helix emerges an executable programming language or BioCode that instructs the cell how, what, when. So how does the cell parse this gene information BioCode to determine what's next? We don't know. If we accept this proposal then there many questions that need to be answered. What is the structure of this information in ternary? What is the syntax of BioCode? Where is the biological operating system (BOS) located in the DNA? How is it bootstrapped?

Using the hardware analog, the DNA is looking more like a sophisticated data structure that maps and locates genes. A version of the RNA copies the BioCode in the gene and transfers this to the ribosome. The ribosome is not the CPU but equivalent to a digital-to-analog converter, converting BioCode to proteins. And vice versa? The various types of RNA collectively act like a multi-core CPU(s) as they process information, not proteins. This tells us that the DNA includes at least two types of instructions, RNA and protein. The other organelles in the cell are equivalent to peripheral devices. For example the cell wall is equivalent to a fire wall.

Coming back to emergence. We observe that cell life emerges from DNA life. So is the DNA dead or alive? Emergence and BCS would suggest that the DNA is "unalive" until its BOS is bootstrapped. It is inert until animated by an external stimulus that causes it to bootstrap. Brownian motion is one possibility. If so Nature is biased to switching on DNAs. That is, defining the animation condition, being switched on or animated, is a necessary condition for life but not life itself.

Note that an operating system and its programs do not give life to a computer. Computers can be switched on but not given life. By analogy the DNA can be animated (switched on) but is not "alive". This means the term "life" has a very unique definition, not observable at the DNA level. Or viruses, DNA wrapped in a protein capsule, are not dead or alive but are inert or animated.

What about single cells? By the animation condition, we know that single cells like viruses are biomechanical structures that exhibit inertness and animation. But are single cells alive? There are two types of single cells to consider, immobile and mobile. Mobile cells are single cellular organism that move under their own propulsion mechanism. And by analogy are nanodevices (or driverless cars) alive? No, i.e. the presence of sophistication is not an indication of life.

Therefore, we require an additional condition to narrow the definition of life. The free will condition, requires that a living organism must be able to exhibit a reaction to its environment that is substantially unpredictable. For example, a group of single celled amoeba with identical DNA, moving out in many different directions from a starting location, as opposed to all of them heading in the same direction. More subtly, the same type of single cells with identical DNA, exhibiting different biochemical responses to the same environment. At this point we can conclude that at a very rudimentary level, some single cells are alive while others are animated.

Next question, are multicellular aggregate organisms alive or animated? This is a far more difficult question to answer as aggregate organisms are sophisticated enough to mimic life's free will, if that is what they do. The necessary condition is the survival condition that an aggregate organism mimics life but is not alive, if it does not seek to survive. We infer that evolution has disposed of aggregate organisms that don't exhibit the survival condition.

Finally, do entity forms of life exists? Religion teaches us that humans have the spirit that is not of matter. Therefore, for arguments sake we consent to this religious perspective and require the spirit condition, that a spirit must instantiate in the body for it to exhibit the entity form of life. Many questions arise. What is the stimulus that causes the spirit to instantiate in the aggregate life form? Is it possible to scientifically determine when this occurs?

The weak form of the spirit condition only requires that as a society we seek a non-material God. That is our spirit seeks the one we came from. The strong form is much stricter and requires proof that the spirit has instantiated in the aggregate body.

How do we empirically prove that our aggregate bodies have spirits or souls?