Words for “Life”

We use the word life in many—too many—different ways. Its meanings range from its reference to an individual, to daily living, to the quality of being animate that all beings share, all the way to the entirety of all the living things on the planet. Most of the time the word’s ambiguity is harmless. But sometimes philosophic, religious and everyday “deep” discussions can bog down because people, without realizing it, mean different things when they say life. I wish we had separate, specific nouns for two of life’s meanings in particular. We probably won’t come up with them anytime soon, but we can minimize the confusion.

Here are four of the threads in the word’s use. It can refer to: (1) the span from birth to death—his whole life; (2) the activities and experiences of daily existence—this makes my life easier; (3) the state or the characteristics of being animate—there is life in her yet; and (4) living things collectively— the evolution of life.

These meanings easily blur into each other. For example, in the statement I’m happy with my life, is life a reference to life span (1) or to the experience of each day (2) or some combination of both? In Life on earth began 3.8 billion years ago, does the word point to the state, the phenomenon, of being alive (3) or to living things collectively (4)?

Which label covers them all: “beings,” “creatures,” or “living things”? (weed-science-classes.wikspaces.com)

Which label covers them all: “beings,” “creatures,” or “living things”?

This last definition—living things collectively—is one of the meanings that I would find it very helpful to have a separate noun for. Science has shown us the commonalities shared by all living things from bacteria to humans and going back billions of years. I often want to say something about not just animals or plants or microbes but all of them together. But we don’t have a plain word that points only to the totality of living things now and in the past and emphasizes their commonality in being alive or having lived. Our everyday language is behind the times.

Organism is a candidate for such a term but not a strong one. Dating from the 18th century, it can refer to any living thing but its focus is on its structure and systems. (It is related to organization.) As a term that seems to have its place in the laboratory, organism doesn’t work well for broad references to the totality of life. We are unlikely to marvel over “the wonders of the organisms around us”!

Terms that are more user-friendly than organism have other, and interesting, limitations. Beings would seem to fit the bill. It seems broad enough. As a form of the verb to be it calls attention in and of itself to the existence of lives. It gives a touch of spiritual dignity. The trouble is that it refers to humans and occasionally to animals but not at all to plants and microbes. It would be odd to talk about a carrot that is growing in the ground as a being.

The same goes for creature, as in The forest is filled with interesting creatures. Creatures excludes plants and microbes (unless the microbes are moving around under a microscope, in which case we might think of them as tiny animals and call them creatures). The on-line Webster’s dictionary gives a borderline example: “Few living creatures can survive without water.” Plants obviously need water, but I’m doubtful they were to be included in the scope of this sentence. Creatures walk, fly, swim, or slither; they don’t put down roots or bloom. Like beings, creatures is a term from six centuries ago when plants and animals were viewed as separate spheres.

In the absence of satisfactory single words that refer to all living things, we’ve turned to phrases. Graceful combinations include the living world and the world of life. But I find these phrases vague; they don’t refer to living things themselves directly. So I usually stick with living things. It’s clunky, but it points to all things living past and present and nothing but that.

That is one of the two meanings of life that, as I mentioned, I think needs separating out. The other one is sense number 3, “the state of being alive.” We have alive of course as an everyday and yet precise adjective. I wish we had a noun that worked as well.

An example of the use of “livingness” by sculptor Louise Nevelson (izquotes.com)

An example of the use of “livingness” by sculptor Louise Nevelson

There is aliveness, which appears in descriptions of art and fashion. It means that something has exuberance and vitality; it’s used to hype a product. It rarely if ever refers just to the state of being alive.

I use livingness. It’s a rare but real word; it’s in the dictionary. It’s bland, and it too is clunky. But it names being alive as a characteristic of a certain set of things effectively enough. I’ll stick with it for now.

It’s generally true that the speakers of a language have the words that they need. So the profusion of meanings of life probably reflects how intertwined in our psyches our sense of being alive is with our awareness of who and what is alive and what happens to them. But it would make our discussions about big topics easier if we could separate out some of those meanings when we wanted to.

“Ol Man River”

Dere’s an ol man called de Mississippi
Dat’s de ol’ man dat I’d like to be
What does he care if de world’s got troubles?
What does he care if de land ain’t free?

Paul Robeson singing "Ol Man River" in the 1936 film of Show Boat (youtube)

Paul Robeson singing “Ol Man River” in the 1936 film of Show Boat

Ol’ man river,
Dat ol’ man river
He mus’ know sumpin’
But don’t say nuthin’
He jus’ keeps rollin’
He keeps on rollin’ along….

You an’ me, we sweat an’ strain,
Body all achin’ an’ rack’d wid pain,
Tote dat barge!
Lif’ dat bale!
Git a little drunk
An’ you land in jail.

Ah gits weary
An’ sick of tryin’
Ah’m tired of livin’
An’ skeered of dyin’
But ol’ man river,
He jes’ keeps rollin’ along.

The 1927 sheet music for "Ol Man River" from Show Boat (Wikipedia)

The 1927 sheet music for “Ol Man River” 

“Ol’ Man River” is a song about a river that the singer looks to for consolation from his suffering.  The lament about hard labor and white bosses might sound at first like a Negro spiritual from the days of slavery, but it is not. It is part of the musical Show Boat, written in 1927 and set in that era, about people working on a river boat that docks at towns along the river and offers theatrical productions. “Ol’ Man River” is sung by one of the dock workers, Joe; here is Paul Robeson’s peerless rendition from the 1936 film. The lyrics were written by Broadway songwriter Oscar Hammerstein (who was raised Episcopalian).

Unlike traditional spirituals, the song includes very few biblical references—to the judgment day when Joe will find rest and to another river, the Jordan, that he longs to cross to a new life. And Joe’s song is not a prayer, as are many spirituals and hymns; he is singing about the Mississippi, not to it. The song’s spirituality lies in Joe’s descriptions of his suffering together with his personification of the river as an all-knowing and constant companion. The river “don’ say nuthin’,” but though it is indifferent, it is a witness, and Joe feels less alone as a result. Would we call it a “religious” song? Perhaps, but not in an orthodox sense. Describing the river as “supernatural” would be a stretch; “personified” describes it accurately enough. The song presents a passionate spirituality that is essentially non-theistic.

Wilson, Tom Hanks' companion in "Cast Away" (rogerebert.com)

Wilson, Tom Hanks’ companion in “Cast Away”

A similar personification from a different work of entertainment is Wilson, Tom Hanks’ volleyball in the film Cast Away. Hanks’ character washes up on an uninhabited island along with a Wilson volleyball on which he draws a face. Alone over the ensuing years, Hanks converses with Wilson, yells at it, and grieves when it floats away from the raft Hanks escapes on. Like the all-knowing river, Wilson too, in Hanks’ mind, seems wise. Unlike Joe’s mute river, though, and appropriately for a deserted island, Wilson seems to listen and respond.

Yet Joe’s river is, compared to the volley ball, a grander vision in that the exploited labor and dehumanizing racism that fill Joe’s life impact not only him but everyone around him. The Mississippi of the song is a transcendent presence and perhaps offers Joe some consolation that suffering and injustice are small pieces of a larger entity. Joe understands that the flow of the river, like the flow of time, does not stop for the struggles of anyone.

Steven Pinker on Disgust, Sex, and Happiness

What are we getting ourselves into when we say that we welcome the insights of science as part of our heart-felt appreciation of nature? Scientists after all, and evolutionary psychologists in particular, have some unsettling perspectives about our minds. In my last post I wrote about Stephen Pinker’s 1997 book How the Mind Works and focused on what Pinker says about our genes as the “recipe” for our emotions but not their “puppetmaster.” In this post I’ll look at Pinker’s discussions of a few specific emotions and mental phenomena and at how his approach could, for some people, fit badly into attempts to embrace science in their view of the cosmos.

Disgust and Sex Two strong emotional experiences, disgust and sex, have their source in the evolution of humans beginning around the time that early humans branched off from chimpanzees about 7 million years ago. “Disgust is a universal human emotion” (Kindle location 7865), Pinker writes. Its universality is a sign of how thoroughly we are programmed to resist eating animal parts or products that might contain infectious microorganisms or other toxins. Humans are disgusted by the smell, the sight, or the even idea of eating most animals and animal parts. “The nondisgusting animal parts are the exception. …Many Americans eat only the skeletal muscle of cattle, chicken, swine, and a few fish” (7903). Every other animal is a source of contamination. We won’t drink a beverage stirred with a flyswatter, even a new one. We “find a sterilized cockroach every bit as revolting as one fresh from the cupboard.…People won’t eat soup if it is served in a brand-new bedpan….You can’t pay most people to eat fudge baked in the shape of dog feces.” Such reactions are irrational. With rare exceptions, food today is safe. But our bad-meat alarm is still set to several million years ago.

Changing the locks.  (www.telegraph.co.uk)

Changing the locks.

As for sex, its function would seem to be straightforward. Not so for Pinker.

Why is there sex to begin with?…Why don’t women give virgin birth to daughters who are clones of themselves instead of wasting half their pregnancies on sons who lack the machinery to make grandchildren and are nothing but sperm donors? Why do people and other organisms swap out half their genes for the genes of another member of the species, generating variety in their offspring for variety’s sake? It’s not to evolve faster, because organisms are selected for fitness in the present. It’s not to adapt to environmental change, because a random change in an already adapted organism is more likely to be for the worse than for the better….The best theory…is that sex is a defense against parasites and pathogens (disease-causing microorganisms). …[Your body’s defenses against germs evolve, but the germ’s tricks for evading those defenses evolve much faster.] Sexual reproduction is a way of changing the locks once a generation. By swapping half the genes out for a different half, an organism gives its offspring a head start in the race against local germs. (9577)

Pinker’s descriptions of the disease-resistant functions of disgust and sex stretch the imagination. For some readers they may stretch it beyond believability if the functions he describes are rooted so far in the past and so far from our conscious experience that they barely make sense. It is difficult to embrace a scientific insight when it seems to make us strangers to ourselves.

Happiness and Religion Two other areas of emotional experience have thin roots in human evolution but have acquired their importance through their role in human culture over the last few thousands years. These are happiness and religion.

Happy moment (www.images.wisegeek.com)

Happy moment

Pinker writes that it might seem at first that happiness serves as an incentive to spur us on to enjoy those conditions that have made us biologically fit.  These conditions include being “healthy, well-fed, comfortable, safe, prosperous, knowledgeable, respected, non-celibate, and loved” (8097). (I admit this has been my own view of the adaptive function of happiness.) The trouble is that happiness doesn’t actually continue for the period of time during which we are enjoying these conditions. In fact, the longer that such conditions or almost any conditions persist without change, whether they are illness or health, modest income or prosperity, celibacy or marriage, the more likely it is that our mood drifts toward a middling attitude that we describe as feeling “content” or “satisfied.” In reality, studies show, we usually describe ourselves as “happy” at those times when we succeed in achieving more than we already have (a professional reward, a new spouse) or even when we find out that we are a little better off in some way than those around us. So happiness is rooted in comparison and newness. For Pinker, this makes it a rather dismal treadmill. Its status has soared in the modern era, so much so that the pursuit of it forms part of our national purpose. But for Pinker, this single bubbly emotion was never cut out to serve as the goal for one’s entire life.

The other emotional and social experience that is a mix of evolution and culture is religion. The early roots of religion may lie in such puzzling experiences as dreaming, death, our shadow, and our reflection in water—times when the self seems to leave the body. But religion itself has long been a complex establishment that has coexisted alongside the nation-state as an alternative culture of laws and customs. It has produced great art and powerful social institutions and hierarchies. It has also been the source of methods such as prayer by which desperate people try for success when their earlier attempts at courtship, achievement, or recovery from illness have failed (11439).

Other evolutionary psychologists have different theories about happiness and religion. But Pinker sees both topics as ones that people expect too much from and about which science cannot give the upbeat answers that many people are looking for.

Self, Consciousness, and Free Will Finally, in the last pages of his book, Pinker writes about some philosophical puzzles that people have never been able to wrap their minds around fully. These are such phenomena as the self (the “I” that we are so aware of), consciousness (our awareness, and our awareness that we are aware) and free will, (no matter what we’re told, we think we make choices).

Too much for the computational mind to handle. Edvard Munch's The Scream (www.fisheaters.com)

Too much for the computational mind to handle. Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”

For Pinker the reason these are such enigmas to us may be that “the mind of Homo sapiens lacks the cognitive equipment to solve them. …Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness or to answer any question we are capable of asking” (11570). Such mysteries as the self are holistic phenomena of a kind that does not lend itself to being understood by “the computational apparatus that natural selection has fitted us with” (11639), an apparatus that works methodically from parts to the whole, example to category, cause to effect, subject to predicate. Perhaps this kind of mind can’t be wrapped around what seems to be the essential us.

In summary, there are for Pinker emotions that are deeply rooted in our early human period, others that are more historical than evolutionary and that elude a satisfying scientific description, and still other experiences of mind that we may not be capable of fully understanding. All three categories may present stumbling blocks for the non-scientist looking to science for authoritative insight about people themselves.