Is DNA Alive?

Is DNA alive? No, it’s not alive…mostly. The only sense in which a DNA molecule is a living thing is that it makes copies of itself, although it can’t even do that on its own. Otherwise, DNA fails all the tests: it doesn’t process any kind of fuel in order to maintain its state, it doesn’t grow and develop, so it has no energized activity that starts or ends—in other words, it’s not born and it doesn’t die.

Somewhere along the line in reading general science I picked up the impression, even though I knew differently, that DNA strands are alive. They are such vital keys to living organisms, and I’d read so many descriptions of what DNA does and of “selfish” genes, that although I knew they were blueprints of a sort, they came to seem like living blueprints.

DNA and seed (kew.org)

DNA and seed
(kew.org)

One image in the back of my mind was that DNA was a kind of seed, and seeds, I thought, are alive. But no, seeds are not fully alive either. They are not active and, until they germinate, they don’t change or develop. (Another familiar item that may seem alive but that doesn’t meet all the criteria are viruses. Viruses are bundles of DNA that become active only when they are inside a cell, at which point they take over the cell and give us the flu.)

It shouldn’t be surprising that some familiar biological components do not by themselves meet all the criteria for the state we call “being alive.” But I was surprised anyway about DNA. Perhaps because we humans are so fully aware that we are alive, it is easy to think that there must be a fully living seed or even a soul at the core. It is almost more than we can imagine that the liveliness we feel is the product of a complexity of non-living parts. It’s an astounding thing.

Five Things I Expect My Core Belief To Do For Me

I want a core belief that does the following things for me. It should help me feel a little less terrified of death. It should point me towards a meaningful purpose in living. It should clarify the foundations of right and wrong. It ought to shed some light on the perpetual mix of joys and sorrows that make up daily life. And I want it to help get me through my darker hours.

For many people, a belief in god achieves these ends. For others, a focus on nature, on feeling at home in the cosmos, provides some answers. But for me, a heightened awareness of being a living thing and of the long story of life on earth best meets these criteria.

I’ve written about how the characteristics and history of biological life have helped me think about dying, purposefulness, and right and wrong. To recap, while I know that death is intrinsically repugnant to living organisms, I’m somewhat consoled by knowing that I’m a link in the mind-boggingly long chain of living things. Second, I believe that, though they may seem crude and irrelevant to humans, the biological drives to survive and reproduce are the roots of human purposes, even the lofty ones. And as for an understanding of right and wrong, I believe they have their roots in the cooperation and competition that mark all organic life. (I explain these point more fully in Finding Spirituality in Biology, tabbed at the top of the page.)

(mitchellkphotos.com)

(mitchellkphotos.com)

But I’m thinking here about the two other points mentioned in the first paragraph: that my core belief in livingness helps me make sense of the flux of daily joys and sorrows and that it guides me through the times when I feel lost or doubtful.

Daily life is a parade of negatives and positives, obstacles and low moods on the one hand, smooth sailing and good feelings on the other. The fluctuation never ceases. It can be wearying and puzzling. Is life no easier, no steadier? I think the dilemma is built deeply into being alive. There can’t be just joys, because joys result from overcoming difficulties. And there can’t be just difficulties because, if we never overcame them, we would be either numb or dead. Living things encounter the environment endlessly, and if we’re alive we’ve encountered most of them successfully, but they keep coming.

Finally, my core belief comes to my aid in those gloomy hours when I need a compass in front of me. At such moments, my belief in the value of life in and of itself reminds me that, first, my own being alive is enjoyable and good and I had better not take it for granted. And second, on a par with caring for myself is caring for and connecting with other lives—helping my wife, phoning a friend, making calls for Hillary, feeding the birds, checking the plants. Such activity is, of course, much of what I and many others do on any ordinary day . But putting my own well-being and that of others on the same plane changes how I feel about such actions. They all become service in the larger cause of life itself as a bounteous wonder.