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 think 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 that took shape 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 complex condition we call “being alive.” Still, surprised I was 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 root. 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.

Words for “Life”

We use the word life in too many different ways. It can refer to an individual, to daily living, to the quality of being animate that all beings share, even to the entirety of all the living things on the planet. Most of the time the ambiguity is harmless. But sometimes philosophic discussions bog down because people, without realizing it, are drawing on different senses of this sprawling term.

Here’s a closer look at four of the common uses. 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”?
(weed-science-classes.wikspaces.com)

This last definition—living things collectively—is one of the meanings that I wish we had a separate noun for. In writing this blog I often want to refer not just to animals or plants or microbes but to all of them. But we don’t have a plain word that does that.

Organism might be a candidate but not a strong one. Dating from the 18th century, organism can refer to any living thing, but its focus is on structures and systems. (It is related to organization.) Organism has its place in the laboratory, but it doesn’t work very well for broad references to the totality of life. Unless you’re a scientist, you may not be inclined to  marvel at “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 to the actual existence of lives. It has 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 growing in the garden 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 and looking large—looking “creature-like”). The on-line Webster’s dictionary gives an interesting example: “Few living creatures can survive without water.” Plants obviously need water, but I doubt they would be covered by this sentence, in the eyes of most readers. Creatures walk, fly, swim, or slither; they don’t put down roots or bloom. Like beings, creatures came into use six centuries ago when plants and animals occupied separate categories of natural philosophy.

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 too indirect. They don’t refer to living things themselves directly; they refer to their “world.” So I usually stick with living things. It’s clunky, but it points to all things living and nothing but that.

There is another meaning of the word life that I think needs separating out. This is sense number 3, “the state of being alive.” We have no noun to label the quality of being alive in the way that we can name death as the quality of being dead. We have alive of course as an everyday and precise adjective, but we don’t have a good noun version of it.

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

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

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 is in the dictionary. True, it’s bland and clunky. But it’s effective enough at naming the characteristic at hand. I’ll stick with it for now.

It’s generally true that the speakers of a language have the words that they need in order to talk about what they want to talk about. The profusion of meanings of the word life probably reflects how intertwined in our psyches most of these meanings are. But it would make our discussions about some big topics easier if we could separate out some of those meanings when we needed to.