Before we become aware (sentient), life begins. A single living cell cannot value itself or anything else but without this building block, we would not Be.
We began yesterday with human worth – the human life experience. That is where we come into the picture but that is not where the whole story begins. The bigger story begins with the emergence of the first protein or even the Big Bang. Digging deeper, we do not know where it begins. We only know parts of our story. So I will begin on the first ordinary day of the year with life because that is what our narrative is about.
Life distinguishes all living things from dirt, rocks, life-giving water and the air we breathe. It is the foundation of all we value in and about the world.
The life process generated, but did not begin with, our spectacular brains. It is the precious and indispensable background for what we call our lives, but it is not the life of Being itself. Life is present in the beating heart, the functioning kidney, the animate limb. It is present in every vital cell of our bodies, yet many cells die every second without our ever noticing. Life is present in our unformed bodies before life becomes experience, and may continue, sometimes for years, after the life experience has ended.
A Humanist ethics respects life, yet distinguishes between life’s mechanics and the Spirit of Being. Life is the vehicle and animating force of soul and spirit, not posited here as separate entities, but as part of the human experience. In describing an “animating force,” I make no pretense of resolving the ongoing debate about what life is, and posit no tangible force, per se; this is only an operating description of the experience we call life.
Life is precious, yet by itself it is without value. Only in the hands of a Being capable of valuing it does it become valuable. We honor it on this first ordinary day of our liturgical year.
Technical and Analytical Readings
What is life? One leading scientist in the field suggests two possible answers, both of which he acknowledges are incomplete: we could say that something is alive if it has certain properties, such as growing and responding to stimuli, or if it evolves by natural selection. [Smith and Szathmáry (see below), pp. 3-4.] Those are among the best definitions we have, but all they tell us is how life functions. They do not seem to tell us what life is, and perhaps we will never know. Because we do not know, we will content ourselves with what we do know.
Our best science suggests that life on Earth first emerged in water from an interaction of inanimate compounds and the natural environment, between 3.5 and 4.0 billion years ago. The story of the origins of life, and our attempts to uncover it, are important parts of our human narrative.
For most non-scientists, this field’s core material alone is quite over our heads. However, even a non-scientist can understand a few basic concepts behind the research. Here are a few of the leading but more accessible works in the field. They tell a fascinating part of the human story, as we set about to uncover who we are and where we came from:
- Andrew H. Knoll, Life On a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth (Princeton University Press, 2003).
- Pier Luigi Luisi, The Emergence of Life: From Chemical Origins to Synthetic Biology (Cambridge University Press, 2006).
- J. William Schopf (ed.), Life's Origin: The Beginnings of Biological Evolution (University of California Press, 2002).
- John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry, The Origins of Life: From the Birth of Life to the Origin of Language (Oxford University Press, 1999).
- John Maynard Smith, Evolutionary Genetics (Oxford University Press, 1998).
- Richard Fortey, Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998).
- Freeman Dyson, Origins of Life (Cambridge University Press, 1986).
- Iris Fry, The Emergence of Life on Earth: A Historical and Scientific Overview (Rutgers University Press, 2000).
- David S. Goodsell, The Machinery of Life (Springer, 2009).
- Sean Carroll, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (Dutton, 2016): “ . . . Carroll defends what he calls ‘poetic naturalism.’ ‘Naturalism,’ because there is nothing above and beyond nature. In particular, there are no gods or spooks to transcend or interfere with natural laws. So Einstein’s dice are rolling themselves. ‘Poetic,’ because ‘there is more than one way of talking about the world.’”
Here are three apparently excellent links on the subject:
- Frans Lanting, Life: A Journey Through Time (Taschen, 2006).
- Kirk R. Johnson and Richard Stucky, Prehistoric Journey: A History of Life on Earth (Robert Rinehart Publishers, 1995).
- Annie Murphy Paul, Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives (Free Press, 2010).
- Richard Fortey, Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012): describing “the distinguished groups of organisms that are still recognizable and thriving after millions and millions of years.”
- Bill Bryson, The Body: A Guide for Occupants (Doubleday, 2019): “ . . . reveals the thousands of rarely acknowledged tasks our body takes care of as we go about our day.”
- Carl Zimmer, Life’s Edge: The Search for What It Means to Be Alive (Dutton Press, 2021): “What Does It Mean to Be a Living Thing?”
Documentary and Educational Films
- Life: Part 1; Part 2 (David Attenborough)
- Microcosmos, a “rapt, witty nature documentary” that pioneered cinematography in the realm of the very small
- Life in the Undergrowth
- Wonders of the Universe
- Baraka, or “breath of life,” a documentary-style film featuring images of nature and human activity, suggesting both our power to use Earth for good or for ill
Shape of Life series:
- Life on the Move
- Explosion of Life
- The Conquerors
- Survival Game
- Echinoderms: The Ultimate Animal
- Bones, Brawn & Brain
The Living Planet series:
- The Building of the Earth
- The Frozen World
- The Northern Forests
- Seas of Grass
- The Baking Deserts
- The Sky Above
- Sweet Fresh Water
- The Margins of the Land
- Worlds Apart
- The Open Ocean
- New Worlds
Other documentaries about life:
- Cell Biology
- Journey Inside the Cell
- Powering the Cell: Mitochondria; The Mysterious Cellular Parasite; control of physiology and disease
- Inner Life of a Cell
- The Human Body: Nervous System; neurons; the brain; crash course; overview and lessons
- The Human Body: Skeletal System
- Respiratory System
- Digestive System
- Circulatory System
- On the Origins of Cellular Life on Earth
- Protocell Membranes
- The Human Embryo and Embryonic Cell Biology
In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss . . . Then God said, "Let the earth bring forth vegetation: every kind of plant that bears seed and every kind of fruit tree on earth that bears fruit with its seed in it." [The Bible, Genesis 1:1-2, 11.]
Once when I saw a cripple
Gasping slowly his last days with the white plague,
Looking from hollow eyes, calling for air,
Desperately gesturing with wasted hands
In the dark and dust of a house down in a slum,
I said to myself I would rather have been a tall sunflower
Living in a country garden
Lifting a golden-brown face to the summer,
Rain-washed and dew-misted,
Mixed with the poppies and ranking hollyhocks,
And wonderingly watching night after night
The clear silent processionals of stars.
[Carl Sandburg, "Cripple," from "Chicago Poems" (1916).]
With music strong I come, with my cornets and my drums,
I play not marches for accepted victors only,
I play marches for conquer'd and slain persons.
Have you heard that it was good to gain the day?
I also say it is good to fall, battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won.
I beat and pound for the dead,
I blow through my embouchures my loudest and gayest for them.
Vivas to those who have fail'd!
And to those whose war-vessels sank in the sea!
And to those themselves who sank in the sea!
And to all generals that lost engagements, and all overcome heroes!
And the numberless unknown heroes equal to the greatest heroes known!
[Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, Book III, # 18 (1855).]
- Seamus Heaney, “Death of a Naturalist”
- Diego Rivera, The Hands of Nature Offering Water (1951)
- Georgia O'Keeffe, Flower of Life II
- Gustav Klimt, The Tree of Life (1909)
- Vincent van Gogh, Mulberry Tree (1889)
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Several contemporary composers have given us music that sounds like the stirrings of life itself. Most notable, perhaps, is Morton Feldman's String Quartet No. 2 (1983) (approx. 3.5-6 hours), a minimalist composition that evokes the stirrings of life in a single cell. The work progresses by minute variation, as early life must have done, considering that life did not evolve past the single-celled stage for 500 million years, and complex multi-cellular life took another 2.5 billion years to emerge. This is a long period of time to cover in a single work of music but you may not feel that way if you listen to this String Quartet all at once. “Like the long pieces that preceded it, Feldman's String Quartet II consists of repeated patterns, which usually surface at a certain point in the composition without preparation, are maintained over a given period, and then abruptly abort to possibly return later.” “One of Feldman's agendas was to turn time into space: to make time feel not like a line, but like a landscape that the listener has dropped into. The pieces hardly begin and don't seem to end. He uses only a few themes, but as he repeats a phrase or motif, he alters it by changing the time signature or the dynamics in subtle but discernable ways. Rather than repetitive, the simplest elements become engrossing.” If you have the time, it is a rewarding experience – a grand meditation on where we came from. If not, you can get the idea from practically anywhere in the performance. We have recorded performances by Vogler Quartett in 1999, Ives Ensemble in 2003 and FLUX Quartet in 2016. A 2002 performance by FLUX Quartet is available on CD.
Other composers have taken up this and related themes, perhaps some intentionally and others not:
- James Romig, The Complexity of Distance (2020) (approx. 57’): “Like a vast expanse of ocean or desert, the music presents what might initially seem to be a bleak and repetitive landscape, but closer observation reveals constant variation in the flow of musical events, diverse intersections of harmonies, and a fragile world of micro-activity in the complex timbres that resonate within the guitar’s distortion and sustain.” “For Scheidt (the performer), the chord takes on several meanings: the physical (a moment of rest); the spiritual (like the OM syllable in a Buddhist mantra); the psychological (its cyclic recurrence becoming hypnotic); a defiant 'assertion of intention.'”
- Robert Simpson, Symphony No. 6 (1977) (approx. 33’): Simpson dedicated the symphony to gynecologist Ian Craft, who had suggested that the emergence of a new form of life from a cell could be paralleled in symphonic form.
- Aaron Jay Kernis, Symphony in Waves (1989) (approx. 41’): “I think about waves of sound in addition to those of wind and water. Each movement uses some aspect of wave motion: swells and troughs of dynamics, densities, and instrumental color: the ‘sounds’ of light broken into flickering bits by water’s action.”
- Kalevi Aho, Solos for various instruments (1975-2003) (the album by Bezaly, et. al., consumes 78’): these are spare compositions, each for a solo instrument, in minimalist style.
- Aho, Symphony No. 7, "Insect Symphony" (1988) (approx. 44-46’) – insects are more complex that one-celled organisms but still are quite primitive, a quality that you can hear in this work. “This is a remarkable large-scale symphony with so much diversity of style that it could serve as an illustration of twentieth-century postmodern styles.”
- John Luther Adams, Everything That Rises (2017) (approx. 56’): the composer writes: “Time floats and the lines spin out, always rising, in acoustically perfect intervals that grow progressively smaller as they spiral upward…until the music dissolves into the soft noise of the bows, sighing.”
- John Luther Adams, Clusters on a Quadrilateral Grid (1997) (approx. 35’): “In some ways, this music exists beyond judgment, which I think is very much Adams’s intention. One simply has to accept the different sounds as they appear and disappear. They are evocative and mysterious, but also plainspoken; there’s no mystical obfuscation here.”
- John Adams, Common Tones in Simple Time (1999) (approx. 21’): “Part of the piece’s charm lies in the fact that underneath the fast surface movement lies a very slow harmonic movement. . . . The music also concerns itself with registers, both very high and very low. Bass sound is witheld from the entire first part of the piece, making its appearance, when it finally arrives, a genuinely surprising and gratifying event.” [Adams]
- Tan Dun, Dew-Fall-Drops (2000) (approx. 7’): “did you see the sound? hear the shape catch the wind can you write it on the sky? the tree wants to rest but the wind never stops”. [Dun]
- Christian Wolff, Burdocks (1971) (approx. 24’), after the plant. “. . . there's a quality of melancholy, the violin keening in its lower registers over a tremulous piano in the third movement. It concludes rather giddily with an off-kilter almost-jig, bringing this fine disc to a quirky close. Burdocks is a good glimpse into Wolff's world and, especially given the sensitivity of the readings, is a fine entryway into his work.”
- Wolff, Trio II (1961) (approx. 16’), similar to Feldman’s String Quartet No 2, for piano, bass and percussion.
- Wolff, Trio IX (2018) (approx. 31’)
- Luigi Nono, La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura (The Future Utopian Nostalgic Remoteness) (1989) (approx. 47-61’), evokes “the past reflected in the present (nostalgica) brings about a creative utopia (utopica), the desire for what is known becomes a vehicle for what will be possible (futura) through the medium of distance.”
- Scott Wollschleger, String Quartet No. 2, “White Wall” (2014) (approx. 19-20’): Wollschleger says that this quartet “represented a break in my own work, or in myself, or in my approach to art, where I wanted to see how you could start from nothing, and pull from within itself something. . . . If you were to drain music from itself, what would be left over?”
- Wollschleger, Brontal Symmety, for piano trio (2015) (approx. 13-15’): “Each sound object is revealed and then slowly taken away while new ideas are introduced.”
- Rebecca Saunders, “Dust” (2018) (approx. 25-31’): “The fallible physical body behind the sound, feeling the weight of sound, exploring the essence of a timbre, seeking the grit and noise within.”
- Saunders, “Flesh” (2018) (approx. 7’): “Each change in the direction of the bellows is closely controlled: the opening of the bellows is accompanied with a fast and regular rhythmic changing of the chin registers, and the closing of the bellows then with the voice.”
- Michael Pisaro-Liu, Radiolarians (see also here) (2018) (approx. 53-65’), is a set of minimalist pieces inspired by drawings of German biologist Ernest Haeckel, who focused on microscopic sea creatures.
- Henryk Górecki, Genesis: Elementi, Op 19, No 1 (1962) (approx. 13’), “is a gritty and unforgiving exploration of pure sound and sonority. The strings are treated to a huge variety of effects and techniques including tremolandi, glissandi, bridge bowing and de-tuning. This approach creates an ever changing and fluctuating timbral journey . . .”
- Jiha Park, “The Gleam” (2022) (50’), is a musical exposition on sunlight, a precursor of life. “She distils light into sound, from the first flicker of morning on the horizon in ‘At Dawn’ all the way to the moment when full darkness falls again in ‘Nightfall Dancer,’ capturing the essence of it in notes and silence.”
- Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, “Liquid Turns” (2022) (66’): works by Ülo Krigul evoking water, a source of life. The electronics were produced from “a field recording of a frozen river and recordings of melting ice and freezing water made with a special microphone”.
- John Luther Adams, SILA: The Breath of the World (2013) (approx. 60-65’), is a musical allegory for parts of the body forming the whole. “On a macro level, Sila can also be described as an intelligent entity all its own — a living, breathing organism that takes on the collective intent of its performers, and its composer, to transcend the forces of nature and become, in a sense, a 'breath of the world.'” “In Inuit tradition the spirit that animates all things is Sila, the breath of the world. Sila is the wind and the weather, the forces of nature. But it’s also something more. Sila is intelligence. It’s consciousness.”
Music: songs and other short pieces
- Third Coast Percussion, "Double Helix"