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
- : Part 1; Part 2 (David Attenborough)
- , a “” that in the
- 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”
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Morton Feldman's String Quartet No. 2 is a five-hour-long minimalist composition that sounds like the stirrings of life, in stark contrast to Beethoven's Seventh symphony, which is a full-throated expression of life in Being. It may not have many takers for a full listening but to those of us who appreciate it, it is like a grand meditation.
- Kernis, Symphony in Waves
- Janáček, Concertino for piano left hand & chamber ensemble, JW7/11 (1925)
- Gál, 24 Preludes for Piano, Op. 83 (1960)
- John Luther Adams, Everything That Rises
- John Luther Adams, Clusters on a Quadrilateral Grid 1-4, from “Strange and Sacred Noise” (1997)
- John Adams, Common Tones in Simple Time
- Aho, Symphony No. 7, "Insect Symphony" (1988)
- Birtwistle, Duets for Storab
- Dun, Dew-Fall-Drops (2000)
- Wolff, Burdocks (1971)
- Wolff, Trio II
- Wolff, Trio III (1996)
- Nordheim, Listen, for piano (1971)
- Nono, La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura