Life in terms of structures, functions, wholes, and parts

Life, as biologists have defined it, seems to stay true to two fundamental principles. Firstly, within a biological system, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. Indeed, one would hope that a human being is considerably more than a bundle of plasma, nerve endings, and internal organs; on a more abstract level, it is certain that a colony of ants will be more capable than a single insect. The second integral principle is that living things are defined by their functions more so than by their structures – the human body, for example, is a capsule encasing thought, movement, hunger, lust, the ability to love. It is the presence, too, of a reaction to an action which confirms the presence of life – do people not stereotypically nudge someone to confirm that they’ve his or her attention? It is paradoxical, then, that these basic truths utilized in the conceptual study of life on our planet are actually perfectly represented by the existences of three “abiotic” items: the slinky, the tambourine, and a stack of cups.

The slinky is, without doubt, far more than the sum of its parts. Theoretically, it is but a series of metal rings that are joint perfectly to produce a spring. Realistically, it is a thing far more immense than that. It is rigid, methodical, simple, intellectual. It is a whole – though each of its metal rings falls separately when it begins to move, they rapidly align to produce a coherent, unchangeable object. Function, too, exceeds structure in the slinky: whilst it appears to be a simple spring, it walks down stairs, traverses hands, goes up, comes down, and takes bold steps with all the certainty of a living being. And, of course, a slinky only walks because it is reacting to a human’s propulsion.

A tambourine, similarly, is far more than a set of bells. It is sparkly, attention-seeking, loud, conspicuous. It, too, is a whole – six to eight small bells, each sounding, align along the edge of a disk to constitute a musical instrument. A relatively simple structure, its function – the production of rhythm, delightful discord, and powerful emotion – is a grand one. Certainly, too, if it were not for the action of the human, the tambourine wouldn’t sing.

In the case of a stack of cups, it is evident that sometimes things are not considered whole without the addition of other parts. Cups, all uniform parts, band together to produce a whole, a stack that is concerned purchasable. The contents of the cup, too, are often more prized than the cup itself. Whilst their structure is resoundingly plain, cups are capable of certain functions that even humans cannot command, like the easy holding of liquids. Understandably, without a human to squeeze it, tilt it, or fill it, the cup and its contents would have nothing to react to.

How would one define life, then? If three non-living objects can so easily be more than the sum of their parts, respond to stimuli, and exceed their structures through their functions, then what distinguishes the biotic from the abiotic? Who’s to say that humans aren’t filled to the brim with a percussive beat that complements the spring in their step?

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