Bioethics in India: Proceedings of the International Bioethics Workshop in Madras: Biomanagement of Biogeoresources, 16-19 Jan. 1997, University of Madras; Editors: Jayapaul Azariah, Hilda Azariah, & Darryl R.J. Macer, Copyright Eubios Ethics Institute 1997.

12. Life and Human Identity: An Anthropological Approach K.N. Reddy & S.A. Abdul Latheef

Department of Anthropology, S.V. University, Tirupati 517 502, Andhra Pradesh


The subject matter of 'life' has already been discussed at length by poets, philosophers and scientists. Still life remains an enigmatic question. The discipline of anthropology has its approach to life and human identity. Anthropologists believe life as an evolving one through evolution and continuity of life gives way to newer beings. The purpose and significance of life lies in such a process and design. Although the meaning of life is considered to be elevating the spirit of soul through physical body, the purpose of life, however is considered as means of transferring hereditary material from generation to generation.

1. Definition and Meaning of Life

'Life' is an abstract term. It has no precise definition, although several meanings are attributed by poets, philosophers and scientific community. Poets like Shakespeare mean life as a tale and signify nothing. Robert Frost opines life as full of care, having no time to stand and stare. We think, only people feel life and express it beautifully.

The definition of life is not yet possible because it is a dynamic, continuously changing process of unimaginable complexity. This complexity is reflected in the organization of living systems, greater than that of non-living ones. We know that all materials, living and non-living, are formed of certain basic units called atoms. Atoms are combined in specific ways to form various kinds of molecules. All non-living systems are composed of groups of atoms forming one kind of molecule (substance) or of several kinds of molecules (mixtures). Living systems are mixtures of very large and complex molecules functioning together in a coordinated manner. It is important to recognize that just as every living thing is composed of the basic physical units - atoms and molecules, each individual organism exists as a part of a particular population, species, community and ecosystem.

The meaning of human life and the destiny of man cannot be separable from the meaning and destiny of life in general. "What is man?" is a special case of "what is life?" probably the human species is not intelligent enough to answer either question fully. The processes of life can be adequately displayed only in the course of life throughout the long ages of its existence (Simpson, 1969).

Diversity and unity are the two underlying themes that seem to characterize all life. There are approximately two million different species of organisms living today, and many millions of species that formerly existed on the earth but are now extinct. Diversity in all phases of life activity is found in this vast array of life ranging from simple viruses through unicellular organisms, to such complex and diverse entities as whales and palm trees to man. Less apparent than diversity, but equally typical of living organisms, is unity in basic characteristics. This is recognised by most of us when we see, even dimly, a common similarity in all life. A full realization of this unity, however, in term of the fundamental characteristics of reproduction and the transformation and utilization of energy, has been developed only recently and constitutes one of the major triumphs of science in the twentieth century (Savage, 1973).

Life is characterized by a continual self synthesis of matter, having extremely complex but also highly unstable chemical composition and structure, involving spatial arrangement of molecules and bonds, a process that is in dynamic equilibrium with a continual breakdown of the synthesized material into simpler ones, associated with a remarkable energy exchange (Mani, 1977). Life exists in the universe only because the carbon atom possesses certain exceptional properties (Sir James Jeans, 1981).

Life is described by means of chemical structure of molecules since the development of molecular biology and with the historical achievement of the chemical structure of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953. Now, with the discovery of DNA, a new approach to the complexities of life and now understanding of the great principles of life has begun. DNA is now considered as the coil of life; it is a tiny bit of matter, formed like a spiral staircase. This is the basis of all life and found after more than two hundred years of scientific searching.

Life is a form of renewable energy and acquiring of energy for sustenance of life from the environment (nature) is the common activity of all beings. Although we cannot see life, it can only be perceived as it grows and reproduces. These two functions of life are common in all forms of life (plants, animals) including man although the structure of life differs.

2. The Nature of Life

There is lot of competition in life to meet the energy requirements of life and hence we witness genetic adaptation to their respective environments. All beings except plants derive their energy from plants and animals of their surroundings. Hence, there is competition for food, the power house of energy. Those who are capable of deriving their energy needs of life from nature will survive better and grow enormously. Others would get eliminated by nature in the process. Thus, evolution of species occurs through strong selection, competition and survival of the fittest.

3. The aim and use of Life

The aim of the life is not spelled out at the time of birth. It remains however elusive. So is the use of life excepting making life as good and bad; right and wrong, and positive or negative. The real aim of life is yet to be derived by man. After all, we don't find any ethics in mother nature's operation. How is then 'Man' concerned with ethics of life?. The issue has come up with our enormous cultural development.

4. Purpose and Significance of Life

Why life? There is again no precise answer. Then again, we only can satisfy by reasoning it. The purpose of life could be for successful transmission of hereditary material to the next generation and life revolves around this process. Changes in the genetic material do occur due to changes in the environment and other phenomena, thus leading to origin of new species. This phenomena has all scientific proof and this again is proof of all biological evolution. The purpose of social life is to witness social evolution, i.e., learning and passing on this wisdom from generation to generation. The culture or cultural technology of human beings is very dynamic and is now increasingly becoming the central driving force of biological make up of humanity. Further, humanity seems to have come to a cultural stage that the real purpose and significance of life is to elevate the spirit of the soul through physical sense.

5. Continuity of Life with Special reference to Man

Life continues in one form or other and there is no doubt about it. If we look back to the nature and kind of life in the past confirms that the future of life also varies greatly. Speaking about people in particular, the knowledge of human evolution demonstrates that the first people were not perfect at all. The more we learn of prehistoric humans and their predecessors the more we appreciate the fact that they were less "perfect" in the higher human attributes than are we. This means that people, as found from the dawn of civilization down to the present, represent the finest fruit of the evolutionary process. From this view point, we may well believe that the great days for humanity are yet ahead of us, not behind us. This is positive side of human life but negative side of it is our manipulations with nature and life.

Mani, M.S. 1977. Heredity and Evolution. Oxford & IBH Publishing Co., Bombay, pp.158.
Moore, Ruth, 1982. The coil of Life, Dell Publishing Company, New York.
Savage,Jay, M. 1973. Evolution. Amerind Publishing Company, New York.
Simpson, G.G., 1969. The meaning of Evolution. Oxford and IBH Publishing Co., Bombay, pp.368.

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