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.

2. Identifying and Defining Levels and Limits of Biological Life, and Evolution

R.N. Sharma

National Chemical Laboratory, Pune 411 008


Life on planet Earth is manifest in myriad forms at different levels of organization. However, a universally acceptable definition of life has eluded formulation to date. Difficulties also exist in identification of the different organizational strata of life expressed on Earth. Even identification of `intelligent' life is rendered dubious due to disagreement on definitions. Whereas at the upper, and later end of the spectrum, the human species may be labeled as definitively `intelligent', existence or otherwise of `life' itself in some entities at the lower end continues to puzzle.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), irrespective of their organizational level, pose separate problems of rigorous definition. Pending the evolution of definitive assertions, working definitions of dubious, obvious, intelligent and artificially modified life may need to be formulated with suitable pragmatism to accommodate ethico-legal propensities, apart from strictly scientific parameters. Human evolution needs to be treated as a uniquely distinct process. Scientific dogma and Puritanism need to be replaced with a more pragmatic and secular approach for the whole gamut of the phenomena of life, conscious intelligence, and evolution, especially so in the human context.


Intuitive recognition of life by life, or at least conscious life, may be pragmatically admitted, even as the age old problem of universally acceptable and applicable definition continues unresolved. The classical Indian non-definition of `Neti, Neti ' - 'Not this, not this' for the Brahma as the source of all creation may well describe a hyperbole around the whole vexed question of the created. For life in all its myriad manifestation on this planet seems to defy the setting of limits and boundaries at the more fundamental levels. Exobiological possibilities enlarge this to truly mind-boggling proportions.

The fall of the Icons

Classical, and convenient icons of life have fallen with the advent of robotics, the computers and the whole gamut of automated intelligence systems. Once again, one has to fall back on intuitive, and at best (or worst) metaphysical cognition of the phenomenon. The loss of objective reality, or its convincing limitation to subjective awareness further (1) inhibits formulation of dogmas. Carrying the `Cyminie Socrates' analysis to its logical end, perception of life, as indeed of the Universe must be deemed to rest on the associative functionality of neuronal lattices, and that in turn on the cornucopia of coded sequences of some nucleic/amino acids.

Picking up the pieces

The lamentation on the disintegration of classical models of yore may, however, be hasty. Holistic integration at and of the different levels of organization can now define the existential status of their constituent entities. In the process, segments of the universe too become ' alive' or 'real' by direct, indirect or even through remote/ephemeral interactivity.

The intuitive objectivity

The mutation of chaos into order to form islands of disentropy is manifest in the ubiquitous assembly of discrete boundaries --- both spatial and temporal, of all life forms, at least on this planet. This phenomenon can be traced back to the very origins of life, the most primitive entities exhibiting the proclivity towards order, organization and singularities of lesser or greater complexity (2). This brings us back full circle to the intuitive recognition of life, though the exercise becomes a little strained at the inceptive end of the spectrum. Viruses are still a question mark (3), to which the genetically engineered entities (the so called GMOs) may constitute dubious siblings (4). Even organelles of uncertain definition such as mitochondria and chloroplasts, resident and dependent on a (host?) life system defy conventional classification (4). In such cases, of course, intuitive perception also becomes confused.

Up the hierarchy

Vexed questions of borderline entities aside, the advent of conscious awareness, transcending to intelligence incorporating symbolic abstraction, language and other distinctive human traits (5), bring further dilemmas in their wake. These relate to levels of organization, and categorizations thereof. The issues are best focused by the still unresolved debate on the status of the human embryo from fertilization, through fetal development, to the full term pre-delivery infant. Here, equations are sought or denied, between life and the right to it, and developed/continuing/potential conscious awareness (6). Which inevitably leads on to the dimension of ethics so unique to the human species.

The Fundamentalism of Science

In a supposedly rigorous adherence to 'objectivity' in scientific thought and inquiry, Humans have perennially strayed from the truly secular path we profess allegiance to. In this acolytes, of Darwin and Freud have been the most wayward. Whereas Freud's theories have undergone radical revision, transformation and even rejection as a part of continuing scientific and intellectual renaissance, Darwin's evolutionary paradigm has been sought to be installed as a permanent, immutable, unquestionable tenet of biology on Earth. For this, Darwin's English antecedents, the redoubtable Huxley, and his modern Avatar, Richard Dawkins, are largely responsible. Intuition, like ethics, is an integral component of the human psyche. The philosophers have held the intuitive, universal (transcending Time and Space) belief in God as one of the important proofs of Gods existence - the death of God so vociferously proclaimed by other social and natural scientists notwithstanding. Darwin's Evolutionary precepts need a thoroughly objective and unemotional, secular scrutiny. There has been an intuitive resistance against the natural selection hypothesis. Contrast this with an overwhelming, admittedly essentially intuitive hitherto, propensity towards Lamarckian inheritance, notwithstanding that for almost a century Lamarckism has the become the classic Untouchable for fundamental Science. Apart from merits or otherwise or otherwise of the two tenets, Dawkins like fervor can lead even the best of thinkers, Dawkins included, astray. This is becoming more and more apparent with every new prognostication of Richard Dawkin (7-9). His obsession with the selfish gene, and now going to the roots, DNA (10), seems to have become too unilateral, if not actually paranoid.

Towards a secular vision

The Brahmins of modern science, in their supposedly puritanical quests, have lost sight of the holistic, which I may call the secular vision. Thus, whatever the etiology, and truth of the selfish gene syndrome, this ceases to have relevance in the human being. Not only through the still nascent genetic modifications, but as an unquestionable and inevitable consequence of the progression of the human species in the noospherical domain, the mindless gene has lost its alleged totipotency. Despite all the apparently fissiparous and self-destructive traits and tendencies of human kind, hope, as also logic, dictate that human evolution can no longer be left to Darwin-Dawkins kind of directions (10). If eugenics is an unacceptable means, probably the slower but hopefully more pragmatic cultural consensus must evolve the guidelines. An offbeat chemical with dull nomenclature cannot surely prevail on the celebration of life the human species epitomizes.


Life, as we have known or hope to transform/perhaps even create, some time on this planet, or imagine it on other worlds, is obviously without any limits. Definitions seek to impose boundaries, and to that extent are anomalous in the context of life, except in narrow windows of time, space or specific needs. Even as humankind battles with definitions, boundaries and parameters for ethico-legal pronunciations, the deep and still silent woods holding the immense potential of human evolution must not be lost sight of for mundane trees such as the nucleic acids, or the natural selection dogma in the immediate and apparent foreground.

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