alexa What, pray, is your idea of life? - Daily Nation

What, pray, is your idea of life?

Saturday March 27 2010



Communicative thinking — which is unique to the human mind — is possible only through definitions. Human beings share their thoughts primarily by means of words carrying conventional meanings. This is also the way science proceeds.

For science — speculation into our social and natural universe — is the content of all our thoughts. Everything else is detail.

That is why a concept must first be given a primary conventional definition before we can argue about its other meanings -- especially if the word or concept is as important as life.

I offer the scientific definition because I believe that knowledge is the destiny of mankind. But I also respect free thought.

Even if I occupied State House, I would not impose science on you. So, if you have a definition of life different from science’s, your very humanity obliges you to share it with me.

That is the only demand I make of my e-mail interlocutors and Anthony Nderitu of Wajir (Sunday Nation, March 21). Let me repeat a very reasonable request: Please give me your definition of life before we can argue and possibly agree on when that phenomenon begins.


Yet the only answer I get is a repetition of an opinion proclaimed during the Stone Age – when mankind was still absolutely ignorant of biology – the opinion that life begins only at conception. According to it, all the entities that are active before a foetus is formed are dead things!

For “death” is our conventional antonym of “life”. But, of course, until Mr Nderitu’s ilk have favoured us with their definition of life, we shall never know how two “dead” things — ovum and sperm — can suddenly spring to life merely by combining chemically.

If his ilk continue to skirt around what the latest science says about the concept of life, then they are victims of Zen mysticism and instruments of positive nescience.

They keep swallowing and regurgitating ideas formed at a time — in the Palaeolithic Age — when mankind lived in total ignorance of nature.

Those ideas pass as super-human qrite simply because, in their ignorance, our ancestors endowed them with supernatural quality and, on reducing them to scripture, proclaimed them as sacrosanct and inviolable.

Throughout mankind’s history, the sacerdotal class has had a keen self-interest in primitive doctrines. It has always tried to drag mankind back to horrendously atavistic mental conditions. In Moliere’s charming tautology, opium has a dormitive virtue which sends all your inquisitive faculties asleep.

Myth – to paraphrase Santayana -- when one tribe has invented it, passes for revelation, and when that tribe is Israel-Judah and has lived long ago, it passes for divine history. And it suits vested interests to a tee.

The status quo ante of thought promises golden nukes. Science promises only loss of ill-gotten power and wealth.

Yet, let us not gag any mouth. All I want to know is exactly what LIFE quality a foetus has which a sperm does not. I don’t mean that science is omniscient.

The term “ontological gap” refers to areas -- like Heisenberg’s quantum “uncertainty” – which science cannot yet explain.

Such gaps are godsend to the “pro-lifist”. He rushes into them like a kifaru, shouting that he has found the “proof” of the “miracle of life” and the falsity of science. He buries his head permanently in the sand of history.

Otherwise, he would know from NicCopernicus, Jacques de Molay and Giordano Bruno that science will one day evict him from his “ontological” subterfuge as embarrassingly as it did when Pope John Paul apologised to Galileo and passed the Big Bang theory as “probable”.

But I reiterate my question: What miracle of life does a human foetus perform which sperm and egg do not? In science, life is the ability by certain material forms to consume other material (as food) and use it to replicate itself and perpetuate its kind.

In summary, life is nutrition, irritability, contractibility, internal movement, excretion and metabolism (i.e., birth, growth, maturation, disintegration and death), all revolving around food, i.e, absorption of energy from the food and excretion of the unused matter.

That is what Francis Crick, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Stephen Jay Gould, J.B.S. Haldane, Carl Sagan and other scientists teach us about life: Life is but the chemism – the sum of phenomenal functions -- of what we used to call albumen.

Long before they unite into a foetus, ovum and sperm perform all these functions, including self-reproduction (in their case, by the cellular division that we call nuclear fission). Sperm, then, is as lively as a porpoise.

But I won’t ram it down your throat. You are free to reject science – except that, in that case, you owe us your definition of life.