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Life among Anti-Life Forces

Life among Anti-Life Forces


Every so often it is a good idea to revisit our foundational concepts — that is, those important words and definitions that are commonplace in everyday discourse, which we take for granted and we think we have pinned down. 

This is especially true during times of crisis and upheaval, when the clashes between different social factions — driven by conflicting values and priorities — often violently break through into the foreground of our consciousness.

During these historically charged moments, when the quantum “probability wave” of social power has yet to collapse into a distinguishable and rigid form, suddenly, the old words that we thought we knew seem to possess indistinct and malleable meanings. 

It is a good idea to ask some questions: was it our old, decaying, or vaguely delineated definitions of our most important notions that contributed to the collapse in the first place? Is there some important aspect of life that, due to the imprecise nature of language, we forgot to include in these definitions and, as a result, ceased to pay attention to? Or is it simply that the solid definitions that we once possessed, that have always served us well and provably historically, have fallen by the wayside, and need a good, old-fashioned resurrection? 

Words that refer to abstract concepts such as “truth,” “honor,” “integrity,” “courage,” “love,” “morality,” — etcetera — must be reexamined as we feel ourselves viscerally and intuitively confronted with their opposites. 

What, exactly, do and should these words refer to? How do we recognize instances of them when we see them? What are they, and what are they not? On what foundations do we build our notions of them, and how do we prove to ourselves and to potentially hostile others that those foundations actually have solidity? Whose word or reasoning do we trust to guide us on these themes, and why? And what do these often abstract philosophical ideas actually look like, in a concrete sense, when we encounter them or try to recreate them in a changing world? 

We can think of words as something like file cabinets or boxes, and the attempt to define concepts as like trying to organize a room. We walk into the room, take stock of what we see, and try to “file” each thing away under its appropriate category or box. Our word-boxes contain collections of ideas and associations, which we are constantly adapting and changing, taking out and using, replacing or refiling somewhere else. 

We engage in this exercise collectively, at various levels of society, but also on an individual level as well; and the result is that — just as different individuals might have many of the same items in their home, but choose to arrange them very differently — no two people are likely to possess the exact same definition of a word.

To make things more complicated, the “room” that we walk into — that is, the actual world that we inhabit — is always shifting and changing; the items we encounter change, their uses and associations change, and as our social structures and goals change with them, our attention shifts to different salient aspects of ideas. 

Sometimes, it becomes necessary to redefine a concept in order to draw attention to functions or phenomena that we have ceased to be aware of, but that suddenly have reasserted their urgent importance in our lives; other times, it is that we have stumbled upon new information, or ways of thinking about and interacting with the world, that cause(s) us to go back and question what we previously took for granted. 

We like to think that when we try to chart out definitions for our words, we are motivated by a desire to pin down some objective and unchanging truth. But the reality is, while we may be genuinely seeking truths about the ideas we are working with, our definitions are usually more likely to be influenced by the current demands of our social and cognitive landscapes, and the goals we are trying to accomplish within those landscapes at the time. 

We shouldn’t necessarily think of this as a bad thing, however — or as somehow less “real” or “authentic.” Rather, we can see words and their definitions as a set of tools that allow us to coax out and highlight different aspects of a fluid, and ever-shifting, reality as needed. 

To be clear: that doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as objective truth or eternally valid wisdom. It simply means that, at different times in our lives and in our history, we need to highlight different aspects of that truth in order to maintain our balance in a volatile world, and to draw attention to our values and priorities in an effective manner.

Today I want to try this exercise with a particular, and very fundamental, word: the word “life.” Since the imposition of the Covidian biomilitary regime in February-March of 2020, many commentators have characterized this regime — along with the new technocratic social order it represents — as being, at its essence, anti-social, anti-human, anti-nature; we could summarize by saying: anti-life. ¹

Most of us would probably not oppose such characterizations, and we could probably corroborate them relatively easily with readily available examples from memory. We would have no problem indicating why we could apply these labels to what we have witnessed over the past few years, and — in many circumstances, unfortunately — continue to witness. 

We have observed the literal deaths of friends and loved ones due to negligent medical policies, vaccine injuries, suicide, and the suppression of effective treatments for Covid-19 and other illnesses; we have witnessed the deeply unnatural imposition onto human beings of behavioral mandates that go against our deepest biological and social instincts; we have seen the disruption of our ambient infrastructure, habits, and routines, leading to feelings of discomfort and instability that are detrimental to mental health and well-being; our access to parks, wilderness areas, and other avenues for connecting with the restorative beauty of the natural world have been restricted; our food supply is under assault — and I’m sure my readers can supply myriad further examples from the libraries of their own experience.

Even if we choose to accept the stated goals of the Covidian regime at face value, and imagine that its policies genuinely did attempt to, or succeed in, “save/ing lives,” it is clear that the sort of “life” it valued would amount to little more than what Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls “bare life” — the basic fact of life which the ancient Greeks knew by the name of “zoē.” 

By contrast, what the Greeks called “bios” — that is, according to Agamben, the way that life is lived, with all its possibilities and potentialities — was overtly deprioritized and sacrificed.

In our discourse, we have likely come across the framing of our current crisis as a continuation of a timeless struggle between two opposing worldviews: between a “Promethean,” civilized worldview, on the one hand, which paints the natural order as fundamentally dangerous and evil, and which sees man’s role in the universe as being to neutralize this evil and to “correct” or “improve upon” nature’s flaws; — and between a more “Edenic” worldview, on the other, which paints the natural order as fundamentally good and harmonic, and man as having “fallen” from a more pristine and innocent “original” state.²

There are many variations in the way that our philosophers and allies choose to portray this value-conflict. We might describe it in cosmo-dramatic terms, as a “battle between good and evil,” with the “good” symbolized by a natural order (perhaps set down by God), and the “evil” symbolized by man’s hubris and deception. 

Or, we might portray it as a historic war between nature and culture, between civilization on the one hand and Edenic primitivism on the other. We might phrase it as a struggle between fascistic, utilitarian, or military forces, scientific or technocratic engineers, and those who seek to preserve the best traits of the human soul, the things that make life beautiful or worth living, or more generally, freedom and the pursuit of happiness. 

Or, we might think in terms of clashes between traditionalists and between modern priests of “progress,” between materialists and those who value the transcendent, or between a class of self-appointed urban social elites and “experts” and between the common or pastoral man.

But it is clear that underlying all this discourse and the many ways of viewing and engaging with it, runs the common theme of our approach to natural life. Is nature fundamentally good, evil, or perhaps a mix of both? Is it man’s role to change it or to try to “improve” it, either way? Should we preserve our “natural” inclinations or traditions, or should we try to manage and engineer them consciously? Should we find spiritual, poetic, or transcendent ways to deal with life’s inevitable struggles and hardships, and to eliminate our fears, or should we try to use technology to “outrun” them? And do we have a moral duty to do, or to refrain from doing, any of these things? And if so, to what extent, and where should we draw lines? 

Covid brought this conflict — which is actually very old but has perhaps lain dormant for a while — violently into the foreground of our collective psyche. 

Most of my readers will likely agree that the policies of the Covidian biomilitary regime directly caused or contributed to the destruction of physical, biological life (zoē); but it is most particularly evident that they caused unfathomable and even irreparable damage to our treasured ways of living life (our bios).

Those of us who feel compelled to stand up and resist this regime — though we come from an incredibly diverse array of philosophical, political, social, or professional backgrounds — in general, share at least one thing in common: we believe that there is something beautiful or special about life’s traditional or natural order, which the impositions of this new regime now threaten. 

Though we may have very different attitudes toward civilization and modernity; to the role of progress and innovation in history; to ideas like God, morality, or human nature, or man’s ideal relationship to the wilderness and biosphere; we generally would agree that the regime goes too far in attempting to manage life’s natural ecosystems, and to bring them under its control. In doing so, it violates some set of values that we hold in common and which we recognize as sacred.

As I mentioned before, we would have little problem pointing out the myriad ways that this regime violates these sacred principles of life. But if we want to resist these violations effectively, we must do more than simply call attention to, or oppose them. We must additionally define, quite clearly, what we imagine those values to consist of, and we must affirm and recreate them unapologetically. 

That is, our work is not just a project of resistance to the imposition of a political regime we find detestable; it is also a project of creation and of restoration. That regime has only had the chance to gain a foothold in the world because we have already been losing, over many years, many of the things we value; and if we are to be successful, we must seek to restore them. 

This begs the obvious question: if we understand that the Covidian biomilitary regime, and the technocratic social order that it seeks to herald, can be characterized as anti-life, then what exactly do we understand the word life to mean? If anti-life philosophy threatens our most sacred values, then what exactly are those values which it threatens? And how can we affirm them and make sure that, even in the thick of our resistance, we do not lose sight of all the positive actions we can take to nourish their seeds in the world? 

It is in this spirit that I sought to reexamine our current notions of “life.” I asked myself: what sets life — that thing we treasure — apart from anti-life — the set of attitudes and policies currently devouring our world? What set of characteristics makes them fundamentally different from each other? Is there a way we can define this word that seeks to highlight values that we wish to nurture and preserve, and that — despite our varied backgrounds — we generally share in common? 

Is there a definition that can encompass, not just the notion of “bare life,” but also some of life’s most charming and transcendent properties — those things we love about it? Is there a way to conceptualize life that goes beyond mere functional reductionism; that is compatible with philosophy, with most spiritual traditions, with poetry and art, as well as with scientific rationality and secular humanism? Do our current definitions fall short or fail us on this front, and can they stand to be reimagined, so as to shine a brighter spotlight on those things we may have collectively forgotten?

I do not intend this present piece to be the final word on this matter; nor do I wish to assert myself as the ultimate authority on this or any other similar fundamental social concept. 

Rather, my aim here is to stimulate discussion, to provide inspiration and ideas, and to show how it might be possible for us to go about such — often necessary — reimaginings. While many of us have our own private philosophies, which may, more or less, answer these questions satisfactorily for ourselves, the fact remains that on a larger scale, our cultural common ground has fallen out from underneath us. 

And if we don’t seek common ways of talking about these fundamental concepts with each other, thereby bridging the gaps that divide us, then we will be far less effective at organizing ourselves or creating some sort of mutually nourishing alternatives to the dark world our enemies are trying to build for us. 

What Does Life Mean?

The first thing I always like to do, whenever I investigate a concept, is to look at how traditional or currently-accepted authority thinks about it. What are our current definitions of life? Are they, in fact, completely adequate, and just forgotten, or perhaps underutilized or misinterpreted? 

If we look up the word life in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, we will see a stunning twenty definitions. Surely, one would think, at least one of these could serve us; let’s not reinvent the wheel if we don’t have to.

I will not go through all of them. Suffice it to say, I am not satisfied. Among the many definitions are: 

the quality that distinguishes a vital and functional being from a dead body;” “a principle or force that is considered to underlie the distinctive quality of animate beings;” “an organismic state characterized by capacity for metabolism…growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction;” “the period from birth to death;” and “human activities.” 

Many of these definitions are circular, such as: “a vital or living being.” I can’t believe any editor would let such nonsense pass into officialdom. 

Other definitions are just plain vague: “an animating or shaping force or principle” — But of what kind? Does this apply to gasoline in a combustion engine, or to wind playing with a dandelion tuft? 

There is the typical textbook biological definition, which merely highlights what life does — it metabolizes, grows, reacts to things, and reproduces — but does not provide a satisfactory explanation of what principles might characterize its nature. Nor does it tell us what about life we treasure, or can consider to be worthwhile or important. The other definitions, for the most part, seem to focus on the idea of an animated existence.

If we turn to Etymonline, the online etymology dictionary, we can chart the historical evolution of the word in English:

Old English life (dative lif) ‘animated corporeal existence; lifetime, period between birth and death; the history of an individual from birth to death, written account of a person’s life; way of life (good or bad); condition of being a living thing, opposite of death; spiritual existence imparted by God, through Christ, to the believer,’ from Proto-Germanic *leiban (source also of Old Norse lif ‘life, body,’ Old Frisian, Old Saxon lif ‘life, person, body,’ Dutch lijf ‘body,’ Old High German lib ‘life,’ German Leib ‘body’), properly ‘continuance, perseverance,’ from PIE root *leip – ‘to stick, adhere.’

It is clear that, from its very origins, the word “life” in our language has honed in on the idea of continuity or perseverance; and it is heavily biased toward the physical body. Of course, this is not exactly wrong. Like most people seeking definitions, the original users and shapers of this word were probably seeking something fundamentally true about the nature of what they were describing. I don’t think most of us would disagree that one of life’s fundamental characteristics is the continuity or perseverance of some existence. 

But hopefully, we can already see that this conceptualization is incomplete. And that incompleteness can easily lead us down a path where we forget life’s other integrally important aspects, and begin to focus only on the notion of existence, or of “bare life” (and, perhaps, it’s possible it already has). 

To be sure, we also have the “spiritual existence imparted by God,” as well as “way of life;” but these are so vaguely defined as to be relatively unhelpful. While they reference more transcendent elements of what we know as “life,” they give us nothing in the way of underlying principles that could potentially serve to help us recognize these things in practice. They are dependent on their understanding of a social context that no longer underpins society as a whole, or gives us common ground. 

Frustrated with these paltry offerings, I decided nothing beats firsthand experience and observation — so I went outside to see some living beings myself. 

Seeking the Patterns of Nature

I am fortunate to live in a location with abundant access to the beauty of the natural world. When I emerge onto my rooftop, I am surrounded by large juniper trees, heavily laden with blueberries. Birds of many different sizes and colors flit through the arboreal landscape, and the air is thick with butterflies and the sound of cicadas. At night there are fireflies, and I can hear the sound of frogs; I have found snakes and lizards in my home, and hundreds of fascinating different kinds of wasps, moths, beetles, and spiders; and I have watched dozens of black swallowtail caterpillars grow to maturity as they ate the fennel in my garden. 

At the height of the lockdowns, it seemed as if all beauty had been snuffed out of the world. To leave the house was to enter a barren social hellscape. The beauty of the human face had been erased by the impersonal and medicalized barriers of masks and face shields. Patrolling the streets were cars with loudspeakers, blaring on repeat a recording telling us to “stay at home” and warning us of the dangers of the novel coronavirus. The townspeople had hung a huge banner at each of the pueblo’s entrance roads, warning tourists they were not welcome; it read: “THIS IS NOT A VACATION.” Everywhere, we were reminded that we were not supposed to be having fun; that we were not supposed to engage in any of the normal activities that made us human. 

In marked contrast to this joyless domain stood the still-peaceful natural world. The trees, the birds, and butterflies, the spiders, and beetles all went about their usual business. No one erected barriers to their interactions; no centralized authority prohibited them from traveling or from following their instincts and their natural desires. 

Life carried on, beautiful as ever, fulfilling its ever-present purpose; at peace with death, at peace with unpredictability, it continued flourishing. It confronted hardships; it confronted brutalities; but in the process, nothing stopped, and every involved organism sang affirmatively of its own grace and beauty. 

Meanwhile, the anti-life regime attempted to halt all motion, and shut down natural human instincts, until the world might become a completely safe and sterile place — and, in the process, it created a world definitively more ugly and filled with despair. 

Over several years of observation, I attempted to pin down exactly what I saw as differentiating these two worlds from each other. What are the principles of natural life, unregimented by the human hand, that stand in contrast to the principles of those who — in seeking to control it — end up merely destroying its beauty? 

I hope that people from different backgrounds can find value in my observations. If you believe in God, then you would assume that this spiritual power was responsible for the creation of the earth, and thereby would endow its biosphere with principles that could guide and inspire us morally and spiritually. If you are not spiritually inclined, you could see these as a set of biological principles, based on rational ideals, that can cross a bridge from pure materiality into the realm of poetry and the soul. At the very least, I hope my exploration of these concepts can serve as a springboard and an inspiration for the nourishment and recuperation of some of our most important values. 

I distilled my observations to a set of four principles:

1. Integration: Living systems are highly integrated. A variety of different organisms typically occupy any given space, often coexisting in mutualistic, or symbiotic relationships. Within an ecosystem or body, individual organs or parts of a system communicate with one another to maintain stability and homeostasis across the whole. This integrated biodiversity has the potential to create resilient and stable networks, but it also often comes with a high degree of interdependence. The bottom line is: organisms do not exist in isolation, or in uniformity. They communicate, they share resources and information, and they depend upon each other in cooperative, as well as competitive, ways, for their persistence and stability.

By contrast, the anti-life regime separates its constituents and their activities by function and by type, and restricts communication at or between its lower hierarchical levels. We have already been primed for this for decades, as our culture has fractured into ever more isolated components, reduced only to their bare function and largely devoid of higher purpose. 

We have been siphoned into communities separated from each other by age bracket, by profession, and by political opinion, hobby, or belief system. Our work life has been separated from our social life; our social life from our spiritual life; our spiritual life from our professional life; and all of these tend to communicate with each other as little as possible. 

During the lockdowns, we were physically separated from each other, which hampered interpersonal communication and the development and functioning of relationships. And on top of that, we consume news and information about the world in bite-sized, isolated pieces; we are often discouraged from putting these together into a complete or unified picture of the world (or, we don’t have time to do so). 

We may still be highly dependent on one another for survival, but we are far from integrated, with the result that we pursue many of the most important activities in our lives divorced from a coherent and communicative sense of holistic meaning or purpose. The anti-life regime encourages a sort of dissociative identity disorder of the collective soul, destabilizing us and disconnecting us from our roots, our collective mechanisms for homeostasis, and from each other. 

2. Openness: Life is characterized by the proliferation of potentialities and possibilities. In a living system, there is rarely only one solution to a given problem; life innovates and experiments. Life is open-ended; it does not prescribe micromanaged, itemized sets of particulars; it does not operate within narrow margins from which deviation is considered unacceptable. Rather, it obeys general sets of rules and patterns, which can be explored in a tantalizingly incredible variety of ways; this exploration is often what gives rise to new organizational forms, species, or relationships. Life can always surprise you, or do something you previously thought was impossible; and that is one of the sources of its eternal and wondrous mystery. 

But in a world dominated by a totalitarian, anti-life regime, open-endedness is a threat to that regime’s control. A totalitarian regime relies, for power, on reducing the realm of conceivable possibilities to a narrow, easily managed window. “TINA” is its mantra — “There Is No Alternative” — and those creative innovators who come up with holistic and integrative solutions, designed to make everyone happy, must be neutralized and silenced. 

We are not allowed to contemplate the world, or any of its philosophical problems, creative ideas, or ways of being, that exist(s) beyond the artificial fortress-walls set up by the regime. Nothing is allowed to exist out of its designated place — and a designated place will be assigned to as many elements of life as possible, to reduce any potential morsel of unpredictability. Furthermore, anything new or non-conforming to these pre-established patterns must be viewed — until authority-approved — with suspicion. 

3. Autonomy: Living systems are autonomous and individually independent. Living things possess innate personalities, tendencies or wills, and they have unique and personal goals which they seek to pursue in the world. Their success depends largely on their ability to bring those goals into harmony with their environment, but there is no central authority that commands them to achieve those goals in some predetermined, concrete way.

Living things, in short, possess individual freedom. Even in the smallest and most seemingly simple creatures — for example, ants, or moths, or creeping vines — I have observed some sort of individual personality, some unique behavior that no other instance of that being performs in exactly the same way. It is this freedom that makes each and every individual living being unique, a source of wonder and surprise, and valuable for its own sake — rather than a simple, disposable, or replaceable cog in a machine. 

By contrast, the anti-life regime undermines the importance of individual liberty and uniqueness. It attempts to mold its individuals, through the use of conformist educational systems and work environments, into uniform patterns, to reduce unpredictability and to more cheaply and easily process its constituents. Everyone needs to learn the same skills; everyone needs to pass the same tests; all houses must be built to the same standards; and increasingly, all professionals are required by professional associations or certification boards to practice their profession in the same ways. 

Those who think differently are not valued for their unique perspectives on life; they are ostracized or dismissed as irrelevant. Those children who cannot sit still for eight hours a day in a classroom setting are labeled “mentally ill,” “ADHD,” or “neurodivergent” and prescribed mind-altering drugs so that they will behave like everyone else. 

In an anti-life society, people are treated as replaceable parts in a complex machine, which must be engineered to precision in order to ensure consistency. But this is the opposite of how living systems work: living systems are different from machines — and, in general, more beautiful — because they are able to achieve harmony while celebrating individual uniqueness.

4. Evolution: Life transcends itself, reproduces and evolves. It gives birth to new generations of individuals; it passes on its information. But in order to adapt to new challenges, threats, and to an ever-changing world, it does not merely hold blindly on to the same genetic code — or the same rigid ways of seeing the world — without incorporating new ideas.

Living systems keep an eternal record of the past, while at the same time, always adapting, changing, experimenting with, and innovating new ideas. Evolution is a process that involves both symmetry and asymmetry, both copying what has gone before as well as adjusting or reinventing it anew. Living systems balance tradition with innovation, keeping intact a continuous thread of existence while always continuing to produce new variations on old ideas. 

The anti-life regime, however, allows innovation and evolution only along pre-approved channels. Its infrastructure is dominated by a small clique of people with a disproportionate amount of social power and access to resources. Just as “bodies in motion tend to stay in motion,” we can say that “bodies in positions of power tend to want to keep it.” To that end, those with social power almost always aim to prevent the successful innovation and evolution of any perceived potential competitors. 

They attempt to destroy the genetic material — or in a cultural and symbolic world, its equivalent: historical memory — of any philosophies, ideologies or lifestyles that do not serve their interests. They erase, undermine, or replace — sometimes by coercive force — those cultural artifacts, books, songs, stories, religious practices, ways of speech, rituals and expressions of identity that they see as threatening to their rule. 

On the other hand, they attempt to force innovation that serves their needs where it is not wanted or does not make sense. Evolution, in the anti-life regime, can only serve the needs of those at the top of the power hierarchy; it therefore produces systems more akin to an individual body, where organs and other bodily constituents are not themselves alive, but subordinate to a centralized, dominating will. The system evolves, but individuals within the system become mere components of the whole, prevented from developing their own trajectories. 

Such systems are a far cry from the ecosystems of the living world, in which many individuals evolve and reproduce, according to their own needs, in a decentralized, non-hierarchical, and yet harmonic way. 

Towards A New Conceptualization of Life

Whenever I come up with frameworks and perspectives of my own, I usually try to see if anyone else has articulated my ideas before me. Human history spans hundreds of thousands of years, and it is rare that any framework, conceptualization or set of ideas can be said to be truly “new.” 

So I asked myself: has anyone in the scientific world investigated the notion of “life” from the perspective I developed above? Has anyone else highlighted the set of characteristics that I noticed in living systems through my own, independent observations? 

It turns out that others have; although their work was not easy to find. When I searched through the literature of biological and ecosystem studies for studies on the nature and underlying principles of life, I found that the following three ideas frequently recur: 

1. Living systems are inherently fragile and vulnerable.

This, obviously, helps feed the apocalyptic narratives underpinning the idea of the “climate crisis:” if living systems are inherently vulnerable and fragile, then we have an urgent need to “save” them from destruction. I don’t doubt that many living systems are inherently fragile and vulnerable, and that man’s interference in the natural world has placed many ecosystems in danger of destruction. However, constantly emphasizing and highlighting the vulnerability of living systems in discourse creates a picture of life that may not be entirely accurate. 

Living systems are often also incredibly resilient; — after all, life has survived billions of years on an ever-changing planet, under incredibly diverse and often extreme conditions; and it has persisted through several mass extinction events. Yet, it was surprisingly difficult for me to find literature that framed its discourse on “life” in terms of resilience. 

2. “Life” is a difficult concept to define operationally and biologists still don’t have a good definition for it.

Biologists themselves openly admit that most existing scientific definitions of life are incomplete or problematic. Knowing this, political frameworks like the WHO’s “One Health” approach — which promotes the top-down scientific management of all living systems on the planet — become even more alarming. How can you expect to successfully manage the living systems of the world and their relationships with one another when you don’t even have a good existing definition for them

3. “Life” is typically discussed in instrumental terms (i.e., “ecosystem services”) or in terms of its mechanical survival necessities.

Much of the ecological literature that I found discussed living systems in terms of their instrumental value. Living systems were referred to often as “ecosystem services.” I was a bit surprised by this. Perhaps it was naïve of me, but I was expecting ecologists and biologists, of all people, to be lovers of life, and to hold respect for its intrinsic value and beauty. Nowhere did I see any of this mentioned. 

Life was typically discussed in instrumental terms, or in terms of “bare life” — biological survival necessities. Life eats, metabolizes, tries to survive, evades predators, competes, and reproduces. While I understand that scientific inquiry by definition is not concerned with philosophy or questions of transcendence, I am concerned that framing life in this incredibly reductionistic, and instrumentally-focused way is an unhealthy practice for a society that would hope to treat life with respect. This concern is exacerbated by the knowledge that our scientific institutions provide the dominant narrative framework for modern culture.

As I am concerned with a restorative philosophy of freedom, and since I believe that autonomy is one of the key characteristics of living things that separate them from non-living things, I was particularly interested in finding a scientific definition of life that emphasized and highlighted autonomy. 

Autonomy is, after all, the principle on which we build our modern codes of ethics and on which we rationalize — or, conversely, proscribe — the instrumentalization of materials and beings. Both the Nuremberg Code and the Belmont Report are founded on the principle of autonomy. Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) accord rights to living beings proportionally with respect to how much consciousness or autonomy they are assumed to have. 

IRB approval is not typically needed for studies on invertebrate animals or insects; it is, however, necessary for mammals, and higher-order mammals such as cats, dogs, and monkeys often require toys, large cages, or other forms of environmental enrichment. 

Human beings, presumed to be the highest on the scale of autonomy, need to give informed consent in order to participate in experiments. By contrast, non-living objects such as rocks, machines, chairs, or tables can be freely instrumentalized, and even kicked, dismembered, or abused; no one will call you a “bad person” or throw you in jail for cutting up an old T-shirt to repurpose it, or for breaking a glass bottle in a fit of rage. No IRB approval is needed to perform an experiment on chemical substances or analyze the composition of minerals.

Given that autonomy is so essential to our notions of ethics, it is somewhat disconcerting that I found almost no discussion in the scientific literature of autonomy as an inherent feature of living beings or systems. I found precisely one paper: 

“A Universal Definition of Life: Autonomy and Open-Ended Evolution,” by Spanish researchers Kepa Ruiz-Mirazo, Juli Peretó, and Alvaro Moreno. The paper can be found here.

Since this piece is already incredibly long, I will not discuss the article in detail. Interested readers can go through it themselves — and I do encourage you to do so. Suffice it to say, the authors’ definition of life touches on all four of the points that I distilled above. They summarize it as follows (bold emphasis mine): 

The new proposed definition: ‘a living being’ is any autonomous system with open-ended evolutionary capacities, where 

(I) by autonomous we understand a far-from-equilibrium system that constitutes and maintains itself establishing an organizational identity of its own, a functionally integrated (homeostatic and active) unit based on a set of endergonic-exergonic couplings between internal self-constructing processes, as well as with other processes of interaction with its environment, and

(ii) by open-ended evolutionary capacity we understand the potential of a system to reproduce its basic functional-constitutive dynamics, bringing about an unlimited variety of equivalent systems, of ways of expressing that dynamics, which are not subject to any predetermined upper bound of organizational complexity (even if they are, indeed, to the energetic-material restrictions imposed by a finite environment and by the universal physico-chemical laws).

Throughout the paper the authors elaborate on what they mean by this; but their definition clearly incorporates the notions of autonomy, open-endedness, evolution/reproduction, and integration as all being fundamental characteristics of living beings and systems. Autonomy, however, is at the very foundation; and it is really the only definition of life that I have come across that emphasizes autonomy as being fundamental to life. 

Maybe if we start thinking about autonomy as fundamental to the notion of life itself — and start framing even our scientific discourse in this way — we can get back on the road to developing a sense of respect for living beings, and stop thinking about them just in terms of instrumental value or as raw material to be shaped to the whims of scientific managers at the hands of the servants of the power elite. 

Maybe if we start thinking of life as an integrated phenomenon, we can stop insisting on separating ourselves from the natural world and from each other, in order to keep everyone “safe;” and we can stop living such schizophrenically dissociated lives, and start reclaiming a holistic sense of meaning. 

Maybe if we start thinking of life as open-ended, we can reclaim a sense of wonder and enchantment with the beauty of its individual variation — instead of trying to pour all members of society into a predefined, homogeneous mold. 

Maybe if we start thinking of life as the evolution and reproduction of a collective history and memory — as the authors of this paper do — we can start to find an appropriate balance between tradition and innovation that — rather than serving the select interests of an elite few — truly works for everyone. 

Maybe if we stop thinking about “life” as simply consumption, metabolism, and reproduction; as mere “ecosystem services;” or as simply an “animating force” — that is, as “bare life” — then we can start to reclaim what we have lost: the incredible and breathtaking diversity of open-ended and autonomous life, which remembers its past and innovates its future, and seeks to integrate itself into a larger and harmonious, decentralized community. 

At least, that’s what I hope for. But let me not have the last word: what about you? 


1. Two worthy, striking, and in-depth examples of this are Cory Morningstar’s great three-part series, “It’s Not A Social Dilemma — It’s the Calculated Destruction of the Social,” and Aaron Kheriaty’s book The New Abnormal: The Rise of the Biomedical Security State

Morningstar writes in Part III of her investigation: “The Fourth Industrial Revolution has caused and will continue to cause mass upheaval, displacement, severe impacts, and untold suffering to the peasantry, Indigenous, working class and those belonging to the informal economy. The middle class will not be spared. Yet this depraved new global architecture, dangerous to life, human, sentient and biological, is pushed forward despite advanced knowledge of foretold tragedy — solely for the pursuit of money, profits and power. It is this very fact that shows us unequivocally and irrevocably that promises for a just transition, green deals, new deals, build back better schemes, are nothing but empty, hollow assurances, void of intent. These are the lies they tell. Promises and assertions that are nothing more than alibis.” 

Meanwhile, Kheriaty sketches the dystopian and anti-human world portrayed in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, where technocratic managers like Filostrato dream of replacing all life with machines. He compares the character of Filostrato to the transhumanists shaping modern political philosophy, observing:

In both the real character of [Yuval Noah Harari] and the fictional character of Filostrato we find men who embrace, indeed celebrate, the idea that human beings can shed the messy business of organic life and somehow transfer our bodily existence into sterile, inorganic matter. We encounter in both characters the kind of man who wants to bleach the entire earth with hand sanitizer. Were we not nudged, perhaps a bit too far, in the direction of Filostrato’s dream during the pandemic, as we attempted to fully disinfect and sanitize our lived environments? 

Organic matter is alive, whereas inorganic matter is dead. I can only conclude that the transhumanists’ dream is, in the last analysis, a philosophy of death. But we must grant that it has become an influential philosophy among many of today’s elites.

2. To cite just a couple, quick examples: In The New Abnormal, psychiatrist and bioethicist Aaron Kheriaty refers to the “transhumanist dream” as a “Promethean” one; in several articles for Brownstone Institute, author Alan Lash compares the hubristic power-seekers of the modern scientific world to the mythical thief of fire. Meanwhile, in an interview with Ellie Robins of Literary Hub, philosopher and novelist Paul Kingsnorth summarizes the “Edenic” notion of a pristine, life-affirming past (which we long for, and to which we cannot presently return), and man’s corresponding “fallen” spirit, manifested by the life-eating “machine:”

I suppose I’ve been looking for Eden all my life. I think we all have. And I think that primeval communion between humanity and the rest of life did exist once, and perhaps still does in some pockets. But it is not available to modern people except in memory or longing. . .Both sides in the argument that runs through [Kingsnorth’s novel] Alexandria — nature versus culture, body versus mind, human versus machine — find that their worldview has holes in. That’s part of the point, I think. Our world is being eaten by this great, terrible machine, but the machine is a manifestation of us. If my worldview has changed it is only to reveal to me that any ‘enemy’ we might have is lodged firmly in each of our hearts, and that there is nowhere to escape to that doesn’t lead through it.” 

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  • Haley Kynefin

    Haley Kynefin is a writer and independent social theorist with a background in behavioral psychology. She left academia to pursue her own path integrating the analytical, the artistic and the realm of myth. Her work explores the history and sociocultural dynamics of power.

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