Last week on apoplectic.me, in episodes 1 and 2 of the sixth Digesta Plaga, I wrote about the latest developments in blood pressure guidelines, and the news in cyber assistance for stroke patients and survivors of traumatic injuries. In the dramatic conclusion of part one, we left real world creator of the Cybermen, medical scientist Dr Kit Pedler, discussing the nature of life with his wife over the dinner table.
3. Is There Life Of Mars? Fifty years later — and since the time of the ancient Greeks, who examined just this question — we’ve had a terrible time expressing exactly what differentiates life from what is not alive. I think that’s why, without knowing it, the Cybermen always fascinated me. Why people still speak of Metropolis in hushed tones. Why Blade Runner, populated by complex characters like Rick Deckard and Roy Batty, is a modern classic.
Ferris Jabr, whose blog is in the blogroll to the right of this page, and inspired my recent self-vivisection, wrote about scientific attempts to concisely define life in Scientific American’s Brainwaves at the beginning of the month. Aristotle’s theory that “all living things have one of three kinds of souls: vegetative souls, animal souls and rational souls, the last of which belonged exclusively to humans” doesn’t even rate a reasoned dismissal.
17th century vitalism asserted that “living organisms… contain some non-physical element or are governed by different principles than are inanimate things” and that organic matter could not arise from inorganic matter has been disproved by the discovery that “the inorganic can be converted into the organic both inside and outside the lab.” The modern bibles of the standard biology textbooks have been reduced to replicating shopping lists of distinguishing characteristics. But there are always exceptions. Crystals are highly organized and grow. Fire consumes energy and gets bigger. Some crustaceans can enter long periods of dormancy during which they are not growing, metabolizing or changing at all. And on and on.
Eventually, in the 1990s, an advisory panel to NASA came up with what Ferris acknowledges as a “lucid, concise and comprehensive” definition of life:
A self-sustaining system capable of Darwinian evolution.
But this doesn’t work either. According to this definition, a parasitic worm living inside a person’s intestines is not alive. Certain modern computer programs and platforms, on the other hand, do evolve and mutate within a self-contained context. RNA enzymes — or ribozymes — also satisfy the test. A member of the NASA advisory panel suggests that ribozymes mean we have to add another element to the test: to be alive, an organism needs to be “inventive, needs to come up with new solutions.” And already, we’re heading back to the textbook shopping list.
As of the morning of Monday 30 December, 2013, scientists and philosophers still haven’t come up with a specific set of physical properties that clearly separates the living from the inanimate. But Ferris Jabr takes a stab at explaining why:
[S]uch a property does not exist. Life is a concept that we invented…. Arrangements of atoms and particles fall onto an immense spectrum of complexity. In trying to define life, we have drawn a line at an arbitrary level of complexity and declared that everything above that border is alive and everything below it is not.
For all our complexity, I would suggest, we are finding it hard to break free of our Aristotlean chains of self-importance. Humans are special, right? And so we come crashing towards our denouement, like the Fifth Doctor crashing onto Androzani Minor….
4. Meat Is… Animal Flesh That Is Eaten As Food (Or Is It?) Mrs Stroke Bloke might shy away from going here, having experienced the knee-jerks of committed carnivores since she was six. But I have the zeal of the recent convert, the born-again. So, if you want to know what is involved in delivering succulent animal flesh that is eaten as food, read this Rolling Stone article. It’s a hot, dank, bloody pile of facts and statistics.
Here’s a taste (of meat):
- Dimensions of the metal crates breeding cows are confined to for life: 7ft x 2ft
- Ranking of pigs on Animal Planet’s top 10 smartest animals list: 6th
- Age at which humans are as smart as pigs: 3
Why aren’t we farming human babies and slaughtering them for food? Because they’re just complex enough? Have you ever tried discussing Proust with a toddler?
Or because we’re special? How so?
I suppose it doesn’t matter, as long as one Nebraska slaughterhouse can execute one cow every twelve seconds. Or 2,500 cows a day. The picture the Rolling Stone article paints is nauseating. If you read it, you’ll either have to stuff it down your memory hole, or become a vegetarian.
I say this as someone who will still acknowledge that the fillet mignon at Rothmann’s Steakhouse was one of the tastiest things I ever ate. But worth our fellow complex organisms being converted into meat in circumstances more horrifying that you could possibly imagine? Worth the environmental carnage of the 35,000 miles of U.S. waterways reported as polluted due to 500 million tons of animal waste generated by the country’s factory farms each year? Worth making the stunted lives of animals hell so we can eat the cheap meat that lets us think we’re living high on the hog? (As a reward for getting this far, I’ll spare you my half-baked socialist analysis of what’s going on here.)
Not when vegetarianism imposes only the minimal restrictions that encourage the vegetarian to eat a varied and interesting diet — a bit like creating art. Not when the Quorn lasagne I had for the Saturnalia feast was so delicious. Not when…
This all ties into the discussion of blood pressure guidelines and stroke recovery in Part One of Digesta Plaga #6 because, as the U.S. National Stroke Association points out, “High cholesterol… in the arteries can block normal blood flow to the brain and cause a stroke. High cholesterol may also increase the risk of heart disease and atherosclerosis, which are both risk factors for stroke.” And… Cholesterol is only found in animal products So as Hogmanay and the new year approach, best wishes for a happy and healthy new year for you and yours from Stroke Bloke. As you consider your resolutions in a mindful manner, why not set aside a few minutes to read the Rolling Stone article? Why not?