Tuesday, July 23, 2013

What is Life?

Biology reference books list seven major characteristics of life. These sources draw sharp distinctions between living and non-living matter. These distinctions relate to the differences between interactions of matter, energy, and forces in the world of life and the world of non-life. What is the difference, we ask?

As children, the distinctions between living and non-living things may have occurred to us slowly. We learned some objects move, make noise, have effects on other objects, or seem to have a mind of their own. Understanding the distinction between living and non-living things, however, may demand a sophistication young children may not possess. One first grade science curriculum publisher claimed they distinguish between living and non-living things with students. Identification of some characteristics of living things may be possible, especially if such learning activity leads to an early respectful wonder for living creatures as fundamentally different from the world of the non-living.

Science curriculum goals offer rich opportunity for personal discovery through observation, a major goal of the scientific method. Discovery of the more formal characteristics of living things, however, demands a level of instruction beyond the idealized “hands on” or “we learn by doing” activities we design for young children, desirable as those may be. Most secondary school biology texts outline the characteristics of life. Essentially, these sources agree on several characteristics, all of which are manifest in any living thing. Individually, even young science students could learn some of these characteristics of life by hands on activities. But a full discussion of the characteristics of life seems more like prematurely peeking ahead at the last chapter of an adventure book to see what happened to the main characters. Understanding and mastery of the topic “What is life?” is what life science is all about.

Most biology texts list seven characteristics of life. For students this listing is tantamount to an overview of the main points of their course. Any one of these characteristic points could be considered a major unit of study. Living things (1) are organized into cells, (2) manifest metabolism--processes of energy use for construction or breakdown, (3) respond to stimuli, (4) have homeostasis--the ability to maintain their internal stability, (5) grow and develop, (6) reproduce, and (7) change and adapt.

The complex but integrated anatomies and physiologies of humans, animals, and plants reflect the intelligence, forethought, and craftsmanship of the Creator. Integrated anatomy refers to the integration of body structures and the many separate body systems making the living body a unit. Physiology is a study of function in living systems--mechanical, physical, bio-chemical, and bio-electrical function.

Genesis 2:7 speaks of God imparting the breath of life to man when he was created. We infer that prior sequential creations of animals were also characterized by receiving the breath of life. Most commentators agree that the breath of life is a gift of God. The Creator imparts life. Even young children understand some important differences between life and non-life. At this stage of cognizance, we posit that children may begin to associate life with a special gift bestowed by God to the creation and further, with their awareness of the reality of God, the great Giver of Life.