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The Living and the Dead

David Cowles

Jun 1, 2024

“1,500 years ago, we didn’t have these problems. We knew all that we needed to know about life.”

An article by Paul Sutter (12/3/2023), republished on, makes an intriguing contribution to the age-old debate over the boundary between ‘the living’ and ‘the dead’. No, I’m not talking about seances or Ouija boards or long Celtic twilights. 

Sutter proposes that we define as ‘living’ anything that is subject to the process of evolution. 150 years ago, we were debating whether any organisms were subject to evolution. Now Sutter proposes we make evolution the defining characteristic of Life itself. What a difference a day makes!


1500 years ago, we didn’t have these problems. We knew all that we needed to know about life. How did we know? The Bible told us so! Life was created by God, on Earth only, less than 10,000 years ago as a well-defined set of largely visible organisms thriving in reasonably hospitable ecological niches.

Now we know some things we didn’t know 1500 years ago, or 150 years ago for that matter. We know that life probably emerged just once (on Earth); and so far, at least, it has proven to be indestructible. We know that life is ubiquitous on Earth, that it populates nearly every nook and cranny, no matter how hostile. 

We anticipate the end of the world. We’ve been doing so for millennia. Recently, nuclear weapons, biological warfare, climate change and even AI have considerably advanced the timeline suggested by the Book of Revelation. 

We now know that speciation is just a series of rest stops on the trail. Check out the view from Tiger! It’s burning bright.  We know that living organisms adapt, genetically, epigenetically, culturally, to almost any conceivable set of environmental stresses…and we’re still pushing that envelope:

Don’t like it on Earth? Try Mars! Don’t like oxygen? Breathe methane instead! And if that means you can never be more than 1 cm away from some tree’s root system, so be it! I didn’t want to see the world anyway; did you?

1,500 years ago, few conceived that the order of species might undergo modification other than as a consequence of divine intervention. Nor did we imagine that independent life forms might exist elsewhere in the cosmos.

Since Darwin, the field of astrobiology has boomed…but at a cost. We have lost control of our subject. At one extreme, we now have pan-vitalists, folks who believe either (1) that the Universe itself is a living organism (Gaia) or (2) that life suffuses the cosmos as if it were a field…like EM or Gravity or God.

Pan-vitalism may or may not have the final word. Regardless, it has contributed a new perspective. Universe contains innumerable (but not infinitely many) environmental niches. Given that life has emerged once, in one such niche (Earth), we can speculate that it must have emerged innumerable times in innumerable other niches.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are ‘lunatics’ like me who still think there’s a slight chance that life ‘evolved’ once and only once - on just one planet, in just one solar system, in just one galaxy, not so very far away. 

We reason, the probability that life emerged anywhere, even here on Earth, is infinitesimally small (є), but life did emerge on Earth. Absent that information, the chance that Life emerged independently in more than one niche is astronomically smaller: є² or less.

Read literally, є is smaller than any real number: є = 1/∞. Then how small is є²! One advantage of this argument is that it resolves two great cosmological scandals:

  1. Why is the Universe so big (or so old)? Answer: It needed to be that big for Life to have at least a 0.5 probability of emerging. If Life did emerge 4 billion years ago, as is generally believed, then perhaps we can say that the half-life for Life to emerge is 10 billion years…in which case we should not expect any cosmic company for a while yet.

  1. Why would life evolve on Earth and nowhere else?  Answer: Why not? One is one! Think of what I call a ‘proto ice cube’ (you call it ‘water’). The liquid does not transition to ice all at once. The phase change begins at one or more nodes and spreads from there through the entire volume, but the location of the node(s) appears to be entirely random.

Between these two poles, there are folks who think that life commonly evolves but just as commonly dies out. Their bumper sticker reads, “Frequent but Fleeting”. Therefore, the current state of bio-diffusion is entirely uncertain. And then there are those who think that extra-terrestrial life is likely limited to a relatively small number of Earth-like exoplanets. 

Finally, still others think we may find independent occasions of life on various moons and planets in our own tiny solar system. As a result, we are sending a probe to Venus to look for life in the Venusian atmosphere. Presumably, the lifespan of any such organism would be the time it takes to fall from the edge of Venus’ atmosphere to the surface of the planet. And they say our lives vanish like the dew!

Sutter (above) stops just short of pan-vitalism. “How short is he?” About 2 seconds short! Sutter maintains that life could have emerged just a few seconds after Big Bang. He believes that we should push the boundaries of life at least as far back as prebiotic molecules. But he’s not done yet! 

Some physicists have hypothesized that in the earliest moments following the Big Bang, the forces of nature were so extreme and so exotic that they could have supported the growth of complex structures. For example, these structures could have been cosmic strings, which are folds in space-time, anchored by magnetic monopoles.

“With sufficient complexity, these structures could have stored information. There would have been plenty of energy to go around, and those structures could have self-replicated, enabling Darwinian evolution. Any creatures existing in those conditions would have lived and died in the blink of an eye, their entire history lasting less than a second — but to them, it would have been a lifetime.”

The fundamental (Planck) unit of time is 10^-42 seconds. The Cosmos is expected to reach an age of at least 10^11 years before it ‘chills out’. (There are c. 10^7 seconds in a year.) Therefore, the scale of time encompasses c. 60 orders of magnitude. It is hard to imagine that any ‘objective durations’ have real meaning on such a scale. I mean, now what counts as ‘fleeting’?

It’s also a bit odd that time would have a minimum and a maximum value. Is there something significant about the 60 orders of magnitude spread? Would the same spread apply in any feasible universe? Is this spread a defining characteristic of ‘Universe’ per se? (As Leviathan is a defining characteristic of our world - Book of Job.)

But this article is not about time! It’s about scientific reasoning. We have viable conceptions of life, ranging from the cosmos itself to a single, primal DNA/RNA molecule. I suppose we could even go further and argue that Life itself is ‘not a thing’, that biology is just mechanics. 

Any model that can’t discriminate between values ranging from ‘all’ to ‘nothing’ is in serious trouble. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the model is wrong, that it will be falsified. Rather, it may be subsumed as a subroutine under a broader theoretical framework. 

And when a single term (e.g. ‘life’) can be applied to such a broad spectrum of phenomena, it is a good bet that we don’t understand the term itself as well as we thought we did. 

Bottom line: we can be sure that we’re not at the end of this tunnel yet, no matter how well lit the corridor may seem.


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at


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