‘Life itself has no meaning – but it is an opportunity to discover the meaning of life’

What is Life All About? – From Human to Humane

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

Of the 7 billion people on earth, comparatively speaking only a handful ask themselves such questions and ponder deeply about them. Everybody else is too busy running around enjoying, eking out a living, fighting and killing or is caught in the maelstrom of humdrum daily living to bother with such profundities.

These were my immediate thoughts when I received a forwarded mail, which asked the question, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ and followed it up with the answer, ‘Life itself has no meaning – but it is an opportunity to discover the meaning of life.’ Implicit in this reflection is that it’s human life that is being referred to, the assumption being that no other form of life or species would pose this question or be in a position to do so.

Because, to be objective, we have to accept that human life is but one of the billions of forms that manifest the faculty called life, and that are classified in the two basic categories of plants and animals. And that there are also some forms of life that are considered by scientists to be in-between, sharing characteristics of both plants and animals, corals for example.

Further, there are creatures that challenge the very definition of life, such as viruses. In fact, viruses are considered to be at the borderline between the living and the non-living, because they can take a crystalline form and lie dormant for long periods – is a crystal living or dead? – until they meet with favourable conditions on coming in contact with a host and becoming live again. The most cited example is the Tobacco Mosaic Virus (TMV) which, as its name suggests, infects the tobacco plant and was, in fact, the first virus to be discovered. Its study and extensive characterization laid the foundation of the science of virology.

I remember being taught about TMV with great excitement by the most wonderful teacher Mr Noel Asarapin at the Royal College Curepipe. To him and that other passionate biologist and thinker Karl Mulnier who also taught me, I owe eternal gratitude for the perennial interest they awakened in me for the subject of biology. Because of them, I keep updating myself as far as time permits – given my numerous other commitments – about the latest discoveries on the frontiers of the living. Indeed it was a pleasure a few months ago to listen to a talk given by Karl, who continues at his advanced age to share his knowledge and search about the subject, entitled La plasticité de la matière vivante. To say that it was most illuminating is to put it mildly…

To come back to the meaning of life, it should be evident that this cannot be considered in isolation from the issue of the origins of life, which is in turn linked to the origins of the universe. All life as we know it on earth is carbon-based, but recently there have been reports of life which is non-carbon based. Although it is a primitive form, yet it does raise questions about what exactly is life. We therefore have to think out of the box on this matter.

The views range from religious dogmatism to spiritual enlightenment. It is towards the latter that scientific enquiry is tending to converge, because both are based on a methodology of logical understanding with the intuitive element obviously more pronounced in the spiritual dimension.

Scientific enquiry has made tremendous leaps following the discovery of the structure of the fundamental molecule of life, DNA (DeoxyriboNucleic Acid) in 1952. With techniques of molecular biology that continue to be more and more refined along with discoveries made about very primitive life forms in geological layers and oceanic vents, the thinking about how life may have evolved is becoming much clearer. In other words, the scientific view is based not on speculation or rigid dogma, but on robust evidence being built up by the most rigorous methods.

At its most fundamental level, scientists define life simply as the ability to self-replicate. However, before this stage was reached, definitions were based mainly about the less subtle characteristics of the living. One biological definition was that ‘life is a state of ceaseless activity’, which of course it is from our common experience.

On the other hand, there is also a definition which was given by JD Bernal, a Nobel Prize in Physics, namely that ‘Life is a dynamic equilibrium in a polyphasic system.’ It can be seen that there is much to excite one’s interest if one wishes to pursue these lines of thinking about life, as many are already doing of course.

Coming to the meaning of life, perhaps a sobering starting point is to appreciate a recent discovery based on the latest developments in genomic research, that is research about our genetic make-up. Thus it has been found that we share over 99% of our genes with our closest cousins – the chimpanzees.

In fact, scientists who study animal behaviour have found levels of intelligence, patterns of thinking, psychological responses and social behaviours in chimpanzees and some other species and animals (Bonobo monkeys, dolphins, octopuses) that have striking similarities with those of human beings. Further, some animals have even been trained in language and in self-recognition, blurring the boundaries between human and animal even more.

It would seem, therefore, that being human is not biologically unique. What makes us unique is something situated at a non-biological level, that of being humane. In Hinduism, it is considered that it is a privilege to be born a human, which takes place after a passage through 84 000 other incarnations, and we then incarnate in human form, known as manush yoni.

The single most important trait that characterizes the human and lifts him into humane is the ability to make a rational choice between the good and the bad. He can consciously and knowingly choose between doing good and doing bad, but doing good according to dharma, translated as righteousness in one of its fundamental aspects. From this perspective therefore the meaning of life becomes clear.

However, one may explore other points of view, equally enriching but which would appear complementary to the dharmic view. Simply google ‘meaning of life’ and ‘bon voyage!’

* Published in print edition on 20 April 2012

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