by Shravanti Krishna Suresh –A walk in the park which usually warrants many things including life changing epiphanies triggered this article. One of my friends picked up a leaf fallen on the ground and incoherently mumbled to it saying “Oh didn’t you have life before?” What is life? I’m not asking this question in the philosophical sense though it eventually comes down to that but what indeed can life be defined as and how exactly do we decide if one form of life is more precious than the other though this sort of aimless understanding has already been established by the self-imposed rulers of this planet, humans!
I happened to read a detailed description of life by NASA. I understand that when one is involved in figuring out extraterrestrial life, one must first figure out how to define life in the first place. But here, I wish to focus on not only life but also living. What differentiates a rock, water or a chair from a leaf, dog or people is not “life” but complexity. According to a Scientific American article, our definition of life is not intrinsic to the objects we define but our perception of them, and frankly – our hubris and our narcissism. Working in a Chemical Ecology lab, I have learnt to appreciate all forms of life, right from active molecules that once made up our primeval soup or tiny insects that disguise sophisticated complexity with simplicity or people like you and me who process such significance with ease and dismiss it nonchalantly.
Dr. Shannon Olsson, my PI, mentioned something in the passing one day that gave meaning to the hidden often persistently curious existential part of me. She said that all forms of life are driven by three things – love, fear and hunger. I do not know if she heard it from someone or this is indeed her theory but that does not matter since a teacher is one who imparts wisdom and since I heard this from her, I shall be indebted to her for completing my philosophical jigsaw puzzle. When a cicada hums loudly and exuberantly it does so to mate (love), when a Venus fly trap viciously traps unaware flies using complex machinery it does so for nutrients (hunger) and when an animal uses camouflage and elegantly blends with its surroundings, it does so to avoid attention from a predator (fear). To think that all forms of life have improved and progressed just so that they can stand a chance in this race against time and for survival is fascinating. This is perhaps surprising because I don’t know what sort of biological system one needs to comprehend survival.
The cascade of chemical reactions, minute crucial adjustments to the physical environment, subtle biological changes and calculated measures for every challenge prolong the debate of what preceded what and how does one know when and where to stop. I think in the midst of emotions, we have forgotten that nothing is permanent and that after our journeys end, time will still progress towards improvement. Time will still progress towards answers. Entangled within such beautiful intricacy, we have failed to appreciate lives or living. Every political, social and environmental issue presenting itself in the world today is an example of our intolerance towards life. A history of any system is a consequence of trajectories of reactions. I feel that I am so lost in the opinions around me that I have stopped to smell the roses on the way. We have stopped listening to understand and started listening to argue.
We are not great because we ask questions but great as humans because we understand why we need to ask questions. But in the midst of such powerful understanding we have become dictators. Democracy doesn’t simply exist in institutions or forms of governance because nature has established life with democracy. Just like how a fellow human is not beneath another human, no form of life can be disregarded.
A million neurons more than most species and yet we destroy more than we create. Eons of processing and information gathering and yet we undermine the pain of another living being. Never a rebirth, always reminded of an end, we still hurry our way with greed and malice. Molecules and atoms, in blistering heat, fused together to give meaning.
This meaning progressed in pages of time, the chemistry gaining a history of failure and success. Life as we know today is chemistry with a history as I once read somewhere. And this living that is driven by man-labeled emotions is a journey towards respecting this chemistry. And that is the only journey that would do justice to this enigma known as nature.
Shravanti Krishna Suresh