But what is life? How do we distinguish it from non-life? Traditionally, biologists defined life in terms of the ability to reproduce. Then systems thinkers like Maturana and Varela suggested that is not good enough, and suggested that life be defined in terms of self-maintenance (autopoiesis) - the organism maintains itself within but distinct from its physical environment. Recently (2 September 2020) Sir Paul Nurse, Director of the Francis Crick Institute has suggested that life is defined by three things: chemical and informational processes, heredity based on genes, evolution by natural selection leading to purposeful behaviour. Some might cynically suggested "He would, wouldn't he!" given his role (but at least he some expertise about life that the cynics lack). Less cynically but properly critically, Arthur Jones suggests, in his discussion of What Is Life?, that we need input from a wider set of disciplines than is currently the case:
... scientists hardly look at animal and plant forms at all and morphology, as a scientific discipline, is almost extinct. The majority of today's biologists are really chemists (biochemists and molecular biologists of various specialised kinds). Since the world of biology reflects the dominant ideologies it is vitally important that we develop a thorough critique.
He emphasises that life is a function of the organism and not imposed by the environment, echoing the aotopoietic view, but he goes further. That overview suggests to me that the following are fundamental in the biotic aspect: organism and distinctness, types of organism, maintenance of organism as its type, reproduction according to type, and forms in the organism.
Might it be better to ask "Why is life good?" -- what good possibility does the biotic aspect introduce to temporal reality that earlier aspects know nothing of? A good possibility the organic aspect introduces, which earlier aspects know little of, might be that of separateness, which Dooyeweerd [1955,II, 110] calls "vital unity". Sustainably distinct entities control their inner equilibrium state autopoietically and have a boundary (skin) that separates it spatially and physically from their environment while allowing exchange of materials with the environment. By contrast, the inner state (form) of physical things is entirely under the control of the surroundings. Organisms reproduce after their own kind, while physical things do not. Laws of the organic aspect are related to organisms.
One suggestion for re-evaluating the kernel meaning of the biotic aspect has been made because of difficulties in 'filling that slot' as currently understood (a difficulty Dooyeweerd himself discussed in [Dooyeweerd, 1955,III, 112ff.] but did not adequately resolve. For more, see Basden [2008, 184]. Whether or not this is accepted, attempts to work this out in discussing the nature of computers might provide a model of how an aspect's kernel meaning could be modified.
From the biotic aspect onwards it is meaningful to talk of negative as well as positive: death, disease, poison, starvation, and so on. Death removes the organic nature of the entity, so it rots down and its materials become absorbed into the surrounding physical milieu.
Also, systems theory is very much based on a biotic world view.
To be viably distinct requires most of the life functions mentioned above, especially repair, and the life functions only make sense for distinct organisms.
This leads us to the possibility that Systems Thinking (e.g. Bertalanffy's General Systems Theory, Beer's Viable System Model, Checkland's Soft Systems Thinking, etc.) is heavily relevant to the biotic aspect, and vice versa. But Systems Thinking also has close links with the formative aspect of shaping, creating, assembly, etc.
Also, if Newell's computer systems levels correspond with some of the aspects:
then the component level should correspond with the biotic aspect. This cannot be so if the biotic aspect is confined to life functions because hardware components are not alive. However, a computer system hardware does, metaphorically at least, require life functions: it consumes our data, breathes electricity, excretes garbage on screen (:-!), and repairs itself. But if the kernel of the biotic aspect were organism, then this makes much more sense.
The possibility that the kernel is organism rather than life functions must be explored.
"I am unconvinced about the kernel as 'organism'. I gave much thought to this in the early 1980s after reading and rereading Stafleu's 'Time and Again' - his book on physics really opened my eyes to the rich potential of Dooyeweerdian analysis in science. After months and years of considering the interplay of analogies and universality, I came to the conclusion in the mid-80s that the biotic kernel should be stated as 'generation' or 'generative activity' (in a life-cycle of development). This is a way of summing up not just reproduction, but all the numerous generative processes that characterise organisms - differentiation, acclimation, regeneration, repair and healing, cell and tissue adjustments, ecological balance and successsion, environmental regeneration, homeostasis etc. I put this forward in the first draft of my 'Science in Faith' in 1986 which I used with science teachers in Nepal. Here is the section from the final published book (CST 1998 pp 40-42)."
Copyright (c) 2004 Andrew Basden. But you may use this material subject to conditions.
Written on the Amiga with Protext.
Created: by16 March 1997. Last updated: 30 August 1998 rearranged and tidied. 30 July 2000 link to comment by Magnus Verbrugge. 7 February 2001 copyright and email. 5 March 2001 shalom started; moved. 17 May 2001 anticipation of distincion. 20 May 2001 subdir 'comments' renamed 'ideas.' 4 January 2002 Added 'organism' as part of kernel, and the wee discussion about it; added more institutions. 13 January 2002 added comments from Arthur Jones. 9 July 2002 more notes on the kernel. 12 March 2004 competition. 5 February 2005 tidied up the intro and competition, .nav. 24 August 2005 nav to aspects; rewrote organism a bit. 22 September 2010 Dooyeweerd's and Basden's rendering. 4 February 2011 Stafleu ref. 10 October 2013 Berson, Kaufman. 21 September 2016 briefly. 2 September 2020 Sir Paul Nurse, Arthur Jones and definitions of What is Life.