Saturday, December 20, 2008

The incredible machines!

Which is the kind of machine that has existed for ages, will continue to exist, has proven its resilience time and again, is available in varying complexities and most importantly, it has spread (almost) everywhere on the earth ? The kind of 'machines' I am alluding to are living beings!
Living beings are by far the most complicated machines ever created on earth. Human beings might be at the pinnacle of complexity.
Some people might not be comfortable and might even feel insulted by calling humans mere 'machines'. But, according to science we are only a machine, a self-replicating one though. We generally think of living beings as a higher form of matter i.e something that is not merely matter but contains an invisible ingredient which non-living things lack. From a pure materialistic point of view, what is the difference between a stone and a kitten ? Nothing actually. Both are composed from elements available on the earth. But one is made such that we attribute 'life' to it. IMHO, the difference between a dead living being and its life-full form is similar to the difference between a working clock and the same clock when its battery is dead. The contents and mass are largely unchanged, its just that the necessary chemical reactions are missing. It is shocking to realize that mere chemical reactions decide whether a person and a clock is dead or alive!
Thinking about simpler forms of life makes the definition of 'living being' broader and broader. At the level of viruses, the definition becomes blurred, and whether a virus is living being is a matter of debate. Going further down the hierarchy we come across virus like particles (VLPs). These officially are non-living things. The primary difference between a virus and a VLP is that VLPs lack the DNA/RNA which is necessary for replication. So, a VLP cannot replicate and infect cells like a virus can. This case suggests that ability of self-replication is a principal differentiating factor between living and non-living things.
Is is morally bad/incorrent to think of living beings as mere natural machinery ? I do not think so. In fact, thinking that way has made me humbler and compassionate and lets me appreciate the beauty and millions of years of natural engineering that went into building each of the living beings present today. Unlike what major religions in the world preach, I no longer regard a cat or a cockroach as a 'lower life form' compared to humans. They are machines which fared well and survived the journey through time, like we humans have...

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