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Is Life Binary or Gradual?


The binary nature of life is deeply ingrained in daily experiences, evident in the stark distinctions between life and death and the living and the inert. While this binary perspective aligns with disciplines like medicine and much of biology, uncertainties emerge in fields such as microbiology, virology, synthetic biology, and systems chemistry, where intermediate entities challenge straightforward classification as living or non-living. This contribution explores the motivations behind both binary and non-binary conceptualizations of life. Despite the perceived necessity to unequivocally define life, especially in the context of origin of life research and astrobiology, mounting evidence indicates a gray area between what is intuitively clearly alive and what is distinctly not alive. This prompts consideration of a gradualist perspective, depicting life as a spectrum with varying degrees of “lifeness”. Given the current state of science, the existence or not of a definite threshold remains open. Nevertheless, shifts in epistemic granularity and epistemic perspective influence the framing of the question, and scientific advancements narrow down possible answers: if a threshold exists, it can only be at a finer level than what is intuitively taken as living or non-living. This underscores the need for a more refined distinction between the inanimate and the living.


Malaterre, C. (2024). Is Life Binary or Gradual? Life, 14(5), 564

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