CHAPTER II:  Life versus Non-living Matter

This description begins with a comparison of the human’s responses to the environment with those of other living things. The responses of a human being to the environment resemble the responses of other living creatures more than they resemble the responses of non-living matter.

This may seem obvious, but it is meaningful. Let us look at what we mean.

In general, non-living matter is passive in response to its environment. Give a chair a push and it is pushed. A billiard ball moves away from the cue-ball in a way largely determined by the momentum of the cue-ball, the angle of impact, the elasticity of the materials, etc. The general description of non-living matter’s response to the environment is that it is passive, it is “pushed around” rather than “taking charge.”* 

The distinctive characteristic of living creatures, however, is exactly their active response to the environment. Living creatures tend to impose their organization on their surroundings. In the simplest, common-denominator way this is done by consuming a portion of the environment as food and reproducing. Thus a heap of relatively unorganized compost, when exposed to a pair of well-organized earthworms, will become converted in part and in time into a heap of organized earthworms.

Living creatures impose their organization on the environment in other ways besides ingestion and reproduction. The great Minnesota iron deposits, the chalk cliffs of Dover, the coral reefs of the Pacific are all sizeable structures achieved by the active, selective responses of certain microorganisms to the environment. The work of a colony of beavers can alter profoundly the surface geology of the valley they select for a dam.

Human beings, too, consume part of their environment for nourishment and, by reproduction, convert part of it into new human beings. Our numbers exceed three billion planet-wide. We are, par excellence, the living species that pushes the environment around in other complicated ways as well. We mine coal and metal, dam and bridge the rivers, terrace the hillsides, toss satellites into orbit, and prey upon all other species for food, raw material, decoration and sport.

To repeat, human beings are like other living creatures in their active responses to the environment more than they are like non-living matter with its overall passivity to the environment. 

* (There are beginnings of active, organizing responses to the environment, even in non-living material. A seed crystal, for example, suspended in appropriate solution will “organize” the randomly oriented ions about it into a large crystal patterned after its own structure. Protoplanets will apparently grow into planets by attracting and accreting dust and debris from the primeval dust clouds. This is not the dominant behavior of non-living matter, however.)


Last modified: 2016-08-22 02:11:22-07