what is alive?

Mario Vaneechoutte Mario.Vaneechoutte at rug.ac.be
Mon Sep 16 13:40:11 EST 1996

> Mario Vaneechoutte wrote:
> > Strange, I would define prions as alive according to the broad
> > definition of life (or living information) I favour: living information is that information which is capable of making more material
> > instantiations of itself by copying already existing instantiations of itself.

Arlin Stoltzfus wrote:
> > 
> I don't understand this definition.  In my way of thinking,
> "information" isn't capable of doing anything, but is an
> abstraction that is only detectable (and can only have effects)
> if it is instantiated in the real world.  When one asks how
> viral "information" has to be instantiated in order to do
> anything, one sees that it requires a cellular host.  In order
> to serve as 'information', i.e., in order to be copied, it
> requires a cellular host.  Based on the use of information,
> it is the parasite-host symbiont that is alive, not the parasite
> by itself.  But perhaps this is an unsophisticated use of
> the concept of "information", which I don't claim to understand
> fully.

Indeed, I wish I had a better working definition of what 'information'
is, myself. But by analogy with cultural information (which I consider
as living information as well) I could clarify the point: cultural
information (like this message) needs hosts (me at the moment) to be
copied. Does it follow from the above definition that it is only the
'message - me' symbiont which is alive?
Furthermore, all parasites and all symbionts require input from other
organisms to copy their information.

Mario Vaneechoutte
Laboratory Bacteriology & Virology
Blok A, De Pintelaan 185
University Hospital Ghent
Belgium 9000 Ghent
Tel: +32 9 240 36 92
Fax: +32 9 240 36 59
E-mail: Mario.Vaneechoutte at rug.ac.be

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