Things That Are Not Alive, but Which May Be Alive in a Certain Way: An Interdisciplinary Essay on a Relational Theory of Life

Figure 4.  Some minerals at the National Natural History Museum in Paris. Photos by author.

By Meredith Root-Bernstein, AgroParisTech, INRA §

This blog post is adapted from a paper given at “Anthropology Off Earth,” Collège de France and l’Observatoire de Paris, 4-5 June 2019

“What is life?” is a foundational question for both biology and anthropology. It seems unavoidable if we want to ask how life emerged on Earth, what it means to be alive, or how to identify life elsewhere in the Universe. Biologists have long assumed that they have a special insight into this question since life, whatever it may be, is the subject of their research. Anthropologists have intervened to develop a semiotics of life, or to ask how different peoples understand what life is, where it diverges from machine automation or the inorganic, and how knowledge is formed about these questions (Pitrou 2014; Kohn 2013; Povinelli 2016). Others have looked at how museum specimens and biobanks come to represent and act as repositories of life on Earth, through their division, qualification and revalorization as samples of morphology, tissue, DNA, seeds, and so on (Van Allen 2017; Chacko 2019). In what sense are these sub-sampled and variously valued specimens capable of preserving and generating life, or some dispersed, relational reconfiguration of life? This scholarship leads us to ask what exactly life consists of: DNA, a frozen liver sample, a seed in suspended animation, a frog in a captive breeding program, the continuous reassembly of an ecosystem? In what does life reside, through what relations can it be reproduced?  While complicating our understanding of how thinking about life makes a difference to social processes, anthropology has so far not challenged scientists to seriously reconsider their own approach to the question, “what is life?” In this essay, I will argue that anthropology has something to gain from an engagement with biology on this issue—as well as something to offer biologists.

The rise of multispecies anthropology has brought an increasing interest in the biological. Though sometimes critiquing science for its attempts to obscure the political content of scientific knowledge, anthropologists have more recently turned to science to provide them with illustrative facts of the biological phenomena they focus on as part of their program to de-center and de-exceptionalize the human. Were science taken by anthropologists not as either a crypto-political project on the one hand or a passive, intellectually sterile partner on the other, but as a knowledge practice worth engaging playfully and theoretically, anthropologists might draw on it to offer provocative reinterpretations of the human ontological condition. Conversely, anthropological theory could challenge biologists to expand their notion of what life may or may not be.


Life and Relationality

Biology’s long series of what appear to be wrong answers to “what is life” (Heams 2019) leads me to suggest that this is in fact the wrong question.

Instead, I propose we ask “in relation to what is something alive?”

That is, perhaps defining “what life is” is unnecessary. A rhetorical tautology may not be considered a good starting point for an argument, but I propose we begin by simply accepting life as a self-evident circularity: life is the condition of those things that can be alive, where being alive is the experience of that condition. No doubt, an immediate criticism of this formulation may be that it reduces life to being alive, and would apparently make it impossible to recognize life in anything other than oneself. But of course, this is not what the experience of being alive is like—being alive entails recognizing different kinds of aliveness in the things that we interact with (e.g. Ingold 2013, Myers 2015; Povinelli 2016). While I don’t think of my refrigerator as being alive, if it makes a “dinging” sound then I recognize that it is communicating with me and wants me to close the door to avoid raising the internal temperature; at that moment it is more lively than inert. The cactus on top of my refrigerator never moves or says anything, but as it gradually becomes yellow I realize it has died—despite the observation that this transformation is ultimately more dynamic than anything it visibly did in life. The vegetables inside my refrigerator are not exactly alive, nor are they precisely dead; they are what I think of as “fresh,” until they start to look like the dead cactus (but at what point they stopped being alive I couldn’t say).

Leaving life as a circularity, I focus on the things and relations through which other things become circular in this way. I propose several ways to understand how, by displacing the problem from “what is life” to “in relation to what are things alive”, I open the issue to a more productive treatment that can create dialogue about life as a foundational concern across and within disciplines. My central proposition in this essay is as follows: How we interact with and come into relations with other things conditions what we know about them.  Different kinds of aliveness are one of these things that we learn about. Thus the kind of knowledge we form determines the kind of aliveness that things seem to have. This is not to say that knowledge generates life. Rather, knowledge cuts, sorts, contextualizes and attaches meanings. In any given situation, some of these ways of knowing, but not others, allow us to come into relation with something as if, or such that, it is alive. Consequently, epistemology determines the possibilities of the conditions of relational life. To develop this argument I take two routes. One kind of reasoning comes from multi-species anthropology, while another set of arguments comes from my experience researching the ribosomal theory of the origins of life as an evolutionary biologist.

I start with the anthropological argument. By arguing that we can accept the self-evident circularity of what life is, I am trying to do something like the perspectivist ontology described by Viveiros de Castro (2009).  In perspectivist ontologies, the subject or person is always, from their own perspective, human. Being human is what all persons experience, including persons who from the human perspective are jaguars or dogs, for example. Valid questions in such ontologies include things like “from whose perspective is that jaguar a dog? From whose perspective are we peccaries?” Rane Willerslev’s (2004) analysis of the pragmatics of carrying out the abstract cosmology of perspectivism points to some of the ways this can be experienced. He shows how the Yukhagir hunters enact ambiguous, paradoxical forms of mimesis with their prey in which, as he puts it, subject and object are confounded and the hunters are not the animal they hunt, but are also not not the animal. I want to emphasize here that perspectival relationalities allow for self/non-self distinctions that are more than simply binary and oppositional (see also Coccia 2019). I will come back to what we can do with these paradoxical and complex identities in the Conclusion. Viveiros de Castro argues for a theory of anthropology derived from perspectivist ontologies. I am not proposing a perspectivist theory of life because what I want to say is not rooted in Amazonian or Siberian ethnography.  The reasoning I propose, however, is related.

The other way into this argument that I will present is from the ribosome theory of the origins of life (Root-Bernstein & Root-Bernstein 2016). I turn to this argument now, before returning to the anthropological approach later.

Figure 1. Complementarity in prebiotic ecologies. Figure from Hunding et al. 2006, Bioessays.


Ribosomes and the Prebiotic Ecology of Life 

The ribosome is a molecule found in all living cells that has an interior structure made of three pieces of rRNA (a helix very similar to DNA), and an exterior structure of proteins. Today, its role is to process mRNA into proteins. Proteins are the building blocks of cells, tissues and metabolism, so the ribosome has a fundamental role in biological life. The ribosome theory of the origins of life belongs to the class of theories that focuses on interactions, networks and prebiotic ecologies (Figure 1; Root-Bernstein & Root-Bernstein 2015; 2016a; 2016b; 2019). In this theory, on which I collaborated, the ribosome is presented as a prebiotic composome. A composome, a term from preceding theories of the origins of life (Hunding et al. 2006), is a molecular structure that is self-forming through reversible bonds. Reversibility is important because it means that the structure can be broken apart by the environment. That it is self-forming is important because it means that from these fragments, new wholes will spontaneously assemble through chemical complementarity. The ribosome, as a composome, would have originally been a self-forming molecule in a chemical ecology of other molecules and molecular reactions present on the early Earth. Our theory is that the ribosome facilitated its own maintenance and reproduction by using bits of its interior structure (the rRNA) to capture molecules in the prebiotic ecology that could be used for remaking itself. The idea is simple: if a ribosome fell apart and a bit of rRNA was floating around, the whole structure would come together and self-form more easily if this bit bound to a piece of protein used to make a ribosomal external structure, or that was needed to catalyze the making of the structure. If we think of the ribosomes as having some of their inside structure inside them, and some of it floating around outside them at any given time, then we can imagine how rRNA could become a messenger to grab proteins that the ribosome wants to interact with.

Working backwards from how molecular components are identified in the current system, we can say that rRNA would have acted as mRNA, a single-helical genetic string encoding amino acid sequences; rRNA would also have acted as, and bound with, tRNAs, which are the molecules that bind to amino acids, and bring them to the mRNA to be put in order to form proteins. The ribosome catalyses protein synthesis (translation), including, critically and fundamentally, the proteins that form the outside structure of the ribosome itself. From there, at some point, we develop DNA to securely store the mRNA, as the ribosome increasingly orchestrates a prebiotic ecology serving its reproduction and maintenance. With the association of structures such as cell membranes and eventually organelles, we arrive at early cells, and unicellular beings.

Figure 2. The ribosome, reading mRNA (left). A summary of the many functions encoded in rRNA (right), figure from Root-Bernstein & Root-Bernstein 2019, International Journal of Molecular Science.

Working on this theory, it never once occurred to me to ask: At what point does the ribosome became part of a living system? That is, what does it contribute to life per se? I asked when and how we might get from ribosome ecologies to cells via evolution, but not when and how life evolved.

There are two aspects this. From the perspective of the ribosome, over the course of the evolution of life what has changed is the ease with which it puts itself together, and the set of interactions it developed. Since the emergence of its own proto-metabolic and transcription system, it would appear that very little has changed in terms of the ribosome’s molecular conformation and possible interactions. Before the evolution of life, the early ribosome and everything around it in its molecular ecology was abiotic, not alive. The ribosome created, and persists within, and drives the functioning of, biotic living things, within which its original self-regulating not-aliveness appears to remain unchanged. Thus, on the one hand the ribosome appears as the non-alive molecule in relation to which—the relation being evolutionary—the biotic is alive.

Now, on the other hand, this relational contrast between the alive cell and the not alive ribosome is not entirely satisfactory. This contrast between alive and not alive contradicts my intuition to ignore the question of whether or when they are alive. To explain my intuition to ignore this question, we have to look at the second way in which I use the ribosome theory of life to think about in relation to what are things alive. I have a tendency to think of the ribosome as though it were agentive and animate, which is a classic scientific posture, as we know from STS (e.g. Myers 2015). For example, taking the perspective of the ribosome has always been essential for this theoretical work. “What does the ribosome want?” was the original research question (though obviously we didn’t pose the question this way in our research publications). If the ribosome does not experience any major qualitative change in its surrounding metabolism compared to when it was in a prebiotic ecology, how can the cell be alive in relation to the ribosome? It seems to me that from the perspective of the ribosome, if it is not alive, neither is anything else, and the question never arises. Equivalently, since from my perspective the ribosome is alive in a certain way, everything interacting with it must also be and always have been alive in a certain way, and again the question of when life arose never arises.


How Things That Are Not Alive May Be Alive in a Certain Way

Reflection on both ribosomes and perspectivist ontologies suggest that there are several ways that things that are not alive may be alive in a certain way. Next I want to look at four things—viruses, minerals, ecologies and objects—that I have chosen to provide paradigmatic illustrations of different kinds of relations: things that are somehow marginal to but also constitutive of life; things that partake in aliveness in relation to other things; and things that are playing the same game as life but in a different way.



Figure 3. The virus life cycle (left), from Wikipedia. Right, a summary of existing theories of the origins of viruses, from Krupovic et al. 2019.

Viruses (Figure 3) are pieces of DNA or RNA surrounded by proteins and sometimes lipids. Viruses are dependent on cells for their reproduction and are often described as parasites on life, or part of the infra-living. Current theory suggests that viruses emerged as parasitical gene-replicating entities and evolved alongside cellular life. The ribosome-first theory, by contrast, proposes that viruses derived from tRNAs. Their common molecular origins and shared molecular structures would have initially meant that viruses were not parasites, but potentially something more like mutualists. Initially, the interests of viruses and ribosomal metabolisms must have been indistinguishable since they formed a distributed ecology sharing the same molecules. Viruses were simply a mobile subset, containing genes, of the larger proto-cellular molecular ecology. However, an apparent downside of genes is that as cells and viruses became compartmentalized, either through drift or selection (i.e. selection for being a virus, to put the problem teleologically), the genetic identities of the two diverge, and so do their interests. Once their interests are not aligned, a parasitic relationship emerges. The evolution of viruses and cells thus looks like the emergence of a self/non-self distinction, by which cells become alive in relation to viruses which are also, ambiguously and differently, alive, both constitutive of and marginal to life.



Figure 4. Some minerals at the National Natural History Museum in Paris. Photos by author.

Minerals (Figure 4) are also often pointed to as things that are curiously similar to living systems. Minerals are ordered chemical structures with characteristic compositions, forms and properties. Minerals are good at what prebiotic molecules were provocatively bad at: forming regular, stable, self-replicating associations. Where prebiotic molecules formed weak, reversible bonds, and required increasingly complex compounded interactions to arrive at something like continuity of structure over time, minerals solved this problem with covalent bonds and by colonizing highly uniform and stable growth conditions. It’s possible to think of minerals as the most successful life-history strategy on Earth: they are self-assembling, and they don’t require evolution (in the sense of adaptations giving rise to singular phenotypic lineages—I will return to their origins below). Minerals are playing the same game as cells, the game of maintaining structural integrity across time.



Figure 5. Degraded bowal habitat in West Africa. Photo © A. Lindon.

The prebiotic systems that life arose from are often referred to as ecologies. Biotic ecologies, however, show few or at least ambiguous signs of giving rise to something like a living system at the level of habitats or ecosystems. Ecosystems are difficult to assort into entities with clear characteristic components, forms, or properties. They essentially lack boundaries, and they have a tendency to transform into something different when faced with any number of perturbations. There are some kinds of simplified, relatively identifiable ecosystems that form wherever the right combination of mineral, soil, climatic and biotic conditions arise, and that are highly robust to perturbation. However, these are often described as degradations, like the bowals of West Africa (Padanou et al. 2012). Bowals are habitats that form, often after land clearing and fires, on particular rockbeds and soils in West Africa that are rich in iron and aluminum, forming an extremely hard soil crust or ferricrete, resulting in desertic conditions and regular flooding after rains. Few plant species can establish in or survive this combination of conditions. Succession from the desert-adapted pioneer species that live there, to a more diverse grassland, shrubland, or savanna, does not appear to happen, such that the habitat is self-perpetuating. Like viruses, such ecosystems might be described as simplified entities that depend on more complex ecosystems to provide them with elements and conditions for their formation. Only these so-called degraded habitats like bowal appear to be playing the same self-perpetuation game as life. Yet, more-complex ecosystems are clearly also the conditions under which life persists: they are the material building-up of the instability and flux that gives life its particular non-mineral character, the interactions through which the molecular components of physiological processes circulate. In this sense ecosystems are constitutive of life.



Figure 6. Things. Photo © by author.

Lastly, all kinds of things that are either biotic, abiotic, or dead, or transformations of abiotic and dead materials, can have animacy attributed to them through interaction (Figure 6). This phenomenon has been studied extensively by anthropologists and STS scholars (e.g., Ingold 2003; Myers 2015), and there are a number of different ways in which it is incorporated into ontologies and cosmologies.  In the sciences, attributions of animacy are systematically eliminated from the performance of science, even when essential to various thinking modes. While in my ribosome example, I don’t physically interact with ribosomes because I’m doing theory and database analysis, everything I know and can imagine about ribosomes is based on other people finding clever lab techniques to interact with and thus come to know something about the regularities, properties, and behaviors of ribosomes (Barad 2003). The animacy of different objects is less a characteristic of their material qualities, than it is conditioned by our capacity and creativity in coming up with forms of observation, interaction and interpretation.


Some Relations by Which Humans Might Be Alive

So far, humans are alive in the circular sense, knowing we are alive because we experience being alive, and attributing aliveness to other things. But this argument might imply that life didn’t exist before humans evolved, which seems a priori problematic if we reject human exceptionalism. Can we be alive from the perspective of something else? We can ask whether we humans are alive in relation to, for example, minerals. Minerals, I posited, are alive in the sense that they are playing the same game as living things but have settled on a different strategy, arguably a more successful one. So, equivalently, we are failed minerals. What is less clear is whether minerals per se can form relations with us, living things, by which we become alive. We would engage in the mineral ecology of aliveness to the extent that we directly modify and interact with their growth and transformation, through molecular bonds, pressure, and temperature. Hazan’s theory of mineral evolution (Hazan et al. 2008) shows that the evolution of life on Earth has in fact changed reaction pathways and created new mineral growth conditions. For example, the Great Oxidation Event caused by photosynthesis allowed the emergence of around 2500 new minerals, while later in the Phanerozoic Era, when terrestrial life became abundant, we see the radiation of skeletal minerals such as calcite, aragonite, apatite and opal, clay minerals, and organic minerals such as coal and black shale. Humans are also lately responsible for forming new processes and niches for new minerals, for example during the synthesis of synthetic gems, ceramics, cements, batteries and crystals, or through mining processes that provide new niches for spontaneous mineral formation. In this sense the biota are a marginal phenomenon constitutive of minerals.

Figure 7. The Phanerozoic. Images from murals at the Smith College Botanic Garden, USA.

The plurality of relations by which things can be alive relative to other things means the search for life off Earth is both very simple and extremely difficult. Simple because a priori everything is probably alive, in some way, through some possible relations. Difficult because their form of engagement with our own form of life through which they come to be understandable as alive, may be hard to discern or enact. I am not arguing that we just need a plurality of definitions, or a better form of attention, in order to recognize life. Life is recognized not by its characteristics, I am arguing, but by its ability to come into relation as alive with something else that takes itself to be alive. We thus enact other things as alive, or they enact their aliveness relative to us. If there are things in the Universe that are alive, but cannot come to be alive in relation to humans, then I would suggest that they may be alive in some way, but we are highly unlikely to be able to know anything about it. The limits to epistemology are also limits to life.


Conclusion: Back to Circularity

Perspectival anthropological theory shows us how relations between self and non-self can be constructed and experienced, where the self both is and is not the other. This shows us how life, which as a circularity is experienced from the self’s perspective, becomes a property, however ambiguous, of the other. Yet, perspectival anthropology is too specific in its ethnographic origins to provide anthropology and biology with a ready-made theory of life, given the disciplines’ different ontologies and epistemologies. The ribosome theory of biological life helps us conceive of how a particular relational condition—an evolving prebiotic ecology, for example—can simultaneously be interpreted as both life and non-life. This is an argument against a gradient of life, or life as an emergent property of complexity. Life as a circularity self-evident to the self does not emerge to become evident from outside the self. The life of others is a property of epistemology, that is, of relations with others, between the self and those non-selves. It is not the ribosomes who impose on the world an intrinsic aliveness, but rather my scientific (and pre-disciplinary) imagination of them, my understanding of them.

If we come back to the knot of circularity about what being alive is, I want to offer another kind of argument for why accepting this circularity makes sense. A very similar tautology exists when we try to understand the radiation of life forms, viruses, and minerals. The game that all of these are playing is often called “natural selection.” Natural selection is called ‘selection’ by paradoxical analogy with the explicitly teleological process of ‘artificial selection’, or selective breeding. Natural selection, unlike artificial selection, is non-teleological and circular: it is the game where structures persist because they haven’t yet fallen apart. The game life is playing is a process of logical circularity conditioned on past and concurrent processes of logical circularity. This puts some limits on what we should be looking for in a definition of life.

If we go back to the discussion of perspectivist ontologies, we see that questions of “what am I from your perspective, what are you in relation to him from his perspective?” can be properly (in a pragmatic way) answered by statements of the type “I am not you but also not not you.” Equivalently, things that are not alive can also be not not alive, because of a relation through which they can be alive in a certain way. This paradox is not itself a circularity, but it depends on the circularity of life being those things that can be alive. So, if life is predicated on circularity, I suggest that perspectival relational questions whose answers take the form of paradoxes dependent on circularities might be a reasonable kind of question.


Enormous thanks to Emanuele Coccia, Sonia Levy, and Robert Root-Bernstein for their comments on versions of this text. I am indebted to Colin Hoag for his excellent editing, and to the organizers of the “Anthropology Off Earth” conference for the opportunity to present.

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Meredith Root-Bernstein is a conservationist and ethnobiologist. She currently writes the blog for the BIOVEINS European research project on urban biodiversity. In addition to her collaboration on the origins of life, she studies how humans, other animals and plants interact to form landscapes. She currently works at INRA in Paris, where she is also a visiting researcher at the Musée de l’Homme. She is also affiliated with the Instituto de Ecologia y Biodiversidad and the Center of Applied Ecology and Sustainability, both in Santiago, Chile.

This post is part of our thematic series: Multispecies Anthropology: Becoming Human With Others.