Toward a Biology Worthy of Life > The Unbearable Wholeness of Beings > Brief excerpt
A project by Stephen L. Talbott

Different languages apply to the live organism and the corpse (1)

Think of a living dog, then of a decomposing corpse. At the moment of death, all the living processes normally studied by the biologist rapidly disintegrate. The corpse remains subject to the same laws of physics and chemistry as the live dog, but now, with the cessation of life, we see those laws strictly in their own terms, without anything the life scientist is distinctively concerned about.

No biologist who had been speaking of the behavior of the living dog will now speak in the same way of the corpse's “behavior”. Nor will he refer to certain physical changes in the corpse as reflexes, just as he will never mention the corpse's responses to stimuli, or the functions of its organs, or the processes of development being undergone by the decomposing tissues.

Virtually the same collection of molecules exists in the canine cells during the moments immediately before and after death. But after the fateful transition no one will any longer think of genes as being regulated, nor will anyone refer to normal or proper chromosome functioning. No molecules will be said to guide other molecules to specific targets, and no molecules will be carrying signals, which is just as well because there will be no structures recognizing signals. Code, information, and communication, in their biological sense, will have disappeared from the scientist's vocabulary.

The corpse will not produce errors in chromosome replication or in any other processes, and neither will it attempt error correction or the repair of damaged parts. More generally, the ideas of injury and healing will be absent. Molecules will not recruit other molecules in order to achieve particular tasks. No structures will inherit features from parent structures in the way that daughter cells inherit traits or tendencies from their parents, and no one will cite the plasticity or context-dependence of the corpse's adaptation to its environment.

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