“Life” in Other Words

The word life has many meanings and uses. Too many, perhaps. The four-letter word can refer to (1) the duration of an individual’s existence, as in life-span, lifetime. It can mean (2) daily experiences, as in quality of life, making life easier. It can refer (3) to the state or characteristics of being animate, as in signs of life. And (4) it can mean all living things collectively, as in life on earth.

When two of these definitions fit into the same context, uncertainty results. If a survey asks, “How happy are you with your life?”, some respondents will rate the years they have lived thus far (definition 1) while other score their degree of happiness during a typical day in the present (2).

Similarly, If a sentence states that “Life on earth began 3.8 billion years ago,” is the reader to imagine a  glob of molecules that duplicates itself (3) or a first, single-celled, membrane-enclosed bacterium (4)? Maybe both.

Which label covers them all: “beings,” “creatures,” or “living things”? (weed-science-classes.wikspaces.com)

Which label best covers them all: “organisms,” “beings,” “creatures,” “selves,” or “living things”?
(weed-science-classes.wikspaces.com)

Definition 4—living things collectively—may be a good candidate for replacement by a plain synonym. There is, surprisingly, no commonly accepted term except life that so smoothly takes in not just animals or plants or microbes but all of them. But let’s review some options.

Organisms might serve, but not very well. Dating from the 18th century, organism can refer to any living thing, but its focus is on structures and systems. (It is related to organization.) Organisms has its place in the laboratory, but it doesn’t work well for broad musings on the totality of living things. If your perspective is poetic, a sentence such as “I marveled at the wonders of the organisms in the fields” lacks something.

Beings would seem to fit the bill. It’s familiar and seems broad enough.  It has spiritual dignity. But it is oriented around humans. Although Webster’s includes “living things” as one of its definitions, in common use it does not evoke plants and microbes. It might seem odd to refer to the vegetables growing in the garden as beings.

The same goes for creature, as in “Interesting creatures filled the forest.” “Creatures seem animal. They walk, fly, swim, or slither; they don’t put down roots or bloom.

Significantly, like beingscreatures came into use six centuries ago when plants and animals occupied separate categories of natural philosophy.

In contrast, a recent coinage from some scientists is selves, since living things, even a microbe, move towards food, avoid harm, repair themselves, and reproduce. Inanimate things don’t. I hope the usage catches on, but it hasn’t yet.

In lieu of single-word synonyms for life in the sense of totality of organisms, some phrases include the living world and the world of life. My preference so far, though, is living things. (I used it in the paragraph just above.) It’s clunky, and it’s almost an oxymoron. But it points to all things living and to nothing else.

There is another meaning of the word life that I think needs separating out. This is sense number 3, “the state or characteristics of being animate.” We have no noun to label the quality of being alive in the same way that we can use death to label the quality of being dead. We have alive of course as an everyday and precise adjective, but we don’t have a good noun version of it.

An example of the use of “livingness” by sculptor Louise Nevelson (izquotes.com)

An example of the use of “livingness” by sculptor Louise Nevelson
(izquotes.com)

There is aliveness, which appears in descriptions of art and fashion. It means that something has exuberance and vitality. But its main use is to hype a product; it rarely if ever refers just to the state of being alive.

I use livingness. It is a rare but real word; you can look it up. True, it’s bland and clunky. But it’s effective at naming the characteristic at hand. I’ll stick with it for now.

So: living things and livingness may be useful to sharpen the focus on two meanings of life – If that’s what we want to do. The profusion of meanings of the word probably reflects how intertwined for many people those meanings are, and generally the speakers of a language have the words that they need in order to talk about what they want to talk about in the way they want to talk about it. But we could discuss a big topic like life more easily if we could separate out some meanings when we needed to.

The Evolution of Laughing and Crying

How have we humans come to be so skillful at smiling, laughing, and crying? Other notable human behaviors – reproducing, fighting, sharing, hunting –  have easily visible predecessors among most animals. But our repertoire of daily grins, laughs, and tears – except for some vaguely similar expressions among chimps, dogs, and rats – is unique. We express life’s joys and sorrows in ways that seem to have little ancestry.

But neuroscientist Michael Graziano proposes that we smile, laugh, and cry in useful mimicry of a protective, cringing reflex that is millions of years old.

In The Spaces Between Us: A Story of Neuroscience, Evolution, and Human Nature (2018), Graziano describes his team’s years of research at Princeton on how the brain monitors the personal space around us. This flexible buffer zone can extend out to the edges of the car we are driving or to our child who is leaning over a ledge. The buffer also shrinks to the physical closeness we allow with those we trust and even disappears altogether for pair bonding and sex. The buffer is a protective, not a social space. “Personal space is all about the zone where you keep people out, not the zone where you invite people in” (Kindle location 472).

Cringe (mikecrudge.com)

So where do smiling, laughing, and crying come in? Such expressive reactions are rooted in an ancient cringe posture that people still take on when their protective zone is suddenly and dangerously threatened – by seeing a stone thrown at them, for example. The posture reflects the brain’s first priorities: protect the eyes and the abdomen. “The forehead is mobilized downward and the cheeks are mobilized upward, dragging the upper lip with them.” As a result, the teeth are exposed. Hands cover the abdomen, the body hunches down, shoulders rise.

Smiles (Mount Pleasant Granary)

We think of a smile as being about teeth, but the display of teeth is only a consequence of the cheeks lifting upward to protect the eyes. Still, the sight of this wincing “smile” may have reassured an early enemy that the individual in the cringe posture was not a threat. But the potential victim learned even more: that the facial expression could be imitated, mimicked, in order to ward off injury, to play it safe. Millions of years later, we smile.

Graziano states his point carefully. “…[T]o be clear, the human smile is not a defensive cringe. When you smile, you are not thereby protecting your eyes from a flying stone. You’re not expressing fear. You’re not anticipating an attack. But the evolutionary precursor of a smile is a defensive cringe that protects the eyes in folds of skin. A smile is an evolutionary mimic” (2255).

 

Laughter (pngimage.net)

While the smile mimics a gesture that might have headed off a conflict before it started, laughter may have emerged as a way to prevent harmless play-fighting already in progress from getting too serious. Graziano connects laughter with tickling. When a child is tickled, the hand of the tickler moves into the child’s protective space, the cringe reaction begins to sound the alarm, the hand reaches an area of sensitive skin and “the touch evokes a full-blown laughter…an entire collection of alarm shrieks, defensive blocking and retracting, a pursing of skin around the eyes, upward bunching of the cheeks, upper lip pulling up, and secretion of tears”(2316). Laughter evolved from such an alarm reaction that tells a play-opponent that yes, you’ve touched me, touché, now that’s enough. Like the smile, laughter gradually became a social signal, read by others, mimicked by those who want to signal their good-natured agreeableness.

Graziano acknowledges that such speculation does not explain the many types of laughter – or the nature of humor itself. But it does suggest why, after the long road of its evolution, full and hearty laughter shares many of the facial markers of the defensive cringe.

Crying (youtube)

Crying, unlike smiling and laughing, adapts the cringe response to the loser’s need for friendly resolution after an all-out fight is over.  After an attack, a primate victor often comforts the loser. The loser’s cringing, moaning, and tears signal not only surrender but a plea to restore amity. After a million years of such reactions, we mimic the post-drubbing defensive cringe as a way to express pain and ask for consolation – even when we are crying alone.

Graziano’s book is very clear, very engaging, and at times very personal. And I value knowing how laughter and tears both link us to early ancestors while also displaying such an evolutionary distance from the original reflex.