Life Exceptionalism vs. the Chemical Machine

John L. Prittie

In the August/September 2019 FI, Adam Neiblum discussed what he refers to as “human exceptionalism” (“Gould’s Second Stage: Progress, Evolution, and Human Exceptionalism”). Most of us have also been made well aware of so-called “American exceptionalism,” which falls one taxonomic level below Neiblum’s (as exceptionalisms go). Our “exceptionalist” biases seem to extend a level higher as well—to life. Just as Americans and humans assume that they occupy a position above other countries and other animals (respectively), we have a tendency to view life, another club to which we belong, as not merely a “natural” process but, literally, an exception to nature.

Nature,” in this case, means everything in the universe, unaided by anything … well, by anything not in the universe. Life processes are incredibly complicated. It is sometimes difficult to accept that they could be just natural chemical reactions happening because, like all chemical reactions, they have no choice. Life exceptionalism is the tacit assumption that life must instead be somehow motivated, that it chooses to do the many things that it does. While this falls short of the religious view of life actually having external guidance, it still encourages a subtle predisposition in many, probably most, of us toward supernatural thinking: because life exceptionalism is a supernatural view of life.

Clichés such as “the resilience of life” or Jurassic Park’s infamous “life will find a way” are convenient metaphors but imply a misattribution of intent. It can be difficult not to view life in this way. The basic building blocks of living things (proteins, carbohydrates, organic chemicals) are complicated to begin with. The more deeply one delves into the details of biological functions, the more they seem like decisions rather than chemical reactions. Biologists encourage this thinking by anthropomorphizing biological activities as having motivation (e.g., DNA splits, red blood cells pick up oxygen, neurons send signals). These are convenient, probably indispensable, expedients for discussing the complicated processes of life, but they imply guidance or motivation where only passive chemical interactions could possibly be taking place.

And yet, when you hold a seed—poppy, maple, watermelon—it is nearly impossible to accept that it is just a stew of chemicals ready to engage in a multitude of chemical reactions. The reactions are too tiny, too complicated, and too-well directed. Instead, knowing how the seed came into being and knowing what it is capable of doing, it simply seems like a “miracle of life”—not the Christian-human-exceptionalist miracle but a subtler biological exceptionalist one.

Salt dissolves in water. That’s how those two chemicals react. But consider the chemical reactions that begin in an acorn and ultimately result in an oak tree or that can fashion a working squirrel from a fertilized squirrel egg (and a whole lot of acorns). Consider that once upon a time, a sperm cell and an egg cell chemically reacted into Charles Darwin—eyeballs, brain, theory of evolution, and all. It required an unfathomable amount of chemicals being in the right place and poised to react in exactly the right way and in the right sequence … if “chemicals reacting” is really what everything comes down to in the end.

But what else could it come down to? As an atheist, I have chosen to believe that all things bright and beautiful are nothing more than a complicated, ongoing chemical reaction that began billions of years ago and has been taking place “all by itself” ever since. The earth was barren and lifeless. Now it is not. If no god put life here and if nature (that is, the universe) has no volition (which would essentially render it godlike), then this is all—literally: just one huge, built-up chemical reaction. There is no other rational(ist) answer.

A seed, a sperm cell, a brain—all bags of chemicals and quantum physics that trace back through time to the first reproducing cell, the primordial soup, the water and rocks and solar radiation. Like those proverbial infinite monkeys typing the works of Shakespeare, life as it is today is the result of an infinitude of beakers bubbling away on Bunsen burners in a planet-sized lab. To be, or not to be.

This “chemical machine” definition of life is easy to condemn as reductionist by those who cannot reject the notion that a seed or a sperm cell (for instance) contains some preternatural essence—that the “life” in it wants to persevere, to become a watermelon or a squirrel. This assessment is not entirely invalid. Life is, inarguably, an essence that transcends the chemicals from which it is made. When respiration ceases, the chemicals of life, otherwise unchanged, no longer support thought, motion, or replication. “Life” implies functionality, the capacity to seek out, invite in, and assemble the molecules required for its own sustainment.

But viewing life from this “behavioral,” top-down vantage point is easy—while life actually works from the base of the pyramid, up. Meanwhile, that single word we’ve assigned to the remarkable synergy at the top has taken on attributes of the downright metaphysical.

Meanwhile, the chemical machine concept opens some interesting “thoughtways” of its own, as we, the chemical machines, contemplate the chemistry that created us, surrounds us, and makes us tick. The circumstances necessary for all the right chemicals to find their way to exactly the right places to produce a thought (such as this one) simply because you “choose” to think it, or because it has been put there by some symbols on a page, are mind-bogglingly complicated and clearly did not get there without guidance. But that guidance lies within the chemical machine, where increasingly complicated layers and levels of reactions are taking place in the stew of chemicals that make up the structures, that make up the systems, that make up the chemical machines that are us.

An almost-perfect analogy lies in computer coding (“almost” because program development has been an externally guided process). High-level programs of today are no longer the if-then-go-to’s of your (or your father’s) Commodore 64 Basic programs. Inconceivably complicated modern computer operations are built up from layer upon layer of complicated preexisting programs and subroutines. At their root, they are all still just a bunch of tiny electrical switches turning on and off. And yet the operations keep getting further removed from their elemental bits and bytes. As computer evolution churns on, programs will eventually reach a point where they can sustain and improve themselves.

Will they “want” to improve themselves? Will they be “life”? That’s really up to the linguists to sort out—as the Bee Gees pointed out, it’s only words. Similarly, when a sperm cell swims to an egg, is that an act of volition by a living thing or just a lot of complicated chemical reactions that look like a sperm cell seeking an egg? Well, yes it is! Likewise when I order the chicken Francaise.

But in the end, nature has no intent and no volition. It can only drift. “Life” directs nothing and is nothing … except a convenient semantic device. Every chemical reaction in every organ, cell, organelle, and protein happens when, and because, it is compelled by the laws of quantum physics to do so. Salt must dissolve. That word we’ve ascribed to the level of chemical complexity at which chromosomes split and flagella wiggle implies transcendence, but it remains a culmination of purely chemical reactions that have been building upon themselves, passively, evolutionarily, for a few billion years. The universe is molecules reacting “all by themselves,” and the universe is us—and that is really the point of all these words.

Life exceptionalism is a compelling assumption for thoughtful people who don’t think it out far enough—in this case, all the way to the beginning. It is difficult to know the extent to which it may contribute to mankind’s embrace of supernatural beliefs. Conversely, perhaps the “belief” that the entire biosphere is nothing but a gigantic chemical reaction is actually the ultimate act of faith on the part of an atheist. Could everything I am, everything I think, and everything I have ever done, really come down to Chemistry 101? I struggle to say “yes.” Many others, even among the godless, tacitly accept that “life,” unlike “natural” processes, somehow directs its own affairs—an answer that may be a gateway ideology, leading to full-scale addiction to a sentient higher power.

John L. Prittie

John L. Prittie was born an atheist and, due to scandalously rational parenting, remained one. Though naturally skeptical, he has not totally ruled out that being published in FI might not actually make his deeply religious maternal grandparents roll over in their graves. He lives in Connecticut where he has worked as sales engineer, tech writer, and robotics technician but, at age sixty-two, has yet to convert a believer.


In the August/September 2019 FI, Adam Neiblum discussed what he refers to as “human exceptionalism” (“Gould’s Second Stage: Progress, Evolution, and Human Exceptionalism”). Most of us have also been made well aware of so-called “American exceptionalism,” which falls one taxonomic level below Neiblum’s (as exceptionalisms go). Our “exceptionalist” biases seem to extend a level higher …

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