Moshe-Mordechai van Zuiden
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Biochemist, geneticist, cell biologist, and Nobel Prize–winner can’t define life

That’s fair, since no one can, objectively, but Paul Nurse doesn’t come close

This is a very smart and so to see polite and friendly professor talking in his field of expertise. He is not a Nobel Prize–winner in chemistry who talks about the purpose of life, or so. In the above clip, he shares some thoughts about life, about which he just wrote a book—his first book.

Yet, he entirely kills the inquiry. He describes cells with genetic material and defines them as the prototypes of life. That’s it? That’s not the way!

Rather, you look at what candidates there are for being called alive, and after that, you try to set criteria for what is still alive and what isn’t.

Then you will find that the line between life and lifeless is very blurred. You’ll see that what to include is more a matter of taste than of one or several clear, distinguishing principles!

A. Cells. What in them is alive? Nothing. All cell components are dead chemicals. Although some want us to think that DNA molecules behave as if they want something (to multiply). Still, if the cell is not alive, what is?

Just like a house made of stones. None of the stones has shelter capacity, but when piled up, together they may. Reductionists, insisting on believing that any system is nothing but the sum of its parts, can’t admit this.

B. A virus, is it alive? The answer is arbitrary, dependent on how you define life, not on facts. A virus is genetic material in a wrapper. The genetic material has codes for producing the wrapper and itself. But it can’t copy. Yet, when it inserts itself into a cell that can, it can hijack the cell’s machinery and reproduce. Or better: the cell will reproduce the virus.

Compare: Can soap do dishes? No, it can’t, but a machine or human can use soap to help clean dishes. Does the soap clean or the cleaner?

C. Mitochondria are the powerhouses of advanced animal cells. They resemble a bit chlorophyll inclusions inside plant cells. They have their own genetic molecules. They live in symbiosis with their host cells. It’s easy to perceive they once were externally living cells. It seems unfair to call these mitochondria not alive. If cells are alive, so are mitochondria.

Their distinguished role in cells could explain the eagerness of our cells to uptake more microorganisms to see if they could be of great use too. Unfortunately, all those guests now turn out malicious and dangerous.

Other cell inclusions are not enclosed spaces holding their DNA or RNA. It could be that some of them too once were outside organisms that found their place inside cells but are not closed off with their own genes, and I see no reason to call them alive. They’re part of the living cell.

D. Red blood cells. They have produced so much hemoglobin that they’re stuffed with it. They even kicked out their nuclei with the genetic material. These cells cannot regenerate and are on their way to death. They can stay functioning for another 100 days. I wouldn’t call them alive. Maximally, maybe, dying. They remind me of skin cells. They divide and send the top layer to the outside to be washed off, also on their way out.

Red blood and skin cells cannot maintain and restore their homeostasis. They are like plucked flowers, once alive and now increasingly withering.

Alive, I would call bone cells but not the deposits by them. But I would not call the bones with life cells alive although they are stronger with life cells among them than without. The bone cells may lay dormant for a long time, but when their bone needs rebuilding, they start multiplying.

Many neurons don’t multiply, but I’d call them alive because they maintain or restore their homeostasis continually and interact with neighbor cells. And they could grow and divide when moved to a petri dish.

However, some machines could regenerate, but I wouldn’t call them alive.

E. More difficult is the prion, pronounced “pree-on.” That’s just a protein. Some of them are benign, but some of them are super malicious. The latter can ‘infect’ other prion molecules, turning them malicious too. So, they seem to reproduce. Are they alive then? Just a string of amino acids?

Frozen water molecules can freeze adjacent water molecules. Doesn’t that make them infectious then?

‘Infectious’ prions can ‘multiply’ in neurons and fungal cells.


Good luck defining Life. It is certainly too easy and sloppy to just call cell life life and be silent about the rest.

Let me try a definition proposal: Something is alive if it is fit to reproduce (cells, bacteria, yeast) or can initiate multiplication inside its living host, aiding (mitochondria), hampering (viruses), or killing (prions) it.

This excludes red blood and surface skin cells and intra-cellular frozen water molecules, the latter because the freezing is initiated from outside.

About the Author
MM is a prolific and creative writer and thinker, previously a daily blog contributor to the TOI. He often makes his readers laugh, mad, or assume he's nuts—close to perfect blogging. He's proud that his analytical short comments are removed both from left-wing and right-wing news sites. None of his content is generated by the new bore on the block, AI. * As a frontier thinker, he sees things many don't yet. He's half a prophet. Half. Let's not exaggerate. Or not at all because he doesn't claim G^d talks to him. He gives him good ideas—that's all. MM doesn't believe that people observe and think in a vacuum. He, therefore, wanted a broad bio that readers interested can track a bit what (lack of) backgrounds, experiences, and educations contribute to his visions. * This year, he will prioritize getting his unpublished books published rather than just blog posts. Next year, he hopes to focus on activism against human extinction. To find less-recent posts on a subject XXX among his over 2000 archived ones, go to the right-top corner of a Times of Israel page, click on the search icon and search "zuiden, XXX". One can find a second, wilder blog, to which one may subscribe too, here: or by clicking on the globe icon next to his picture on top. * Like most of his readers, he believes in being friendly, respectful, and loyal. However, if you think those are his absolute top priorities, you might end up disappointed. His first loyalty is to the truth. He will try to stay within the limits of democratic and Jewish law, but he won't lie to support opinions or people when don't deserve that. (Yet, we all make honest mistakes, which is just fine and does not justify losing support.) He admits that he sometimes exaggerates to make a point, which could have him come across as nasty, while in actuality, he's quite a lovely person to interact with. He holds - how Dutch - that a strong opinion doesn't imply intolerance of other views. * Sometimes he's misunderstood because his wide and diverse field of vision seldomly fits any specialist's box. But that's exactly what some love about him. He has written a lot about Psychology (including Sexuality and Abuse), Medicine (including physical immortality), Science (including basic statistics), Politics (Israel, the US, and the Netherlands, Activism - more than leftwing or rightwing, he hopes to highlight reality), Oppression and Liberation (intersectionally, for young people, the elderly, non-Whites, women, workers, Jews, LGBTQIA+, foreigners and anyone else who's dehumanized or exploited), Integrity, Philosophy, Jews (Judaism, Zionism, Holocaust and Jewish Liberation), the Climate Crisis, Ecology and Veganism, Affairs from the news, or the Torah Portion of the Week, or new insights that suddenly befell him. * Chronologically, his most influential teachers are his parents, Nico (natan) van Zuiden and Betty (beisye) Nieweg, Wim Kan, Mozart, Harvey Jackins, Marshal Rosenberg, Reb Shlomo Carlebach, and, lehavdil bein chayim lechayim, Rabbi Dr. Natan Lopes Cardozo, Rav Zev Leff, and Rav Meir Lubin. This short list doesn't mean to disrespect others who taught him a lot or a little. One of his rabbis calls him Mr. Innovation [Ish haChidushim]. Yet, his originalities seem to root deeply in traditional Judaism, though they may grow in unexpected directions. In fact, he claims he's modernizing nothing. Rather, mainly basing himself on the basic Hebrew Torah text, he tries to rediscover classical Jewish thought almost lost in thousands of years of stifling Gentile domination and Jewish assimilation. (He pleads for a close reading of the Torah instead of going by rough assumptions of what it would probably mean and before fleeing to Commentaries.) This, in all aspects of life, but prominently in the areas of Free Will, Activism, Homosexuality for men, and Redemption. * He hopes that his words will inspire and inform, and disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed. He aims to bring a fresh perspective rather than harp on the obvious and familiar. When he can, he loves to write encyclopedic overviews. He doesn't expect his readers to agree. Rather, original minds should be disputed. In short, his main political positions are among others: anti-Trumpism, for Zionism, Intersectionality, non-violence, anti those who abuse democratic liberties, anti the fake ME peace process, for original-Orthodoxy, pro-Science, pro-Free Will, anti-blaming-the-victim, and for down-to-earth, classical optimism, and happiness. Read his blog on how he attempts to bridge any tensions between those ideas or fields. * He is a fetal survivor of the pharmaceutical industry (, born in 1953 to his parents who were Dutch-Jewish Holocaust survivors who met in the largest concentration camp in the Netherlands, Westerbork. He grew up a humble listener. It took him decades to become a speaker too, and decades more to admit to being a genius. But his humility was his to keep. And so was his honesty. Bullies and con artists almost instantaneously envy and hate him. He hopes to bring new things and not just preach to the choir. * He holds a BA in medicine (University of Amsterdam) – is half a doctor. He practices Re-evaluation Co-counseling since 1977, is not an official teacher anymore, and became a friendly, powerful therapist. He became a social activist, became religious, made Aliyah, and raised three wonderful kids. Previously, for decades, he was known to the Jerusalem Post readers as a frequent letter writer. For a couple of years, he was active in hasbara to the Dutch-speaking public. He wrote an unpublished tome about Jewish Free Will. He's a strict vegan since 2008. He's an Orthodox Jew but not a rabbi. * His writing has been made possible by an allowance for second-generation Holocaust survivors from the Netherlands. It has been his dream since he was 38 to try to make a difference by teaching through writing. He had three times 9-out-of-10 for Dutch at his high school finals but is spending his days communicating in English and Hebrew - how ironic. G-d must have a fine sense of humor. In case you wonder - yes, he is a bit dyslectic. If you're a native English speaker and wonder why you should read from people whose English is only their second language, consider the advantage of having an original peek outside of your cultural bubble. * To send any personal reaction to him, scroll to the top of the blog post and click Contact Me. * His newest books you may find here:
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