Towards a Hierarchical Definition of Life, the Organism, and Death

G.A.J.M. Jagers Op Akkerhuis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

20 Citations (Scopus)


Despite hundreds of definitions, no consensus exists on a definition of life or on the closely related and problematic definitions of the organism and death. These problems retard practical and theoretical development in, for example, exobiology, artificial life, biology and evolution. This paper suggests improving this situation by basing definitions on a theory of a generalized particle hierarchy. This theory uses the common denominator of the “operator” for a unified ranking of both particles and organisms, from elementary particles to animals with brains. Accordingly, this ranking is called “the operator hierarchy”. This hierarchy allows life to be defined as: matter with the configuration of an operator, and that possesses a complexity equal to, or even higher than the cellular operator. Living is then synonymous with the dynamics of such operators and the word organism refers to a select group of operators that fit the definition of life. The minimum condition defining an organism is its existence as an operator, construction thus being more essential than metabolism, growth or reproduction. In the operator hierarchy, every organism is associated with a specific closure, for example, the nucleus in eukaryotes. This allows death to be defined as: the state in which an organism has lost its closure following irreversible deterioration of its organization. The generality of the operator hierarchy also offers a context to discuss “life as we do not know it”. The paper ends with testing the definition’s practical value with a range of examples.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)245-262
JournalFoundations of Science
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2010


  • gap-junctions
  • evolution
  • mitochondria
  • proteins
  • origin
  • model


Dive into the research topics of 'Towards a Hierarchical Definition of Life, the Organism, and Death'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this