The notion that the inorganic world is alive is as old as mythology; think of Poseidon, the Greek personification of the sea. However, the tools available to examine life at its most essential – DNA sequencing, bioinformatics, gene chips – are new.

We’re beginning to discern life processes at their fundamental level, and as we re-create these processes in silico, we’re starting to see how they work in inorganic settings. It turns out that many of life’s properties – emergence, self-organization, reproduction, coevolution – show up in systems generally regarded as nonliving.

EMERGENCE describes the way unpredictable patterns arise from innumerable interactions between independent parts. An organism’s behavior, for instance, is driven by the interplay of its cells. Similarly, weather develops from the mixing of oxygen, carbon dioxide, water, and other molecules.

SELF-ORGANIZATION is a basic emergent behavior. Plants and animals assemble and regulate themselves independent of any hierarchy for planning or management. Digital simulations made up of numerous software agents have demonstrated self-organization in systems ranging from computer networks to tornadoes.

REPRODUCTION was considered strictly the purview of organisms until recently. Now computer programs procreate, too. Genetic algorithms mimic biology’s capacity for innovation through genetic recombination and replication, shuffling 1s and 0s the way nature does DNA’s Gs, Ts, As, and Cs, then reproducing the best code for further recombination. This technique has been used to evolve everything from factory schedules to jet engines.

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