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The Spark of Life
February 20, 2009 9:38 PM   Subscribe

Sparks of Life. "That the electric 'spark of life' figured prominently in debates over the nature of life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is well known. Less well known is the fact that prior to this period, gunpowder was often identified with the substances that were necessary to life, if not as a vitalistic spirit, then as an essential element in the animation of the body. The idea of a spark of life went back to ancient times, likening living beings to the glowing embers of a fire. In the Old Testament, for example, the wise woman of Tekoah begs for the life of her son, pleading 'they will stamp out my last live ember.' But from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, this vital flame was often equated with gunpowder. There was fire in the blood: not electric, but pyrotechnic fire."
posted by homunculus (11 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
So... electrons would be 'our generation's' misguided metaphor for - not even conciousness - but liveliness?

Or would it be TV sex or TV violence?

Interesting question, though - what is life, aside from much debated and fistfight-worthy disagree-ances. Tough question, and - yes - societal prejudices makes the debate even harder to settle.

Alive is very different than sentient, but both have similar hurdles to be described.
posted by porpoise at 11:00 PM on February 20, 2009


Kirk's gunpowder extinguished the Gorn's spark of life.
posted by Tube at 11:03 PM on February 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


porpoise: In a lot of cases, these weren't metaphors, this is what people literally believed. People really thought that there was a spark of something that transferred from one living thing to another through birth, but could be extinguished in death (because living things only came from other living things, like fire only comes from fire, and any living thing can become dead, just like any burning thing can become ash)

Also, our consciousness is actually powered by electron flow, so how could electricity be a be a 'metaphor' for anything, much less a misguided one?
posted by delmoi at 11:09 PM on February 20, 2009


If I were to look at ancient Hebrew views of the essence of life, I would be less inclined to look at the metaphor of the ember and more inclined to consider wind, or the breath-- not only for its role as the essential life giver, but also its destructive power.
posted by honest knave at 11:31 PM on February 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


Yeah, sure, electron flow.

It's the flux of K+ and Na+ and Cl- and all kind of other small molecules. Electron flux is something we tell kids, just like almost everything else. Sure, there's the change in membrane potential, but the bits that cause the membrane potential changes are a little bit more sophisticated than what tales we tell laypeople.

Absolutely, I agree with what you're saying, though. Despite and regardless.
posted by porpoise at 11:33 PM on February 20, 2009


Speak for yourself; my neural impulses are propagated by tiny gunpowder fuses.
posted by hattifattener at 12:03 AM on February 21, 2009


The idea of a spark of life went back to ancient times, likening living beings to the glowing embers of a fire. In the Old Testament, for example, the wise woman of Tekoah begs for the life of her son, pleading 'they will stamp out my last live ember.'

Not a scholar, but this example (to me) reads more as poetry than a statement by Tekoah regarding mechanism.
posted by BaxterG4 at 8:20 AM on February 21, 2009


"Alive is very different than sentient."

Hubris. But I agree otherwise - life is always referred to as some sort of force or energy.

In Homer's "Iliad", life is referred to as a sort of tension. Dead people were often described as having "their limbs unstrung". Apt description, when you think about it.
posted by Artful Codger at 9:31 AM on February 21, 2009


electron flow

so we've gone from the spark of life to the life of sparks?
posted by doobiedoo at 9:37 AM on February 21, 2009


I wish that the current overriding metaphor for human nature (computers, programming, etc.) was a little more examined. I get tired of being told that we're all "programmed" and "hardwired" to behave in certain ways, that our brains are circuits, that we have hard drives that fill with memory. It seems to have sunk into the culture in ways that have taken on an aura of truth.
posted by jokeefe at 12:03 PM on February 21, 2009


Is it possible to know the next metaphor for consciousness before there is an extant analogue? Hmm?
posted by Burhanistan at 8:22 PM on February 21, 2009


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