Bios and Zoe

I was listening to the Long Now lectures again, this one by Michael West on the subject of human life extension. I can’t say much of it stuck with me, but there was one topic that really caught my attention. And that was this: Ancient Greek had two words for life — “bios” for the life of an individual, finite and mortal, and “zoe” for the infinite and general phenomenon of life.

He applies this language to the contrast between the somatic tissue of our bodies and the germ line tissue of our gametes. The gametes are immortal, an unbroken line that extends back to the first life from which we all descended. They’ve never died. But every time they move through a new generation a set of cells is created to house and protect this royal lineage — our bodies. Thus, the body is the “bios”, the somatic mortal tissue of finite span. And that cycle of embryonic stem, germ stem, and gamete cells is the “zoe”, the immortal life that is unbroken.

After hearing that, of course, I thought Zoe was pretty much the best name ever to give one’s daughter. There she is, made from your immortal fragment, the part that can live on.

To my dismay, Chris pointed out that there’s already someone named Zoe Ball, a somewhat famous person. I was crushed. (I even whined about changing our last name.) Anyway, I’m passing along the name to you guys, in case you get any daughters and don’t know what to call them.

5 thoughts on “Bios and Zoe

  1. Adam Dyer

    I just wanted to say thanks for this article on bios and zoe because it makes so much sense of something I have been struggling with for years.
    I don’t know if you are aware but zoe is the word used in JOhn 14:6 when Jesus famously says ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’. Now as famous as this is, it is more than a little enigmatic. I have been told (and thought) for a long time that this was some reference to eternal life which many Christians believe in as confirmation that when we die we go to heaven and everyone else goes to hell and we all live for ever. However, the more I read of Jesus’ sayings the more it is evident that this is not what he is saying at all. Furthermore zoe I am told is a present tense word and so would not relate to some future state but rather a present state. This in itself was exciting and revelatory as a concept because it fits in much more with Jesus’ teachings that we should be living dynamic, radical lives now, bringing hope and truth and love and grace and forgiveness and mercy and compassion and restoration to a world so desperately in need of all of these. SO if Zoe is in the present, then the life Jesus is, and is calling us to is to be lived now rather than hoped for in the future.
    However your article brought even more significance to the claim by this man. If zoe is this life which is the root of all life, which flows immortally throughout history in all things, then how exciting is that! Colossians 1 talks about Jesus being involved in all things and all things being held together in Him. That he was involved right from the beginning. John 1 also states that Jesus was involved from the very beginning as the WORD. Wow, this is awesome. This makes so much more sense of things. Jesus claimed that he was the zoe, the life. He also claimed he was the truth. Man, if this is what this means then that explains so much.
    When we come into connection with God/Jesus, we come into connection with the very source of life. Jesus isn’t confined to some religion or some denomination, He is so much bigger than that. All life is dependent on Him, our breath, our heart beat, that rush of life we get when we see something true and awesome, when we stand on the top of the mountain and look at the view and it takes our breath away, when something inside us just wants to sing and cry out and explode, all of this is rooted in Him.
    When I give and when I love and when I feel compassion, and when I forgive and let go I feel alive. I think we all do. But that ‘life’ is Jesus, that;s what he was saying, what he was claiming. Wow, that’s huge. This fits in with so much of my thinking recently, that we are called to live in harmony with God. When we live in harmony with him we live in harmony with creation, with how we are suppose to be living and so we see restoration, not just in our own lives but also in the lives of people around us. Also that Jesus and His teachings and His sacrifice are somehow intrinsic to this in that they somehow enable us to come into relationship with God and so begin the work of restoration in our lives, letting go of our pain and failures, our brokenness and our pride etc etc and stepping into real, true, significant life as it was meant to be lived – zoe!

    thank you so much for your wisdom and sharing in this, and you;re right, zoe is a great name, and also zoe ball would be an unfortunate person to share your name with. But her dad, Jonny Ball, was great!

  2. Damien R. S.

    Also, Zoe on Firefly? Pretty cool.

    But if everyone names their daughter “Zoe” then it’ll be really common and ew!

    Orion’s Arm has a meta-empire called the Zoefic Biopolity. Really into squishy biotech as opposed to dry nanotech.

  3. Damien R. S.

    Okay, next time I’ll use Preview! I assumed my double carriage returns would be honored in the text.

    Like this should be a new paragraph but isn’t.

    Is this? Yes, but it took two ‘p’ tags…


    for Adam Dyer…
    I LOVED what you wrote. I echo every word you wrote. I began reading C.S. Lewis books on Christianity and he talked about bios and zoe. My search is leading to excitement to say the very least.
    Christ is all in all. I could jump for true joy, our GOD reigns. He is humble to boot!!!!


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