People have long been curious about living things—how many different species there are, what they are like, where they live, how they relate to each other, and how they behave. Scientists seek to answer these questions and many more about the organisms that inhabit the earth. In particular, they try to develop the concepts, principles, and theories that enable people to understand the living environment better.

Living organisms are made of the same components as all other matter, involve the same kind of transformations of energy, and move using the same basic kinds of forces. Thus, all of the physical principles discussed in Chapter 4, The Physical Setting, apply to life as well as to stars, raindrops, and television sets. But living organisms also have characteristics that can be understood best through the application of other principles.

This chapter offers recommendations on basic knowledge about how living things function and how they interact with one another and their environment. The chapter focuses on six major subjects: the diversity of life, as reflected in the biological characteristics of the earth’s organisms; the transfer of heritable characteristics from one generation to the next; the structure and functioning of cells, the basic building blocks of all organisms; the interdependence of all organisms and their environment; the flow of matter and energy through the grand-scale cycles of life; and how biological evolution explains the similarity and diversity of life.