1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Life

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LIFE, the popular name for the activity peculiar to protoplasm (q.v.). This conception has been extended by analogy to phenomena different in kind, such as the activities of masses of water or of air, or of machinery, or by another analogy, to the duration of a composite structure, and by imagination to real or supposed phenomena such as the manifestations of incorporeal entities. From the point of view of exact science life is associated with matter, is displayed only by living bodies, by all living bodies, and is what distinguishes living bodies from bodies that are not alive. Herbert Spencer’s formula that life is “the continuous adjustment of internal relations to external relations” was the result of a profound and subtle analysis, but omits the fundamental consideration that we know life only as a quality of and in association with living matter.

In developing our conception we must discard from consideration the complexities that arise from the organization of the higher living bodies, the differences between one living animal and another, or between plant and animal. Such differentiations and integrations of living bodies are the subject-matter of discussions on evolution; some will see in the play of circumambient media, natural or supernatural, on the simplest forms of living matter, sufficient explanation of the development of such matter into the highest forms of living organisms; others will regard the potency of such living matter so to develop as a mysterious and peculiar quality that must be added to the conception of life. Choice amongst these alternatives need not complicate investigation of the nature of life. The explanation that serves for the evolution of living matter, the vehicle of life, will serve for the evolution of life. What we have to deal with here is life in its simplest form.

The definition of life must really be a description of the essential characters of life, and we must set out with an investigation of the characters of living substance with the special object of detecting the differences between organisms and unorganized matter, and the differences between dead and living organized matter.

Living substance (see Protoplasm), as it now exists in all animals and plants, is particulate, consisting of elementary organisms living independently, or grouped in communities, the communities forming the bodies of the higher animals and plants. These small particles or larger communities are subject to accidents, internal or external, which destroy them, immediately or slowly, and thus life ceases; or they may wear out, or become clogged by the products of their own activity. There is no reason to regard the mortality of protoplasm and the consequent limited duration of life as more than the necessary consequence of particulate character of living matter (see Longevity).

Protoplasm, the living material, contains only a few elements, all of which are extremely common and none of which is peculiar to it. These elements, however, form compounds characteristic of living substance and for the most part peculiar to it. Proteid, which consists of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen and sulphur, is present in all protoplasm, is the most complex of all organic bodies, and, so far, is known only from organic bodies. A multitude of minor and simpler organic compounds, of which carbohydrates and fats are the best known, occur in different protoplasm in varying forms and proportions, and are much less isolated from the inorganic world. They may be stages in the elaboration or disintegration of protoplasm, and although they were at one time believed to occur only as products of living matter, are gradually being conquered by the synthetic chemist. Finally, protoplasm contains various inorganic substances, such as salts and water, the latter giving it its varying degrees of liquid consistency.

We attain, therefore, our first generalized description of life as the property or peculiar quality of a substance composed of none but the more common elements, but of these elements grouped in various ways to form compounds ranging from proteid, the most complex of known substances to the simplest salts. The living substance, moreover, has its mixture of elaborate and simple compounds associated in a fashion that is peculiar. The older writers have spoken of protoplasm or the cell as being in a sense “manufactured articles”; in the more modern view such a conception is replaced by the statement that protoplasm and the cell have behind them a long historical architecture. Both ideas, or both modes of expressing what is fundamentally the same idea, have this in common, that life is not a sum of the qualities of the chemical elements contained in protoplasm, but a function first of the peculiar architecture of the mixture, and then of the high complexity of the compounds contained in the mixture. The qualities of water are no sum of the qualities of oxygen and hydrogen, and still less can we expect to explain the qualities of life without regard to the immense complexity of the living substance.

We must now examine in more detail the differences which exist or have been alleged to exist between living organisms and inorganic bodies. There is no essential difference in structure. Confusion has arisen in regard to this point from attempts to compare organized bodies with crystals, the comparison having been suggested by the view that as crystals present the highest type of inorganic structure, it was reasonable to compare them with organic matter. Differences between crystals and organized bodies have no bearing on the problem of life, for organic substance must be compared with a liquid rather than with a crystal, and differs in structure no more from inorganic liquids than these do amongst themselves, and less than they differ from crystals. Living matter is a mixture of substances chiefly dissolved in water; the comparison with the crystals has led to a supposed distinction in the mode of growth, crystals growing by the superficial apposition of new particles and living substance by intussusception. But inorganic liquids also grow in the latter mode, as when a soluble substance is added to them.

The phenomena of movement do not supply any absolute distinction. Although these are the most obvious characters of life, they cannot be detected in quiescent seeds, which we know to be alive, and they are displayed in a fashion very like life by inorganic foams brought in contact with liquids of different composition. Irritability, again, although a notable quality of living substance, is not peculiar to it, for many inorganic substances respond to external stimulation by definite changes. Instability, again, which lies at the root of Spencer’s definition “continuous adjustment of internal relations to external relations” is displayed by living matter in very varying degrees from the apparent absolute quiescence of frozen seeds to the activity of the central nervous system, whilst there is a similar range amongst inorganic substances.

The phenomena of reproduction present no fundamental distinction. Most living bodies, it is true, are capable of reproduction, but there are many without this capacity, whilst, on the other hand, it would be difficult to draw an effective distinction between that reproduction of simple organisms which consists of a sub-division of their substance with consequent resumption of symmetry by the separate pieces, and the breaking up of a drop of mercury into a number of droplets.

Consideration of the mode of origin reveals a more real if not an absolute distinction. All living substance so far as is known at present (see Biogenesis) arises only from already existing living substance. It is to be noticed, however, that green plants have the power of building up living substance from inorganic material, and there is a certain analogy between the building up of new living material only in association with pre-existing living material, and the greater readiness with which certain inorganic reactions take place if there already be present some trace of the result of the reaction.

The real distinction between living matter and inorganic matter is chemical. Living substance always contains proteid, and although we know that proteid contains only common inorganic elements, we know neither how these are combined to form proteid, nor any way in which proteid can be brought into existence except in the presence of previously existing proteid. The central position of the problem of life lies in the chemistry of proteid, and until that has been fully explored, we are unable to say that there is any problem of life behind the problem of proteid.

Comparison of living and lifeless organic matter presents the initial difficulty that we cannot draw an exact line between a living and a dead organism. The higher “warm-blooded” creatures appear to present the simplest case and in their life-history there seems to be a point at which we can say “that which was alive is now dead.” We judge from some major arrest of activity, as when the heart ceases to beat. Long after this, however, various tissues remain alive and active, and the event to which we give the name of death is no more than a superficially visible stage in a series of changes. In less highly integrated organisms, such as “cold-blooded” vertebrates, the point of death is less conspicuous, and when we carry our observations further down the scale of animal life, there ceases to be any salient phase in the slow transition from life to death.

The distinction between life and death is made more difficult by a consideration of cases of so-called “arrested vitality.” If credit can be given to the stories of Indian fakirs, it appears that human beings can pass voluntarily into a state of suspended animation that may last for weeks. The state of involuntary trance, sometimes mistaken for death, is a similar occurrence. A. Leeuwenhoek, in 1719, made the remarkable discovery, since abundantly confirmed, that many animalculae, notably tardigrades and rotifers, may be completely desiccated and remain in that condition for long periods without losing the power of awaking to active life when moistened with water. W. Preyer has more recently investigated the matter and has given it the name “anabiosis.” Later observers have found similar occurrences in the cases of small nematodes, rotifers and bacteria. The capacity of plant seeds to remain dry and inactive for very long periods is still better known. It has been supposed that in the case of the plant seeds and still more in that of the animals, the condition of anabiosis was merely one in which the metabolism was too faint to be perceptible by ordinary methods of observation, but the elaborate experiments of W. Kochs would seem to show that a complete arrest of vital activity is compatible with viability. The categories, “alive” and “dead,” are not sufficiently distinct for us to add to our conception of life by comparing them. A living organism usually displays active metabolism of proteid, but the metabolism may slow down, actually cease and yet reawaken; a dead organism is one in which the metabolism has ceased and does not reawaken.

Origin of Life.—It is plain that we cannot discuss adequately the origin of life or the possibility of the artificial construction of living matter (see Abiogenesis and Biogenesis) until the chemistry of protoplasm and specially of proteid is more advanced. The investigations of O. Bütschli have shown how a model of protoplasm can be manufactured. Very finely triturated soluble particles are rubbed into a smooth paste with an oil of the requisite consistency. A fragment of such a paste brought into a liquid in which the solid particles are soluble, slowly expands into a honeycomb like foam, the walls of the minute vesicles being films of oil, and the contents being the soluble particles dissolved in droplets of the circumambient liquid. Such a model, properly constructed, that is to say, with the vesicles of the foam microscopic in size, is a marvellous imitation of the appearance of protoplasm, being distinguishable from it only by a greater symmetry. The nicely balanced conditions of solution produce a state of unstable equilibrium, with the result that internal streaming movements and changes of shape and changes of position in the model simulate closely the corresponding manifestations in real protoplasm. The model has no power of recuperation; in a comparatively short time equilibrium is restored and the resemblance with protoplasm disappears. But it suggests a method by which, when the chemistry of protoplasm and proteid is better known, the proper substances which compose protoplasm may be brought together to form a simple kind of protoplasm.

It has been suggested from time to time that conditions very unlike those now existing were necessary for the first appearance of life, and must be repeated if living matter is to be constructed artificially. No support for such a view can be derived from observations of the existing conditions of life. The chemical elements involved are abundant; the physical conditions of temperature pressure and so forth at which living matter is most active, and within the limits of which it is confined, are familiar and almost constant in the world around us. On the other hand, it may be that the initial conditions for the synthesis of proteid are different from those under which proteid and living matter display their activities. E. Pflüger has argued that the analogies between living proteid and the compounds of cyanogen are so numerous that they suggest cyanogen as the starting-point of protoplasm. Cyanogen and its compounds, so far as we know, arise only in a state of incandescent heat. Pflüger suggests that such compounds arose when the surface of the earth was incandescent, and that in the long process of cooling, compounds of cyanogen and hydrocarbons passed into living protoplasm by such processes of transformation and polymerization as are familiar in the chemical groups in question, and by the acquisition of water and oxygen. His theory is in consonance with the interpretation of the structure of protoplasm as having behind it a long historical architecture and leads to the obvious conclusion that if protoplasm be constructed artificially it will be by a series of stages and that the product will be simpler than any of the existing animals or plants.

Until greater knowledge of protoplasm and particularly of proteid has been acquired, there is no scientific room for the suggestion that there is a mysterious factor differentiating living matter from other matter and life from other activities. We have to scale the walls, open the windows, and explore the castle before crying out that it is so marvellous that it must contain ghosts.

As may be supposed, theories of the origin of life apart from doctrines of special creation or of a primitive and slow spontaneous generation are mere fantastic speculations. The most striking of these suggests an extra-terrestrial origin. H. E. Richter appears to have been the first to propound the idea that life came to this planet as cosmic dust or in meteorites thrown off from stars and planets. Towards the end of the 19th century Lord Kelvin (then Sir W. Thomson) and H. von Helmholtz independently raised and discussed the possibility of such an origin of terrestrial life, laying stress on the presence of hydrocarbons in meteoric stones and on the indications of their presence revealed by the spectra of the tails of comets. W. Preyer has criticized such views, grouping them under the phrase “theory of cosmozoa,” and has suggested that living matter preceded inorganic matter. Preyer’s view, however, enlarges the conception of life until it can be applied to the phenomena of incandescent gases and has no relation to ideas of life derived from observation of the living matter we know.

References.—O. Bütschli, Investigations on Microscopic Foams and Protoplasm (Eng. trans. by E. A. Minchin, 1894), with a useful list of references; H. von Helmholtz, Vorträge und Reden, ii. (1884); W. Kochs, Allgemeine Naturkunde, x. 673 (1890); A. Leeuwenhoek, Epistolae ad Societatem regiam Anglicam (1719); E. Pflüger, “Über einige Gesetze des Eiweissstoffwechsels,” in Archiv. Ges. Physiol. liv. 333 (1893); W. Preyer, Die Hypothesen über den Ursprung des Lebens (1880); H. E. Richter, Zur Darwinischen Lehre (1865); Herbert Spencer, Principles of Biology; Max Verworm, General Physiology (English trans. by F. S. Lee, 1899), with a very full literature.

(P. C. M.)