Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 75.djvu/178

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174
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY

LIFE FROM THE BIOLOGIST'S STANDPOINT[1]
By Professor WILLIAM E. RITTER

MARINE BIOLOGICAL STATION OF SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA

THE data of biology are living plants and animals. These are what nature presents. To these we must always go in order to make a beginning at any investigation. Is one interested in ganglionic cells, or germ cells, or liver secretions, or degenerate organs? He must find some kind of animal that has, or produces, or can yield such things. In making a successful quest for "material," it always turns out that a particular individual plant or animal, one or more, furnishes it. One may not be able to tell exactly what he means by an individual tree or man, but he must have one before he can study it or any part of it. Definitions of natural objects come at the end, rather than at the beginning, of our knowledge of them.

We biologists frequently speak of the principle of life, or the germs of life, and of many other particular manifestations of organisms, as though they were something really existent independently of particular organisms. Such questions as: Which came first, or is more fundamental, the chick or the egg; structure or function; life or organization? are frequently asked with more or less seriousness. Herbert Spencer devotes considerable space to the inquiry as to whether life or organization appeared first. He writes:

It may be argued that on the hypothesis of Evolution, Life necessarily comes before organisation. On this hypothesis, organic matter in a state of homogeneous aggregation must precede organic matter in a state of heterogeneous aggregation. But since the passing from a structureless state to a structural state is itself a vital process, it follows that vital activity must have existed while there was yet no structure: structure could not else arise. That function takes precedence of structure seems also implied in the definition of Life.

He continues:

If Life is shown by inner actions so adjusted as to balance outer actions
  1. During the academic year 1908-9 the program of the Philosophical Union of the University of California consisted of a series of discussions led by speakers representing various departments of biology and framed in a spirit compatible with the broad aims of such an association. This was the concluding paper of the year.
    Wir denken heute durchweg more biologico. . . .
    . . . dass die Biologie selbst heute noch im Zustand des gärenden Werdens, der tastenden Unsicherheit sich befindet, also für eine Grundlegung der sichersten aller Wissenschaften, der formel Logik, noch keine Eignung besitzt, begeht der Pragmatismus denselben Circulus vitiosus dem auch Hume nicht zu entrinnen vermochte. . . .—Ludwig Stein.