Popular Science Monthly/Volume 13/August 1878/Monera, and the Problem of Life I

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OF late years the hypothesis of the gradual and continuous evolution of the universe and its parts has become the growing conviction of almost all scientific minds. The main drift of the new philosophy, the central aim of scientific exertion, is to establish by means of exact investigation the reality and true order of this natural development of things. After much anxious guess-work in which the emotions have been profoundly implicated, we begin at last calmly and positively to desire to know how deeply our existence is interwoven with the sensible world everywhere surrounding us. We wish to know whether we are, body and mind, the veritable heirs and trustees of these stupendous achievements of ever-toiling Nature; or whether we are merely passing strangers, endowed with a principle of life otherwise sustained, with an essence of being not vitally implicated in the general enchainment of temporal occurrences. On all sides we are fervently striving to gain assurance of, at least, this one leading position in our mysterious fate. To whatever sources of revelation seem available, there is put in every imaginable shape this decisive question: "Do we or do we not entirely belong to the actual state of things in which we at present find ourselves involved?"

This is evidently the real import of the momentous controversy now provoked anew, on deeper grounds than ever before, by the adoption of the evolution hypothesis on the part of Science. In all quarters of our globe, from every laboratory and study, where the investigation of any branch of Nature is methodically pursued, we hear the voice of Science proclaiming, with all but unanimous accord, one and the same truth, that through natural development, from lowest beginnings, has grown, step by step, all of which we can ever gain any knowledge. This is certainly a grave conclusion, coming as it does from the most cautious and reserved school of thinkers. If proved to be true it must, in course of time, necessarily subvert all former creeds, changing completely the groundwork of human faith, and prescribing to life new guiding principles. To mistake this inevitable issue of the grand contest entered upon by the students of Nature against the authority of their own mental inheritance would betray either short-sightedness or insincerity. Let none, then, remain in doubt that it is the serious intent of evolutionists so to unfold the system of Nature, the philosophy of synthesis, of organization, as to make it eventually the bearer on a strictly scientific foundation of all manner of truth. On all sides they are challenged to make good their assertions, and to show how we ourselves, with our exalted faculties, have come to be part and parcel of this same supposed onward flow of natural events.

The disciples of Science are accordingly everywhere at work to raise to the dignity of a consistent theory what is promiscuously held on the strength of much good evidence, though also in reliance upon the eventual verification of much vague foreshadowing: though it is incumbent upon us as evolutionists to prove our opinion, yet it must be admitted that at present we are far from having established a connected chain of evidence in support of it. We cannot deny that, when from the point of view of our present knowledge we attempt to survey the gradual ascent from lower to higher cosmical manifestations, we are abruptly checked at various critical points. The continuity of that surface, on which our understanding is wont to skim the depths of reality, presents sudden chasms. We experience one such sharp mental recoil when we endeavor smoothly to glide from the inorganic into the organic world. For, whatever may be asserted to the contrary, Science does not yet exactly comprehend the transition from lifelessness to life. Nor can it account for, or even follow with any degree of precision, the stages of transformation leading from apparent uniformity of structure to diversity of organization. The origin of life, and the conditions which have gradually given rise to organization, are essential evolutional moments, as yet in the twilight of mere fanciful conjecture. Their penetration and elucidation would yield the data for the solution of what may be called the physical phase of the problem of life.

But, further on, in pursuance of evolutional continuity, we encounter a still deeper mystery, separating most profoundly the world of matter from the world of mind. We are all aware that this strange contrast of matter and thought, of the extended and the inextended, has ever constituted a fundamental dualism in human experience. Philosophy in every one of its aspects is mainly the result of an effort to imagine or to recognize the connection which necessarily must obtain between the ideal and the real. But there has been far too much imagining, and too little recognition, in the endeavor. So, till quite lately, in the history of human thought, but very slight advance was made in the solution of the central puzzle, concerning ideality and reality. Modern Science, disgusted at the waste of so much precious energy and earnestness, given up to the elaboration of mere whimsical and visionary interpretations, set out with the positive intention to evade in its investigations any contact with this constant stumbling-block of certitude. But the antagonistic powers of outwardness and inwardness are too intimately blended in Nature to admit of any such artificial severance, however skillfully attempted.

Scientists are becoming more and more conscious that, even in their least complicated suppositions and inquiries, both those elements of the actual world are always inextricably involved. Before the steadfast glance of Science, the eternal, adamantine atoms, questioned as to the essence of their subsistence and resistance, dissolve into unextended, immaterial centres of force. Before the steadfast glance of Science, the inscrutable forces, with their ideal sweep, traced to the immediate seat of their activity, resolve themselves into the discrete multiplicity and absolute impenetrability of adamantine atoms. Surely, if with witches "fair is foul and foul is fair," with us benighted mortals confusion seems to reign still more supreme, for, to our profoundest thinkers, matter is force and force is matter; motion somehow is sensation, and sensation somehow motion. And yet how can we aspire ever clearly to comprehend the fundamental identity of such disparate manifestations as matter and mind?

Naturalists are aware of and openly acknowledge this mysterious polarity of phenomena, this double subsistence—one in reality and at the same time also in ideality. To the former mode of existence they give the name of motion, the latter they call sensation—motion being the generalized fact of outwardness, of objectivity; sensation being the generalized fact of inwardness, of subjectivity.

But Science does not yet understand, nor does it pretend to understand, the enigma. Like all previous systems of knowledge, it fails to detect the actual concatenation, the necessary connection or continuous transition, by which these two seemingly heterogeneous experiences are bound together and unified in reality. It does not conceive how motion can possibly generate sensation, or indeed how motion and sensation can in any way be related to each other. Yet, to the vindication of the hypothesis of evolution, it is quite indispensable to establish either the essential identity of motion and sensation, or the gradual transformation of one of these modes of existence into the other. For how can evolution maintain its pretensions to universality, if the ideal world remains foreign to it—a mysteriously correlated entity, merely in close correspondence with the outer world, but having with it no genuine and intrinsic sameness of actuality?

The penetration and elucidation of this ancient dilemma of motion and sensation would furnish the data for the solution of what may be called the psychical phase of the problem of life.

But intermediate between these two extreme aspects of the problem the one demanding the explanation of the origin of vitality and organization; the other the proof of the identity or direct phenomenal continuity of motion and sensation—there is disclosed by the requirements of the evolution hypothesis a third essential and very peculiar aspect of the same problem. As the experience of sensation, the state of so-called feeling is an exclusive attribute of vitality; it is evident that, granting the evolution hypothesis, feeling must make its appearance and take its rise at some definite moment in the course of organization. The demonstration of the specific conditions of organization, which constitute the starting-point of feeling or subjective experience, would furnish the initial data for the solution of what we may call the physico-psychical phase of the problem of life.

We have now gained some information regarding the ground which has to be accurately explored before the hypothesis of continuous development can be said to be adequately established. Having indicated the exact points at which our scientific appreciation meets with the most abrupt and startling breaks in the supposed continuity, we find ourselves in a favorable position to estimate what, above all, has to be accomplished before evolution can take the field as a consistent monistic system.

We have to show how life originates and how organization takes its rise; we have to demonstrate how in the course of organic development the state which we call feeling is established; and we have, finally, to prove that this feeling is in essence identical with that which is felt. How are we to set about this seemingly hopeless and endless task? Are we to rummage the vast stores of accumulated facts in search of the missing links? Assuredly, had they been forged and ready for the purpose, more competent and assiduous searchers would have discovered them long ago.

Are we, in our trial to establish the necessary connections, simply to draw upon our innate power of synthesis, again once more to stimulate the much-jaded faculty of mental constructiveness? Assuredly, if the material for the verification of any logical supposition had been extant, the master-minds, who have so admirably dealt with this great subject of synthetical continuity, would have left no material chasm unbridged. Are we to find what we are in need of by laying open to inspection the subtile intricacy of the sanctuary of life, by minutely investigating the intimate composition and working of the mysterious organ of centralization? Dazzled by the wonders of this marvelous fabric, the consummated fruit of the mighty tree of life, there is assuredly danger that we shall fail to catch any glimpses of its dark and lowly origin.

It is very natural, then, and appropriate, that, seeking a way out of our scientific perplexity, we should direct attention to the study of vitality in its least complicated forms, which manifest the properties of life, and at the same time do not confuse us with structural entanglements. For, wherever we find fixity of differentiated parts already established, there the difficulty begins. The organism gains the appearance of a mechanical contrivance, and we feel at once puzzled as to what is driving and what is driven in the living engine. We desire, then, if possible, to become acquainted with life before it has assumed any definite shape, before the manifoldness of its relations has acquired any degree of stability, or settled morphological expression.

The least complicated forms of life now known are perhaps motionless, non-nucleated corpuscles, which are observed to grow and to multiply by division. But vitality in these forms displays itself so torpidly, or at least so clandestinely, that microscopic investigation is incompetent to detect the nature of the changes that constitute their vital activity. Besides, these motionless corpuscles are probably all inclosed in a membranous envelope, which special structure must be regarded as an organic complication undesirable for our purpose.

Haeckel was the first to point out the most fascinating of all primitive beings; and he was the first also to recognize their true import in biology. He named them, on account of the entire homogeneity of their structure, Monera. It is now well known that monera consist of nothing but a flake or globule of uniform viscid material. Yet these unorganized specks of matter are most truly alive, for they are seen to move, to nourish themselves, to react on outward impressions, and to propagate their kind.

Here, then, we have all the fundamental properties of life, without any of its morphological complications. By dispensing, for once, with all elaborate equipment, and by executing her principal performances with such deliberate distinctiveness and openness, it is as if Nature were here purposely inviting us to penetrate her vital mysteries.

If we can only gain an actual insight into the conditions upon which these various well-defined vital phenomena are dependent, if we can succeed in establishing their direct relation, their immediate continuity with the rest of the world, then we cannot possibly be far from having reached the solution of the first phase of our problem.

There can be no manner of doubt that the secrets of the origin of vitality, and of the rise of organization, must all lie encompassed in these most unsophisticated dots of living material. What more enticing prospect for scientific investigation could be found? The nature of vital phenomena, if not disclosed even here in its plainest mode of manifestation, must ever remain incomprehensible. It is the fundamental truth of living reality, in all its native force, which in this unorganized and quickened matter appeals to our understanding, and it needs but candor, simplicity, and courage, to become initiated into the mystery of vitality. Let us, then, endeavor to cast away the incumbrance of so much foreknowledge, misleading as it has proved. If at all attainable, here it is, with our diminutive specimens of vitality, that true insight is to be gained. At any rate, we cannot leave the inquiry till we know, or till we have become fully convinced, that vital phenomena, even in their elements, are impervious to human knowledge.

Having for the last four years concentrated his whole attention on the manifestations of primitive life, and reached results which he deems important, the present writer, in a succeeding and fuller article, will attempt to convey to the general reader some idea of what he has gained by these studies.