Popular Science Monthly/Volume 23/October 1883/Matter Living and Not-Living

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OCTOBER, 1883.



THE Victoria Institute, or Philosophical Society of Great Britain, has published, in pamphlet form, a paper by Professor Lionel S. Beale, in which that eminent physician and microscopist attacks, with free assertion and aspersion, the doctrine of the identity of living and not-living matter. Dr. Beale is himself a member of the Victoria Institute, and, if one may judge from the imprimatur which the society has set on his paper, he is esteemed a spokesman worthy of its name, if not a foeman worthy of anybody's steel; and no doubt the paper has proved acceptable to those for whom it was intended. It may be worth while, therefore, in the interest especially of this excellent class, to examine what he has to say.

Dr. Beale, it might better be mentioned at once, has a theory of his own, or at least of his adoption, with which he confronts the theory of his aversion; and it will conduce to clearness, as well as brevity, if we first look at the opposing theories side by side, premising that Dr. Beale expressly lays the question of their relative merits before the tribunal of science, whose jurisdiction in the case he thereby acknowledges. Let us at the outset, then, regard the two theories as he sets them face to face.

Dr. Beale opens the discussion by confessing that he finds himself among the "very small number" who "have objected to the physical view of life as untenable in the present state of scientific knowledge," a qualification which in the course of his paper he repeats and reiterates, and which means, if it means anything, that the capacity of physical causes in this relation has not yet been explored exhaustively, and that the view in question may become tenable in the progress of scientific knowledge. "The living world," Dr. Beale proceeds to say, in face of this significant admission, "is absolutely distinct from the nonliving world, and, instead of being a necessary outcome of it, is, compared with the antiquity of matter, probably a very recent addition to it—not, of course, an addition of mere transformed or modified matter and energy, but of transcendent power conferred on matter, by which both matter and its forces are controlled, regulated, and arranged, according, it may be, to laws, but not the laws of inert matter." This additional agent is, of course, our old acquaintance—the vital force. Dr. Beale adds: "It may be freely admitted that, if we attribute to vital power certain phenomena of the living world which have not been, and can not be, explained or accounted for by any physical laws yet discovered, we thereby assume an agency which we are unable to isolate or demonstrate, and the existence of which we can not in any way prove. On the other hand, it is only fair to observe that, if we assume that phenomena peculiar to life will some day be explained by physics, we certainly act in a manner which is not sanctioned by science—we assume, we prophesy; and prophetic assumptions of every kind are contrary to the spirit of science. . . . But is it not in accordance with reason," he concludes, "to assume the existence of a peculiar power to account for phenomena which are peculiar to living beings, which differ totally from any known physical phenomena, and which can not be imitated—and is it not contrary to reason to prophesy that such phenomena will one day be explained by ordinary forces or powers? "Such is his statement of the case, and such the argument by which he supports his side of it.

A few words, I think, will suffice to show the invalidity of the argument. The question, fortunately, hinges on a point which science has determined definitively.

A genuine hypothesis, in the scientific sense, is capable of proof or disproof; for an hypothesis capable of neither must always remain an hypothesis, and, instead of leading to an explanation of phenomena, serves to block the way to it. I may say here, parenthetically, that too much verbal respect, as it seems to me, is usually paid by scientific thinkers to assertions of this transcendent sort; strictly speaking, an assertion, of which it is said that it can be "neither proved nor disproved," is disproved by denying it, for the denial, being of equal validity with the assertion, nullifies it, leaving zero as the logical result, and an assertion reduced to zero is effectually disproved. But to return. An unverifiable hypothesis, as incompetent to lead to certainty, has no reason of being; and, consequently, science pronounces it illegitimate. But the hypothesis of a vital force, Dr. Beale admits, is unverifiable. It assumes "an agency," he owns, "which we are unable to isolate or demonstrate, and the existence of which we can not in any way prove." It is, therefore, illegitimate on his own showing.

Moreover, a genuinely scientific hypothesis does not assume an unknown cause, much less an unknowable one, before the inadequacy of known causes has been proved, for, till then, the necessity of an additional cause can not appear. The maxim which imposes this condition on hypotheses, known in philosophical literature as Occam's razor, is declared by Sir William Hamilton, who calls it the law of Parcimony, to be "the most important maxim in the regulation of philosophical procedure, when it is necessary to resort to an hypothesis." Its soundness is questioned by no one. But Dr. Beale, as we have seen, admits by plain implication, repeatedly, that known causes have not yet been proved inadequate to explain the phenomena of life. His cautious statement is that they are inadequate "in the present state of scientific knowledge." Wherefore, as he must also admit, his assumption of a hyperphysical agent violates flatly the law of Parcimony; it falls under the first stroke of Occam's razor. It is thus doubly illegitimate, on his own showing.

Finally, the hypothesis, if admitted, would not explain the phenomena, since it merely refers them to a power of which confessedly we can know neither the existence nor the laws, assuming to explain that which we do not know now by that which we can never know or so much as represent in thought; and it goes without saying that an hypothesis which explains nothing is good for nothing. In branding it with illegitimacy, science but renews the stigma that common sense had set on it.

The hypothesis, it follows, has no standing in the court of science, which rules it out at the threshold; and to the court of science, be it remembered, Dr. Beale has appealed. One thing, then, is certain: whatever may be the merits or demerits of the hypothesis which he opposes, the hypothesis which he espouses has no merits at all. It is radically vicious, and wholly inadmissible. So far from being "in accordance with reason," it is in flagrant defiance of it.

It remains to inquire into the remaining hypothesis. If we may credit Dr. Beale, it is as spurious as his own. "If we assume," he tells us, "that phenomena peculiar to life will some day be explained by physics, we certainly act in a manner which is not sanctioned by science—we assume, we prophesy; and prophetic assumptions of every kind are contrary to the spirit of science." That depends on the character of the assumptions. If, like his hypothesis, they are incapable of proof or disproof, besides gratuitously multiplying causes, and explaining nothing after all, they undoubtedly are contrary not only to the spirit but to the letter of science; but, if they fulfill the conditions of a legitimate hypothesis, in lieu of violating them at all points, as his own assumption does, they as undoubtedly are in strict harmony with science. It would be passing strange if they were not. If "prophetic assumptions of every kind" were in truth "contrary to the spirit of science," that "star-eyed" creature would be more contrary than the privilege of her sex allows, for it is by "prophetic assumptions" that she has won her chief triumphs, nearly everything which is now certainty having once been assumption. When Copernicus divined that the planets revolve around the sun; when Kepler suggested that the planetary orbits are ellipses; when Newton proposed the law of gravitation, and, later, the identity of gravitation with the central force of the solar system; when Huygens conjectured that light is propagated by undulations; when Harvey, in the profession of which Dr. Beale is an ornament, supposed that the blood flows from the left side of the heart into the right through the arteries and veins; when Locke asserted that heat is motion; when Franklin assumed that lightning and electricity are one; when Dalton affirmed that elements combine in definite, reciprocal, and multiple proportions; when Leverrier announced the existence and position of a planet outside the orbit of Uranus; when Faraday conceived the principle of definite electro-chemical decomposition—they each and all indulged in what were "prophetic assumptions," until in due time the assumptions were proved and the prophecy accomplished. And so, for the most part, with the rest. Wherever, indeed, there is an inquisitor of nature, whether observer or experimenter, there is likely to stand behind him some hypothesis, more or less shifting, more or less defined, more or less probable, which guides his inquiries and shapes their results; and what is generally true of the experimental sciences is true in greater degree of the sciences in which experiment is impossible or possible only within a narrow range, such as astronomy, biology, psychology, sociology. The truth is, without "prophetic assumptions," science would need either omnipotent insight, to see through every problem at once, or that omnipotent blindness which enables its happy possessor to solve every problem, as Dr. Beale would solve the problem of life, by referring it out of hand to some agency beyond the bounds of human knowledge; but, as science is endowed with neither, it has, in general, no other course, certainly no better course, than to proceed tentatively by "prophetic assumptions," careful only, though rigorously careful, that these shall fulfill the acknowledged conditions of a legitimate hypothesis. As for such "assumptions" as Dr. Beale's, they are not "prophetic," it is true, but only because they forever renounce the hope of explanation. Science rejects them, as we have seen.

Let us see whether or not the hypothesis of the evolution of living from not-living matter encounters the same fate.

To begin with, the hypothesis, it will not be denied, is verifiable, for it assumes only a certain competency in the properties of matter, which, if it exists, is capable of proof under possible conditions, and, if it does not exist, is capable in like manner of disproof; so that in the end the assumption must lead to certainty or step down and out. Such being the case, it fulfills the first condition of a legitimate hypothesis.

The hypothesis, in the next place, assumes no special cause, known or unknown, physical or hyperphysical, but accepts that which, by universal consent, is not only the cause of inorganic phenomena, but the invariable concomitant, if not the cause, of the phenomena of life. It does not multiply causes with or without necessity, and hence is philosophically clear and clean. Occam's razor may pass over and around it without meeting with a pilous stub.

And, lastly, inasmuch as the assigned cause is real, and as the final verification of the hypothesis must consist in deducing the phenomena from it, the hypothesis, when verified, will of necessity explain the phenomena not merely in their completeness, but to the exclusion of all other explanations. It is one of those fortunate cases, not too common in the history of science, wherein the explanation of the phenomena is the demonstration of the hypothesis.

In the judgment of science, therefore, the hypothesis as such is without spot or flaw. So far from being "contrary to reason," it is in perfect accord with it.

From all of which it appears that the converse of Dr. Beale's opinion of the two hypotheses is true. His terms of praise and dispraise were well chosen, but, as it turns out, he mixed them badly before applying them. So much for the opposing theories as theories.

Having seen that, from the scientific point of view, the hypothesis which Dr. Beale espouses is thoroughly illegitimate, and that the hypothesis which he opposes is thoroughly legitimate, we have now to look at the existing evidence in support of the latter; and here we shall strike Dr. Beale's criticisms, for here their incidence logically falls. With how much force they fall we shall presently see.

When two series of phenomena shade off into each other by insensible gradations, the philosophical presumption is that both series have been generated by one cause; and it behooves him who would overcome this presumption to draw the line of demarkation between the series, and prove that the phenomena on the opposite sides are so different that they could not have had a common origin. Organic and inorganic phenomena, I need not say, thus shade off into each other; but no one has been able, though many have made the attempt, to draw a line of absolute demarkation between them, much less to prove that the two series, as arbitrarily distinguished from each other, must have proceeded from different causes. Toward the proof of this the first step has not been taken, and it is safe to say that it never will be; it is barred by the indissoluble continuity of natural law. Meantime the presumption stands in more than its original strength.

A kindred presumption, throwing a kindred burden on the shoulders of whoever would rebut it, is the presumption that causes which increase an aggregate are competent to originate it. The forces which determine the growth of a crystal, to exemplify, are the forces which produce its embryo; and the like holds true of all other aggregates below the vital ones. Why not of these also? The forces which determine the growth of a plant or animal are physical forces; any assumption to the contrary, remember, even Dr. Beale avows that "we can not in any way prove." Why can not physical forces, in this case as in others, originate what they develop? It is for him who denies that they can do both or either to show why. This has never been done; and, till that which Dr. Beale admits to be unprovable is proved, never will be. The denial is a bald negation, leaving the presumption to stand, like the allied one, strengthened by a fruitless contradiction.

But we are not left to philosophical presumptions, insurmountable though they are. The evolution of living from not-living matter, it should be borne in mind, is an essential part of the hypothesis of evolution at large, and shares evenly in all the evidence, direct and indirect, which supports the general hypothesis, and which, against rooted predispositions of every kind, and amid the continual uproar of detraction and abuse, has revolutionized the thought of our time, putting Dr. Beale and his school of thinkers, but lately in an overwhelming majority, in a minority that he fairly terms a "very small number," and taking the chair of authority, as he ruefully complains, not simply in the laboratory and the closet, but in the study and the school, and, he might have added by "prophetic assumption," the Church, that loving mother of most of us beginning dimly to perceive that evolution founds science and religion on the self-same basis, and, in place of being the enemy of either, is the truest friend of both. The evidence which, in the course of a single generation, has wrought this marvelous change in unwilling minds, and the more distinctly in the higher minds, goes in its full strength, I repeat, to support the special hypothesis in hand. Manifestly, the leaders of thought, in both hemispheres, estimate this evidence differently from Dr. Beale. It is truly irresistible to an open and enlightened mind.

Furthermore, the earth, we should not forget, is her own biographer; and in the geologic chapter of her authentic sketch is recorded a time when life did not exist within her limits. Life on the earth had a beginning, then. This is not denied. Nor is it denied that up to the beginning of life all terrestrial phenomena were the effects of physical forces.

So much is conceded by every one, Dr. Beale not excepted. And, now came life. Whence did it come? Whence does it come? Physical forces, undeniably, are the constant antecedents of life; which, moreover, varies in fixed correspondence with determinate variations in them. This Dr. Beale must likewise concede, or assail the foundations of his art. But it is an axiom in scientific inquiry that anything, upon whose variations the variations of an effect are uniformly consequent, is the cause or connected with the cause of that effect; and, since the physical forces accompanying life are connected with no other cause except the Ultimate Cause, it results that they are the proximate cause of life the only cause, that is to say, which the human intellect can grasp, and with which accordingly science has to reckon. If we reject this conclusion, we reject with it the methods of science, and along with these science itself. But science is our chosen arbiter.

Nothing in reality is lacking to crown the hypothesis with demonstrative proof but to discover the law of co-operation of the physical factors uniting in the production of life, and deduce the phenomena from it; although to furnish this may well tax the highest resources of science for an indefinite future. And yet some happy feat of induction or deduction, or of both combined, may furnish it to-morrow. Meanwhile, the hypothesis as it stands, it is hardly too much to say, exacts the acquiescence, if it does not secure the assent, of every mind at once unbiased and not uninformed. The cause of life is known. The law of the cause alone is unknown. This law, as to which no hypothesis has yet been formulated, is strictly the only aspect of the subject open to hypothesis; so that, while the hypothesis supplied has passed beyond the hypothetical stage, the hypothesis required has not definitely reached it. In this logical interregnum, however, the vacating hypothesis, obviously, must still rule the discussion. But let us hear Dr. Beale.

"Bear in mind," he admonishes us, "that no state of matter known, no mere chemical combinations, no mechanical contrivances, no machinery ever made, can be caused to exhibit phenomena resembling in any really essential particular those which are characteristic of every form of living matter that exists in nature." This admonition may be just, and I am disposed to think it is, if qualified by that reference to "the present state of scientific knowledge" which the learned professor often makes, but which he here apparently fails to "bear in mind"; yet, with this qualification, it is not indisputably just, seeing that Dr. Bastian, one of the foremost experimenters of the age, contends that he has surmounted the difficulty which Dr. Beale declares to be an impossibility. Whether Dr. Bastian has achieved this result or not, the impossibility of achieving it has not been proved; on the contrary, the possibility, with the advance of scientific knowledge, has grown clearer. A few years ago, Dr. Beale might, with equal justness, have delivered this same admonition to us in respect to organic compounds of every sort; but meanwhile chemistry, in the face of the assumed impossibility of making any of them, has, in fact, made hundreds of them, therein surpassing the creative power even of animal life, which in general is powerless to form them, but appropriates them ready made from the vegetable world, in which they are compounded out of their elements; and, if chemistry can produce organic matter, it may, when further developed, produce organisms, or, what would be of equal significance, formless protoplasm. It is on the way, and pressing forward. While impossibilities, akin to Dr. Beale's present impossibility, are falling right and left under the strokes of science, who shall say that this one, too, may not ultimately crumble beneath the strenuous but reverent assault? Whether the achievement is possible or impossible, however, the derivation of life from not-life at some time, if not at this time, under conditions provided in the laboratory of Nature herself, is certain: the fate of the hypothesis is not by any means involved in that of the experiment.

"No specimen of any kind of matter which is actually passing from the non-living to the living state, or which can be shown to establish any connection between these absolutely different conditions of matter," Dr. Beale asserts, "has been, or can be at this time, brought forward." Discounting the expression "absolutely different," and noting with satisfaction the qualifying phrase "at this time," it must be observed that the assertion remains, nevertheless, in some degree inaccurate. Not to mention that all living matter is constituted by not-living elements, there is good reason to believe that the molecules of those colloidal compounds which together form living matter are constituted by molecules of the not-living crystalloids, and it is beyond dispute that the same substance, as silica, may pass, under varying conditions, from the crystalloidal to the colloidal state and back again, for which reasons, among others, the colloid may be pointed to as a "kind of matter" which, if not "actually passing from the nonliving to the living state," can at least be said to "establish" some "connection" between these "different conditions of matter." Be this as it may, it "has been brought forward" as such, and by no less honored an investigator than Professor Graham, whose discovery of the law of the diffusion of gases, to say nothing of his profound researches on the diffusion of aqueous solutions, should have made his name familiar to Dr. Beale. "The colloid is in fact," says Professor Graham, "a dynamical state of matter, the crystalloidal being the statical condition. The colloid possesses energia. It may be looked upon as the primary source of the force appearing in the phenomena of vitality." Whatever Dr. Beale may think of the colloid, it serves at any rate to check his broad assertion, and at the same time to indicate how sharply experimental science is pressing upon the problem of life. "At this time," however, the pregnant movement has but fairly begun.

"But the fact," Dr. Beale insists, "that this living matter, as is well known, is invariably derived from matter that already lived, is a serious difficulty which presents itself to the mind at the outset of the inquiry." Here, again, our professor omits the important qualification to which he is committed. "Living matter" is "invariably derived from matter that already lived," so far as our experience goes, if we leave out of the account Dr. Bastian's experiments; but our experience at present, aside from those interesting but unfinished researches, does not stretch away to the beginning of life, and it is unphilosophical to extend a merely empirical law beyond the limits in which it has been found true by observation. It was once believed, for instance, that all swans are white, and, what is more, the belief was sustained by the uniform experience of mankind for thirty centuries; but it turned out to be erroneous, all the same. That the black swan of archebiosis has not been seen is no proof that it may not-be seen, if we push on to its presumptive haunt by the shaded springs of life; and, in the interval, we can be sure only of what we have positively seen. But of this there of course can be no doubt. The famous maxim, All life proceeds from life, is indeed necessarily true of all the more specialized forms of life, because the proceeding of any one of these directly from inorganic matter would necessitate a leap over the intermediate forms; and Nature, as in our day is realized more vividly than before, does nothing by leaps. The maxim, though reached inductively, may be explained deductively; it is itself, thus limited, a corollary from the general law of evolution. But, with forms of life having little or no specialization, and only a few removes or one remove from inorganic matter, the case is plainly different. Respecting these, induction, so far as it has yet gone, and deduction, so far as it can now be applied, agree in pointing unmistakably to their origin in the unorganized matter from which they are scarcely distinguishable, and from which they differ in every respect vastly less than from the more specialized forms arising out of them, and immeasurably less than the human adult differs from the human embryo. Of these lowest forms, exhibiting life almost or quite without organization, the maxim not only is not necessarily true, but is necessarily untrue. It applies, as it must ever apply, to living things in general, but not to those living things which exemplify the bottom characteristics of the group. Omne vivum ex vivo was not written of the type. If it were, ex nihilo nihil fit could not be written too.

"According to the material contention," avers Dr. Beale, "everything owes its existence to the properties of the material particles out of which it is constructed." Whereupon he rather scornfully asks, "Who would think of asserting that in the properties of brass and iron or steel we shall find the explanation of the construction of a watch?" Nobody; with this interrogatory Dr. Beale knocks over a man of straw set up with his own hands. What he calls "the material contention" is really that every phenomenon owes its existence to the properties of matter; but this contention his crucial instance does not meet, for denying that a watch owes its existence to "the properties of brass and iron or steel" is not denying that it owes its existence to material properties, acting under special conditions, in special combinations, according to special laws, and emerging into a special organism, with the capability of watch-making: he answers what is asserted by denying what is not asserted. The fallacy, however, may suggest the clew to a better comprehension of the reality. Why do not "brass and iron or steel" manifest the phenomena of watch-making? For essentially the same reason that primitive man did not manifest them: because in these metals, as in primitive man in an immensely less degree, the synthesis of forces is too simple and unevolved, it being a law of matter that every state of material forces not only is derived from preceding states, and manifests phenomena peculiar to itself, but that the more complex and evolved the state, the more complex and evolved the phenomena. In this law, speaking broadly, we have a key to the source of life. Oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen, uncombined, present, for example, one state of material forces, which manifests one set of phenomena; water, formed by the combination of oxygen and hydrogen, is another state, less simple, and manifesting less simple phenomena; alcohol, resulting from the union of oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon, is another state, more complex, and manifesting more complex phenomena; carbonate of ammonia, consisting of oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen, is another state, more complex still, and manifesting phenomena of corresponding complexity; and protoplasm, containing the same elements as carbonate of ammonia, but united in higher multiples, and uniting under conditions unknown though not unknowable, is simply another state, more complex than any of the others, and manifesting the phenomena of life, which, it deserves to be noted, are no more peculiar to life than the phenomena of alcohol are peculiar to alcohol, or the phenomena of water peculiar to water. The peculiarity is the peculiarity of every state alike, as could hardly be otherwise, unless a thing could be itself and at the same time something else.

In the lower states of matter this law offers no difficulty; but, as the successive states become more and more removed from the elementary state, exhibiting phenomena more and more removed from the elementary phenomena, it grows, first indistinct, next unperceived, then unimagined, till at length, culminating in life and mind, it eludes definite conception in the bewildering complexity of the phenomena, and its consummate product, puffed up by the height to which it has raised him, turns round and disowns it altogether, perversely kicking over the ladder by which he ascended, and proudly asserting his right to pose upon nothing. Yet the law is none the less operative at every stage, from nebula to consciousness, and in itself is as comprehensible in the last stage as in the first. That one synthesis of forces should issue in life is at bottom not more wonderful than that another synthesis should issue in water. The two manifestations are equally comprehensible up to a certain point, beyond which they are equally incomprehensible, a mystic chasm, soundless yet crossed by a step, bounding equally every atom of the wide universe; only, in so simple a thing as water, the step whereby we cross this ever-recurring interval need not be often repeated, and the approach is comparatively open, whereas, in life, to say nothing of mind, the step is to be taken such countless times, in such countless directions, within such countless chambers, passages, recesses, that no wonder the broadest and loftiest intellect of our time, or of any time, stood baffled at the threshold of the labyrinth until he had fashioned the clew of Evolution to guide him through its windings; but the step, though infinitely multiplied, is one and the same, spanning ever the same fathomless chasm, and the faculties which enable us to take it once render us competent to repeat it indefinitely. We thread the maze by a developed use of the powers by which we enter it, treading always over, but never into, the meshes of infinity. The real difficulty, as already implied, is that our present knowledge and intellectual training do not match the complexity of the higher phenomena, which, notwithstanding their astounding complexity, differ from the lower only as a problem in the calculus differs from a sum in addition and subtraction. Fundamentally, there is no difference in the phenomena, and no break: all are interconnected by one unbroken chain of causation. As the watch-maker is developed from primitive man, so is life developed from primitive matter, and the gap between these is no more impassable and no less than the gap between those, or, for that matter, than between the simplest compound and its elements, or between the atoms of the elements themselves. The interval in every case is essentially identical. If it makes life mysterious, it makes mysterious every other thread in the texture of things. The mystery is the same throughout; and so is the only explanation with which the wit of man can embroider the somber secret.

Dr. Beale has nothing more to say with which we need concern ourselves. He is, as I have said, a physician of eminence, and, I may add, a microscopic observer of approved accuracy; but as a philosophical critic he is not a success. I have treated him with courtesy, out of respect for the proprieties of serious discussion rather than for his deserts. The tone of his paper is not candid or respectful; its spirit is derisive; and the body of it is composed chiefly of a tirade, not conspicuous for judgment or comprehension, against the decay of modern thought and the dogmatism of modern scientists, among whom he generously singles out Professor Huxley as a scape-goat, and, laying both hands on his laureled head, confesses over him, with much unction but no fair words, all the iniquities of the children of light, and halloos him, crowned with the shining burden, into a land not inhabited by members of the Victoria Institute. But all this I pass by. It is tempting, I confess, but space or the lack of it, if nothing better, delivers me from the temptation. On the title-page of Dr. Beale's pamphlet is inscribed: "The New Materialism; Dictatorial Scientific Utterances, and the Decline of Thought." Of this inscription the first part might stand, fitly enough, for the title proper, and the last part for the characteristics of the paper, were it not that its "dictatorial utterances" happen not to be "scientific," and that its "thought" exhibits not so much "decline" as destitution. However, I am not inclined to deal severely with the distinguished professor, and accordingly content myself with flinging back the title-page into his teeth.