Bertram Coghill Alan Windle.

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" the most solid of all attacks upon Vitalism." Claude
Bernard, an acute critic, was really a Vitalist himself, as
clearly appears from some of his statements ; but his
criticism, with that of Lotze, led up to materialistic doctrines
often associated with the name of Darwin, but more properly
belonging to the school known as Darwinian. As we proceed
in our study we shall rapidly discover that Darwin and
"Darwinism " so-called are sometimes — one might almost
say frequently — very different things. Driesch considers
that there were four circumstances which " fundamentally

teach that there is in man, distinct from the rational sentient soul, a vital
principle, the source of vegetative life. This theory used to be styled
Vitalism, though that term now includes A nimism and all doctrines which
maintain the reality of a vital principle superior to the chemical and
physical properties of matter. Others make the rational soul numerically
different from the common subject of sentient and vegetative activities.
In opposition to these various hypotheses the Peripatetic doctrine, some-
times called Animism, holds that in man there is but one actuating principle,
the rational soul, which is, however, capable of exerting the inferior modes
of energy exhibited in sensuous and vegetative life. In this view the plant
possesses merely a ' vegetative soul,' the brute a ' sentient soul,' con-
taining virtually, however, the faculties of the vegetative principle. It is
hardly necessary to remind the reader here that the proof of a spiritual
principle in man is independent of all theories regarding the nature of
vegetative ' souls.' "

1 " History of Vitalism," pp. 123-5.


determined the character of all thought about nature, and
indeed on many other problems, in the second half of the
nineteenth century. First of all, the rise of a materialistic
metaphysic in express opposition to the idealistic identity-
philosophy. Then Darwinism, which explained how by
throwing stones one could build houses of a typical style.
Thirdly, the discovery of the law of the Conservation of
Energy by Robert Mayer — a proposition which, in spite of
the poverty of its content, enraptured all the natural
sciences. Lastly, and of particular importance in reference
to Biology, the discovery and systematic investigation of
the delicate structures of living beings with the help of
improved optical instruments." 1

This fact stands out, however we may account for it, that
for most of the second half of the last century, Materialism
(in the sense opposed to Vitalism) was dominant in all
the scientific schools. " Things were not pleasant," says
Driesch, 2 " for the few who, when materialism was at its
zenith, guarded the tradition of the old, i.e. of the vitalistic
biology. People would have preferred to have locked them
up in mad-houses, had not ' senility ' ' excused ' them up
to a certain point."

The above sentence might be looked upon, by those
unacquainted with the scientific literature of the period in
question, as being an exaggeration. That such is not the
case, those who lived during the period and followed its
discussions are very well aware.

That a change has come over the face of the scientific
world no one now doubts. To-day it is the anti-vitalists,
to whom, were it not ignoble to do so, the heartless taunt
of senility which found a place on their lips might be
retorted ; it is they who are in the minority. The argu-
ments and facts which have led to this change of opinion
will have to be discussed in some detail : but before we
attack them it will be well to cite some quotations showing
the attitude of mind of scientific teachers on both sides of
the controversy.

Tyndall : 3 " The whole world, living and not -living, is

1 " History of Vitalism," pp. 137-8. * Ibid., p. 149.

3 " Belfast Address," 1874.


the result of the mutual interaction, according to definite
laws, of the forces possessed by the molecules of which the
primitive nebulosity of the universe was composed."
Again: 1 "That the living body is a mechanism ... is
now the expressed or implied fundamental proposition of
the whole of scientific physiology." 2

Burdon-Sanderson in 1889 said that " for the future the
word ' vital,' as distinctive of physiological processes, might
be abandoned altogether."

Without piling up further references on this side we may
look at one more statement by Le Dantec, from whom
quotation has already been made. 3 Alluding to the possible
fabrication of a living cell in the laboratory, he says : " When
the effective synthesis is obtained, it will have no surprises
in it — and it will be utterly useless. With the new knowledge
acquired by science, the enlightened mind no longer needs
to see the fabrication of protoplasm in order to be
convinced of the absence of all essential difference and
all absolute discontinuity between living and not-living

In the following pages many quotations from exponents
of the other side will find a place : it will not be necessary,
therefore, to quote here more than one or two as a set-off
to those given above.

Von Bunge in 1886 declared that " the mechanical theories
of the present are urging us surely onwards to the vitalistic
theory of the future." This utterance was made when
Materialism was at its zenith. It was beginning to decline
when the next statement to be quoted appeared. This was

1 " Collected Essays," i., 199.

* To this may be added the following note from the author's " What
is Life ? " p. 6 : " There is a curious difference between the phrasing of
the first and second editions of this article which very clearly shows how
definite the late professor's views were on this point, and how rigidly he
excluded any such thing as a vital force from his philosophy. In the first
edition he wrote ' our volition counts for something as a condition of the
course of events.' But, in a later edition, fearing evidently lest he might
have seemed to have bowed down in the House of Rimmon, he altered
this so that it reads ' or, to speak more accurately, the physical state
of which our volition is the expression.' And here he shows himself
to have been a whole-hearted adherent of the most rigidly mechanical

8 Op. cit., p. 250.


by Haldane : x "In a living organism a specific influence
is at work, which so controls all the movements of the
body and of the material entering or leaving it, that the
structure peculiar to the organism is developed and main-
tained." And again : " To any physiologist who candidly
reviews the progress of the last fifty years it must be per-
fectly evident that, so far from having advanced towards
a physico-chemical explanation of life, we are in appearance
very much farther from one than we were fifty years ago."

Wilson, not merely the leading American authority in
his own special field, but perhaps the most eminent living
cytologist in the world, has said : 2 " The study of the cell
has on the whole seemed to widen rather than to narrow
the enormous gap that separates even the lowest forms of
life from the inorganic world."

In this connection it is somewhat remarkable that up to
quite recently — some might even claim up to now — the
leading supporters of vitalism have been met with rather
in America and in Germany than in England. No doubt
this is due to the fact that in the last-named country the
interests of biologists, under the Darwinian stimulus, have
largely been turned in the direction of what Driesch calls
" the phantasy christened Phylogeny." 3 In the other
countries mentioned matters relating to the life-histories
of living things, ontogenetical problems, to use the technical
term, have been more to the front.

If we are to deal with the subject without undue
periphrase we must give some name to the " something "
which we have been discussing. I fully admit that " vital
principle" is not an ideal term, though it is better than
" vital force," since it avoids the technical difficulties
associated with the term " force." Inadequate as it is,
I mean to use this term throughout, since it is understand-
able and at least as good as the substitutes which have
been proposed. One author, for example, 4 prefers "biotic

1 " Nineteenth Century," 1898, ii., p. 400. The writer is a distinguished
teacher of Physiology at Oxford.

* " The Cell in Development and Inheritance," Macmillan, ed. ii., 1900,
p. 434. 3 " History of Vitalism," p. 140.

* Moore, " Recent Advances in Physiology and Bio-Chemistry,"
Arnold, 1906, p. 4,


energy " to " vital force," though it is not easy to see how
Greek makes belief in such a something easier than Latin.
Williams talks of " genetic energy " ; Cope of " a growth
or bathmic-force " ; Henslow speaks of it as a " property
of self-adaption," and Eimer as one of " direction." Driesch
goes back to Aristotle and calls it " entelechy," no doubt
an excellent term, though puzzling to the ordinary reader.
Let us adhere to the term " vital principle," and let us be
quite clear what we mean by that term. We mean something
not within the range of mechanics, of chemistry or of physics,
something which makes living substance different from not-
living. Is there such a something ? Is the use of such a
term as vital principle a mere word-explanation, not con-
nected with any underlying facts ? Such are the questions
which we have to consider, and in doing so let us remember
what an answer in the negative implies. It implies, as I
have said elsewhere, 1 " that all the phenomena exhibited
by living bodies, including the poetry of Shakespeare and
Wordsworth, the profound reasonings of Aristotle or Sir
Isaac Newton, the generous instincts of a Fry or a Howard,
these and all other minor manifestations of life are explicable
and may, therefore, some day be explained in terms of
chemical equations and physical experiments. It seems a
hard saying, and one thing is clear, namely, that if this is
true, there is an end to biology as a science, an end also to
psychology, an end to all branches of science dealing with
living things, since all these must resolve themselves into
branches of the two only sciences of chemistry and physics."
Bearing these points in mind we may now turn to a
consideration of the evidence offered in favour of vitalism.
And we may commence this consideration by reviewing
the characteristics of the simplest living object, the single
cell. We must endeavour to ascertain whether the processes
which we observe in it are explicable on purely chemico-
physical lines, and we can then proceed to a wider study
of the field of life and its manifestations.

1 " What is Life ? " p. 8.


SINCE a cell or a congeries of cells constitutes all
living things, it will be well to begin with a cell in
our attempt to ascertain whether living things are machines
or something quite different from machines. In discussing
this and other biological matters my effort will be to write
as simply and untechnically as possible, so as to be com-
prehended by the general reader. Others, if this book
should secure such, must pardon the crudities which must
necessarily attach themselves to this kind of exposition. 1

A cell then is a mass of protoplasm — sometimes con-
tained within a bag or sac, which is then called its wall,
sometimes not. It is generally provided with a specialised
portion called a nucleus. It may have vacuoles and also
organs called centrosomes and other contents, as to which
nothing more need be said. Whatever else there may be,
the essential feature of the cell is its protoplasm, whether
differentiated or undifferentiated. This substance, which
Huxley quite correctly spoke of as the physical basis of
life, consists of comparatively few chemical substances —
carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur and traces of
some other elements. We only know it chemically in the
dead state, and there is no certainty that we can speak of

1 Those who desire to pursue further studies in connection with the
subject of this and the immediately succeeding chapters may be referred
to the following works : —

" The Cell in Development and Inheritance," by E. B. Wilson. New
York, Macmillan ; the best book on the subject, but highly technical in
character. " The Science and Philosophy of the Organism," by Driesch.
Gifford Lectures, 1907, 1908, Black, London. " The History and Theory
of Vitalism," and " The Problem of Individuality," Macmillan, London,
1914. " Mechanism, Life, and Personality," by Haldane. London, Murray,
1913. " L'Enigma della Vita ei Nuovi Orizzonti della Biologia," by
Gemelli. Firenze, Libreria Editrice Fiorentina, 1914. " What is Life? "
by Windle. London, Sands & Co., 1908. On the anti-Vitalistic side
the following may be read : " The Nature and Origin of Life," Le Dantec.
London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1907. " Mechanism of Life," Leduc.
London, Rebman, 191 1. " The Evolution of Life," Bastian. London,
Methuen, 1907.

a 80


it as a chemical compound with a definite molecule and
formula. If it has these they must be of quite extraordinary
complexity ; indeed Wallace 1 said of it : " Protoplasm is
so complex chemically as to defy exact analysis, being an
elaborate structure of atoms built up into a molecule in
which each atom must occupy its true place, like every
carved stone in a Gothic cathedral." Pfliiger, a very dis-
tinguished physiologist, also claims that living protoplasm
is a huge molecule, undergoing constant, never-ending
formation and decomposition. He further suggests that it
may quite probably behave towards the ordinary chemical
molecules as the sun behaves towards small meteors.

Where the cell has a wall the cell-protoplasm or
cytoplasm is enclosed within it : where it has not, it exists
as a naked viscid drop, visible under the microscope.
In the substance of the cytoplasm is the nucleus. Like
the cell this is sometimes naked, sometimes enclosed within
a sac, forming a sort of bag within a bag. Within the
nucleus there is a specialised form of protoplasm, arranged
in a kind of skein-like thread, which is known as chromatin,
from the property which it possesses of staining deeply
with certain chemical substances. Some have looked upon
this as the most important and significant substance con-
tained in the cell and have claimed for it the function of
carrying the cell's hereditary characteristics. T. H. Morgan
has brought forward exceedingly powerful arguments to
prove that the chromosomes are in any case the bearers
of the characters which are heritable on Mendelian lines,
though he thinks that there are other heritable characters
which may be borne by the cytoplasm or cell-substance
and not by the chromosomes. He further thinks that
the position of the Mendelian factors can actually be
located in the chromosomes. 2 Certainly the chromatin
skein becomes broken up and distributed whenever a
cell divides — a process which is constantly occurring
during the development of the individual from the con-
dition of an ovum to that of a fully developed speci-

1 " Man's Place in the Universe," Chapman & Hall, 1904, p. 199.

2 On this and other points connected with inheritance see Morgan and
others, "The Mechanism of Mendelian Heredity," London, Constable,
1915; and Morgan, "A Critique of the Theory of Evolution," London,
Milford, 1 91 6.


men of its race, as well as during its subsequent history
until death brings matters to a close.

To sum up : in a typical cell we find, firstly, an enclosing
cell-wall. Within this there is a mass of viscid protoplasm,
called the cytoplasm. Floating in this cytoplasm is the
nucleus contained within its nuclear wall. And, finally,
within the nucleus are the skeins of chromatin, together
with a protoplasmic basis, like the cytoplasm of the outer
part of the cell but called linin. Time was when the cell
was regarded as a very uncomplicated structure, in fact
the term " the simple cell " was one quite commonly met
with in text-books ; but this grossly misrepresented the
facts. The result of the close and unintermitting study of
cytology — the science of the cell — for the past forty or fifty
years has been to show that the character of that " simple '
structure is complicated beyond description. Someone has
said that if we can imagine a " Dreadnought " filled with
machinery of the delicacy of that found in an ordinary
watch, we shall have some idea of the multiple energies
contained within each of the millions of millions of cells
which make up the human body and all other living things,
vegetable or animal.

Whether this living thing is unicellular or multicellular —
of the size of an elephant or only visible under the micro-
scope — it presents certain characteristics not noticeable in
non-living matter which must now be described. It will
be convenient for our purposes to study them in the simplest
possible form, namely, the Amoeba — a minute water creature
about one-hundredth of an inch in diameter, a single living
cell of the type already described. Let us study this tiny
being under the microscope and observe its peculiarities.

First of all we notice that it moves about. It pushes out
a kind of promontory formed of its own substance and then
pulls the rest of the cell of which it consists to join that
promontory ; and thus it slowly moves from place to place.
The form of motion is slug-like, though it is the motion of a
single cell and not of a vast congeries of cells like the slug.
Another curious thing which may be noted about its motion
is that it takes place against the stream if the Amoeba
should find itself in non-stagnant water. If whilst watching


the creature under the microscope we set up a current in
the water, the Amoeba will move in the opposite direction
to the current : perhaps it has this habit or instinct or
whatever we may choose to call it in order to permit it to
maintain its position in running water and not to be washed
away by it. Apart from this motion from place to place,
the Amoeba exhibits another form of motion : for if we
examine it carefully we shall find that the protoplasm in
its interior is in a constant state of flow. As an able writer
has said, the granules in the protoplasm " stream constantly
forwards along the central axis of each process as it forms,
and backwards within the clear layer all round, like a
fountain playing in a bell-jar." 1

It may be remembered that the power of motion has
been regarded as the salient feature of living things and
taken as the best definition of life. 2

In the second place we may notice that we can make
the Amoeba move : if we touch it with the point of a fine
needle, for example, it will contract itself and draw in any
processes which it may have thrown out. This function
is called " irritability " and it is one of the most remarkable
which living matter possesses. When this function of
irritability comes into play, some of the internal energy of
the Amoeba is transformed from the potential to the
kinetic state ; this is done in " response to an action of
itself inadequate to produce it and has been compared not
inaptly to the discharge of a cannon, where foot-tons of
energy are liberated in consequence of the pull of a few
inch-grains on the trigger ; or to an indefinitely small push
which makes electric contact : the energy set free is that
which was stored up in the charge." 1

In the third place we can watch the Amoeba feed itself.

1 Hartog, " Protozoa," Camb. Univ. Press.

1 See p. 272. St. Thomas Aquinas (" Summa Theologia ia,"g, 1)
says : " Ilia proprie sunt viventia quae scipsa secundum aliquam speciem
motus movent." And again (" S.T. ia," 9, 18, art. 2 c): "Ens vivum
est substantia cui convenit secundum suam naturam movere seipsam."
In considering these statements one must be careful to bear in mind that
the term motus or motion is used in the scholastic sense and not in that
of everyday usage. On this see " What is Life ? " pp. 29, 30, and for a
full discussion of the whole question, " La Definition Philosophique de
la Vie," by Cardinal Mercier, published at Louvain in 1898.


Should it come in contact with any particle of suitable
food in the water in which it lives, the Amoeba slowly sur-
rounds it and takes it into the interior of its single-celled
body. There we are only conscious of the gradual disap-
pearance of the particle of food. We cannot follow this
process under the microscope, for it is of a chemical char-
acter. But we know that the food is split up into its com-
ponent parts ; it is transformed and all or part is assimilated
so as to form part and parcel of the Amoeba body and to
make up for the natural wear and tear which takes place in
it. Such parts of the food as are not required are cast
out of the body as refuse.

In these processes two classes of constructions or recon-
structions take place. There are " anabolic " processes
during which energy is absorbed and by means of which
more stable and less complex substances are built up into
less stable and more complicated. On the other hand,
there are " catabolic " processes, of a directly opposite
character, in which these unstable complicated substances
are broken up into stabler and simpler forms. This process
is accompanied by the giving out of energy. We may com-
pare the manufacture of an explosive to the anabolic pro-
cess. Energy is stored up : the explosion is the catabolic
process which leaves behind it what we may call inert
chemical compounds.

The prime object of these processes is the carrying on
of the life of the body ; but they are accompanied, in what
we think to be a wholly secondary degree, by the formation
of by-products. Some of these — e.g. the bile formed by
the liver — have their own proper and indeed necessary
function in the animal. As to others — as for example musk
in the animal which produces it — it is hard to say whether
they are of any real use to the producer. They may be,
but it is possible that they may be of the nature of excre-
tions. Closely associated with these assimilatory processes
are those of respiration. In a sense we may look upon the
breathing of air as a form of feeding, for no living thing
can get on without a proper supply of air. We cannot see
the Amoeba breathe ; but of course it absorbs oxygen
from the water around as do all other water creatures,


and no doubt also discharges its carbonic acid into the same

In the fourth place, if we are fortunate, we may observe
the Amoeba multiply its race by division. Omitting the
remarkable occurrences in connection with the chromatin
which accompany this process, we may briefly say that the
single cell divides into two, so that where there was previously
but one Amoeba there now are two. Of these it may be
remarked that it is quite impossible to call one the mother
and one the child or even to speak of them as belonging to
two generations. There are two Amoebae where there was
only one. That is all that we can say.

In the fifth and last place the Amoeba can die. Seeing
that each Amoeba renews its youth, so to speak, by dividing,
or can do so under favourable conditions, there seems no
impossibility in supposing that a given portion of proto-
plasm forming an Amoeba might be actually immortal —
using that word in its common significance.

But there is no question that we can kill an Amceba by
poisoning its water, or by electrocuting it, or by depriving
it of water for a sufficient period of time. Now a remarkable
thing happens. Whilst the Amoeba was alive it was the
master, and the chemical substances with which it dealt,
notably oxygen, were its servants. Now the conditions
are reversed, for the servants begin to prey upon their
former master until it is destroyed. " This change is associ-
ated with changes in the mechanical and optical pro-
perties of the protoplasm, which loses its viscidity and be-
comes opaque, having undergone a process of i<?-solution ;
for the water it contained is now held only mechanically in
the interstices of a network, or in cavities of a honeycomb,
while the solid forming the residuum has a refractive index
of a little over 16. Therefore, it only regains its full trans-
parency when the water is replaced by a liquid of high
refractive index, such as an essential oil or phenol. A similar
change may be effected by pouring white of egg into boiling

Online LibraryBertram Coghill Alan WindleThe church and science → online text (page 26 of 38)