Bertram Coghill Alan Windle.

The church and science online

. (page 27 of 38)
Online LibraryBertram Coghill Alan WindleThe church and science → online text (page 27 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

water or absolute alcohol, and is attended with the same
optical results." 1

Such then are the chief characteristics of the Amoeba,

1 Hartog, ut supra.


and such also are the characteristics of all living things, be
they vegetable or animal. We can recognise all of them in
ourselves and in all other living things, with the necessary
modifications and differences.

Can we recognise them in not-living matter ? As to
motion : certainly not-living matter has no motion of
transference in itself. It must be moved by something,
whether that something be the force of gravity or a kick by
a boy's foot. According to physicists there is a constant
motion going on inside the atom ; but that form of motion,
it must be remembered, must be taking place within all
the atoms which make up the chemical substances of which
the living tissue consists. It is quite a different kind of
motion from that which is exhibited by these chemical
substances under the guise of flowing protoplasm. Its
motion is limited to the interior of the atom and has no
external effects, nor can we by all our experiments liberate
this energy, or cause it to act outside the narrow confines
within which it exists. Hence we may conclude that motion
distinguishes living from not-living matter.

The same statement can be made as to irritability. We
know very well that we can tickle a stone all day without
producing any effect upon it. We can move it of course
by exerting force, but that is not the making a thing move
by itself. But here we come up against an argument used
by the anti-vitalistic school. Writers like Le Dantec claim
that the phenomena of irritability are really referable to
what he calls tactisms. After discussing certain movements
in connection with the reproductive cells of a fern, he de-
clares that " the irritability peculiar to this cell species can
be thus reduced to a sum of perfectly well-defined tactisms,"
and proceeds, " after this nothing remains of the pretended
spontaneity of movement in living bodies. An observer
conversant with the results of all these experiments in
tactisms knows that the movements he observes in living
bodies through the microscope are due to the colloid and
chemical reactions of the mobile beings and the medium." 1
Any person who takes the trouble to read Le Dantec's book
and to consider the evidence which he brings forward for

1 Op. cit., p. 163. Italics as in original.


this very sweeping statement will, we think, be inclined to
agree with us that forcefulness of assertion does duty for
cogency of evidence.

Let us take one example of a tactism and see how it
works out. The assertion is that there is no such thing as
spontaneity of movement in living things. It is all due to
a chemical reaction transmuted into a tactism. It is a
chemical reaction then which causes a mouse to fly from a
cat : it is a chemical reaction which causes me to desire to
sit down by the side of one person and to shun another like
the pestilence. Once stated in this way, common sense
teaches us that the theory is untenable ; but we can go a
little further. It is one of the essential features of a chemical
operation that it must always act in the same way : add
the same reagents and you get the same result : repetition
and age cannot alter this fact. If it is a chemical reaction
which causes a bird or a wild animal to fly from the face
of man, that reaction must occur at the very first time when
the reagents are brought into contact ; yet we know very
well that this is not so. For example, there is the well-
authenticated case of the walruses in the South Sea Islands, 1
visited by German explorers in 1799. " On the arrival of
the expedition, the animals were perfectly tame and fear-
less ; but advantage was taken of this to hunt them down
and secure their flesh as meat for the European visitors,
and by the end of the winter the animals were already difficult
to approach. The following winter, when another exploring
party arrived in those parts, the walrus fled whenever it
perceived a human form in the distance ; it had grown to
recognise man as its enemy, and took refuge in instinctive
flight." This and a number of similar cases which might
be cited dispose altogether of the tactisms theory, which,
it may be added, never really established itself even
amongst materialistic writers.

As regards assimilation, the question of the formation of
crystals has sometimes been urged as a form of feeding and
growth ; and there is this superficial resemblance, that
undoubtedly a small crystal can take up fresh supplies of

1 See Chatterton Hill, " Heredity and Selection in Sociology." Black,
London, 1907, p. 74.


the chemical substance of which it is composed and in this
manner add to its size.

But, to begin with, the crystal can only take up a chemical
substance identical with itself and can only take up that
substance unchanged and add it to itself superficially and
not interstitially. The Amoeba and all other living things
take up many different substances as food. It may be said
that the living thing practically never adds such substances
unchanged to its own body, but breaks them up and, having
transformed them into something assimilable, adds them
interstitially and not superficially to its substance. There
are other arguments ; but enough has been said to show
that the crystallisation parallel completely breaks down
when carefully examined.

The not-living substance cannot reproduce itself, nor can
it in any proper sense of the word be said to die. It might
be urged that iron rusts when exposed to damp, and that
in that case the oxygen became its master as it did that of
the dead Amoeba. No doubt ; but the difference is this.
So long as it is alive the Amoeba can protect itself against
the oxygen and be its master. Once it has emerged from the
state of ore the iron cannot, unless man, who has extracted
it from its ore, protects it, it will commence at once to succumb
to the action of the atmosphere. It is never self-protective,
as the Amoeba and other living things are, so long as they
are alive. Is there then no difference between dead and
living matter ? What is it that departs from the Amoeba
and enables oxygen to take its revenge on its former master ?
It must surely be something. That something, according
to the Vitalist, is the vital principle, the entelechy or what
you will ; and in the case of man the immortal soul, which
for a time has had its dwelling in the collection of cells
which we call the human body.

It does not seem that the consideration of the funda-
mental activities of living matter, when compared with
what we know of not-living matter, affords much confirma-
tion of the chemico-physical or " machine " character of
life. The statement may be reiterated that no one doubts
that at least most of the activities of living matter require
chemical, physical, mechanical explanations of a secondary


character. No one doubts this. What is urged is that
these explanations are not a full explanation ; that there
are facts left over which cannot be explained by them ;
that there is a something else unaccounted for by them
which must be taken into consideration. The further
arguments in connection with this will occupy the next
chapters. Here we only add a statement from one of the
most recent writers on this subject. 1 The concept of this
" something " — a vital principle — is, he says, " forced upon
us mainly because of the failure of mechanistic hypotheses
of the organism. If our physical analysis of the behaviour
of the developing embryo, or the evolving race or stock, or
the activities of the organism in the midst of an ever-changing
environment, of even the reactions of the functioning gland,
fail, then we seem to be forced to postulate an elemental
agency in nature manifesting itself in the phenomena of the
organism, but not in those of inorganic nature. This
argument per ignorantiam possesses little force to many
minds : it makes little appeal to the thinker, the critic, or
the general reader, but it is almost impossible to over-
estimate the appeal which it makes to the investigator as
his experience of the phenomena of the organism increases,
and as he feels more and more the difficulty of describing
in terms of the concepts of physics the activities of the
living animal."

1 Johnstone, " The Philosophy of Biology," Camb. Univ. Press, 1914.
p. 318-


IN the previous chapter attention was called to the fact
that the processes of chemistry and physics are rigid
and definite. Given a certain combination of reagents or
of factors, and certain results may be looked for with perfect
assurance : interfere seriously with these factors or their
co-operation, and the whole process will collapse. So with
a machine : it will do one thing or possibly two or three
things, but it will do them only in one way ; and if you
so interfere with it that it cannot do its work in its own
way it will not do it at all. We must bear these points in
mind when we are considering the statement that living
things are machines and that, if we understood them suffi-
ciently, we could write down all their activities in chemical
or physical formulae.

Let us look at this proposition from two or three points
of view, and first from that of reproduction. With certain
exceptions with which we need not at present concern our-
selves, multicellular living things reproduce themselves by
the union of two cells of opposite sexes, which unite to
form a single cell. The mouse and the elephant, and much
smaller things than the mouse, originally consisted of a
single cell ; and these cells were very slightly different in
size, and could with difficulty, if at all, have been distin-
guished from one another even by the most expert micro-
scopists. How is it that out of this single cell so great a
thing as an elephant emerges ? And what is it which makes
one cell become an elephant and another closely resembling
—almost indistinguishable from — it become a mouse ?
These questions have long been asked by science, and to
the first of them — the " how " —we can return a very com-



plete reply. To answer the question " why " is always
infinitely more difficult, and in the case which we have put
has so far proved to be impossible. Some day or another
someone may solve the riddle of heredity, but that day has
not yet arrived, nor are there any definite signs of its speedy
arrival. Before passing to the consideration of the further
events in the life-history of this single cell, formed by con-
tributions from two parents, let us consider for a mo ment
the process of its construction, one of the greatest marvels
in nature — not so regarded because, like other marvels, it
is of daily occurrence and so loses its significance. For
here is a process poles apart from any of the operations of
inorganic things. Sir William Tilden, f.r.s., one of the
most distinguished chemists of the day (fn. " Chemical Dis-
covery and Invention in the Twentieth Century," London
Routledge, 1917) says on this point : " Consider the
propagation of the animal races by the sexual process, and
there can be no fear of contradiction in the statement that
in the whole range of physical and chemical phenomena
there is no ground for even a suggestion of an explanation."

To return to our subject, the future individual, then,
begins as a single cell which develops into a cell-congeries
consisting of millions upon millions of cells. In a very
rough and generalised fashion this is how it occurs. After
a series of internal convulsions primarily concerned with
the chromatin, the single cell divides into two : each of
these again divides so as to form four ; these again, eight ;
then sixteen, thirty-two, and so on ; in every instance the
division of the cell being preluded by the internal con-
vulsions already alluded to.

The result of this is the formation of a more or less spheri-
cal mass of cells adhering one to another. The whole thing
somewhat resembles a mulberry ; and for that reason the
embryo at this stage, when complete, is called a " morula,"
that being the Latin word for the fruit named. A further
series of processes leads to this solid mass becoming hollow :
it then consists of a kind of bag formed of cells adhering to
one another — something like a raspberry with the central
and uneatable part pulled out : the embryo is now called
a " blastula." We need not follow the process of develop-


ment further ; indeed it would be hopeless to attempt such
a task here. This, however, may be pointed out — that, up
to the time of which we have been speaking, the cells of
which the embryo consists are all indistinguishable or almost
indistinguishable from one another under the microscope.
This condition of uniformity comes to an end later and the
adult condition reveals to us cells of the most different
character, many of them distinguishable not only from
others but easily nameable as what they are, even by a
comparative tyro. Thus there are skin-cells, brain-cells,
liver-cells and so on ; all different from one another yet all
dating back to and deriving their existence from the single
original microscopic cell.

Before going further let us consider how what we have
just learnt bears upon the machine theory. Here we have
a huge machine — the elephant — capable of making other
machines like to itself. This alone seems a very wonderful
kind of machine ; for, let us observe, it not only makes the
" parts," which would not be so wonderful a thing, but it
also " assembles " them, to use the technical term. This is
a feat at present unaccomplished by any complicated
machine if indeed by any machine. But, further, the
machine not only makes and assembles the parts, but it
actually carries on the two processes simultaneously, and
finally creates vast complexity out of original simplicity.
Of course it may be argued that the original simplicity is
apparent, not real, and this no doubt is to some extent true.
But the original cell is comparatively simple when one
compares it with the adult fabric and its vast congeries of
cells, each of them resembling in simplicity or complexity
that from which they have all sprung.

We may look at the matter from another angle. If we
could imagine a machine capable of making another machine
just like itself, we should be imagining a very wonderful
piece of mechanism, the like of which has never yet been
made by man. A chisel is a simple enough tool, but one
chisel cannot make another without the aid of man's hands
and man's wits. If the cell only went on making other
cells like itself, as the Amoeba does, it would be wonderful
enough, and far enough removed from anything that chem-


istry and physics can show us : but there might be some
who would be prepared to admit that a machine which
could do this kind of thing was at least conceivable. But
observe what the original cell — which for the moment we
will look upon as a machine — actually does. It makes
whole myriads of things of different kinds, all doing different
kinds of work. It makes muscle-cells, liver-cells, nerve-
cells, just as our original machine might be expected to
turn out from its own simplicity, locomotive engines, filter-
ing implements of great delicacy, and wireless telegraphic
machines. To most persons the machine theory, when looked
at from this point of view, seems a wild phantasm of a dis-
ordered brain. I at once hasten to admit that the crude
comparison of ordinary machinery hardly deals fairly with
the delicate processes of chemistry which are invoked
by the materialists. I admit this at once, and only use the
example because it is likely to bring the point home to those
without scientific training.

Chemists and physicists, as we shall see later on, are the
first to insist that they neither know of nor can imagine
any processes in their branches of science which can imitate
or even explain the events with which we have been dealing.
It will be noted that it is usually biologists who talk in a
glib way about chemistry and physics explaining these
things. Yet, after all, it is to the chemists and physicists
that we should go if we want information about chemistry
and physics.

However, we can go a stage further. It will at any rate
be granted that the machine can only do its work in its
own way, and that if it is thwarted in doing it in that way
it will not do it at all. It cannot be imagined that it will
evade the difficulty of doing its piece of work by discovering
some method never known to have been employed by any
previous machine. Similarly with the chemical or physical
experiment : it occurs in one way and in no other, and if
it cannot occur in that way then it does not occur at all.

How does this apply to the processes we have just been
dealing with ? It is possible for man to interfere, and to
call upon the developing cell to try to achieve its end by
methods never previously attempted — of that we may feel


pretty clear — by any other cell from the beginning of the
history of life upon this world.

For example, there is a little fish-like creature called the
Amphioxus or Lancelot, which exists in salt or brackish
water near the coast in certain places. It develops from a
single cell and on the lines mentioned above. Ordinarily,
of course, one Amphioxus comes from one cell, the original
cell. But let the experimenter take this cell and watch it
until it has by four processes of division become sixteen
cells. It is now well on the way to be a morula — in fact it
is a small morula and if it is allowed to go on it will become
a blastula and finally an Amphioxus. But the experimenter
intervenes ; placing the sixteen-celled individual in a test-
tube with some water, he shakes it violently until the sixteen
cells fall apart. The ordinary man seeing or hearing of
this experiment will undoubtedly say, " Well, there's an
end of that potential Amphioxus ; for if anything could
kill it, that would ! ' What are the actual facts ? Each
one of these sixteen cells sets to work to divide, and in the
end produces an Amphioxus : so that the net result of the
experiment is that where normally only one Amphioxus
would have been produced, actually sixteen, supposing
everything to go well with each cell, will have come into

Now here is a well-established fact which can only be
accounted for in one of two ways. Either the cell is pro-
vided with machinery whereby it can adapt itself to the
conditions indicated, or it has powers which no not-living
machine can have — powers that is of adapting itself to
absolutely new circumstances. In point of fact, these two
contentions or alternatives are one. The something with
which the cell is provided is the vital principle which enables
it to achieve its end by means previously unknown to cells.
For of the purely mechanical explanation, if indeed anyone
were bold enough to put it forward in connection with this
matter, this may be said. If the machine is so constructed
that when broken it is capable of becoming as many machines
as the pieces into which it was broken, this would be won-
derful beyond all belief. But the machine must have been
thus constructed without any sufficient reason, for the sort


of breakage is not one which could ever have been supposed
to be a likely accident. We can understand machines being
made to lubricate themselves, because all machinery must
be lubricated ; but machines which can re-make themselves
from their own parts and multiply themselves in the process
are unthinkable.

Another experiment of the same category may now be
described. The egg of the frog, with which almost every-
body must be familiar, goes through the stages above
recounted, beginning with the single cell. Every step in
the course of this development has been so fully studied of
late years that it is as well known as the streets of his beat
are to a policeman or a postman. Experimenters have inter-
fered with this process in all sorts of ways : for example,
they have prevented the egg from developing in its ordinary
spherical manner by causing it to carry on its processes
between two sheets of glass, thus giving itself plane instead
of curved surfaces. They have interfered with it in a number
of other ways, for an account of which readers must be
referred to one of the text-books on the subject. But the
unbeaten cell attains its end in spite of the experimenters,
unless indeed conditions are made so hard for it that it dies.
" ' One is sometimes tempted to conclude,' was recently
remarked by a well-known embryologist, ' that every egg
is a law unto itself.' The jest perhaps embodies more of
the truth than its author would seriously have maintained,
expressing as it does a growing appreciation of the intricacy
of cell-phenomena, the difficulty of formulating their general
aspects in simple terms, and the inadequacy of some of the
working hypotheses that have been our guides." These
words were written by the leading authority on the cell
and its development 1 in the last month of the last century,
and certainly nothing has occurred in the present century
to cause him to alter his opinion : rather has fresh evidence
accumulated in favour of the position which he then took up.

It is hardly going beyond the facts to say that every egg
is a law unto itself. Certainly every egg has the power of
reaching an identical end by more than one path. This
cannot, as we have seen, be achieved by any machine, nor

1 Professor Wilson of Columbia University.


is it known in connection with any chemical or physical
experiment. It points quite clearly to a fundamental
difference between living and not-living matter ; and, one
may say, is a complete confutation of the opinions expressed
by Le Dantec and others of the materialistic school. Such
writers rely very much upon the behaviour of chemical
compounds known as colloids. No doubt the behaviour of
these compounds is remarkable, but chemists of the first
eminence refuse to credit the idea that colloids in any way
explain the phenomena with which we are now concerned.
In 19 13 there was an important discussion on this matter
at a meeting of the British Association, at which great
claims in this direction were made for colloids. Professor
Armstrong, a chemist of the first order, laughed at this
claim, and stated that " the dominant note of the com-
munication had been the blessed word ' colloid,' and like
other blessed words the term ' colloid ' was used to obscure
and wrap up ignorance." In the same debate the President
of the Physiological Section concurred with Professor
Armstrong and said that " there was a tendency to make
too much of colloids in connection with life. Nor has
opinion on this matter in any way suffered an alteration
in the few years which have passed since the discus-
sion alluded to. Sir William Tilden says: "Protoplasm
cannot be thought of merely as a solution of mixed colloids
and saline electrolytes. The Amoeba, if merely a drop of
colloid solution, would, like a drop of any jelly, gradually
melt away into the surrounding water by the operation of
ordinary liquid diffusion. The Amoeba has extensibility
and retractility, and therefore cannot be an ordinary solu-
tion." And he concludes his argument by stating that
"those who accept the purely materialistic doctrine as to the
origin of life have before them the necessity of establishing
a vast number of facts, before such doctrine can be made
generally acceptable to the scientific world."

Further, Leduc has tried to show that his chemical com-
pounds offer some similarity to the processes of growth
and development in living things, but they have no more
real bearing on the question than the toy known as
"Pharaoh's serpent,"


IN a work which treats of so many subjects as this does,
it is of course impossible to deal in a comprehensive
manner with such a vast question as that of the vitalistic
controversy. All that can be done is to indicate the main
outlines and to refer enquirers for further information to
the books indicated in the footnote to the previous chapter.
The matter, however, must not be left without touching
upon another line of argument in favour of the vitalistic

Online LibraryBertram Coghill Alan WindleThe church and science → online text (page 27 of 38)