Bertram Coghill Alan Windle.

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solution, nor without some attempt to meet the most im-
portant objection which has been brought forward against
that solution.

If we scratch our hand, or, to make the matter more
obvious, if we even make a deep wound in it, what happens ?
There is more or less bleeding in accordance with the char-
acter and depth of the wound. By degrees this ceases and
if no poison has entered the wound, it gradually heals up
with or without a scar. Let us pause for a moment to con-
sider whether we can recollect any similar occurrences in
connection with non-living matter. If by some unfortunate
accident we knock a small hole in a gas or water pipe, it
will not fill itself up, even if we stop the flow of water or of
gas. There is no process of regeneration in connection with
the wounds, if we may so call them, of not-living substances.
It is claimed that the living body is a form of machine
capable of mending such lesions. To most people such use
of the word machine is unnatural, but let us go a step

There are animals, even vertebrate animals, which possess
much higher capabilities of regeneration than we or most



vertebrates do. It is wonderful enough that a badly broken
bone should be capable of re-knitting its fragments together
so that in the end the limb may be as sound and strong as
ever it was. But we cannot grow again a limb which has
been amputated. The salamander, a vertebrate animal,
can ; and, what is more, can repeat the process apparently
as often as it may be required to do so. It is an interesting
fact that these experiments on regeneration were first con-
ducted by two Catholic ecclesiastics. Those on the hydra,
an invertebrate creature, of which more shortly, were made
by the Abbe Trembley. They were the first experiments
in this fruitful field. Spallanzani, of whom we shall hear
again in connection with the question of spontaneous
generation, was also a Catholic priest. His were the ex-
periments on the salamander : he proved that if the tail
were cut off, a new tail would grow, containing vertebrae ;
and further that if the leg or even all four legs were cut
off, the loss would be completely repaired after a brief
interval of time. His most classical experiment is one in
which he, during three summer months, six times removed
all four legs and the tail from the same salamander : the
undaunted creature reconstructed itself on each occasion,
and as rapidly on the sixth as it had on the first. Spallanzani
calculated that, during the three months over which the
experiment extended, this salamander had made for itself
no less than 647 new bones, not to speak of all the muscles,
nerves and arteries which, with the bones in question, made
up the parts which had been amputated. The same experi-
menter found that the salamander could regenerate even
its upper and lower jaws if these were removed. Again it
must be pointed out that these remarkable things happened
in a vertebrate. Regeneration is wonderful enough in a
boneless invertebrate, but of course far more wonderful
and incomprehensible in so highly organised a creature as
a vertebrate.

To the general reader the facts which have just been
recorded will seem much more remarkable than those which
have next to be submitted to his attention, though in reality
they are not so for reasons which we shall attempt to make
clear before we leave the subject. The experiment in ques-


tion was made by Wolff 1 on the eyes of the larvae of the
water-newt or triton, a common inhabitant of pools. The
eyes of this creature are constructed on the same lines as
our own, and they contain like ours a transparent lens,
called " the crystalline lens," immediately behind the central
opening or pupil. It is this lens which is removed in the
operation for cataract, when it has become clouded and
impervious to light. Wolff performed this operation on
the triton and found that it was capable of regenerating the
lens within the space of quite a few weeks. It then became
a matter of the greatest interest, for reasons which will
appear in a moment, to ascertain how this regeneration
took place. In some cases it seemed certain that a tiny
fragment of the old lens had remained, and that the new
lens grew from it. But in other instances it was equally
clear that this was not the case ; and it was then found
that the new lens had been grown from the cells forming
the edge of the iris — that is of the coloured curtain which
surrounds the pupil. This is a really astonishing fact.

We have spoken of the blastula stage : this is succeeded
by a stage in which the cells of the embryo are grouped into
three layers called epi-, meso-, and hypo-blast. This is a
very important stage in specialisation, for from each of
these descend certain adult structures of the body. For
example, from the epiblast come the skin and the brain ;
from the mesoblast, muscles and bones ; from the hypo-
blast the lining membrane of most of the alimentary canal.
There are other derivatives ; those mentioned are only
selected as examples. Now it would be as easy for an em-
bryologist to imagine that an eagle could emerge from the
egg of a pigeon as to imagine any one of these layers or their
derivatives producing an organ or a tissue normally pro-
duced by another. They and their derivatives remain
racially distinct ; and one explanation of cancer is that
epithelial cells escape into mesoblastic tissue, and there
run wild and cause the disastrous results. However, be
that as it may, the crystalline lens is a derivative of the
epiblast, the iris belongs to the mesoblast ; so that in
this process of regeneration we actually have a structure

1 Arch. f. Entwickl.— Mech. d. Organismen, Bd. i., 1895.


normally epiblastic produced from mesoblast. That is one
of the most wonderful things which has ever been presented
to the scientific world in connection with this question.
It is even more wonderful than the case of the salamander,
wonderful though that is, for in the salamander at least
epiblastic structures might grow from epiblastic and meso-
blastic from mesoblastic ; but such was not the case with
the triton's eye.

Now let us crudely translate this into the case of the
machine. Here we shall have to imagine a locomotive
engine, which has lost one of its wheels, growing another
from its own body and, if we are to extend the parallel to
the case of the newt, actually growing a steel wheel from the
glass of which one of its gauges was made. It is clear that
these processes are wholly dissimilar to any processes we are
acquainted with in the case of not-living matter or in the
case of machines : still it is claimed that the living body is
a special kind of machine capable of these regenerative pro-

To my mind Wolff's experiment appears to be quite
conclusive. Here is an animal reconstructing its lens along
lines never before known to be traversed — one may safely
say never traversed. As in the case of the experiment on
the developing egg of the frog, here is a force which gains
its end by treading a path never before trodden. Is it really
possible for anyone to assert that all this is explicable in
terms of the rigid and unvarying laws of chemistry and
physics ?

There is one thing which no vertebrate animal can do
in the way of regeneration : no vertebrate animal, having
been cut into two portions, can reconstruct each of those
portions into a complete new individual. This operation
is a mere commonplace of life amongst invertebrates, as
was first shown by the Abbe Trembley in the case of the
water-hydra. The common worm is another example ; and
a parasitic worm, called Planaria, will make as many new
planaria as were the fragments into which the original
creature was chopped up. In the language of machinery
the steam engine, which has been divided into fore and aft
portions by some terrible accident, actually reconstructs


itself into two new and perfect engines in place of one. If
such things could happen to engines, accidents of the kind
would be less unpopular with the directors than they are
now !

We can go a stage further in this matter of experiment ;
and, having given the details, we shall then be in a position
to consider what all this means. The Ascidians are sea-
creatures high up in the invertebrate division — in fact
zoologists place them quite near to vertebrates. We need
not trouble about these phylogenetic problems : it will
be sufficient to note that all zoologists would allow the
Ascidian to be a highly organised invertebrate. Amongst the
Ascidians there is a little creature about an inch in length,
called Clavellina Upadiformis , which has a body consisting
of three portions. The foremost of these is an extraordinarily
large branchial arrangement or gill-basket through which
water passes : behind this are the other two portions, body
and intestine-sac. Now if we cut the branchial portion off
a Clavellina, both the fragments may regenerate themselves
into complete forms, just as in the instances which were
recounted above. But a more remarkable thing may happen :
the piece of branchial basket may undergo a complete
reduction of form ; lose all appearance of organisation ;
become a minute sphere and then, after apparently resting
for a few days, transform itself into a small but complete
Ascidian. Further, we can cut off the branchial apparatus
and having done so we can subdivide that apparatus into
two parts of any shape we choose. Each of those portions
will go through the process just described, and after its
period of rest, will reconstruct itself into a small complete
Ascidian. The branchial part of Clavellina then forms
what Driesch calls by the cumbrous name of " a harmonious-
equipotential system." 1

He applies this term to " any ontogenetic totality which
consists of cells with equal prospective potency, i.e. with an
equal possible fate." For example, the blastula of the sea-
urchin is a hollow sphere consisting of perhaps one thousand

1 See his works as indicated in the footnote to a previous chapter
on p. 280. For what follows see " The Problem of Individuality,"
pp. 12 seq.


cells. Cut this up with a fine pair of scissors in any direction
you choose, each part so divided off, provided that it is
not less than one-quarter of the whole, will develop into a
complete larva of small size. The blastula before its sub-
division is an example of what he calls a " harmonious-
equipotential system." So then is the branchial apparatus
of Clavellina ; indeed Driesch claims that it is the " very
type " of such a system, for " every element of it is able
to perform any single morphogenetic action that is required,
and all the elements work together in harmony in each
single case, for the cut may be made quite at random."
Now after the blastula has developed into the three primi-
tive layers we no longer have a " harmonious-equipotential
system " as before, unless we look upon each layer in that
light — at least this is the case in higher animals. So Driesch
asks the question : " What makes the equipotential system
unequal with regard to the actual fate of its parts ? What
transforms equal potentialities into equal actualities ? In
other words : the localisation of the various singularities
of morphogenesis is the problem. Whence does this local-
isation come ? "

It does not come from without. That we know : for we
know that external agencies such as light and gravity have
no effect on ontogenesis. It is not due to chemical processes
within the organism. " From chemical disintegration or
from unmixing there can only arise equilibria or, so to say,
geometrical arrangement. But an organism is not a geo-
metrical arrangement or a complex of such arrangements.
And, further, there are many organs in an organism which
have very different specific forms, though they have the
same chemical composition — as, for example, the bones of
vertebrates. For all this a purely chemical theory of
ontogeny — which otherwise might be compatible with
equipotentiality — cannot account . ' '

Failing these, can any form of the machine theory explain
the circumstances ? The machine might be defined as " a
given specific combination of specific chemical and physical
agents." Is ontogeny the result of the " interaction " of
such agents ? I will continue the argument in Driesch's
words. " If normal undisturbed embryogenesis alone would


result in the formation of a complete embryo, if in other
words, all the experiments carried out with early embryonic
stages would result in the production of fragments of organ-
isation, then we should feel obliged to accept the theory of
machine-like preformation. But this is not the case. On
the contrary, the ontogenetic systems are ' harmonious-
equipotential.' Take whatever portion of them you like,
quite at random, and yet there will be a completeness of
final organisation." The embryonic "machine," then, that
is supposed to be present in its completeness in one part
of the system, is also in another such part, and in yet
other such parts, and equally well in parts of different
size, overlapping one another.

Let the reader draw on a scrap of paper a rectangular
figure of moderate size. Let him then draw upon this a
series of other rectangular figures, all included within the
original rectangle and overlapping one another. Now the
outer rectangle is a harmonious-equipotential system in
its normal undisturbed state. It might contain some very
complicated form of " machine " as the foundation of de-
velopment. But all the other rectangles which have been
described within it — and their number might be very great
— provided that each is not too small, also contain the power
of developing a complete individual and must contain the
same " machine." But it is surely absurd to suppose that
any fragment of the original " harmonious-equipotential
system " can, nay must, contain the same " machine " as
the whole. " We know that any part of the system, con-
tingent as to its size and as to its position in the original
system, can give rise to a complete being. Every cell of the
original system can play every single role in morphogenesis ;
which role it will play is merely ' a function of its position.'
In face of these facts the machine theory becomes an
absurdity. These facts contradict the concept of a machine ;
for a machine is a specific arrangement of parts, and it
does not remain what it was if you remove any portion
from it. Now the machine theory was the only possible
form of a mechanistic theory that might a priori seem to
be applicable to the phenomena of morphogenesis. To
dismiss the machine theory, therefore, is the same as to


give up the attempt of a mechanical theory of these pheno-
mena altogether. Or, in other words, the analytical dis-
cussion of the differentiation of harmonious-equipotential
systems entitles us to establish the doctrine of the autonomy
of life, i.e. the doctrine of so-called vitalism, at least in a
limited field : there is some agent at work in morphogenesis
which is not of the type of physico-chemical agents."

The arguments which have been put forward in this
and the preceding chapter with others for which readers
must be referred to larger treatises on the subject, have
convinced many — it would perhaps now scarcely be in-
correct to say most — biologists that something exists in
living matter which does not exist in not-living matter,
which something makes it living matter and is altogether
out of the category of chemical and physical phenomena.
It is this " something ' which we speak of as the vital

Note to Chapter XXVIII. — I have endeavoured to put
Driesch's vastly important but certainly complicated argument,
as to the " harmonious-equipotential system," as clearly as I can
in his own words and in my paraphrase. For the sake of making
it more obvious to those unfamiliar with philosophical discus-
sions it may also be put in this much cruder way :

(i) A certain collection of cells is normally destined for a
certain termination — it is to do a certain piece of work.

(2) But we may divide this collection of cells up into half a
dozen pieces, each of which and all of which will do that piece
of work, so that instead of one piece of work there will be six
pieces of work.

(3) Further, the method of sub-division is quite arbitrary, that
is, we may cut the primary collection up in any sort of way
provided we do not make any piece too small- — the same result
will follow.

(4) It is just conceivable that there might be a machine in the
original collection to effect its purpose.

(5) But we should have to postulate subsidiary machines all
over the collection and even over-lapping machines to explain
what occurs.

(6) This is an inconceivable condition of affairs.


THE chief objection which is brought against the
vitalistic explanation — most certainly the objection
which presents the greatest difficulties — is that which is
connected with what is called the Law of the Conservation
of Energy : a matter which must be discussed before we
turn to the question of the origin of life.

Energy is a capacity for doing work possessed by bodies
under certain circumstances. For example, the weight of
a clock can do work, because it is drawn towards the earth
by the force of gravitation, though we do not know exactly
what that is. As it is so drawn, it overcomes the friction
between the works of the clock, and the clock " goes."
Or again, if a bullet be fired at a plank it exhibits energy,
though it loses its motion, for it penetrates more or less
deeply into the wood. The former kind of energy is called
potential, the latter kinetic. One may be transmuted into
the other.

Moreover, there are many manifestations of energy, some
of which, by those unfamiliar with physical treatises, might
not be thought to belong to such a category. Light, heat,
sound, rotation, vibration, elastic strain, gravitative separa-
tion, electric currents and chemical affinity are enumerated
by Sir Oliver Lodge. 1 But whatever may be the differentia-
tions of energy the total amount of energy is constant
throughout. For example, if one takes a stone into one's
hand and throws it up into the air, a certain amount of
kinetic energy is transmitted to the stone and exercised by
it in its upward flight. At the summit of its flight there is
an instant, very brief of course, during which it is neither

1 " Life and Matter," p. ax.
X 305


rising nor falling, but is actually at rest. For this brief
instant its energy is potential ; but it becomes kinetic again
as the stone commences to fall. In time it reaches the earth,
and as it lies there inert one might suppose that it had lost
all its energy. Kinetic energy it certainly has not, for it is
at rest. Nor has it potential energy, for it lies, by our
hypothesis, on a flat surface of earth. Yet the impact of
the stone with the earth has caused a certain amount of
heat to be produced. It would be difficult if not impossible
to measure the amount of the heat. No doubt, but everyone
knows that if we hammer a piece of iron on an anvil it will
become hot as the result of the blows which we give. As
the result of the blow which the stone gave to the earth
in falling upon it, heat also is produced ; the energy thus
exhibited is exactly equal to the kinetic energy which the
stone had in falling, and both of them are each equal to the
potential energy which it had at the moment of the zenith
of its flight. Not to multiply examples, " in every case,
without exception, it is found that the sum-total of all the
energy within any given boundary, through which energy
is not allowed to pass, remains constant, although the
energy within the boundary may be transformed into any
of the many forms in which it is capable of existing." 1 And
" it follows that if the boundary considered includes the
universe, the principle of the conservation of energy amounts
to a statement that the sum-total of the energy of the
universe is a fixed unalterable quantity." That no doubt
is so ; but in connection with the statement just quoted we
must not forget that the amount of available energy is con-
stantly if slowly decreasing. We have just seen that when
the stone fell upon the ground, its kinetic energy was trans-
muted into another form, namely, heat. In a very short
time the exceedingly small amount of heat produced will
have diffused itself amongst surrounding objects, so as to
become what we call " lost." And lost it is to this extent,
that it can no more be utilised to do work. When a body is
much hotter than the bodies which surround it, it can be
utilised to do work, but generally diffused heat cannot be
used for this purpose.

1 Watson, '" A Text-book of Physics." London, Longmans 1911. p. 87.


Now in every transformation of energy some of the energy
is converted into heat. For example, in the case of the
clock the friction between parts of the escapement and
between the wheels, etc., causes a certain amount of heat
and so with other operations which will occur to anyone.
Thus " since in every transformation of energy from one
form to another some of the energy becomes converted into
uniformly diffused heat, the total quantity of available
energy of the universe is continually diminishing. This
continual degradation of energy, which accompanies every
phenomenon with which we are acquainted, leads us to two
conclusions : Firstly, since the quantity of unavailable
energy is continually increasing, there must have been a time
when none of the energy of the universe was unavailable, and
before which no phenomenon, such as we are acquainted with,
can have occurred, for every such phenomenon necessarily
involves a degradation of energy. Secondly, there must
necessarily arrive a time when all the energy will be un-
available, the whole universe having become a uniformly
hot, inert mass." 1 I admit that what has been stated in
the immediate context is somewhat in the nature of a digres-
sion, but it is of such importance in connection with other
portions of this book that it may be allowed to stand.
We must, however, return from it to the consideration of
the difficulties which this Law causes in the acceptance of
a vitalistic explanation of the riddle of life.

We have seen that energy appears to be indestructible :
some scientific men have even adopted the metaphysical
idea that it is a real thing or substance. Thus 2 P. G. Tait,
one of the greatest physicists of the time, wrote : " The
only other known thing in the physical universe, which is
conserved in the same sense as matter is conserved, is energy.
Hence we naturally consider energy as the other objective
reality in the physical universe." If we are to accept the
Law of the Conservation of Energy as rigidly and completely
final, we must admit that a vitalistic explanation of life
does infringe that Law or appears to infringe it. If vital

1 Watson, ut supra, p. 88.

2 In the 9th ed. of the " Encyclopaedia Britannica," sub voce
" Mechanics."


or psychical influences can modify or direct the course of
physical processes, then such influences, it is argued, must
either increase or diminish the amount of physical energy
in the universe, and in so doing must violate the law with
which we are dealing. It has been urged by some that the
amount of the power which frees the energy under the
vitalistic theory is so small as to be negligible. That it is
small is clear — indeed it has been compared to the spark
which sets free enormous energies in the explosion of a
cannon. " As far as we can judge," writes Balfour Stewart, 1
" life is always associated with machinery of a certain kind,
in virtue of which an extremely delicate directive touch is
ultimately magnified into a very considerable transmuta-
tion of energy." But this explanation is not really satis-
factory for, from the standpoint of the law, it is immaterial
whether it is grossly or almost unobservably transgressed,
in either case it is transgressed. Romanes, in his earlier
days, formulated the difficulty in his Rede Lecture : 2 "If
mind is supposed, on no matter how small a scale, to be a
cause of motion, the fundamental axiom of science is im-
pugned. This fundamental axiom is that energy can

Online LibraryBertram Coghill Alan WindleThe church and science → online text (page 28 of 38)