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neither be created nor destroyed — that just as motion can
produce nothing but motion, so, conversely, motion can be
produced by nothing but motion. Regarded, therefore,
from the standpoint of physical science the theory of
Spiritualism is in precisely the same case as the theory of
Materialism ; that is to say, if the supposed causation takes
place, it can only be supposed to do so by way of miracle."
The reader, for reasons which will shortly appear, will be
careful to note the date of this pronouncement : but similar
statements are made to-day.

Thus Dr. Haldane, a vitalist with a difference, in his
recent book 3 says that vitalism " implies a definite breach
in the fundamental law of conservation of energy. As
already mentioned," he proceeds, " every experimental in-
vestigation has hitherto resulted in a verification of this
law in the case of physiological phenomena. Any ' guid-

1 " On the Conservation of Energy," p. 163.

2 " Contemporary Review," 1885.

3 " Mechanism, Life, and Personality," p. 27 seq.


ance ' of living organisms by the vital principle would imply
a creation or destruction of energy ; and this would be the
case even if the energy created in the living substance were
again destroyed before it could escape to the outside and
so become measurable. The reply that this creation or
destruction of energy may be extremely small is not one
which can satisfy a scientific investigator. A principle
which has been verified again and again under all sorts of
conditions cannot be set aside except on definite experi-
mental evidence ; and this is entirely lacking."

In considering this matter one must be careful to bear
in mind what a Law of Nature is. The point has been dealt
with in Chapter XIII, so that readers need only to be
reminded that what is meant by the term is a seemingly
orderly series of occurrences as observed in nature. Now as
they have been observed by fallible human beings, there is
always the possibility that the observations may have been
inaccurate or incomplete. As they are repeated time after
time, experiments would seem to remove at least the danger
of inaccuracy. Yet we know that the emergence of new
facts does lead to an abandonment of views previously held
to be well — even finally — established, and to the modifica-
tion of what had hitherto been taken to be completely and
definitely formulated Laws of Nature.

It was for this reason that attention was directed to the
date of Romanes's utterance ; for the time at which it was
given to the world was one when men of science thought
themselves much more certain of facts than they do now.
' Twenty years ago," writes Dr. McDougall, 1 " the scientific
world was oppressed by the sense of the finality of its own
dicta. The indestructibility of matter, the conservation of
energy and of momentum, the eternal sameness of the
chemical atoms, the inevitable extinction of all life on the
earth by loss of heat from the solar system, the never-
ending alternation of evolution and dissolution of material
systems, all these had become ' axioms ' whose rejection
was said to be impossible for any sane mind. It was fell
that little remained for science to do save the working out
of equations to further decimal places. But now all that is

1 " Body and Mind," London, Mcthuen, 1911, p. 216.


changed, 1 the scientific atmosphere is full of the hope of
new insight, the seeming boundaries of physical knowledge
have proved to be spectral creations of the scientific imagina-
tion ; there is a delightful uncertainty about even so funda-
mental a distinction as that between matter and energy ;
electricity, which was a wave-movement of that collection
of impossible attributes, the ether, is now said to consist of
corpuscles having mass ; and light itself is in a fan-
way to become once more a rain of particles. One even
hears whispered doubts about the law of the conservation
of energy."

It is then conceivable, though no doubt improbable,
that the law in question may turn out to be inaccurate. It
certainly may turn out to be incomplete, even if useful in
its incomplete state ; in support of this statement I may be
allowed to quote from Sir Oliver Lodge : 2 " The term
' energy ' itself, as used in a definite sense by the physicist,
rather involves a modern idea and is itself a generalisation.
Things as distinct from each other as light, heat, sound,
rotation, vibration, elastic strain, gravitative separation,
electric currents, and chemical affinity, have all to be
generalised under the same heading [of the Conservation of
Energy] in order to make the law true. Until ' heat ' was
included in the list of energies, the statement could not
be made ; and a short time ago it was sometimes discussed
whether ' life ' should or should not be included in the
category of energy. I should give the answer decidedly No,
but some might be inclined to say Yes ; and this is sufficient
as an example to show that the categories of energy are
not necessarily exhausted ; that new forms may be dis-
covered ; and that if new forms exist, until they are
discovered, the Law of Conservation of Energy, as now
stated, may in some cases be strictly untrue ; just as it
would be untrue, though partially and usefully true, in the
theory of machines, if heat were unknown or ignored."

Mention has already been made of the fact that the
mechanico-physical explanation of life emanates for the

1 Readers are referred to the Presidential Address of Sir J. J. Thomson
to the British Association, 1909.
8 " Life and Matter," p. 21.


most part from biologists rather than from chemists and
physicists : this point will be still more clearly estab-
lished in a later chapter. Meanwhile it may be well to set
down the following quotation from Dr. McDougall's work
already cited. On page 252 he says : " It is worthy of note,
in this connection, that the exclusive sway in the organic
world of the principles of physical science is maintained in
a more confident and dogmatic manner by the mechanistic
biologists than by many of the leading physicists who have
enunciated these principles and taught them to the biologists.
It is perhaps worth while to enumerate here a few of these
physicists of the highest standing who, since the establish-
ment of the law of conservation of energy, have expressed
or implied the opinion that physical science does not compel
us to believe that the evolution and life-processes of organ-
isms are capable of being completely described in mechanical
terms ; such are or were Sir G. Stokes, Lord Kelvin, Maxwell,
P. G. Tait, Balfour Stewart, Sir W. Crookes, Sir O. Lodge,
Sir J. J. Thomson, Sir J. Larmor, Prof. Poynting." 1

There is one important point as to which a very mis-
taken attitude is often adopted. Opponents of the vital-
istic explanation are rather inclined to take up the attitude
that it is we, not they, who must prove our position.
Common sense and common observation seem to go to
prove that this is not so. What we see all around us and more
especially in our own selves does make it clear or apparently
clear that what takes place in life is of a different character
altogether from what we see in not-living matter. 2 We
may feel perfectly clear from what we know best ourselves
from our intimate and everyday experience — namely, con-
scious human life — and from the processes which take place
in living matter, that life or the vital principle does modify
the forces, energies, and movements of matter. Is it not
perfectly obvious that the war-fever, religious revivals,
electoral excitements are all ideas ? Yet all exercise potent
influences over the energies and movements of matter in

1 References to the writings ad hoc of all these authorities are given
by Dr. McDougall, loc. cit.

8 Here and elsewhere in this chapter I make use of passages from my
book "What is Life?" without specific acknowledgement or citation
of page.


the shape of human beings, not to speak of all the material
activities which they control. What I maintain is that it
is not sufficient for our opponents to say, " The Law of the
Conservation of Energy, which we believe to be complete
and final, contravenes your conclusions." The reply is
that if we can show, as we believe we can show from other
evidence, that in no kind of way can the facts of life be
explained on purely chemico-physical lines, then, if the Law
in question contravenes our explanation, that Law must
be, so far at any rate, incomplete or perhaps imperfectly
understood. The onus -probandi, as Dr. McDougall points
out, lies with the mechanist, not with the vitalist.

Whilst this is the case, it may be added that various
efforts have been made to explain the vitalistic theory in
terms of the Law in question. None of these are wholly
satisfying, though all of them show angles of the question
approachable perhaps as part of a final explanation. For
example, we are bound to recognise that in all material
activities there are two things to be taken into account.
First, there is the energy which is displayed ; but, secondly,
there is the directive power which, while it does not increase
or diminish the sum of the energy brought into action, does
exercise a very important influence on the sum-total of the
material activity in question. The path through the ocean
of a great liner is not explained merely by the many horse-
powered engines which drive it through the water, but at
least as much by the comparatively small amount of power
exercised by the helm — a power which is propelling the
vessel on its course. We must, therefore, recognise a qualita-
tive element in all material operations, and this more especi-
ally in all operations where a clear choice of alternatives is
open. In the case of a ship, it is at least conceivable that the
propelling force might be associated with a mechanism
which would keep it on a straight course ; but it is quite
inconceivable that it could be associated with a machine
with the power of deciding in an emergency whether the
ship was to be steered to port or to starboard. In the same
way it is inconceivable that a machine should be able to
decide how to regenerate a lost part of the body, such as
the crystalline lens of the triton. In fact, it is not possible


to explain mechanism, if we try to do so through mechanical
conceptions alone. We must recognise a dualism, though
this is precisely what the monistic school so much objects
to, as we shall later on have occasion to remark.

It is quite clear 1 that an agent may modify the direction
of a force or moving particle without altering the quantity
of its energy or adding to the work done. That is to say,
it is possible to bring forward an example of a purely
qualitative influence : for a power acting at right angles to
the motion of a body can alter the direction of that body
without increasing or diminishing the intensity of the
motion. The earth revolves around the sun in its elliptic
because the force of gravity holds it in that course. Suppose
the sun were suddenly to disappear Its attraction at an
end, the earth would rush away at a tangent. The energy
which it displays would not be altered in any way, but the
direction would be wholly changed.

It may be asked whether one can in any way show that
the Will or the Vital Power does act at right angles to the
forces of any material energy of the organism. That, how-
ever, is an objection or an enquiry which we may rightly
consider to be unfair. All that we can be asked to do is
to show that there is a method by which an agent can
modify the action of physical energies without altering their

In the remarks which have just been made we have only
been dealing with the modification of a " force in being " ;
how about the initiation of the force or the initiation of
the change of energetic direction ? The pressure of the
button which completes an electric circuit may produce
prodigious effects, altogether out of proportion to the
power exerted in the preliminary pressure, but power there
must be. 2

' It is in meeting this difficulty," says Fr. Maher, 3 " that

1 I again quote from "What is Life? "

2 Here we may call to mind Kant's dictum (" Metaphysische Anfangs-
Griinde der Natunvissenschaft," cd. Hartenstein, Vol. IV, m. s. 440) that
" if we seek the cause of any change of matter whatever in life, we shall
have to seek it at once in another substance, distinct from matter, although
bound up with it."

3 " Life and the Conservation of Energy in the Lower Animals,"-


the Scholastic conception of the relation of Soul and Body
in the theory of Matter and Form is most helpful. 1 In that
theory the vital principle is the ' form ' or determining
principle of the living being. Coalescing with the material
or passive factor, it constitutes the living being. It gives
it its specific nature, it unifies the material elements into
one individual. It makes them, it constitutes them, it holds
them a living being of a certain kind. Biology teaches us
that the living organism is a mass of chemical compounds,
many in very complex and unstable equilibrium. They are,
many of them, tending of themselves to dissolution into
simpler and more stable substances, and when life ceases
the process of disintegration sets in with great rapidity. The
function, then, of this active informing principle is of a
unifying, conserving, restraining character, holding back
and sustaining the potential energies of the organism in
their unstable conditions. In this view of the relation of
the vital principle to the material elements of the organism,
it is obvious that the transformation of the potential energy
of the organism may be effected without any form of posi-
tive pressure, however small. It will suffice simply to
' let go,' to cease to hold back, and the energies thereby
liberated will tend of themselves to issue from their unstable
conditions. Conceive a sack of potatoes or a bladder of
gas or water. Suppose that sack or bladder endowed with
the power of giving way in particular places. The contents
will at once issue forth into outer space by the force of
gravitation or of their own mutual repulsions. Somewhat
in a similar way the ' Soul,' ' Vital Principle,' or ' Form ' is
holding and preserving the material elements of the organ-
ism, not in a particular space, but in certain states and
conditions of unstable equilibrium."

Such considerations as the above are helpful in dealing
with the difficulty which has been under discussion in this
chapter. No one will claim that the last or even the pen-
ultimate word has been said upon this subject. It, however,
once for all may be borne in mind that the onus probandi
lies with the materialists, and that they have singularly
failed to make good their position. For a time they seemed

1 See Chapter IX for the discussion of this question.


to prevail ; but the tide has turned and the weight of opinion
is once more on the side of the vitalists. It is hard to see
how it could be otherwise ; hard to understand how any
person capable of taking and endeavouring to take a really
wide and complete outlook on the world of life and its
operations could imagine that all these innumerable, often
quite unaccountable, always widely varying operations
could possibly be explained in terms of a mathematical or
a chemical formula. That is what it comes to if materialism
is true ; and when thus stated the whole thing becomes a
redudio ad absurdum. If this be so, the difficulty with which
we have been dealing falls with the other solution.



AS already mentioned, in his work on Darwinism, 1 the
l\ late Alfred Russel Wallace points out that there
are three stages in the development of the organic world
when some new cause or power must necessarily have come
into action. " The first stage is the change from inorganic
to organic, when the earliest vegetable cell, or the living
protoplasm out of which it arose, first appeared. This is
often imputed to a mere increase of complexity of chemical
compounds ; but increase of complexity, with consequent
instability, even if we admit that it may have produced
protoplasm as a chemical compound, could certainly not
have produced living protoplasm — protoplasm which has
the power of growth and of reproduction, and of that con-
tinuous process of development which has resulted in the
marvellous variety and complex organisation of the whole
vegetable kingdom. There is in all this something quite
beyond and apart from chemical changes, however complex ;
and it has been well said that the first vegetable cell was a
new thing in the world, possessing altogether new powers —
that of attracting and fixing carbon from the carbon-
dioxide of the atmosphere, that of indefinite reproduction,
and, still more marvellous, the power of variation and of
reproducing those variations till endless complications of
structure and varieties of form have been the result. Here,
then, we have indications of a new power at work, which
we may term vitality, since it gives to certain forms of matter
all those characters and properties which constitute Life."

We shall in due course return to two other stages alluded
to by Wallace ; but our present task is to attack the ques-

1 MacmiUan, London, 1889, p. 474.


tion as to whence this principle of vitality came and how it
originated on the earth. It cannot always have been here.
There was a period, as we have learnt already, when the
heat of this globe was such that nothing living, as we under-
stand the term, could have survived upon it for a single
instant. It is, therefore, clear either that life must have
been imported into this planet or it must have originated

It has actually been suggested that the germs of life
may have been brought to this earth from some other
planet on a meteorite. This theory seems quite untenable,
having regard to the intense heat which is engendered in
a meteor in its rapid passage through our atmosphere — a
heat which, one would imagine, would certainly kill any
germ of life which it might possibly bear with it. But from
the point of view of this book it does not matter in the least
whether the theory is true or not. What we want to get at
is the origin of life ; and to tell us that it was brought from
another planet is no answer to the question ; it only pushes
the origin a little further off. If I ask the origin of some
strange implement which is shown me in a museum, my
curiosity is in no way satisfied if I am told that it was brought
to this country by a ship.

There are two ways only in which the origin of life can
be explained : it originated spontaneously, or it was created
by God.

It is on this account that materialists have made such a
vigorous attempt to prove the truth of spontaneous genera-
tion, and to assume its truth where it cannot be proved.
Weismann makes this quite clear when he states " Spon-
taneous generation, in spite of all vain efforts to demon-
strate it, remains for me a logical necessity." 1

1 " Essays," Poulton's Trans., p. 34. Perhaps the present writer may
be permitted to quote, in a foot-note, his own comment on this statement,
published in " Facts and Theories," C.T.S., London, 1912, p. 86 : "A
logical necessity presupposes some sort of syllogistic treatment. Weis-
mann's major premise is perfectly clear : ' There is no such thing as a
Creator.' His minor term is, ' So life was not created ' : and his conclusion,
which follows, it is claimed, from the premises, is ' therefore spontaneous
generation takes place.' Many a false conclusion has followed from false
premises. But what is to be said of the arguments of a man of science
who is capable of putting forward, in effect, a syllogism of this kind where
the major premise begs the whole question at issue ? "


At the very beginning of this discussion it will be well
for us to bear in mind that no religious dogma is involved
in this question of Spontaneous Generation, though material-
istic writers imagine that there is. To judge by their writ-
ings, it would be enough to produce the tiniest fragment
of living protoplasm in a test-tube to knock the bottom
not only out of the Catholic Church but out of all revealed
religion. Such a conclusion is due to the dense ignorance
which prevails in the scientific world as to what the Church
teaches, and as to what her most distinguished writers
taught during the palmy days of the Scholastic Philo-
sophy. 1

Now in the days before the microscope was known every-
body held that life did spontaneously generate itself : what
else could they have thought ? Maggots were found to
originate in the carcases of animals left exposed to the air.
Pools swarmed with life. Eels were said to originate in
vinegar. There was then no means of detecting the real
origin of these and many other manifestations of a like
kind. Hence it was held that life was spontaneously gener-
ated. St. Thomas and the Scholastics held this view, but
never for a moment imagined that it conflicted with their
belief in the existence of a Creator. When this argument is
used, the stock reply is that St. Thomas argued against
Avicenna, an Arabian materialist, who upheld the doctrine
of spontaneous generation. This attack is based on ignor-
ance of the real meaning of the controversy. Both parties
to it, as a matter of fact, held the doctrine of spontaneous
generation. What Avicenna upheld was the doctrine of
the modern materialists — that spontaneous generation took
place by the powers of nature itself. St. Thomas argued
that it took place no doubt, but by means of powers given
to nature by the Creator for that very purpose. Supposing,

1 It is a most remarkable fact that in Driesch's "History of Vitalism,"
published 1914, the author should leap from Aristotle to Van Helmont with-
out mentioning the names of St. Thomas Aquinas or any of the Scholastics.
This cannot arise from the valuelessness of their works, for no person who
was acquainted with the writings of this school on the subject of life
and its nature could regard them as unworthy of criticism. It arises from
pure ignorance, — an ignorance only explicable on the ground of that most
undeserved contempt, which so many modern writers have been taught
to feel and to exhibit towards everyone whose era falls within the period
of the so-called " Dark Ages."


therefore, that spontaneous generation were to be proved
to demonstration to-morrow — as is possible though very
improbable — our feathers would be quite unruffled. We
should be simply back again where we were in the times of
St. Thomas Aquinas. The chemists have had to take that
backward journey in abandoning the theory of the immut-
ability of the so-called elements ; it would in no way hurt
us if we had to do the same as the result of the abandon-
ment of the theory of biogenesis. The Rev. A. B. Sharpe 1
says : " If, against all probability, life could be shown to
be spontaneously generated from matter, this would merely
mean that the sentient or vegetative soul 2 is a resultant from
certain chemical combinations, and not, as has been sup-
posed, the direct work of the Creator. But there is no
more inherent impossibility in holding that animal life is
brought into being by a certain combination of chemical
substances than in the converse belief, which is incontest-
able, that it is brought to an end by the dissolution, natural
or artificial, of that combination. If we can destroy an
animal's soul, as we certainly can, there is no a priori reason
why we should not be able to make one."

The question of Biogenesis or Abiogenesis — i.e. that of
non-spontaneous or spontaneous generation — can be at-
tacked from a purely scientific point of view, and with the
feeling that whichever way it is decided our withers are

We have seen that the facts of nature seemed, in the
early days of science, to establish spontaneous generation
on a secure footing. It was not until the time of Harvey,
the discoverer of the circulation of the blood, that the
doctrine was seriously challenged ; but the first real attack,
which preluded by its methods and their success the final
downfall of the theory, was that made by Redi, an Italian
poet and physician. 3 Redi adopted the very simple plan

Online LibraryBertram Coghill Alan WindleThe church and science → online text (page 29 of 38)