Lionel S. (Lionel Smith) Beale.

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less fictions of the imagination condensed and duly con-
centrated into very strong language to suit the dictates of
a party determined to make people think in one way only,
or to prevent them from thinking at all. But the autho-
ritative language of opponents need not deter us from
entering upon the discussion of a matter which is of
more than ordinary interest to all, and I shall venture to
draw certain conclusions concerning the probable nature of
life ; although I can only receive indirect assistance from
observation and experiment.

There is in living matter nothing which can be called a
mechanism, nothing in which structure can be discerned.
A little transparent colourless material is the seat of these
marvellous powers or properties by which the form, struc-
ture, and function of the tissues and organs of all living
things are determined. But this transparent material pos-
sesses a remarkable power of movement, which has been
already referred to (see p. 39). It may thus transport
itself long distances, and extend itself so as to get through
pores, holes, and canals too minute to be seen even with
the aid of very high powers. There are creatures of
exquisite tenuity which are capable of climbing through
fluids and probably through the air itself creatures which
climb without muscles, nerves or limbs creatures with
no mechanism, having no structure, capable when sus-
pended in the medium in which they live, of extend-
ing any one part of the pulpy matter of which they


consist beyond another part, and of causing the rest to
follow; as if each part willed to move and did so, or
moved in immediate response to mandates operating upon
it from a distance, governed by some undiscovered, and at
present unimagined laws, creatures which multiply by sepa-
rating into two or more parts without loss of substance, or
capacity, or power. It would seem that each part pos-
sessed equal powers with the whole, for the smallest particle
detached may soon grow into a body like the original mass
in every respect ; and the process may be repeated infinitely
without any loss or diminution in capacity or power. It
may be asked if there is anything approaching this oc-
curring within the range of physics or chemistry.

Of a Living Spherule. Let us imagine we could
look into the ultimate particles of the living, active,
moving matter, and consider what we should probably
discern. I think we should see spherules of extreme
minuteness, each composed of still smaller spherules,
and these of spherules infinitely minute. Such spherules
have upon their surface a small quantity of matter differ-
ing in properties from that in the interior, but so soft
and diffluent that the particles may come into very close
proximity. In each little spherule the matter is in active
movement, and new minute spherules are being formed in
its central part, and these are making their way outwards
so as to give place for the formation of new ones, which
are continually appearing in the centre of every one of
the living particles. The rate of growth of the entire
mass varies with the rate at which the new particles are
evolved in the centre.


Each spherical particle is free to move in fluid, and the
intervals between the particles are occupied by fluid. This
fluid contains, in solution,

1. Matter about to become living;

2. Substances which exert a chemical action, but do
not necessarily form a constituent part of the living mass,
together with particles which are rejected, and not capable
of being animated ; and

3. Substances resulting from the changes ensuing in
particles which have arrived at the end of their period of
existence, and the compounds formed by the action of
oxygen upon these.

There can be no doubt that the smallest particle of
living matter is complex. It is impossible to conceive
the existence of a living particle of any simple substance
like iron, oxygen, nitrogen, &c. ; for living involves changes
in which several different elements take part. It seems
to me, therefore, that the term living atom cannot with
propriety be employed, seeing that living matter is of
complex composition, while the idea of an atom seems to
nvolve simplicity of constitution, if not indivisibility. The
whole question of the arrangement and form of the atoms
in living matter can at present only be discussed theoreti-
cally ; and I would now merely remark with reference to
this subject, that although all living particles are of complex
composition, many different elements may exist in very
different proportions in living matter; and that there is
reason to believe that the smallest particles of every kind of
living matter are spherical. It is not possible to see, with
the highest powers now made, particles which would in all


probability be demonstrable by more perfect glasses. But
there is reason to think that in any case we must fail to see
the actual particles, which are the seat of change, in con-
sequence of their extreme tenuity and transparency. There
must, indeed, be centres more central than the most remote
spots which can be rendered evident to the senses, and it
is not possible to conceive an actual centre. The most
minute molecule must be compound to its very centre, and
yet the resolution of complex matter into their elements
must take place, and the re-arrangement of these in a new
manner must occur in the central part of every molecule
of which every mass of living matters consists. The
further consideration of this question is of the deepest
interest ; but the inquiry assumes a too purely speculative
character for me to pursue it here, as I am anxious not to
diverge very far from the consideration of matters which
may be investigated by observation and experiment. It
seems, however, to me probable that the wonderful changes
occurring when inanimate matter becomes living, which
occur in living beings alone, take place in the central part
of the spherical particles of germinal matter only. Dis-
cussions as to the nature of the vital forces must, I think,
therefore be confined to the consideration of the changes
which take place in those minute living spherules of which
there is reason to believe we can only see some which are
comparatively of large size, and probably many series re-
moved from their ultimate spherical components.

Centri f ugal Movement of Living Particles. Movement
takes place in the most minute living particles in a direc-
tion from centre to circumference, while the inanimate matter


which is about to become living passes in the opposite di-
rection (see p. 47) ; or, in other words, the inanimate matter
passes into the centre of a particle which already lives,
becomes living, and then moves outwards. The flow of the
inanimate matter is centripetal, and the movement of the
living matter is centrifugal. But both sets of movements
are to be accounted for by the centrifugal tendency of the
living matter ; for it is obvious that as it thus tends to move
from a centre, a flow in the opposite direction must be
induced. Such tendency to move from a centre, it would
seem, must be due to a force very different from that which
controls the movements of inanimate matter. Moreover,
while cosmical force influences masses of the largest magni-
tude and of infinite minuteness, through varying distance, the
vital forces can only exert their sway when the distance is
infinitely short ; and it would seem that this influence can
only affect matter which has arrived at the very centre of the
living particle.

New Centres not formed by Aggregation. It cannot
be supposed that the new centres of living matter are
in any way formed by the aggregation of particles derived
from distant parts ; for, if this were so, these living
particles must have traversed formed material, and passed
to the very centre of the living germinal matter. But we
have ample evidence to prove that the movement of living
particles is in one direction only, from and not towards
centres. Moreover, there is reason to think that the only
matter passing towards centres is dissolved non-living
pabulum, and if living particles were suspended in this, they
would be filtered off by the formed material, and would never


reach the living matter. The arrangement is such as to
permit fluid only to go to the living matter, and check the
passage of all insoluble particles of whatever kind. While,
if we admitted as possible the aggregation of millions of
particles having different properties and powers, we should
still be quite unable to explain how it was that they did
not interfere with one another's interests ; why, for instance,
the most vigorous did not grow at the expense of their
weaker brethren, starving them by appropriating their
pabulum, destroying them utterly, and occupying the space
which they had not the strength to retain.

Alteration in Vital Power. It is remarkable that
the results of the act of living in different masses of
germinal matter having the same origin should be very
different. And in the development of new centres one
within the other, the masses last produced seem to have
acquired powers which their progenitors did not possess.
In the formation of the ovum itself the production of
centre within centre proceeds for a long time before the
actual mass from which the new being is to be evolved
is produced. On the other hand, thousands of masses
of germinal matter are formed during the early periods of
development, which apparently only serve the purpose of
giving origin within themselves to others from which those
which are to take part in the formation of tissues are at
length developed. Thus, many successive series of masses
of germinal matter are formed, and are succeeded by new
ones before those by which the tissue or organ is to be
formed are produced. And these result from the develop-
ment of new centres or nuclei within already existing



living matter. Each successive series of nuclei seems to
acquire new power, although there are no characters by
which it could be distinguished from any pre-existing or suc-
ceeding series. That there is a difference is, however,
proved by the difference in the results of living. Moreover,
at the same time that the new centre acquires new powers,
it retains by inheritance some of those possessed by the
germinal matter that preceded it, and hands these down to
the new centres it originates. It would, therefore, appear
more in accordance with the facts to conclude that the
powers exhibited by the last of a series of masses of germinal
matter were somehow retained in relation with the matter
of every one of its predecessors, and thus handed down
from generation to generation, than to assume that the new
powers were acquired in consequence of the different series
being successively exposed to different external conditions.
But this last view is really untenable, because we have
abundant evidence of the transmission of peculiar pro-
perties and powers, through a vast number of successive
units during a considerable period of time, and though
sometimes dormant for a while, they are yet at last mani-
fested so distinctly that no doubt could be entertained as
to their actual transmission from particle to particle.

Increased Action. Increase in formative and constructive
power seems to be associated with the most limited change
in germinal matter, while rapid change increased vital
action seems to be invariably connected with decadence
in power. How can such phenomena be in any way due
to the influence of the ordinary forces associated with
lifeless matter ? No form or mode of force yet discovered


has been known to act in any way at all analogous to
this. The results must, therefore, be attributed to some
peculiar power capable of controlling and directing both
matter and force.

It has been suggested that the different substances and
different structures produced by germinal matter at different
periods of development may depend upon the different
surrounding conditions present when the changes occur.
This, however, is no explanation at all, for the surrounding
conditions to which a mass of living matter in a growing
organism is exposed, as well as the circumstances con-
cerned in the production of these, are complex. They are
not simple external conditions, but are in part the result of
external circumstances, and in part of a previous state of
things in the establishment of which pre-existing vital
powers, associated with germinal matter, played no unim-
portant part. It has been shown that the production of
formed matter is due to the death of living matter under
certain conditions, which is itself a highly complex phe-
nomenon, and cannot be explained without supposing

1. Certain internal forces capable of causing the elements
of the matter to arrange themselves in a certain definite
manner totally different from that in which the ordinary forces
of matter would cause these elements to be arranged ; and

2. Certain influences operating from without (i.e., surround-
ing external conditions) tending to prevent the supposed
internal forces from exerting their sway. The composition,
structure and properties of the matter produced, must, it
seems to me, be referred to the influence of these different
antagonistic forces acting upon matter in opposite directions.

I 2

ll6 LIFE.

All this, which takes place in all living particles, seems
very different from anything going on in non-living matter.

Hypothesis of Vital Force. It seems to me that the
facts cannot be accounted for except on the hypothesis
of the existence of some force or power which influences,
in a manner we do not yet understand, the ultimate
elements, or the compound molecules, and causes them
to take up particular relations to one another, so that
when they combine, compounds possessing special cha-
racters shall be formed. For, surely it cannot be
maintained that the atoms arrange themselves, and devise
what positions each is to take up, and it would be yet
more extravagant to attribute to ordinary force or energy,
atomic rule and directive agency. We might as well try to
make ourselves believe that the laboratory fire made and
lighted itself, that the chemical compounds put themselves
into the crucible, and the solutions betook themselves to
the beakers in the proper order, and in the exact propor-
tions required to form certain definite compounds. But
while all will agree that it is absurd to ignore the chemist in
the laboratory, many insist upon ignoring the presence of
anything representing the chemist in the living matter which
they call the "cell-laboratory." In the one case the chemist
works and guides, but in the other it is maintained, the life-
less molecules of matter are themselves the active agents in
developing vital phenomena.

Some have taught that mind transcends life, and life
transcends chemistry, just as chemical affinity transcends
mechanics. But no one has proved, and no one can prove,
that mind and life are in* any way related to chemistry and


mechanics. If the step from mechanics to chemistry is
known, has been proved, and is admitted, that from chemistry
to life is assumed, and assumed without the slightest
reason. If it had been shown that there was some sort of
relation between A and B, and another sort of relation
between C D, would any one venture to argue that, there-
fore, B and C must be related ? Neither can it be said that
life works with physical and chemical forces, for there is no
evidence that this is so. On the other hand it is quite
certain that life overcomes, in some very remarkable and
unknown manner, the influence of physical forces and
chemical affinities. Does the tree grow away from the
earth or its roots into it, in obedience to the laws of gravi-
tation? Are certain things taken up from the soil and
others rejected, or do the leaf cells tear away from carbonic
acid its carbon, and drive off its oxygen by reason of
chemical affinity ? Of course, it will be said that capillary
attraction, osmose and other forces, contribute in a highly
complex manner to bring about the results; but every one
at all acquainted with the subject knows, that the facts have
not been, and cannot be explained. Such questions are
usually evaded by those who profess to explain them.
I ask for one single instance in which the phenomena
actually occurring in any living thing, or in a particle of
living matter, can be adequately explained by physics and
chemistry. The only answer I get is, that if the pheno-
mena cannot be explained now, it is certain they will be at
no very distant period. One must, however, acquire pro-
digious physical faith before one can hope to believe that
prophetic physics and cherhistry are as worthy of acceptance


and as convincing to the reason as facts of observation and

If the explanation of the facts by calling in the aid of
some agency, force, or power totally distinct from ordinary
force is unsatisfactory, is it not more unsatisfactory, nay, is
it not even false, to attribute them to the action of the
ordinary cosmical forces, concerning which much is known,
but which have never been proved to be capable of effect-
ing any changes at all like those which occur in every kind
of living matter?

And it would surely be more in accordance with the
true spirit of science, at least while our knowledge remains
very imperfect, to study still more carefully the phenomena
of the simplest known forms of living matter than to affirm
boastingly, that not only these phenomena but those mani-
fested by the highest form living matter is known to
take, undoubtedly, result from the influence of mere force
which never made a brick or formed a wheel, but yet is
held capable of constructing those most wonderful and most
beautiful mechanisms which could never have been con-
ceived by the most vivid imagination, but which are being
revealed to us in new multitudes day by day in glorious
perfection. Surely, these no more result from the fortuitous
or force-impelled aggregation of atoms than pictures, statues,
mills, or ships do.

If, then, we take a general survey of the phenomena
peculiar to living things, I think we shall find ourselves
compelled by the facts to accept some such inferences as
the following :


In all living beings there exists matter in a peculiar
state which we call living. This living matter manifests
phenomena which are different from any phenomena proved
to be due to the operation of any known laws. It moves in
a manner which cannot be explained by physics. Changes
are effected in its composition which cannot be accounted
for, and various substances are formed by it which may
exhibit structure, properties, and a capacity for acting in a
manner which is peculiar to living beings, and cannot be
imitated artificially or satisfactorily explained. It takes
up non-living matter in solution, and communicates its
wonderful properties to it. Having increased to a certain
size, the mass of living matter divides into smaller portions,
every one of which possesses the same properties as the
the parent mass, and in equal degree.

Scientific investigators have hitherto failed to discover
any laws by which these facts may be accounted for. But
rather than ignore or misrepresent them, or affirm anything
concerning them which we cannot prove, as some have
done, it seems to me preferable to resort provisionally to
hypothesis. In order to account for the facts, I conceive
that some directing agency of a kind peculiar to the living
world exists in association with every particle of living
matter, which, in some hitherto unexplained manner, affects
temporarily its elements, and determines the precise changes
which are to take place when the living matter again comes
under the influence of certain external conditions.

In higher animals, besides giving rise to the phenomena
above referred to every instant during life in every part of
the organism, this supposed agency or power, acting under

120 LIFE.

certain circumstances at an early period of development, so
disposes the material which it governs, that mechanisms
result of most wonderful structure, at any rate admirably
adapted, if they have been actually designed, for the fulfilment
of definite purposes. These mechanisms were anticipated,
as it were, from the earliest period, and their formation
provided for by the preparatory changes through which the
structures had to pass before perfect development could be
attained. Can these phenomena be accounted for except
through the influence of some wonderful power or agency
such as we are now contemplating ?

Of all organic mechanism, the most perfect, the most
exalted, and as regards mere structure the most elaborate,
is the nervous. Widely diffused, intimately concerned in
the actions going on in various tissues, and co-extensive
with most of these, it sends filaments to the very confines
of the organism. Through this mechanism alone, the very
last to be perfected, external changes affect the peculiar
form of living matter with which it is in the closest relation,
and are thus rendered evident to the living being. The
changes occurring in the central living matter of the
nervous apparatus may give rise to secondary, combined,
and complex actions, through which various ends may be
accomplished. These internal impulses are themselves the
movements of the particles of the living matter induced by
the supposed vital power or agency acting upon them.

In animals yet higher in the scale of creation, the
nervous mechanism through which alone the vital power
influences other tissues, so as to give rise to associated and
combined acts, is still more perfect and elaborate ; but it is


formed according to and acts upon the same principles.
Actions most complex are carried out through the influence
of what is ordinarily termed will. This is essentially related
to life itself, and probably is the vital force or power of
certain kinds of living matter. But it must not be supposed
that vital phenomena are due to will alone, for in all cases
these occur long before there are any manifestations of will,
as the term is ordinarily understood, indeed, before the
tissues through which alone will operates have been de-
veloped. At all periods of life there are tissues which live
and grow independently of the influence of will. Neither
can instinct nor mind be regarded as life, although I think
these, as well as will, are forms of vital power.

In man there seems to be seated in and limited to
a special part of his nervous mechanism, a still higher and
more wonderful power, influencing a very special and easily
destructible living matter. By virtue of this power man
alone, of all created beings, is impelled to seek for the
causes of the phenomena he observes, and is enabled
to devise new arrangements of material substances for his
own definite purposes, and in a manner in which these sub-
stances were never arranged before, and in which it is not
conceivable they could be arranged without man's design
and agency. The power supposed, totally distinct from any
forces or properties of which we are cognizant, and not in
any way correlated with any known forms or modes of force
of which we have any experience, exerts its sway upon any
definite portion of matter, during varying but usually only
very brief periods of time, often momentarily, and is then
transferred to, or passes on, and influences new particles.

122 LIFE.

From these the powers are transmitted to others, and so
on. The amount of matter influenced at any one moment
being greater in some situations than in others, and varying
according to a number of circumstances. In relation with
the delicate living matter, seated near the surface of the grey
matter of the convolutions of man's brain, which is alone
concerned in mental action, I conceive that vital power
attains its most exalted form. It seems to be temporarily
chained, as it were, to this matter, which it acts upon, and
through which alone it can make itself evident ; but seeing
that all forms of vital power are transferable, surely there
is nothing contrary to reason in supposing that it may be
freed from the material, and yet be.


Of Nerve Action in General.

|T has been very generally concluded that the
peripheral excitation of a nerve is due to some

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Online LibraryLionel S. (Lionel Smith) BealeProtoplasm : or, Life, matter, and mind → online text (page 9 of 12)