1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Biology

BIOLOGY (Gr. βίος, life). The biological sciences are those which deal with the phenomena manifested by living matter; and though it is customary and convenient to group apart such of these phenomena as are termed mental, and such of them as are exhibited by men in society, under the heads of psychology and sociology, yet it must be allowed that no natural boundary separates the subject matter of the latter sciences from that of biology. Psychology is inseparably linked with physiology; and the phases of social life exhibited by animals other than man, which sometimes curiously foreshadow human policy, fall strictly within the province of the biologist.

On the other hand, the biological sciences are sharply marked off from the abiological, or those which treat of the phenomena manifested by not-living matter, in so far as the properties of living matter distinguish it absolutely from all other kinds of things, and as the present state of knowledge furnishes us with no link between the living and the not-living.

These distinctive properties of living matter are—

1. Its chemical composition—containing, as it invariably does, one or more forms of a complex compound of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, the so-called protein or albumin (which has never yet been obtained except as a product of living bodies), united with a large proportion The properties
of living matter.
of water, and forming the chief constituent of a substance which, in its primary unmodified state, is known as protoplasm.

2. Its universal disintegration and waste by oxidation; and its concomitant reintegration by the intussusception of new matter.

A process of waste resulting from the decomposition of the molecules of the protoplasm, in virtue of which they break up into more highly oxidated products, which cease to form any part of the living body, is a constant concomitant of life. There is reason to believe that carbonic acid is always one of these waste products, while the others contain the remainder of the carbon, the nitrogen, the hydrogen and the other elements which may enter into the composition of the protoplasm.

The new matter taken in to make good this constant loss is either a ready-formed protoplasmic material, supplied by some other living being, or it consists of the elements of protoplasm, united together in simpler combinations, which consequently have to be built up into protoplasm by the agency of the living matter itself. In either case, the addition of molecules to those which already existed takes place, not at the surface of the living mass, but by interposition between the existing molecules of the latter. If the processes of disintegration and of reconstruction which characterize life balance one another, the size of the mass of living matter remains stationary, while, if the reconstructive process is the more rapid, the living body grows. But the increase of size which constitutes growth is the result of a process of molecular intussusception, and therefore differs altogether from the process of growth by accretion, which may be observed in crystals and is effected purely by the external addition of new matter—so that, in the well-known aphorism of Linnaeus, the word “grow” as applied to stones signifies a totally different process from what is called “growth” in plants and animals.

3. Its tendency to undergo cyclical changes.

In the ordinary course of nature, all living matter proceeds from pre-existing living matter, a portion of the latter being detached and acquiring an independent existence. The new form takes on the characters of that from which it arose; exhibits the same power of propagating itself by means of an offshoot; and, sooner or later, like its predecessor, ceases to live, and is resolved into more highly oxidated compounds of its elements.

Thus an individual living body is not only constantly changing its substance, but its size and form are undergoing continual modifications, the end of which is the death and decay of that individual; the continuation of the kind being secured by the detachment of portions which tend to run through the same cycle of forms as the parent. No forms of matter which are either not living, or have not been derived from living matter, exhibit these three properties, nor any approach to the remarkable phenomena defined under the second and third heads. But in addition to these distinctive characters, living matter has some other peculiarities, the chief of which are the dependence of all its activities upon moisture and upon heat, within a limited range of temperature, and the fact that it usually possesses a certain structure or organization.

As has been said, a large proportion of water enters into the composition of all living matter; a certain amount of drying arrests vital activity, and the complete abstraction of this water is absolutely incompatible with either actual or potential life. But many of the simpler Life conditioned by moisture.forms of life may undergo desiccation to such an extent as to arrest their vital manifestations and convert them into the semblance of not-living matter, and yet remain potentially alive. That is to say, on being duly moistened they return to life again. And this revivification may take place after months, or even years, of arrested life.

The properties of living matter are intimately related to temperature. Not only does exposure to heat sufficient to coagulate protein matter destroy life, by demolishing the molecular structure upon which life depends; but all vital activity, all phenomena of nutritive growth, Life conditioned by temperature.movement and reproduction are possible only between certain limits of temperature. These limits may be set down as from a little above the freezing point of water to a little below the boiling point It is to be noted, however, that these limits apply to the living matter itself, and many of the apparent exceptions are due to cases in which the living matter is enclosed in protective wrappings capable of resisting heat and cold. In many low organisms, such as the spores of bacteria, the thick, non-conducting wall may preserve the living protoplasm from subjection to external temperatures below freezing point, or above boiling point, but all the evidence goes to show that applications of such cold or heat, if prolonged or arranged so as to penetrate to the living matter, destroy life. In warm-blooded animals, such as birds and mammals, protective mechanisms for the regulation of temperature enable them to endure exposure to extreme heat or cold, but in such cases the actually living cells do not appreciably rise or fall in temperature. A variation of a very few degrees in the blood itself produces death.

Recent investigations point to the conclusion that the immediate cause of the arrest of vitality, in the first place, and of its destruction, in the second, is the coagulation of certain substances in the protoplasm, and that the latter contains various coagulable matters, which solidify at different temperatures. And it remains to be seen, how far the death of any form of living matter, at a given temperature, depends on the destruction of its fundamental substance at that heat, and how far death is brought about by the coagulation of merely accessory compounds.

It may be safely said of all those living things which are large enough to enable us to trust the evidence of microscopes, that they are heterogeneous optically, and that their different parts, and especially the surface layer, as contrasted with the interior, differ physically and Life and organization.chemically; while, in most living things, mere heterogeneity is exchanged for a definite structure, whereby the body is distinguished into visibly different parts, which possess different powers or functions. Living things which present this visible structure are said to be organized; and so widely does organization obtain among living beings, that organized and living are not unfrequently used as if they were terms of co-extensive applicability. This, however, is not exactly accurate, if it be thereby implied that all living things have a visible organization, as there are numerous forms of living matter of which it cannot properly be said that they possess either a definite structure or permanently specialized organs: though, doubtless, the simplest particle of living matter must possess a highly complex molecular structure, which is far beyond the reach of vision.

The broad distinctions which, as a matter of fact, exist between every known form of living substance and every other component of the material world, justify the separation of the biological sciences from all others. But it must not be supposed that the differences between living and not-living matter are such as to justify the assumption that the forces at work in the one are different from those which are to be met with in the other. Considered apart from the phenomena of consciousness, the phenomena of life are all dependent upon the working of the same physical and chemical forces as those which are active in the rest of the world. It may be convenient to use the terms “vitality” and “vital force” to denote the causes of certain great groups of natural operations, as we employ the names of “electricity” and “electrical force” to denote others; but it ceases to be proper to do so, if such a name implies the absurd assumption that “electricity” and “vitality” are entities playing the part of efficient causes of electrical or vital phenomena. A mass of living protoplasm is simply a molecular machine of great complexity, the total results of the working of which, or its vital phenomena, depend—on the one hand, upon its construction, and, on the other, upon the energy supplied to it; and to speak of “vitality” as anything but the name of a series of operations is as if one should talk of the “horologity” of a clock.

Living matter, or protoplasm and the products of its metamorphosis, may be regarded under four aspects:—

1. It has a certain external and internal form, the latter being more usually called structure; Classification of the phenomena of life.

2. It occupies a certain position in space and in time;

3. It is the subject of the operation of certain forces in virtue of which it undergoes internal changes, modifies external objects, and is modified by them; and

4. Its form, place and powers are the effects of certain causes.

In correspondence with these four aspects of its subject, biology is logically divisible into four chief subdivisions—I. Morphology; II. Distribution; III. Physiology; IV. Aetiology.

Various accidental circumstances, however, have brought it about that the actual distribution of scientific work does not correspond with the logical subdivisions of biology. The difference in technical methods and the historical evolution of teaching posts (for in all civilized countries the progress of biological knowledge has been very closely associated with the existence of institutions for the diffusion of knowledge and for professional education) have been the chief contributory causes to this practical confusion. Details of the morphology of plants will be found in the articles relating to the chief groups of plants, those of animals in the corresponding articles on groups of animals, while the classification of animals adopted in this work will be found in the article Zoology. Distribution is treated of under Zoological Distribution, Plankton, Palaeontology and Plants: Distribution. Physiology and its allied articles deal with the subject generally and in relation to man, while the special physiology of plants is dealt with in a section of the article Plants. Aetiology is treated of under the heading Evolution. But practical necessity has given rise to the existence of many other divisions; see Cytology, for the structure of cells; Embryology, for the development of individual organisms; Heredity and Reproduction, for the relations between parents and offspring.  (T. H. H.; P. C. M.)