Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 19.djvu/823

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

contrasted with ancient physiology, he was misled by the natural temptation to carry out, in all its details, a parallel between the machines with which he was familiar, such as clocks and pieces of hydraulic apparatus, and the living machine. In all such machines there is a central source of power, and the parts of the machine are merely passive distributors of that power. The Cartesian school conceived of the living body as a machine of this kind; and herein they might have learned from Galen, who, whatever ill use he may have made of the doctrine of "natural faculties," nevertheless had the great merit of perceiving that local forces play a great part in physiology.

The same truth was recognized by Glisson, but it was first prominently brought forward in the Hallerian doctrine of the "vis insita" of muscles. If muscle can contract without nerve, there is an end of the Cartesian mechanical explanation of its contraction by the influx of animal spirits.

The discoveries of Trembley tended in the same direction. In the fresh-water Hydra no trace was to be found of that complicated machinery upon which the performance of the functions in the higher animals was supposed to depend. And yet the hydra moved, fed, grew, multiplied, and its fragments exhibited all the powers of the whole. And, finally, the work of Caspar F. Wolff,[1] by demonstrating the fact that the growth and development of both plants and animals take place antecedently to the existence of their grosser organs, and are, in fact, the causes and not the consequences of organization (as then understood), sapped the foundations of the Cartesian physiology as a complete expression of vital phenomena.

For Wolff, the physical basis of life is a fluid, possessed of a "vis essentialis" and a "solidescibilitas," in virtue of which it gives rise to organization; and, as he points out, this conclusion strikes at the root of the whole iatro-mechanical system.

In this country the great authority of John Hunter exerted a similar influence; though it must be admitted that the two sibylline utterances which are the outcome of Hunter's struggles to define his conceptions are often susceptible of more than one interpretation. Nevertheless, on some points Hunter is clear enough. For example, he is of opinion that "spirit is only a property of matter" ("Introduction to Natural History," p. 6), he is prepared to renounce animism (loc. cit., p. 8), and his conception of life is so completely physical that he thinks of it as something which can exist in a state of combination in the food. "The aliment we take in has in it, in a fixed state, the real life; and this does not become active until it has got into the lungs; for there it is freed from its prison" ("Observations on Physiology," p. 113). He also thinks that "it is more in accord with the general principles of the animal machine to suppose that none of its effects are produced from any mechanical principle what-

  1. "Theoria Generationis," 1759.