Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 80.djvu/10

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by laymen that "truth" in biology or science in general is of the same order as "truth" in certain of the mental sciences; that is to say, that everything rests on argument or rhetoric and that what is regarded as true to-day may be expected with some probability to be considered untrue to-morrow. It happens in science, especially in the descriptive sciences like paleontology or zoology, that hypotheses are forwarded, discussed and then abandoned. It should, however, be remembered that modern biology is fundamentally an experimental and not a descriptive science; and that its results are not rhetorical, but always assume one of two forms: it is either possible to control a life phenomenon to such an extent that we can produce it at desire at any time (as, e. g., the contraction of an excised muscle); or we succeed in finding the numerical relation between the conditions of the experiment and the biological result (e. g., Mendel's law of heredity). Biology as far as it is based on these two principles can not retrogress, but must advance.

2. The Beginning of Scientific Biology

Scientific biology, defined in this sense, begins with the attempt made by Lavoisier and Laplace (1780) to show that the quantity of heat which is formed in the body of a warm-blooded animal is equal to that formed in a candle, provided that the quantities of carbon dioxide formed in both cases are identical. This was the first attempt to reduce a life-phenomenon, namely, the formation of animal heat, completely to physico-chemical terms. What these two investigators began with primitive means has been completed by more recent investigators—Pettenkofer and Voit, Rubner and Zuntz. The oxidation of a foodstuff always furnishes the same amount of heat, no matter whether it takes place in the living body or outside.

These investigations left a gap. The substances which undergo oxidations in the animal body—starch, fat and proteins—are substances which at ordinary temperature are not easily oxidized. They require the temperature of the flame in order to undergo rapid oxidation through the oxygen of the air. This discrepancy between the oxidations in the living body and those in the laboratory manifests itself also in other chemical processes, e. g., digestion or hydrolytic reactions, which were at first found to occur outside the living body rapidly only under conditions incompatible with life. This discrepancy was done away with by the physical chemists, who demonstrated that the same acceleration of chemical reactions which is brought about by a high temperature can also be accomplished at a low temperature with the aid of certain specific substances, the so-called catalyzers. This progress is connected preeminently with the names of Berzelius and Wilhelm Ostwald. The specific substances which accelerate the oxidations at