Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 80.djvu/11

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
7
THE MECHANISTIC CONCEPTION OF LIFE

body temperature sufficiently to allow the maintenance of life are the so-called ferments of oxidation.

The work of Lavoisier and Laplace not only marks the beginning of scientific biology, it also touches the core of the problem of life; for it seems that oxidations form a part, if not the basis, of all life phenomena in higher organisms.

3. The "Riddle of Life"

By the "riddle of life" not everybody will understand the same thing. We all, however, desire to know how life originates and what death is, since our ethics must be influenced to a large extent through the answer to this question. We are not yet able to give an answer to the question as to how life originated on the earth. We know that every living being is able to transform food-stuffs into living matter; and we also know that not only the compounds which are formed in the animal body can be produced artificially, but that chemical reactions which take place in living organisms can also be repeated at the same rate and temperature in the laboratory. The gap in our knowledge which we feel most keenly is the fact that the chemical character of the catalyzers (the enzymes or ferments) is still unknown. Nothing indicates, however, at present that the artificial production of living matter is beyond the possibilities of science.

This view does not stand in opposition to the idea of Arrhenius that germs of sufficiently small dimensions are driven by radiation pressure through space; and that these germs if they fall upon new cosmic bodies possessing water, salts and oxygen and the proper temperature, give rise to a new evolution of organisms. Biology will certainly retain this idea, but I believe that we must also follow out the other problem: namely, either succeed in producing living matter artificially, or find the reasons why this should be impossible.

4. The Activation of the Ego

Although we are not yet able to state how life originated in general, another, more modest problem has been solved, that is, how the egg is caused by the sperm to develop into a new individual. Every animal originates from an egg and in the majority of animals a new individual can only then develop if a male sex-cell, a spermatozoon, enters into the egg. The question as to how a spermatozoon can cause an egg to develop into a new individual was twelve years ago still shrouded in that mystery which to-day surrounds the origin of life in general. But to-day we are able to state that the problem of the activation of the egg is for the most part reduced to physico-chemical terms. The egg is in the unfertilized condition a single cell with only one nucleus.