Popular Science Monthly/Volume 75/August 1909/Life from the Biologist's Standpoint
|LIFE FROM THE BIOLOGIST'S STANDPOINT|
MARINE BIOLOGICAL STATION OF SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA
THE data of biology are living plants and animals. These are what nature presents. To these we must always go in order to make a beginning at any investigation. Is one interested in ganglionic cells, or germ cells, or liver secretions, or degenerate organs? He must find some kind of animal that has, or produces, or can yield such things. In making a successful quest for "material," it always turns out that a particular individual plant or animal, one or more, furnishes it. One may not be able to tell exactly what he means by an individual tree or man, but he must have one before he can study it or any part of it. Definitions of natural objects come at the end, rather than at the beginning, of our knowledge of them.
We biologists frequently speak of the principle of life, or the germs of life, and of many other particular manifestations of organisms, as though they were something really existent independently of particular organisms. Such questions as: Which came first, or is more fundamental, the chick or the egg; structure or function; life or organization? are frequently asked with more or less seriousness. Herbert Spencer devotes considerable space to the inquiry as to whether life or organization appeared first. He writes:
Greatly to Mr. Spencer's credit he tells us in another connection (p. 197), that "in truth this question is not determinable by any evidence now accessible." We must go a long way beyond this position and recognize that not only is the question not determinable "by any evidence now accessible," but that there is not the slightest indication that such evidence ever will be accessible. What we have to see is that all suck discussions are utterly futile for science; indeed, that they have no legitimate place in inductive science.
Has anybody ever seen an egg that was not produced by some organism; some function without structure, or vice versa; some life without organization, or organization independent of life? Surely not. Then equally surely you can make no assumption that involves the disjunction of either member of one of these couples from the other, without attempting to transcend experience—without becoming in so far an a priorist pure and simple.
Now you may perhaps have the privilege of being an a priorist pure and simple, if you want it, but in case you choose thus you can not have a seat in the temple of physical science for one instant. On the basis of experience science can-project itself far in advance of experience, but only on that basis can it thus project itself.
So much for the data, the starting places of biology. They are individual animals and plants, living in nature. It is wholesome for any domain of science to stop now and then and ask what its original data are. Such inquiry not only yields enlightenment, interesting and useful of itself, but it is further illuminating as to the way a science deals, and must deal, with its raw material—its "givens."
Notice the procedure in a special case. Observe how oceanography proceeds in studying the Pacific Ocean. Of what is that vast sea composed? First of all of water, H2O. No doubt about that. Dissolved in this are various mineral salts, chlorides of sodium and magnesium, particularly, and the gases O, N and CO2. These with perhaps a few other elements and the ocean is chemically accounted for. Yet how far have we gone toward a knowledge of the Pacific Ocean when we have found that it is thus constituted? Even though we should have ascertained the total quantity of water, salts and gases in the entire Pacific, we should have scarcely made a beginning on the oceanography of this body of water. Its form and boundaries; its connections with other oceans; the character of its bottom; its islands, continental and oceanic; its currents; its tides; the up-welling waters on its eastern margins; its temperature in general, and in particular parts, and dozens of other matters, are quite over and beyond anything that strict chemical knowledge can reach. Oceanography as now understood is quite impossible without chemistry, but it by no means follows that chemistry is the whole of oceanography. Physics is as essential as chemistry; and geology and astronomy are in turn as essential as physics.
So with the other inorganic sciences. Spectroscopy, a department of chemistry, has been largely the making of modern stellar astronomy. Yet is not such a problem as that of the variable stars, something over and above spectroscopy? Is it conceivable that spectroscopy alone would ever have discovered variable stars, and formulated the many interesting questions about them that astronomy is now asking?
Do not the same principles of constitution, and study of constitution, hold when we enter the domain of living objects? They surely do. Organisms have their own special qualities and so present their own problems, exactly as do oceans and stars. Biology depends upon, but at the same time transcends, chemistry and physics, in exactly the same way that astronomy rests upon but transcends chemistry and physics. We are here on the threshold of one of the oldest, in many of its aspects one of the most familiar scientific and philosophic puzzles; namely, that of the relation of a whole to the elements which compose it.
Alas for the proneness of humankind to go all awry with itself and nature from not duly heeding the commonest, most familiar things! Hear this dialogue that comes to us across a stretch of two thousand years:
Socrates—" Suppose one were to ask you a question about the first syllable in the name Socrates, and say 'Theætetus, tell me what SO is,' what would you answer?"
Theætetus—" That it is S and O."
S.—"Well, have you not there the reasoned statement of the syllable?"
T.—" Yes, certainly."
S.—" Proceed then and give me in the same way the reasoned statement of S."
T.—"But how can one give the elements of an element? For indeed, Socrates, S is one of the voiceless letters, a mere sound, as it were a whistling of the tongue. . . ."
S.—" But stay, I wonder if we are right in laying it down that while the element is not knowable the combination is?. . ."
T.—" That would be strange beyond all reason, Socrates. . . ."
S.—" Perhaps we ought to have taken the combination to be not the sum of the elements, but a single form resulting from them, with an individual shape of its own, and differing from the elements."
T.—" Certainly, very possibly this view is more correct than the other. . . ."
S.—" Then let the combination be, as we now put it, a single form, alike in letters and in everything else, resulting from the conjunction of harmonious elements in each case."
As long as the mind of the interpreter is human, the whole truth of a complex natural object or proposition can never be ascertained from knowledge of its components alone. Or varying this statement, you can never give a full account of any whole in terms of its elements.
In spite of the ocean and the 6tars as illustrating the truth thus formulated, the statement sounds dogmatic. We must examine it farther.
The presumption that biological phenomena may be adequately treated in terms of chemistry and physics takes care of itself so far as strict science is concerned, since its utter futility becomes apparent almost immediately it is put to rigid experimental test. For one thing, it results in constant effort to extend generalizations far beyond where later study will permit them to stand. It leads inevitably to a forcing of evidence, which process sooner or later comes to grief.
One aspect of this forcing is almost certain betrayal into an. illegitimate use of the analogical mode of reasoning. For instance, an analogy is often drawn between the so-called reversed actions in chemistry, and what is spoken of as a return of certain animals—certain worms—to the egg state. As a matter of fact the earlier speaker who drew this analogy might have used the "second-childhood" of the old man as well as the supposed second egg state of the worm. One has as much in common as the other with the chemical process for which correspondence was claimed.
You must not understand by this that I condemn, wholly, comparison and analogy in reasoning. On the contrary, I attach great importance to these, as would become clear were this discussion to be carried into regions where it is not possible for it to go now. In so far as there is resemblance between reversed chemical action and growing old, the fact is illuminating, and to have discovered it is good. My criticism is directed not against pointing out the resemblance, but against not pointing out the difference at the same time, thus leaving the inference that one process accounts for or explains the other. It is in its wider bearings, its bearings beyond strict specialties in science, that the influence of the theory of physical-chemical adequacy in the treatment of life phenomena is most unfortunate. Only when regarded from this larger standpoint does its withering effect on the scientific spirit and method generally, and on man's attitude toward nature, become apparent.
The subject is, according to my view, so vital that I must ask you to look into it more closely. This we can not do without running a little into what these walls are accustomed to hear about under the term theory of knowledge, or epistemology. Most of us would agree that we have to use both our senses and our minds in science. Most would agree too that that workman is the most efficient who uses his instruments the most intelligently—who is not a mere rule-of-thumb workman. How then do our minds and our senses work while we do science? Are there general principles of operation, to know which would enable us to use them more smoothly, more surely, more productively? Let us watch them while they work at some problem of chemistry, say. To be as objective as possible we will use common table salt. We began with a general acquaintance with the article. How do we become thus acquainted? Surely in no other way than by examining it. We touch our tongues to it, it dissolves readily and has a characteristic taste. Examining this dissolving propensity minutely, we find that in distilled water at a definite temperature, a definite quantity will be taken up. Its solubility is thus determined.
The moment we handle it in considerable amount we note that it is rather heavy. In water it sinks quickly. This property we examine more closely and find that a specific gravity characterizes it.
In a pulverized state it is pure white. If, however, we let it evaporate slowly, we get cubical crystals, not white but transparent.
We may suppose now we have examined all the physical properties of salt. But surely our knowledge is not yet complete. We know nothing of its composition. Before beginning on this chemical extension of our knowledge, let us take due note of the fact that table salt is a definite thing to us; we can use it in a hundred ways and rely implicitly upon it, on the basis of this physical knowledge alone. We do not have to know whether it is simple or compound in order to get its benefits as salt. Physical knowledge of it we must have before we can use it in any way. Chemical knowledge, understanding by this knowledge of constituents, we need not have.
But since we started out to know salt through and through, we must become salt chemists. We must decompose the substance, if it turns out to be compound, and examine its constituents as carefully as we examined the substance itself. To make the story short we get sodium and chlorine. But we must not so shorten the story as to fail to see what we do in examining these constituents. What is it that we do? We proceed exactly as we did in examining the salt. We determine their physical properties. The sodium is opaque, and bright metallic in color. Ordinarily it is amorphous and waxy. Instead of dissolving in water as does the salt, it decomposes water. Instead of sinking quickly, it floats. It melts at 95°. 6 C., while 776° of heat are required to melt salt.
The chlorine, a gas at any temperature we can readily command, is greenish-yellow in color. Its odor is characteristically disagreeable, and it irritates our noses and throats. Like the salt it is soluble in water, but while the salt is more soluble in hot water than cold, chlorine is more soluble in cold water. It is heavier than air, though much lighter than water.
What is the net result of our examination of the constituents of salt? First and foremost an interesting lot of entirely new knowledge. Our understanding of salt has been broadened and deepened. Salt is a much more complex thing to us now than it was before. Instead of simplifying salt by reducing it to its elements, we have greatly complicated it. But notice this particularly: The new knowledge has not enhanced by one jot our knowledge of the physical properties of salt. There is nothing whatever in the properties of the sodium or the chlorine that gives us any clue to the properties of the salt. We might, so far as the best cunning in observation we now possess promises anything, examine the sodium and the chlorine till doomsday and never suspect that together they might produce salt, unless we happened to put them together and note that salt actually did result.
This is a threadbare, school-book story. Why revamp it here? Because it is part, though an essential part, of a much larger story, the whole of which is rarely if ever told. Before we can reach the heart of the matter we must stop a moment with another fact so familiar as likewise to seem stale. Our physical examination of the salt, the sodium and the chlorine, were applications of the general principle that the first step in all knowledge of external objects is the determination of their physical qualities. The familiar expression is, "we know an object only by its properties, or qualities." Let us take this statement from its pigeon-hole of mere habit, and look at it reflectively. Does it mean that there are no natural objects in all the universe about which we can get knowledge in no way other than through their physical properties? Those of you who say "yes, that is what it means," I agree with, and with you might go on at once with the discussion. But some will, I suspect, hesitate to reply thus. To you who hesitate, I say that if there be objects which we may know by other means than through their physical properties, they must be namable, otherwise you could not claim for them a place in the physical world; so I demand that you mention examples. You will probably name the atoms of the chemist and the ether of space. You are then, in so far as concerns the atoms, committed to the conception of propertyless atoms, are you not? I ask you to tell me then exactly what it was that John Dalton and the other founders of modern chemistry actually did. Certainly there were atomic theories of the constitution of matter long before these men lived. Democritus and Newton, to say nothing of others, made much of such atoms. Why did the pre-Daltonian atoms signify nothing, or almost nothing for physical science? Because they were propertyless atoms. To attach to these old purely speculative, and hence scientifically useless atoms, one property of the particular substance to which they belong, was exactly what these chemists did. The property so attached was that of combining with other substances in definite ways.
Analyze the atomic theory of modern chemistry and you will find that all that makes it significant for chemical practise is expressible in this way: If any two substances unite with each other chemically, they do so in such a manner that there are no particles of them so small as not to follow the same law of combination that holds for the substances in bulk.
Atoms in modern chemistry are small bodies imagined to constitute visible substances, and they are imagined for the purpose of incarnating, if you will, the observed trait that substances have of combining with one another according to known rules. As to most of the other properties of atoms, their shape, color, hardness, etc., if atoms are conceived to be anything else than little particles of the substances, science knows no more to-day than did Newton and Democritus.
The purpose of this little excursion into the atomic doctrine, that border-land of physical science, is to bring home something of the mighty power there is in the properties of things, and in sense experience. It is not too much to say that the modern science of chemistry was born then and there, when one property that substances have, viz., that of definite combination with other substances, was attached to the hitherto purely speculative, more or less mystical atoms of those substances.
I ask you now to recall what was said about the way we deal with the salt, sodium and chlorine. Substantially the statement was that we have to treat them all on exactly the same basis, so far as the process of knowing is concerned. That is, we have to treat each one on the basis of its own properties. We can not touch sodium with our knowledge of the properties of chlorine, nor vice versa. Similarly, we can not touch sodium with our knowledge of the properties of salt, nor salt with our knowledge of the properties of sodium, except, mark you, as we may say that one property of sodium is its power to unite with chlorine to produce salt. My familiar expression for this is that the external world and our minds are so constituted, are so articulated with each other, that every object in that world must be treated on its own merits. Now notice that since these substances must be treated, each on its own merits, and since the sodium and chlorine have the power of combining with each other in such a remarkable way that they wholly lose their original properties, at least temporarily, and merge into another substance, salt, with properties wholly its own, we must recognize that the properties of substances manifest something of transitoriness and relativity.
Thus are we led to the notion which I have ventured to speak of as the standardization of reality. The expression is suggested by the chemist's process of standardizing solutions; the process, that is, of using a solution of known composition and concentration as a unit of value to which to refer various reactions and processes. The meaning is that whatever criterion of reality you apply to any natural object, that same criterion you must apply to all other natural objects, no matter whether some of these be constituents of others, or stand in some other relation to one another.
Making the statement specific for the case of objects that are composed of other objects or substances, it runs thus: Whatever criterion of reality you apply as the test of the elements of a complex body or substance, exactly that same criterion you must apply as a test of the reality of the complex body itself.
It follows from this, that with the question of a fundamental essence or substance behind properties, we are, as students of objective nature, in no wise concerned. As to whether there is or is not a real essence of sodium, or of salt, to which the sensible properties of these substances adhere, is no affair of ours. Physical science can not even raise the question of an absolute reality or realities behind the objects with which it deals.
Now let us carry these considerations of the nature of objects and of minds, and the relation existing between them, up into trre realm of objects that we call living. The formulary will run thus: In whatever sense you predicate reality, or fundamentality, or ultimateness to the germ or any part of an organism, in exactly the same sense you must predicate reality, or fundamentality, or ultimateness to the completed and whole organism.
If you have been accustomed to look upon living nature with the conception that somewhere deeply hidden in the plants and animals you daily meet there is something more real than the organisms themselves, something possessed of a potency wholly unique and mysterious as contrasted with that possessed by the visible beings; or, if you have regarded living beings as ejects of your own consciousness—if, I say, you have been wont to thus regard organisms, grasp fully this conception of reality and of measuring reality and you will find, I believe, that it will transform your world. It will increase your interest in every developed organism as contrasted with your interest in its germ, or any portion of the organism physical or psychical in almost direct proportion as the sensible complexity of the organism as a whole exceeds the sensible complexity of the germ or any part of the organism.
Here is the epistemological necessity for the conception of an "organism as a whole," the biological compulsion of which we speak later. The point is simply this: Every object in nature has some nature of its own. That is just what makes it belong to nature. Consequently there must be something about it which can not be fully accounted for by referring it to something else in nature. For if you could thus dispose of every natural object, nature would consume itself in explanation. You would have the case of the Kilkenny cats psychologized. We come here, I imagine, upon what virile truth there is in the "Ding an Sich," the "Thing in Itself." I can not restrain my interest from going where I believe reality, to be. Contrariwise, I can not send it where I believe reality is not. Interest and attention, like natural forces generally, take the direction of least resistance; and the places of greatest belief in reality are those of least resistance for attention. With this psychological basis to go on, illustration will carry us forward more surely and steadily than further argument.
The very heart of that school of biology known as materialistic, or mechanistic, is its effort to interpret living beings by ascribing to invisible substances or bodies, located somewhere within the germ-cells and other cells of the body, reality and essentiality of a sort quite unique as contrasted with the visible substances, and the organisms themselves. Examine the program of this school attentively and you will see that it proposes to "explain" or "express" those parts of animate nature about which we know most, observationally, in terms of those parts about which we know least, observationally. It is undoubtedly a quasi-inductive, semi-mystical program.
The chemical materialist conceives certain compounds, never well-known ones mark you, enzymes for example, to be thus supremely endowed. The biological materialist on the other hand, ascribes this exalted role to imaginary, invisible living bodies hidden deep within the germ and other cells. Biology of the last three decades has bestowed mighty powers upon such bodies under the designation "determinants." Only those familiar with the technical literature of the science during this time can have any notion of the influence these bodies have had. What have been, and what are the effects of such conceptions on biological theory and practise? I mention only a few of these.
Nothing is more characteristic of the biological thought in highest repute to-day than its disposition to look down upon all those kinds of research not aimed at the elements of organisms—at "ultimate problems," as the expression goes. Most of those who labor in the biological vineyard but are not elementalists of some sort, will appreciate what I mean, for they will have personally felt the ban placed upon them by the dominant school. A few years ago one of our best known American zoologists, speaking from a position of national preferment in his science, reviewed comprehensively the present range of zoology, and did not hesitate to pass upon the labors of description and classification of animals as hardly worth while. In other words, he pronounced as not worth doing, the very things which an examination of the nature of the knowledge-getting process shows to be absolutely fundamental steps toward an understanding of living nature.
This zoologist, it is hardly necessary to say, is an elementalist at heart. Plants and animals, as nature presents them, are for him real in a way. They are of course what our naked, crass senses come in contact with, but the real essence of them, the thing we want to get at, lies far away in the germ-cells, in the chromosomes, in protoplasm. There is reality. There is the pole-star by which our compass should be set, according to his views.
The consistent elementalist can not care much for description and classification, for these depend in the first instance on "mere qualities," while he is concerned with essences. The elementalist's problems, like the pure intellectualist's, are always ultimate problems. For both anything this side of the absolute is only appearance.
There is prevalent among many influential biologists, unfortunately for practical ends, a tendency to esteem what are called "gross" anatomy and physiology as of no great scientific value. To the elementalist this is bound to be so. The structures and the activities of your bodies, as the anatomist and physiologist of the ordinary kind sees them, are not their fundamentally real structures and activities. These are deep hidden in the uttermost recesses of your members. They are "probably" your proteid compounds, especially your enzymes.
One of the best characterization-marks of elementalist biology is the expression "nothing but." What is the human brain? It is "nothing but" a vast multitude of ganglionic cells (9,200,000,000 in the cortex alone), if the answer comes from a cellular elementalist; or it is "nothing but" a still greater number of chromosomes, if the elementalist be of the consistently orthodox chromosomal persuasion.
And what are the so-called emotions of the human breast? In last analysis they are "nothing but" chemical substances in unstable equilibrium, or in some other state.
Ernst Mach, that prince of modern elementalists, quotes Litchenberg approvingly as follows: "We should say It thinks, just as we say It lightens. It is going too far to say cogito if we translate cogito by I think. The assumption, or postulation, of the ego is a mere practical necessity." What sort of necessity, if not practical necessity, do these people believe in? Seemingly it is theoretical or impractical necessity, or both.
The answer to those who hold such views is obvious: If you want to call yourself "It" why, go ahead. But I propose to call myself "I" and no power in heaven or on earth can compel me to call myself "It." I may not be able fully to define my "I." Surely I am not, for full definition comes at the end and not at the beginning of experiential knowledge. But however incomplete my definition be, here I am. "The proof of the pudding is the eating."
Why do the elementalists pin their faith to the invisible constituents of things rather than to the things themselves? Can it be that they deliberately deceive themselves as to the place where reality is located? Surely this can not be so. Some misguiding agent or agents there must be, and they must be subtle, otherwise they could not succeed as well as they do with so many earnest people.
Let us see if we can detect any of these subtle misleaders. In order to walk sure footed, we must remain on the platform of objectivity. Let us go back to salt and its elements. If the properties of salt are not derived from the sodium and the chlorine, where do they come from? Does something wholly extraneous to the elements while they exist apart, come in at the instant of their union that bestows upon the salt its peculiar properties? In other words, is there a mystical somewhat in chemical affinity? Those of you who know anything of the histon r of biological theory will recognize that this brings us to the threshold of the vitalistic school. If the completed organism does not lie as potency and promise in the germ and its natural environment, then where does it abide? If the qualities of the organism are not thus derived, then indeed is there something in man not derived from nature, just as a time-honored school of philosophy asserts. But for biology this would be vitalism, and vitalism means a walled city with the gates locked and the keys lost beyond recovery.
Have we reached a city surrounded by such a wall? A wonderful city indeed we have come to, for in truth is it an eternal city. By no means, though, are its gates locked against us. We may enter with perfect freedom and wander through its streets and palaces as long as we live, even to the latest generations of those who follow us, always there to find that which is more interesting, more beautiful, more marvelous.
Being primarily a man of science and only incidentally an artist, I am privileged to be a bad artist, so may intepret my metaphor.
What I mean is, that while we can not see how the properties of the salt are potentially in the chlorine and the sodium; and how the qualities of the man are potentially in the germ-cells, we still have no grounds for supposing they are not there. If our knowledge of the chemical elements and of the germs were full enough, we should see how they produce the results which flow from them. Now here is the crucial point—if our knowledge were full enough we should see. But how full would "full enough" be? So far as the knowledge we now have enables us to answer, only unlimited knowledge would be full enough. If we are privileged to suppose we shall sometime be possessed of infinite knowledge; shall be, in other words, infinite beings, then but not till then, shall we understand how chlorine and sodium produce common salt, how the germ-cells produce a common man. Nature is through and through infinite in her forms and processes, so it seems from the experiential knowledge thus far gained. In just what ways science is being driven to the conclusion that nature is thus constituted is too long and hard a story to tell here. We can only glance at a few of its specially striking features. The atomic theory of modern chemistry contains several of these. By modern chemistry is meant chemistry since Dalton, Lavoisier and Avogadro; and especially since Lorentz and the electron idea came into it.
The special thing about the atomic theory that I call your attention to in this connection is the conception of change of valence of atoms now being discussed by some of the foremost chemists. According to this conception, the same atom may have different combining values under different circumstances. Do you not see without further comment what this suggests as to unrevealed potentialities of atoms? If the known facts of carbon-chemistry are such as to drive the chemist to suppose the atom of carbon changes from bi valency to quadrivalency and vice versa, what sober chemist will venture to place any limitation on the possibilities for further change of like nature not only in this but in other atoms?
Since we know absolutely nothing about the relation of the atoms in living substance, would it not be a reasonable hypothesis to say that the nature of that marvelous process called metabolism is due to just the fact that the atoms of carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, etc., are undergoing perpetual change of valence? I see no reason why we may not legitimately imagine even consciousness due to such a process. Were such a hypothesis to be seriously taken, it would seem to follow that consciousness would have its roots wherever metabolism is going on. What an excellent starting point this would make for dealing with the perennial puzzle of,how it is that the "mind influences the body"! The mind would then be part of the body.
Another fruitful idea recently introduced into chemistry, and significant for the present point, is what is known as mass action. The essence of this, as my colleague Professor F. W. Cottrell expresses it,
is that the more opportunity for chemical action the particles of a substance have, the more they act; that is, the particles improve their opportunity, so to speak.
See again how pregnant of meaning this is for the potentialities of atoms. It means that they have capacities to act that are revealed only when conditions for them to act are presented. This reminds one strongly of the unused energies of men that Professor James has recently written about so luminously.
The one other phase of science to which allusion will be made under this head, belongs to the biological realm. It is the conception of the "organism as a whole" that for a number of years has been working its way into biology by sheer force of its own weight. The facts are such as to compel admission even though they are wholly inexplicable on the basis of current elementalist doctrines, and so are frequently ignored or scouted by biologists of that school.
An expression which, though extreme, still rightly presents the idea comes from the German botanist de Bary. He said "Die Pflanze bildet Zellen, nicht die Zelle bildet Pflanzen" (The plant produces cells, not the cells produce the plant). This is an over statement but is true in so far as it expresses the unescapable fact that the whole organism at any given moment, as well as its elements, is concerned in determining what it shall be in the next succeeding moment. A more exact expression of a particular phase of the idea is due to our foremost American student of the cell, Professor E. B. Wilson. He writes: "We can not comprehend the form of cleavage (cell-division) without reference do the end-result."
Let us look at an instance of the working of this principle in the realm of political organization, where it is more openly displayed. The original thirteen colonies of our pre-national period, united into a compact under what was known as the articles of confederation. A corner stone of the union was that each state should keep inviolate its original powers and privileges. Under the governmental fiction of this compact, the Congress, it has been said, could recommend everything but could enforce nothing. The experiment was naturally a failure. After a period of "Strang und Gang" our nation with the federal constitution as its basis was founded.
Now recall some of the striking things that happened in this transition time. First of all, the hitherto individual, sovereign states had to give up some of both their powers and their possessions. The "western lands" claimed by the states, had been one of the most serious obstacles in the way of a closer union. First New York, then Virginia, yielded their claims to congress for certain guarantees to them in return. The other states followed. Afterward the congress erected new states in the territory thus acquired, and the old states modified their organic laws to conform to the new conditions. Shall we say that the new creation, the United States, contained something underived from the original states and their conditions? Shall we deny that our republic was contained potentially in the thirteen original states? Surely not. But the processes of gestation and parturition by which the nation came forth profoundly modified the elements, the states. Only a wisdom practically infinite could have foreseen exactly what those modifications would be.
Growth and organization everywhere in living nature work inward as well as outward. The processes turn back upon themselves and produce changes in the contributing elements. What the new creation will be, what modifications the elements will undergo, one can see beforehand partly, but never fully. Only infinite wisdom could see altogether. Notice under what conditions one's wisdom would enable him to predict the future absolutely. Would not these two conditions be essential: That his knowledge of the past should be absolute, and that the course of events, that is the laws of nature, should be absolutely trustworthy?
Observation with our senses, of law-abiding operations, perforated by objects cognizable only through their own properties, is one way of describing our knowledge of nature. But we should fall short were we to be satisfied with such an account of it. We can reach the kernel of a more adequate account by way of that indispensable aid to scientific discovery known as hypothesis-making.
A few, only a few, men of science have proposed to eliminate hypotheses from science altogether. The best known of these eliminators is Wilhelm Ostwald. In the place of the hypothesis Ostwald would install what he calls the protothesis. And what is that? It is a "vorläufige Annahme." There you have it! A protothesis is a taking of something by running on ahead. Ostwald wants to get rid of hypotheses altogether and rely wholly on "Arbeit," on work, to make conquests in science. But see what his proposal comes to, taking his own words. He is going to do part of to-morrow's work to-day, even at this very instant. The mind forecasts. It outstrips its past and present experiences. That is the vital fact, and why quibble about how it shall be named?
All generalization is hypothesis, says M. Poincaré. Think about it and you will see the eminent Frenchman is right. Think about it further and you will see you can not move ahead in real science one inch without generalization. But for it you might possibly have coordinated experiences which by courtesy might he called knowledge. But such knowledge would be wholly without motive, and what rational being would care a snap for such knowledge!
We must not fail to notice how radically at variance this way of interpreting the mind's work is from Kant's way of interpreting it. Kantians speak of that which the "mind itself puts into nature." If something is really put into nature, that something must have been previously outside of nature. You can not put water into a dish that is already in the dish. What is that outside something? Where is the outside source whence it comes? Ask the unfortunate mortals of whom Laura Bridgman was an instance, who are deprived from tender infancy of their sense organs, whether they know of some source of knowledge wholly outside nature. These cases furnish indubitable evidence, so far as they go, that consciousness has no content till sense perception gives it some.
No, the mind does not put something into nature that was previously outside it. This however, it does do: It takes something from one part of nature and puts it into another part. We must allow that the mind really does put something into any particular situation that -was not in that situation before. But that is quite different from allowing that it puts something into nature as a whole that was not before somewhere in nature as a whole. This brings us back to our standardized, or tested, or relative reality.
If we ask how or by virtue of what quality or force the mind does this running ahead, this transferring of something from one part of nature to another, no answer is forthcoming any more than there is to the question as to how or by virtue of what quality or force it senses at all; or to the question as to how or by virtue of what quality the properties of salt are produced by the sodium and the chlorine. It may be galling to find that we must accept many things as by free grace, so to speak; but this does not alter the fact.
It is the penalty we pay for belonging to nature at all. If one is galled by the fact and so tries to escape it, the course open to him is that taken by the oriental occultist who sees the natural order as a clog to the nobler but invisible real order and hence as a thing to be got rid of as soon as possible.
At a few places in this discussion it has seemed as though the course we were on would drag our physical science back to the primal chaos of mere sensations and facts from which it seems to have come. In truth, though, now that we can look at the whole situation as from a hilltop, how thoroughly familiar, how reassuring, how in accord with the best, most fruitful endeavor of all the ages of human history it is seen to be. "Nur in der Erfahrung ist Wahrheit" (only in experience is truth), said Kant. Modify this to the extent of making it say "Ohne Erfahrung ist keine Wahrheit" (without experience is no truth), and can any but a sophisticated mind doubt its truthfulness?
If nature is as true to herself and to man as she seems; if the body of evidence gathered by centuries of laborious science to the effect that law and order do prevail throughout the universe; and if the universe is as inexhaustible in variety and power as experience indicates, then how securely we stand on the truth that struggled to expression in Saint Paul's prophetic words: "Faith is the substance of things not seen"!
There seems to be no question about what experience alone can do since there is no such thing so far as we can see. Nor is there any question about what faith alone can do since there is no such thing. Experience appears to exist because of or through faith, and faith to exist because of or through experience. So far as production has reference to the fact that something exists now that did not exist previously, experience and faith must, it would seem, be said to be generative inter se. We have no ground whatever for saying that either preceded the other in time. Even the simplest sensation, the starting point of experience, can not be conceived in any intelligible terminology that does not recognize it as belonging to some organism. What sane person would talk of a sensation absolutely independent of an organism? But an organism of the simplest imaginable sort must still have some measure of fidelity, of faithfulness to itself; must have, for example, some measure of persistence or con- stancy in time. I am unable to imagine an organism existing but for a single instant.
The moment a living being appeared on earth that could respond more than once in the same way to the same stimulus, at that moment appeared simultaneously the germs of all human knowledge and faith. The moment a human being comes to know that his experiential knowl- edge must be incomplete knowledge, from the very conditions of its being knowledge at all, at that moment does he touch the highest level of knowledge and faith attainable by living beings. Agnosticism, mere disclaimer of absolute knowledge, can not be the loftiest attainable mental attitude. This must consist in knowing, partly at least, how and why your highest knowledge is limited and seemingly must ever remain so.
In conclusion, life from the biologist's standpoint is the sum total of the phenomena exhibited by myriads of natural objects called living because they present these phenomena. To understand any organism it must be studied as a whole and in all its relations. Taking man as a type, his life must be studied throughout the whole cycle of its existence on earth and in its relations to all other lives and things. Not only must the germ-cells, the chromosomes and all the rest be subjected to investigation as to their forms, vital activities and chemico- physical composition, but the whole gamut of his experiences, physical, intellectual and spiritual, must be likewise searched out, so far as it is possible for human minds to search.
No biologist can do much by working at the whole of biology thus viewed. But — and here is one of the centers of our position — he can toil in his particular corner with a mind full-illumined by the recogni- tion that someone else must do the things he can not do because all must be done. He does not need to suppose the thing he is not doing is hardly worth doing.
- During the academic year 1908-9 the program of the Philosophical Union of the University of California consisted of a series of discussions led by speakers representing various departments of biology and framed in a spirit compatible with the broad aims of such an association. This was the concluding paper of the year.
Wir denken heute durchweg more biologico. . . .
. . . dass die Biologie selbst heute noch im Zustand des gärenden Werdens, der tastenden Unsicherheit sich befindet, also für eine Grundlegung der sichersten aller Wissenschaften, der formel Logik, noch keine Eignung besitzt, begeht der Pragmatismus denselben Circulus vitiosus dem auch Hume nicht zu entrinnen vermochte. . . .—Ludwig Stein.
- "Principles of Biology," Vol. I., p. 210.
- "The Theætetus and Philebus of Plato," translated by H. F. Carlill, in "New Classical Libary."
- Readers acquainted with Hume's teachings about the relation of cause and effect will recognize that at this point I part company with the keen-minded Scotchman. It is not necessary, however, to go into the matter here.
- Since preparing this essay my attention has been called to the writings of Henri Bergson. From what I gather by reading a number of reviews of his works and from a glance through his "Matière et Mémoire," it seems certain that many of my positions are close akin to his, though our starting points have been so very different. Among other things, this suggestion as to the chemical foundation of consciousness would seem to fall in admirably with the views held not only by M. Bergson but also by Avenarius, that not the brain alone but the whole body is the seat of conscious life. (See "Subjectivism and Realism in Modern Philosophy," by Norman Smith, The Philosophical Review, Vol. 17, 1908, p. 138.)
- The criticism has been made that in using the origin of the United States as an illustration of the centripetal action of the developmental process, I am resorting to the analogical mode of reasoning, the very thing I have objected to in another connection. Attention must be called to the fact that it was not the use but the illegitimate use of this method to which objection was made. I am not pretending that the reciprocating action as it takes place in either the animal body or the nation explains the process in the other. My point is that in both cases the developmental process manifests this peculiarity. There is a common element in the two developments. That is all I am insisting on. But this must be taken in connection with the principle insisted on with equal emphasis elsewhere, that each natural object has its own qualities and properties. The man and the nation have something in common as to their mode of development, but they also have something of difference. To ascertain the differences and the traits-in-common all along the line is exactly what the business of developmental biology is.
Those biologists whose creed is that explanation of nature consists in reducing her to a few simple principles will make wry faces if nothing worse at this. But until such biologists can be more successful than they have been so far, in preventing organic chemists from finding new compounds day by day, and in suppressing systematic botanists and zoologists who persist in hunting up new kinds of plants and animals, and new characteristics and varieties of old ones, I see no prospect of these wry faces changing to expressions of good cheer.
It may be unfortunate that the living world is so complex, was not constructed on "a few simple principles." But one thing seems well established: Nature can not be made simple by treating her on the theory that she ought to be so when as a matter of fact she is not. To say that a few principles can be found that are common to very wide domains of nature, and to deny that there are numberless other principles not so widely prevalent are very different propositions.
- This remark need not be interpreted to mean that the simplest conceivable organisms actually did begin in time. For my part, I am of opinion that biology has reached the point where the suggestions of such cosmically-minded men of science as Lord Kelvin and Professor Arrhenius, that life like matter and
force is eternal, must be taken hold of seriously as the best working hypothesis
that can be made on the basis of the biological data available. This hypothesis
will surely involve enormous difficulties, but some of the most difficult, one can
foresee, will at least have the merit of being open to observational inquiry.
Among the great difficulties will be that by "life" we must understand
"organisms." We have no observational ground for postulating "organic
substance" as anything else than the substance of which living beings are
This being so, the hypothesis would have to face at once the question. How numerous must the primal, eternally existent organisms be conceived to have been? But I am not adopting the hypothesis, not now, at any rate. I merely want to point out what seems a clearly possible alternative for the hypothesis of an actual beginning of life in time, which hypothesis seems to be growing less and less fruitful with the advance of experiential knowledge.