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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 85/November 1914/The Ultra-Scientific School

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 85‎ | November 1914



(The Ultra-scientific School)

"Problems of Life are Problems of Matter."—Schäfer.

(The Conservative School)

"To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears."—Wordsworth.

THE addresses before the British Association for the Advancement of Science by Schäfer and Lodge have surely had the effect of stimulating still further our interest in the problem of problems—the origin of life. That the most profound differences of opinion exist not merely between scientists and non-scientists, but among scientific men themselves, adds but another factor to the general interest in the subject, though many factors to the general confusion.

The ultra-scientific school, at the head of which are Loeb and Schäfer, trace the origin of their ideas chiefly to Huxley. As far back as 1870 this philosopher wrote:

With organic chemistry, molecular physics and physiology, yet in their infancy, and every day making prodigious strides, I think it would be the height of presumption for any man to say that the conditions under which matter assumes the properties we call "vital" may not, some day, be artificially brought together.[1]

That was before Emil Fischer began his work on the structure of the protein molecule; before Kossel commenced his celebrated investigations into the composition of nuclear material; long before Loeb startled the world with his experiments on parthenogenesis. With that intuitive, spirit with which he was singularly gifted, Huxley foresaw—so claim our ultra-scientists—the results of modern research. Our chemistry, our physics, our physiology, have already reached that stage where we can say with confidence: the data necessary is within sight. Within these three sciences a complete explanation is to be found. Hence, outside factors need not be considered.

True, the mere fact that we can give no satisfactory definition of life can be of little avail in the present controversy. It may well be argued that we can do no better in the case of electricity, and yet our control of that is well-nigh complete.

It should be made clear, in justice to our ultra-scientists, that their aspirations at present run no higher than to bring the phenomena of life within the category of established laws. Their aim is to regulate forces. To understand them is, they admit freely, beyond their ken. Thereby, even if their own problem were solved, a purely materialistic view would hardly be appreciably advanced.

But to return. Life, like electricity, can not be defined, but, like it, manifests itself in certain ways. Movement, metabolism, growth and reproduction are held to be characteristic properties of life by a large class of physiologists; but the insurgent group, with Wöhler's artificial production of urea—wherein he overthrew the idea that organic substances possess a "vital" force—as its foundation stone, is bent upon showing us that there is no such barrier between the animate and the inanimate. Is it movement that you are considering? Have we not that in organic mixtures, in oil drops, in globules of mercury? And are these not all explicable by changes in surface tension? Is it metabolism—the taking in of food and the giving out of waste products? If so, what of osmotic conditions, where solutions are separated by semi-permeable membranes and where there is an interchange of substance? Is it growth and reproduction? If so, consider the growth and multiplication of crystals.

It is this argument by analogy that has led the ultra-scientific school to its present theory with regard to the origin of life. Rightly brushing aside the meteoric theories of Kelvin, Helmholtz and Arrhenius as irrelevant in so far as origin goes—for in their attempt to explain the first sign of life on this planet they presuppose the existence of the germ elsewhere—Schäfer boldly upholds the hypothesis that life originated as a result of the gradual evolution of inanimate material. In process of time the simple substance became more and more complex and ultimately emerged as the living germ—the nitrogenous colloid.

But Schäfer goes a step further. Why are we to suppose that this happened but once, as all theories with regard to origin have thus far assumed? Why are we to suppose that at one time in the dim past a series of fortunate accidents made life possible? Is it not more logical to assume that these evolutionary processes are going on today and will continue to do so? [2]

Though even Huxley was of the opinion that at one time there was "an evolution of living protoplasm from not living matter," the idea that we should not relegate the process to some remote period in the past is a comparatively new one, and has not by any means received the approval of many otherwise loyal chemico-physiologists. These argue with no small show of reason, that continuous life production would imply similar terrestrial conditions throughout the ages; and this we know not to be the case. [3]

As growth and multiplication are by far the most characteristic features of the living organism, it is little wonder that the fiercest antagonism centers around this point. Mitchell, one of the mildest critics, takes exception to the crystal comparison, on the ground that living matter is a mixture of substances chiefly dissolved in water, and that therefore it would be far more appropriate to take liquids as the basis for comparison.[4]

Armstrong and Haldane, the one a chemist and the other a physiologist, and both among the most eminent in their respective professions, flatly refute the analogy. In crystal growth there is a mere piling up of simple units, and, under the proper conditions, there is no limit to the growth of the crystal. Nothing corresponding to cell division, nor to the complexity of organic growth, is ever met with. Bergson, whose knowledge of the exact sciences makes him an exceedingly competent critic, argues that whereas the living organism is composed of unlike parts and performs diverse functions, the crystal neither consists of the one nor performs the other.[5]

Of course, Bergson repudiates Schäfer's whole hypothesis, but in this he is in agreement with many a scientific authority. For example, Professor Wilson, whose book on cell development is a classic, sums up his views in these words:

The study of the cell has, on the whole, seemed to widen rather than to narrow the enormous gap that separates even the lowest forms of life from the inorganic world.[6]

Sir William Tilden, the English chemist, is equally emphatic from the chemical standpoint. He writes:

Far be it from any man of science to affirm that any given set of phenomena is not a fit subject of inquiry, and that there is any limit to what may be revealed in answer to systematic and well-directed investigation. In the present instance, however, it appears to me that this [the origin of living matter] is not a field for the chemist, nor one in which chemistry is likely to afford any assistance whatsoever.[7]

Let it at once be stated clearly and emphatically that the ultrascientific view is based primarily upon analogy—a very valuable method provided it is not carried to excess, and provided, also, sufficient experimental data are at hand. Mendeleèff's periodic classification tended to show that cæsium, rubidium, sodium and potassium were closely allied,

might have produced millions of times organisms that survived but a few hours, but in which, also, by a favorable conjunction of those forces, what we now call life might have come into existence." No less fanciful is Armstrong himself (see H. E. Armstrong, "The Origin of Life: A Chemists' Fantasy," Smithsonian Report, Publication 2214). And yet we speak of the dry-as-dust scientist!
a fact which was known before Mendeleèff's time purely as a result of experimental work on these elements. The movement of oil drops and the interchange of substance in osmosis are certainly quicksand foundations upon which to build inter-relationship theories of the animate and the inanimate. This superficial connection fails to stand the test of adaptation and coordination—to name two characteristic features of the vital substance. Indeed, our knowledge is so remarkably extensive that we can not as yet state the simplest vital manifestation in terms of science.

But this does not make a discussion of this kind any the less valuable. The impetus to research that it gives is productive of the highest good to mankind, for if the results do not solve the problem, the scope of the problem becomes so much clearer. The whole, which is made up of many coordinated components, eludes the grasp, but the individual components are gradually revealing many of their secrets to the untiring scientific explorer. With the physiologist ever attentive in his study of the human mechanism, with the chemist carefully analyzing and synthesising the more complex forms of matter so intimately associated with life's activity, with the scientific philosopher investigating the laws common both to animate and inanimate substance, who would venture to foretell the outcome?

The present situation may be summed up in some such way as this:

1. (a) Chemistry and physics may possibly contain all the necessary factors, our ignorance being due to our inadequate knowledge of these sciences, especially chemistry; or (b) There may be an outside factor.

2. Whilst no definite theories as to the origin of life can as yet be advanced, it is not unreasonable to suppose that in process of time, with consequent development, a better insight into (a), or an idea of (b) will be obtained. Fancy may well picture even the acquirement of new faculties, which will bring within range many of nature's present secrets, unattainable by present methods.

3. At present we know of no better way of pursuing our search than through the sciences. But here we are only safe when we apply them to the things we can grasp. The application of scientific methods to the spirit world (the methods of Crookes, Lodge and others) have thus far been barren of result. Science, as we understand it, rules in the world of matter, but it does not beyond. Whether this "matter" is but a manifestation of the "spirit," whether there is any relationship between them, or whether, indeed, they spring from the same source, time may, and time may not tell. Our duty is to plod the weary way, irrespective of where it leads to, or what the outcome of it may be. Patience, diligence and truth are our guiding stars.

  1. Huxley, "Discourses" (Chapter on Biogenesis and Abiogenesis).
  2. E. A. Schäfer, "Life: Its Nature, Origin and Maintenance," Smithsonian Report, Publication 2213.
  3. Giving fancy full reign, Macallum pictures for us "a gigantic laboratory where there had been a play of tremendous forces, notably electricity, which
  4. P. C. Mitchell, "Encyclop. Brit.," 11th ed., article on "Life."
  5. Bergson, "Creative Evolution," p. 12.
  6. E. B. Wilson, "The Cell in Development and Inheritance," p. 330 (1907).
  7. Tilden, London Times, September 10, 1912.