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Vitality

( Originally Published 1916 )

THE origin, growth, and energies of living things are subjects which have always engaged the attention of thinking men. To account for them it was usual to assume a special agent, free to a great extent from the limitations observed among the powers of inorganic nature. This agent was called vital force; and, under its influence, plants and animals were supposed to collect their materials and to assume determinate forms. Within the last few years, however, our ideas of vital processes have undergone profound modifications; and the interest, and even disquietude, which the change has excited are amply evidenced by the discussions and protests which are now common regarding the phenomena of vitality. In tracing these phenomena through all their modifications, the most advanced philosophers of the present day declare that they ultimately arrive at a single source of power, from which all vital energy is derived; and the disquieting circumstance is that this source is not the direct fiat of a supernatural agent, but a reservoir of what, if we do not accept. he creed of Zoroaster, must be regarded as inorganic force. In short, it is considered as proved that all the energy which we derive from plants and animals is drawn from the sun.

A few years ago, when the sue was affirmed to be the source of life, nine out of ten of those who are alarmed by the form which this assertion has latterly assumed would have assented, in a general way, to its correctness. Their assent, however, was more poetic than scientific, and they were by no means prepared to see a rigid mechanical signification attached to their words. This, however, is the peculiarity of modern conclusions—that there is no creative energy whatever in the vegetable or animal organism, but that all the power which we obtain from the muscles of man and animals, as much as that which we develop by the combustion of wood or coal, has been produced at the sun's expense. The sun is so much the colder that we may have our fires; he is also so much the colder that we may have our horse-racing and Alpine climbing. It is, for example, certain that the sun has been chilled to an extent capable of being accurately ex-pressed in numbers, in order to furnish the power which lifted this year a certain number of tourists from the vale of Chamouni to the summit of Mont Blanc.

To most minds, however, the energy of light and heat presents itself as a thing totally distinct from ordinary mechanical energy. Either of them can nevertheless be derived from the other. Wood can be raised by friction to the temperature of ignition; while by properly striking a piece of iron a skilful blacksmith can cause it to glow. Thus, by the rude agency of his hammer, he generates light and heat. This action, if carried far enough, would produce the light and heat of the sun. In fact, the sun's light and heat have actually been referred to the fall of meteoric matter upon his surface; and whether the sun is thus supported or not, it is perfectly certain that he might be thus supported. Whether, moreover, the whilom molten condition of our planet was, as supposed by eminent men, due to the collision of cosmic masses or not, it is perfectly certain that the molten condition might be thus brought about. If, then, solar light and heat can be produced by the impact of dead matter, and if from the light and heat thus produced we can derive the energies which we have been accustomed to call vital, it indubitably follows that vital energy may have a proximately mechanical origin.

In what sense, then, is the sun to be regarded as the origin of the energy derivable from plants and animals? Let us try to give an intelligible answer to this question. Water may be raised from the sea-level to a high elevation, and then permitted to descend. In descending it may be made to assume various forms—to fall in cascades, to spurt in fountains, to boil in eddies, or to flow tranquilly along a uniform bed. It may, moreover, be caused to set complex machinery in motion, to turn mill-stones, throw shuttles, work saws and hammers, and drive piles. But every form of power here indicated would be derived from the original power expended in raising the water to the height from which it fell. There is no energy generated by the machinery: the work per-formed by the water in descending is merely the parcel-ling out and distribution of the work expended in raising it. In precisely this sense is all the energy of plants and ' animals the parcelling out and distribution of a power originally exerted by the sun. In the case of the water, the source. of the power consists in the forcible separation of a quantity of the liquid from a low level of the earth's surface, and its elevation to a higher position, the power thus expended being returned by the water in its descent.

In the case of vital phenomena, the source of power consists in the forcible separation of the atoms of compound substances by the sun. We name the force which draws the water earthward "gravity," and that which draws atoms together "chemical affinity" ; but these different names must not mislead us regarding the qualitative identity of the two forces. They are both attractions; and, to the intellect, the falling of carbon atoms against oxygen atoms is not more difficult of conception than the falling of water to the earth.

The building up of the vegetable, then, is effected by the sun, through the reduction of chemical compounds. The phenomena of animal life are more or less complicated reversals of these processes of reduction. We eat the vegetable, and we breathe the oxygen of the air; and in our bodies the oxygen, which had been lifted from the carbon and hydrogen by the action of the sun, again falls toward them, producing animal heat and developing animal forms. Through the most complicated phenomena of vitality this law runs—the vegetable is produced while a weight rises, the animal is produced while a weight falls. But the question is not exhausted here. The water employed in our first illustration generates all the motion displayed in its descent, but the form of the motion depends on the character of the machinery interposed in the path of the water. In a similar way, the primary action of the sun's rays is qualified by the atoms and molecules among which their energy is distributed. Molecular forces determine the form which the solar energy will assume. In the separation of the carbon and oxygen this energy may be so conditioned as to result in one case in the formation of a cabbage, and in another ease in the formation of an oak. So also, as regards the reunion of the carbon and the oxygen, the molecular machinery through which the combining energy acts may, in one case, weave the texture of a frog, while in another it may weave the texture of a man.

The matter of the animal body is that of inorganic nature. There is no substance in the animal tissues which is not primarily derived from the rocks, the water, and the air. Are the forces of organic matter, then, different in kind from those of inorganic matter? The philosophy of the present day negatives the question. It is the compounding, in the organic world, of forces belonging equally to the inorganic, that constitutes the mystery and the miracle of vitality. Every portion of every animal body may be reduced to purely inorganic matter. A perfect reversal of this process of reduction would carry us from the inorganic to the organic; and such a reversal is at least conceivable. The tendency, indeed, of modern science is to break down the wall of partition between organic and inorganic, and to reduce both to the operation of forces which are the same in kind, but which are differently compounded.

Consider the question of personal identity, in relation to that of molecular form. Thirty-four years ago, Mayer of Heilbronn, with that power of genius which breathes large meanings into scanty facts, pointed out that the blood was "the oil of the lamp of life," the combustion of which sustains muscular action. The muscles are the machinery by which the dynamic power of the blood is brought into play. Thus the blood is consumed. But the whole body, though more slowly than the blood, wastes also, so that after a certain number of years it is entirely renewed. How is the sense of personal identity maintained across this flight of molecules ? To man, as we know him, matter is necessary to consciousness; but the matter of any period may be all changed, while consciousness exhibits no solution of continuity. Like changing sentinels, the oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon that depart, seem to whisper their secret , to their comrades that arrive, and thus, while the Non-ego shifts, the Ego remains the same. Constancy of form in the grouping of the molecules, and not constancy of the molecules themselves, is the correlative of this constancy of perception. Life is a wave which in no two consecutive moments of its existence is composed of the same particles.

Supposing, then, the molecules of the human body, instead of replacing others, and thus renewing a pre-existing form, to be gathered first hand from nature and put together in the same relative positions as those which they occupy in the * body. Supposing them to have the self-same forces and distribution of forces, the self-same motions and distribution of motions—would this organized concourse of molecules stand before us as a sentient thinking being? There seems no valid reason to believe that it would not. Or, supposing a planet carved from the sun, set spinning round an axis, and revolving round the sun, at a distance from him equal to that of our earth, would one of the consequences of its refrigeration be the development of organic forms? I lean to the affirmative. Structural forces are certainly in the mass, whether or not those forces reach to the extent of forming a plant or an animal. In an amorphous drop of water lie latent all the marvels of crystalline force; and who will set limits to the possible play of molecules in a cooling planet? If these statements startle, it is because matter has been defined and maligned by philosophers and theologians, who were equally unaware that it is, at bottom, essentially mystical and transcendental.

Questions such as these derive their present interest in great part from their audacity, which is sure, in due time, to disappear. And the sooner the public dread is abolished with reference to such questions the better for the cause of truth. As regards knowledge, physical science is polar. In one sense it knows, or is destined to know, everything. In another sense it knows nothing. Science understands much of this intermediate phase of things that we call nature, of which it is the product; but science knows nothing of the origin or destiny of nature. Who or what made the sun, and gave his rays their alleged power? Who or what made and bestowed upon the ultimate particles of matter their wondrous power of varied interaction? Science does not know: the mystery, though pushed back, remains unaltered. To many of us who feel that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in the present philosophy of science, but who have been also taught, by baffled efforts, how vain is the attempt to grapple with the Inscrutable, the ultimate frame of mind is that of Goethe:

Who dares to name His name,
Or belief in Him proclaim,
Veiled in mystery as He is, the All-enfolder?
Gleams across the mind His light,
Feels the lifted soul His might,
Dare it then deny His reign, the All-upholder?



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