Biology And Evolution
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Biology is "The science of life and living things in the widest sense ; the knowledge of vital phenomena."
It seems to be absolutely certain that no human being has ever witnessed the production of life from non-living substances. In other words, life is perpetuated by living organisms through established methods of reproduction. All forms of new' life come under our observation after reproduction by parents of the same species already known and classified. In 1862 Pasteur published an article "On the Organized Particles Existing in the Air." He de-scribed how he raised microscopic organisms by sowing these particles in suitable sterilized mediums. It was afterwards shown that these were low plants to which the name `"bacterium" was given.
There is no doubt whatever about germs of low orders of plants floating in the atmosphere. Also many chemical combinations of a sensitive nature when exposed to the air take on shapes and forms which suggest plant and animal organization. But that is about the extent of the developments of physical science to date in their endeavors to obtain evidences of possible Abiogenesis.
Probably the best way to get the known facts of Biology before us in, order to determine their positions in this Synthetic Philosophy will be to quote from the best authorities. The students who desire details will seek the text-books for fuller information.
The search for the Origin of Life has naturally led to the closest inspection of the structures of plants and animals and thence to their various methods of reproduction. After examination of plants and animals in every stage of growth and development, including germs, the structure and contents of "cells" is the ultimate extent of observation.
Quotation from The Cell, by Dr. Oscar Hertwig:
"Both plants and animals; although they differ so widely in their external appearance, are fundamentally similar in their anatomical structure; for both are built up of similar elementary units, which, as a rule, are only to be seen by the microscope. These units, in consequence of a hypothesis which was once believed in, but is now discarded, are called cells; and the view that plants and animals are built up in a similar manner of these extremely minute particles is called the cell-theory. The cell-theory is rightly considered to be one of the most important and fundamental theories of the whole science of modern biology. In the study of the cell, the botanist, the zoologist, the physiologist, and the pathologist go hand in hand, if they wish to search into the vital phenomena which take place during health and disease. For it is in the cells, to which the anatomist reduces both plant and animal organisms, that the vital functions are executed; they, as Virchow has expressed it, are the vital elementary units.
"Regarded from this point of view, all the vital processes of a complex organism appear to be nothing but the highly-developed result of the individual vital processes of its innumerable variously functioning cells. The study of the processes of digestion, of the change of muscle and nerve cells, leads finally to the examination of the functions of gland, muscle, ganglion and brain." (Page 1.)
"The cell is an organism and by no means a simple one, being built up of many different parts. To ascertain with accuracy, the true nature of all these constituents, which for the greater part, elude our observation at present, will remain a problem for biological research for a long time." (Page 11.)
"Our knowledge of the chemical nature of protoplasm is most unsatisfactory. It has sometimes been described as an albuminous body, or as living albumen. Such expressions may give rise to utterly incorrect conceptions of the nature of protoplasm. Protoplasm is not a chemical, but a morphological conception; it is not a single chemical substance, however complex in composition, but is composed of a large number of different chemical substances, which we have to picture to ourselves as most minute particles united together to form a wonderful complex structure.
"Chemical substances exhibit similar properties under different circumstances. Protoplasm, on the other hand, cannot be placed under different conditions without ceasing to be protoplasm, for its essential properties, in which its life manifests itself, depend upon a fixed organization. For as the principal attributes of a marble statue consist in the form which the sculptor's hand has given to the marble, and as a statue ceases to be a statue if broken up into small pieces of marble, so a body of protoplasm is no longer protoplasm after the organization, which constitutes its life, has been destroyed; we only examine the consider-ably altered ruins of the protoplasm when we treat the dead cells with chemical re-agents. As far as we know at present, protoplasmic bodies are only reproduced from existing protoplasm, and in no other way; hence the present organization of protoplasm is the result of an exceedingly long process of development." (Pages 15-16. The Italics are Hertwig's).
It would seem to be fully established that LIFE cannot be uncovered by the microscope. In other words, LIFE is an element which cannot be made visible to the physical eye ; nor can it be weighed or measured by physical instruments. This much seems to be fully established after centuries of investigation.
Protoplasm is built up by Life Elements. Yet any analysis of protoplasm fails to locate the operating agent. Furthermore, such examination destroys the perfection of its operation and interferes with its processes. No combination of chemicals except that made by the Life Elements in the natural way will manifest the phenomena resulting from the development of protoplasm.
It would seem to be fully established that if we are ever to know more about the nature of LIFE, such knowledge must come from reflection on the nature of its untrammelled manifestations, rather than from continued observations with the microscope of dead cells after dissection by instruments which have destroyed or dispersed the very Element which is the object of study.
It is not a question of anatomy or mechanical operations, as much as it is to detect the nature of the intelligent agent which is doing a specific work. If scientists would turn their attention in this direction, they would soon be rewarded by a very much more thorough understanding of the nature of LIFE than they will ever gain through the microscope and dissecting instruments. The mechanical structure can be inspected through the microscope but LIFE cannot be seen, measured, weighed, or photographed.
The Constructive Life Elements of nature are of such a degree of fineness as to be not only invisible but beyond all detection by physical and chemical means. The results of their presence and operations can be freely inspected. Reflection upon these results will secure more valuable information than can be secured through destructive agencies. At present Philosophy is more needed than Analysis.
Consider the depth of meaning conveyed by Dr. Heft-wig's expression,—"The individual vital processes of its innumerable variously functioning cells." What is that element, force or power which combines the cells so as to perform the many functions of a complex organism? An organism is constructed of chemical materials combined so as to form the structures of cells, protoplasm, muscles, bones, nerves, glands, ganglions and brain substances, and all executing organic functions in harmony with an individual life. This is a manifestation of intelligence of an element, force or power which cannot be detected by the microscope.
The nature of LIFE must be comprehended in every measure by the reflecting intelligence of the individual, his power of thought, of imagination, of conception; that is to say by the Intellect. It is a problem for scientists, but scientists without philosophical training will never get beyond the mere forms and materials of structures and the mechanics of their operations. Scientists must also be philosophers to draw correct conclusions from the observed facts. The nature of Life is a problem for both Science and Philosophy.
The following quotation from The Cell, by Professor Edmund B. Wilson, Ph. D., of Columbia University, copyright held by The Macmillan Co., New York, is given by permission of the publishers, and I wish to express my gratitude for this valuable contribution to Science. Dr. Wilson has laid a splendid foundation for scientist-philosophers in his work :
"In the one-celled forms all of the vital functions are performed by a single cell. In the multicellular forms, on the other hand, these functions are not equally performed by all the cells, but are in varying degree distributed among them, the cells thus falling into physiological groups or tissues, each of which is specially devoted to the performance of a specific function. Thus arises the 'physiological division of labor' through which alone the highest development of vital activity becomes possible ; and thus the cell becomes a unit, not merely of structure, but also of function. Each bodily function, and even the life of the organism as a whole, may thus in one sense be regarded as a resultant 'arising through the integration of a vast number of cell-activities; and it cannot be adequately investigated without the study of the individual cell-activities that lie at its root."
"Begun in 1873-74 by Auerbach, Fol, and Bütschli, and eagerly followed up by Oscar Hertwig, Van Beneden, Strasburger, and a host of later workers, these investigations raised wholly new questions regarding the mechanism of development and the rôle of the cell in hereditary transmission. Through them it became for the first time clearly apparent that the general problems of embryology, heredity, and evolution are indissolubly bound up with those of cell-structure, and can only be fully apprehended in the light of cytological research." (Page 6.)
"Every discussion of inheritance and development must take as its point of departure the fact that the germ is a single cell similar in its essential nature to any one of the tissue-cells of which the body is composed. That a cell can carry with it the sum total of the heritage of the species, that it can in the course of a few days or weeks give rise to a mollusk or a man, is the greatest marvel of biological science. In attempting to analyze the problems that it involves, we must from the outset hold fast to the fact, on which Huxley insisted, that the wonderful formative energy of the germ is not impressed upon it from without, but is inherent in the egg as a heritage from the parental life of which it was originally a part. The development of the embryo is nothing new. It involves no breach of continuity, and is but a continuation of the vital processes going on in the parental body. What gives development its marvelous character is the rapidity with which it proceeds and the diversity of results attained in a span so brief."
"But when we have grasped this cardinal fact, we have but focussed our instruments for a study of the real problem. How do the adult characteristics lie latent in the germ-cell; and how do they become patent as development proceeds? This is the final question that looms in the background of every investigation of the cell. In approaching it we may as well make a frank confession of ignorance; for in spite of all that the microscope has revealed, we have not yet penetrated the mystery, and inheritance and development still remain in their fundamental aspects as great a riddle as they were to the Greeks. What we have gained is a tolerably precise acquaintance with the external aspects of development. The gross errors of the early preformationists have been dispelled. We know that the germ-cell contains no predelineated embryo; that development is manifested, on the one hand by the cleavage of the egg, on the other hand by a process of differentiation, through which the products of cleavage gradually assume diverse forms and functions, and so accomplish a physiological division of labor. We can clearly recognize the fact that these processes fall in the same category as those that take place in the tissue-cells; for the cleavage of the ovum is a form of mitotic cell-division, while, as many eminent naturalists have perceived, differentiation is nearly related to growth and has its root in the phenomena of nutrition and metabolism. The real problem of development is the orderly sequence and correlation of these phenomena toward a typical result. We cannot escape the conclusion that this is the out-come of the organization of the germ-cells; but the nature of that which, for lack of a better term, we call 'organization,' is and doubtless long will remain almost wholly in the dark." (Pages 396-7. Italics are Wilson's.)
"What lies beyond our reach at present, as Driesch has very ably urged, is to explain the orderly rhythm of development—the coordinating power that guides development to its predestined end. We are logically compelled to refer this power to the inherent organization of the germ, but we neither know nor can we conceive what that organization is. The theory of Roux and Weismann demands for the orderly distribution of the elements of the germ-plasm a prearranged system of forces of absolutely inconceivable complexity. Hertwig's and DeVries's theory, though apparently simpler, makes no less a demand; for how are we to conceive the power which guides the countless hosts of migrating pangens throughout all the long and complex events of development ? The same difficulty confronts us under any theory we can frame. If with Herbert Spencer we assume the germ-plasm to be an aggregation of like units, molecular or supra-molecular, endowed with predetermined polarities, which lead to their grouping in specified forms, we but throw the problem one stage further back, and, as Weismann himself has pointed out, substitute for one difficulty another of exactly the same kind."
"The truth is that an explanation of development is at present beyond our reach. The controversy between pre-formation and epigenesis has now arrived at a stage where it has little meaning apart from the general problem of physical causality. What we know is that a specific kind of living substance, derived from the parent, tends to run through a specific cycle of changes during which it transforms itself into a body like that of which it formed a part; and we are able to study with greater or less precision the mechanism by which that transformation is affected and the conditions under which it takes place. But despite all our theories we know no more how the organization of the germ-cell involves the properties of the adult body than we know how the properties of hydrogen and oxygen involve those of water. So long as the chemist and physicist are unable to solve so simple a problem of physical causality as this, the embryologist may well be content to reserve his judgment on a problem a hundred-fold more complex."
"The second question, regarding the historical origin of the idioplasm, brings us to the side of the evolutionists. The idioplasm of every species has been derived, as we must believe, by the modification of a preexisting idioplasm through variation, and the survival of the fittest. Whether these variations first arise in the idioplasm of the germ-cells, as Weismann maintains, or whether they may arise in the body-cells and then be reflected back upon the idioplasm, is a question to which the study of the cell has thus far given no certain answer. Whatever position we take on this question, the same difficulty is encountered, namely the origin of that coordinated fitness, that power of active adjustment between internal and external relations, which, as so many eminent biological thinkers have insisted, over-shadows every manifestation of life. The nature and origin of this power is the fundamental problem of biology. When, after removing the lens of the eye in the larval salamander, we see it restored in perfect and typical form by regeneration from the posterior layer of the iris, we behold an adaptive response to changed conditions of which the organism can have had no antecedent experience either ontogenetic or phylogenetic, and one of so, marvellous a character that we are made to realize, as by a flash of light, how far we still are from a solution of this problem. It may be true, as Schwann himself urged, that the adaptive power of living beings differs in degree only, not in kind, from that of unorganized bodies. It is true that we may trace in organic nature long and finely graduated series leading upward from the lower to the higher forms, and we must believe that the wonderful adaptive manifestations of the more complex forms have been derived from simpler conditions through the progressive operation of natural causes. But when all these admissions are made, and when the conserving action of natural selection is in the fullest degree recognized, we cannot close our eyes to two facts: first, that we are utterly ignorant of the manner in which the idioplasm of the germ-cell can so respond to the influence of the environment as to call forth an adaptive variation ; and second, that 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."
"I am well aware that to many such a conclusion may appear reactionary or even to involve a renunciation of what has been regarded as the ultimate aim of biology. In reply to such a criticism I can only express my conviction that the magnitude of the problem of development, whether ontogenetic or phylogenetic, has been underestimated ; and that the progress of science is retarded rather than advanced by a premature attack upon its ultimate problems. Yet the splendid achievements of cell-research in the past twenty years stand as the promise of its possibilities for the future, and we heed set no limit to its advance. To Schleiden and Schwann the present standpoint of the cell-theory might well have seemed unattainable. We cannot foretell its future triumphs, nor can we doubt that the way has already been opened to better understanding of inheritance and development." (Conclusion. Pages 432-4.)
It seems likely that an error crept into Dr. Wilson's book which was not noted in reading proofs, where he is made to state that "the germ is a single cell similar in its essential nature to any one of the tissue cells." Probably the word "nature" should have read structure, because otherwise it would not be true of the higher animals.
The real problem is as he states it,—"How do the adult characteristics lie latent in the germ-cell; and how do they become patent as development proceeds ?"
The solution will not be found in any characteristic of mechanics nor in any property of the chemical, physical elements of the germ-cell. However, part of the solution may be detected by the "scientific use of the imagination"
Biology and Evolution 223 if supplemented by the philosophical use of the imagination.
The "adult characteristics" were once the embryonic possibilities of the Life Elements. Development is their own intelligent process of unfolding. The germinating properties are locked in the combination of the Life-Elements which are compressed into the germ-cell along with the protoplasm. They are just as invisible as magnetism or electricity would be, though they cannot be detected as magnetism or electricity might be, because they are of a much finer nature. Life Elements cannot be made visible nor can they be detected in any other way than through their own operations and manifestations.
Take the example mentioned by Dr. Wilson, of the restoration of the lens of the eye of a salamandar. He says:
"We behold an adaptive response to changed conditions of which the organism can have had no antecedent experience either ontogenetic or phylogenetic, and one of so marvellous a character that we are made to realize, as by a flash of light, how far we are still from a solution of this problem."
The solution of this problem lies in the presence of Intelligent Life Elements which are engaged in the work of developing the latent potencies of a germ-cell. Their power is limited; nevertheless, it surpasses that of the mechanical structure of the cell and the chemical elements of its contents.
This explanation is very different from that of a special creation, or that of the interposition of an Omnipotent Being, from which concepts all science has revolted from lack of evidence. Superstition and unscientific imagination are condemned. Nevertheless, some account must be taken of the intelligence as well as the power which is manifested in cases similar to the one mentioned. The case of the salamander is a result which cannot be explained by mechanical causes. It is an intelligent result effected by an intelligent agent. This intelligent agent is the combination of the Life Elements of nature which are compressed and locked up in the germ-cell and which are engaged in the work of developing an organism along ontogenetic and phylogenetic lines.
Science has been engaged in tracing the successive stages of mechanical development of the physical organism. This is a valuable work. However, not in any phase nor in the whole result as an organism can the operating intelligence be located as part of the organism itself.
This intelligence and this power, of which the organism is the manifestation, must reside in the Life Elements. A combination of these is compressed within the germ-cell. These are the Vito-Chemical and the Spiritual Life Elements. (See Sections 18 and 19 of Chapter I.)
This is simply naming the forces detected by Dr. Wilson and other biologists. "The problem of development is the orderly sequence and correlation of these phenomena toward a typical result." When Dr. Wilson wrote these words and underscored them, he showed the importance which the problem possessed to his mind. It is another great step in advance merely to name and thus identify the intelligent elements which are the immediate active agents. The conditions of development are beautifully and correctly stated by Dr. Wilson as quoted below. With the additional understanding of the "inherited organization" of Intelligent Life Elements, his description is full of meaning and there is more than "a dim insight into its ultimate nature."
"These cases must suffice for our purpose. They prove incontestably that normal development is in a greater or less degree the response of the developing organism to normal conditions; and they show that we cannot hope to solve the problems of development without reckoning with these conditions. But neither can we regard specific forms of development as directly caused by the external 'conditions; for the egg of a fish and that of a polyp develop, side by side, in the same drop of water under identical conditions, each into its predestined form. Every step of development is a physiological reaction, involving a long and complex chain of cause and effect between the stimulus and the response. The character of the response is determined not by the stimulus, but by the inherited organization. While, therefore, the study of the external conditions is essential to the analysis of embryological phenomena, it serves only to reveal the mode of action of the germs and gives but a dim insight into its ultimate nature."
(The Cell, p. 430. Italics are Wilson's.)
The evolution of man's knowledge and control of the Life Elements of nature will result in constructive efforts gradually taking the place of destructive. When the full importance is realized of studying the possible natural development of life forms under improved conditions, more attention will be given to analyzing specimens by the methods which cause so much less killing and suffering.
Dr. Gerald Leighton, in discussing the vastness of science, says :
"The inevitable result of this rapid accumulation of facts concerning the science of life was that it very soon became necessary for students to take up special branches of biology to the neglect of other branches, and at the present day any one of the various branches of the science provides materials for a life's work. It is possible, indeed, it is usual, for the expert in plant life to be quite ignorant of all that concerns the life of, say, a fish. It cannot be otherwise. The biologist of today, if he is to add anything to the sum of human knowledge must specialize; he must confine his studies to the life-history of a few types of life, or even to a single family or species."
Suppose that the efforts of biologists were directed to the highest possible evolution of life forms rather than to the excessive specialization on the lowest forms, how much greater good might be accomplished ! All knowledge is valuable, but not equally valuable.
Many of the methods employed are decidedly unethical. Protest is here made, not only for the animals, but more for the scientists and their students. Many brainy men who love their profession and are devoted to the advancement of knowledge, do not realize how they are expending their best efforts in ways and methods which not only do not bring the best possible results in valuable knowledge but which are injurious in their effects upon their own lives.
Biologists have life forces within their own natures with which they are not as familiar as they are with those of bugs, sea urchins and frogs. They need a fuller Philosophy of Individual Life wherein Biology is seen in its true perspective and given its relative importance and proper place.