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Life And Mind
by [?]


There are three kinds of change in the world in which we live–physical and mechanical change which goes on in time and place among the tangible bodies about us, chemical change which goes on in the world of hidden molecules and atoms of which bodies are composed, and vital change which involves the two former, but which also involves the mysterious principle or activity which we call life. Life comes and goes, but the physical and chemical orders remain. The vegetable and animal kingdoms wax and wane, or disappear entirely, but the physico-chemical forces are as indestructible as matter itself. This fugitive and evanescent character of life, the way it uses and triumphs over the material forces, setting up new chemical activities in matter, sweeping over the land-areas of the earth like a conflagration, lifting the inorganic elements up into myriads of changing and beautiful forms, instituting a vast number of new chemical processes and compounds, defying the laboratory to reproduce it or kindle its least spark–a flame that cannot exist without carbon and oxygen, but of which carbon and oxygen do not hold the secret, a fire reversed, building up instead of pulling down, in the vegetable with power to absorb and transmute the inorganic elements into leaves and fruit and tissue; in the animal with power to change the vegetable products into bone and muscle and nerve and brain, and finally into thought and consciousness; run by the solar energy and dependent upon it, yet involving something which the sunlight cannot give us; in short, an activity in matter, or in a limited part of matter, as real as the physico-chemical activity, but, unlike it, defying all analysis and explanation and all our attempts at synthesis. It is this character of life, I say, that so easily leads us to look upon it as something ab extra, or super-added to matter, and not an evolution from it. It has led Sir Oliver Lodge to conceive of life as a distinct entity, existing independent of matter, and it is this conception that gives the key to Henri Bergson’s wonderful book, “Creative Evolution.”

There is possibly or probably a fourth change in matter, physical in its nature, but much more subtle and mysterious than any of the physical changes which our senses reveal to us. I refer to radioactive change, or to the atomic transformation of one element into another, such as the change of radium into helium, and the change of helium into lead–a subject that takes us to the borderland between physics and chemistry where is still debatable ground.

I began by saying that there were three kinds of changes in matter–the physical, the chemical, and the vital. But if we follow up this idea and declare that there are three kinds of force also, claiming this distinction for the third term of our proposition, we shall be running counter to the main current of recent biological science. “The idea that a peculiar ‘vital force’ acts in the chemistry of life,” says Professor Soddy, “is extinct.”

“Only chemical and physical agents influence the vital processes,” says Professor Czapek, of the University of Prague, “and we need no longer take refuge in mysterious ‘vital forces’ when we want to explain these.”

Tyndall was obliged to think of a force that guided the molecules of matter into the special forms of a tree. This force was in the ultimate particles of matter. But when he came to the brain and to consciousness, he said a new product appeared that defies mechanical treatment.

The attempt of the biological science of our time to wipe out all distinctions between the living and the non-living, solely because scientific analysis reveals no difference, is a curious and interesting phenomenon.

Professor Schaefer, in his presidential address before the British Association in 1912, argued that all the main characteristics of living matter, such as assimilation and disassimilation, growth and reproduction, spontaneous and amoeboid movement, osmotic pressure, karyokinesis, etc., were equally apparent in the non-living; therefore he concluded that life is only one of the many chemical reactions, and that it is not improbable that it will yet be produced by chemical synthesis in the laboratory. The logic of the position taken by Professor Schaefer and of the school to which he belongs, demands this artificial production of life–an achievement that seems no nearer than it did a half-century ago. When it has been attained, the problem will be simplified, but the mystery of life will by no means have been cleared up. One follows these later biochemists in working out their problem of the genesis of life with keen interest, but always with a feeling that there is more in their conclusions than is justified by their premises. For my own part, I am convinced that whatever is, is natural, but to obtain life I feel the need of something of a different order from the force that evokes the spark from the flint and the steel, or brings about the reaction of chemical compounds. If asked to explain what this something is that is characteristic of living matter, I should say intelligence.