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Life And Science
by [?]


The limited and peculiar activity which arises in matter and which we call vital; which comes and goes; which will not stay to be analyzed; which we in vain try to reproduce in our laboratories; which is inseparable from chemistry and physics, but which is not summed up by them; which seems to use them and direct them to new ends,–an entity which seems to have invaded the kingdom of inert matter at some definite time in the earth’s history, and to have set up an insurgent movement there; cutting across the circuits of the mechanical and chemical forces; turning them about, pitting one against the other; availing itself of gravity, of chemical affinity, of fluids and gases, of osmosis and exosmosis, of colloids, of oxidation and hydration, and yet explicable by none of these things; clothing itself with garments of warmth and color and perfume woven from the cold, insensate elements; setting up new activities in matter; building up myriads of new unstable compounds; struggling against the tendency of the physical forces to a dead equilibrium; indeterminate, intermittent, fugitive; limited in time, limited in space; present in some worlds, absent from others; breaking up the old routine of the material forces, and instituting new currents, new tendencies; departing from the linear activities of the inorganic, and setting up the circular activities of living currents; replacing change by metamorphosis, revolution by evolution, accretion by secretion, crystallization by cell-formation, aggregation by growth; and, finally, introducing a new power into the world–the mind and soul of man–this wonderful, and apparently transcendental something which we call life–how baffling and yet how fascinating is the inquiry into its nature and origin! Are we to regard it as Tyndall did, and as others before and since his time did and do, as potential in the constitution of matter, and self-evolved, like the chemical compounds that are involved in its processes?

As mechanical energy is latent in coal, and in all combustible bodies, is vital energy latent in carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and so forth, needing only the right conditions to bring it out? Mechanical energy is convertible into electrical energy, and vice versa. Indeed, the circle of the physical forces is easily traced, easily broken into, but when or how these forces merge into the vital and psychic forces, or support them, or become them–there is the puzzle. If we limit the natural to the inorganic order, then are living bodies supernatural? Super-mechanical and super-chemical certainly, and chemics and mechanics and electro-statics include all the material forces. Is life outside this circle? It is certain that this circle does not always include life, but can life exist outside this circle? When it appears it is always inside it.

Science can only deal with life as a physical phenomenon; as a psychic phenomenon it is beyond its scope, except so far as the psychic is manifested through the physical. Not till it has produced living matter from dead can it speak with authority upon the question of the origin of life. Its province is limited to the description and analysis of life processes, but when it essays to name what institutes the processes, or to disclose the secret of organization, it becomes philosophy or theology. When Haeckel says that life originated spontaneously, he does not speak with the authority of science, because he cannot prove his assertion; it is his opinion, and that is all. When Helmholtz says that life had no beginning, he is in the same case. When our later biophysicists say that life is of physico-chemical origin, they are in the same case; when Tyndall says that there is no energy in the universe but solar energy, he is in the same case; when Sir Oliver Lodge says that life is an entity outside of and independent of matter, he is in the same case. Philosophy and theology can take leaps in the dark, but science must have solid ground to go upon. When it speculates or theorizes, it must make its speculations good. Scientific prophecy is amenable to the same tests as other prophecy. In the absence of proof by experiment–scientific proof–to get the living out of the non-living we have either got to conceive of matter itself as fundamentally creative, as the new materialism assumes, or else we have got to have an external Creator, as the old theology assumes. And the difference is more apparent than real. Tyndall is “baffled and bewildered” by the fact that out of its molecular vibrations and activities “things so utterly incongruous with them as sensation, thought, and emotion can be derived.” His science is baffled and bewildered because it cannot, bound as it is by the iron law of the conservation and correlation of energy, trace the connection between them. But his philosophy or his theology would experience little difficulty. Henri Bergson shows no hesitation in declaring that the fate of consciousness is not involved in the fate of the brain through which it is manifested, but it is his philosophy and not his science that inspires this faith. Tyndall deifies matter to get life out of it–makes the creative energy potential in it. Bergson deifies or spiritualizes life as a psychic, creative principle, and makes matter its instrument or vehicle.