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Scientific Vitalism
by [?]

I

All living bodies, when life leaves them, go back to the earth from whence they came. What was it in the first instance that gathered their elements from the earth and built them up into such wonderful mechanisms? If we say it was nature, do we mean by nature a physical force or an immaterial principle? Did the earth itself bring forth a man, or did something breathe upon the inert clay till it became a living spirit?

As life is a physical phenomenon, appearing in a concrete physical world, it is, to that extent, within the domain of physical science, and appeals to the scientific mind. Physical science is at home only in the experimental, the verifiable. Its domain ends where that of philosophy begins.

The question of how life arose in a universe of dead matter is just as baffling a question to the ordinary mind, as how the universe itself arose. If we assume that the germs of life drifted to us from other spheres, propelled by the rays of the sun, or some other celestial agency, as certain modern scientific philosophers have assumed, we have only removed the mystery farther away from us. If we assume that it came by spontaneous generation, as Haeckel and others assume, then we are only cutting a knot which we cannot untie. The god of spontaneous generation is as miraculous as any other god. We cannot break the causal sequence without a miracle. If something came from nothing, then there is not only the end of the problem, but also the end of our boasted science.

Science is at home in discussing all the material manifestations of life–the parts played by colloids and ferments, by fluids and gases, and all the organic compounds, and by mechanical and chemical principles; it may analyze and tabulate all life processes, and show the living body as a most wonderful and complex piece of mechanism, but before the question of the origin of life itself it stands dumb, and, when speaking through such a man as Tyndall, it also stands humble and reverent. After Tyndall had, to his own satisfaction, reduced all like phenomena to mechanical attraction and repulsion, he stood with uncovered head before what he called the “mystery and miracle of vitality.” The mystery and miracle lie in the fact that in the organic world the same elements combine with results so different from those of the inorganic world. Something seems to have inspired them with a new purpose. In the inorganic world, the primary elements go their ceaseless round from compound to compound, from solid to fluid or gaseous, and back again, forming the world of inert matter as we know it, but in the organic world the same elements form thousands of new combinations unknown to them before, and thus give rise to the myriad forms of life that inhabit the earth.

The much-debated life question has lately found an interesting exponent in Professor Benjamin Moore, of the University of Liverpool. His volume on the subject in the “Home University Library” is very readable, and, in many respects, convincing. At least, so far as it is the word of exact science on the subject it is convincing; so far as it is speculative, or philosophical, it is or is not convincing, according to the type of mind of the reader. Professor Moore is not a bald mechanist or materialist like Professor Loeb, or Ernst Haeckel, nor is he an idealist or spiritualist, like Henri Bergson or Sir Oliver Lodge. He may be called a scientific vitalist. He keeps close to lines of scientific research as these lines lead him through the maze of the primordial elements of matter, from electron to atom, from atom to molecule, from molecule to colloid, and so up to the border of the living world. His analysis of the processes of molecular physics as they appear in the organism leads him to recognize and to name a new force, or a new manifestation of force, which he hesitates to call vital, because of the associations of this term with a prescientific age, but which he calls “biotic energy.”