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Life And Science
by [?]


Bergson says the intellect is characterized by a natural inability to understand life. Certain it is, I think, that science alone cannot grasp its mystery. We must finally appeal to philosophy; we must have recourse to ideal values–to a non-scientific or super-scientific principle. We cannot live intellectually or emotionally upon science alone. Science reveals to us the relations and inter-dependence of things in the physical world and their relations to our physical well-being; philosophy reveals their relations to our mental and spiritual life, their meanings and their ideal values. Poor, indeed, is the man who has no philosophy, no commanding outlook over the tangles and contradictions of the world of sense. There is probably some unknown and unknowable factor involved in the genesis of life, but that that factor or principle does not belong to the natural, universal order is unthinkable. Yet to fail to see that what we must call intelligence pervades and is active in all organic nature is to be spiritually blind. But to see it as something foreign to or separable from nature is to do violence to our faith in the constancy and sufficiency of the natural order. One star differeth from another in glory. There are degrees of mystery in the universe. The most mystifying thing in inorganic nature is electricity,–that disembodied energy that slumbers in the ultimate particles of matter, unseen, unfelt, unknown, till it suddenly leaps forth with such terrible vividness and power on the face of the storm, or till we summon it through the transformation of some other form of energy. A still higher and more inscrutable mystery is life, that something which clothes itself in each infinitely varied and beautiful as well as unbeautiful form of matter. We can evoke electricity at will from many different sources, but we can evoke life only from other life; the biogenetic law is inviolable.

Professor Soddy says, “Natural philosophy may explain a rainbow but not a rabbit.” There is no secret about a rainbow; we can produce it at will out of perfectly colorless beginnings. “But nothing but rabbits will or can produce a rabbit, a proof again that we cannot say what a rabbit is, though we may have a perfect knowledge of every anatomical and microscopic detail.”

To regard life as of non-natural origin puts it beyond the sphere of legitimate inquiry; to look upon it as of natural origin, or as bound in a chain of chemical sequences, as so many late biochemists do, is still to put it where our science cannot unlock the mystery. If we should ever succeed in producing living matter in our laboratories, it would not lessen the mystery any more than the birth of a baby in the household lessens the mystery of generation. It only brings it nearer home.


What is peculiar to organic nature is the living cell. Inside the cell, doubtless, the same old chemistry and physics go on–the same universal law of the transformation of energy is operative. In its minute compass the transmutation of the inorganic into the organic, which constitutes what Tyndall called “the miracle and the mystery of vitality,” is perpetually enacted. But what is the secret of the cell itself? Science is powerless to tell us. You may point out to your heart’s content that only chemical and physical forces are discoverable in living matter; that there is no element or force in a plant that is not in the stone beside which it grew, or in the soil in which it takes root; and yet, until your chemistry and your physics will enable you to produce the living cell, or account for its mysterious self-directed activities, your science avails not. “Living cells,” says a late European authority, “possess most effective means to accelerate reactions and to cause surprising chemical results.”

Behold the four principal elements forming stones and soils and water and air for whole geologic or astronomic ages, and then behold them forming plants and animals, and finally forming the brains that give us art and literature and philosophy and modern civilization. What prompted the elements to this new and extraordinary behavior? Science is dumb before such a question.