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The Living Wave
by [?]

But is not this molecular force itself a form of solar energy, and can it differ in kind from any other form of physical force? If molecular forces determine whether the solar energy shall weave a head of a cabbage or a head of a Plato or a Shakespeare, does it not meet all the requirements of our conception of creative will?

Tyndall thinks that a living man–Socrates, Aristotle, Goethe, Darwin, I suppose–could be produced directly from inorganic nature in the laboratory if (and note what a momentous “if” this is) we could put together the elements of such a man in the same relative positions as those which they occupy in his body, “with the selfsame forces and distribution of forces, the selfsame motions and distribution of motions.” Do this and you have a St. Paul or a Luther or a Lincoln. Dr. Verworn said essentially the same thing in a lecture before one of our colleges while in this country a few years ago–easy enough to manufacture a living being of any order of intellect if you can reproduce in the laboratory his “internal and external vital conditions.” (The italics are mine.) To produce those vital conditions is where the rub comes. Those vital conditions, as regards the minutest bit of protoplasm, science, with all her tremendous resources, has not yet been able to produce. The raising of Lazarus from the dead seems no more a miracle than evoking vital conditions in dead matter. External and internal vital conditions are no doubt inseparably correlated, and when we can produce them we shall have life. Life, says Verworn, is like fire, and “is a phenomenon of nature which appears as soon as the complex of its conditions is fulfilled.” We can easily produce fire by mechanical and chemical means, but not life. Fire is a chemical process, it is rapid oxidation, and oxidation is a disintegrating process, while life is an integrating process, or a balance maintained between the two by what we call the vital force. Life is evidently a much higher form of molecular activity than combustion. The old Greek Heraclitus saw, and the modern scientist sees, very superficially in comparing the two.

I have no doubt that Huxley was right in his inference “that if the properties of matter result from the nature and disposition of its component molecules, then there is no intelligible ground for refusing to say that the properties of protoplasm result from the nature and disposition of its molecules.” It is undoubtedly in that nature and disposition of the biological molecules that Tyndall’s whole “mystery and miracle of vitality” is wrapped up. If we could only grasp what it is that transforms the molecule of dead matter into the living molecule! Pasteur called it “dissymmetric force,” which is only a new name for the mystery. He believed there was an “irrefragable physical barrier between organic and inorganic nature”–that the molecules of an organism differed from those of a mineral, and for this difference he found a name.


There seems to have been of late years a marked reaction, even among men of science, from the mechanistic conception of life as held by the band of scientists to which I have referred. Something like a new vitalism is making headway both on the Continent and in Great Britain. Its exponents urge that biological problems “defy any attempt at a mechanical explanation.” These men stand for the idea “of the creative individuality of organisms” and that the main factors in organic evolution cannot be accounted for by the forces already operative in the inorganic world.

There is, of course, a mathematical chance that in the endless changes and permutations of inert matter the four principal elements that make up a living body may fall or run together in just that order and number that the kindling of the flame of life requires, but it is a disquieting proposition. One atom too much or too little of any of them,–three of oxygen where two were required, or two of nitrogen where only one was wanted,–and the face of the world might have been vastly different. Not only did much depend on their coming together, but upon the order of their coming; they must unite in just such an order. Insinuate an atom or corpuscle of hydrogen or carbon at the wrong point in the ranks, and the trick is a failure. Is there any chance that they will hit upon a combination of things and forces that will make a machine–a watch, a gun, or even a row of pins?