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The Vital Order
by [?]


The mechanistic theory of life–the theory that all living things can be explained and fully accounted for on purely physico-chemical principles–has many defenders in our day. The main aim of the foregoing chapters is to point out the inadequacy of this view. At the risk of wearying my reader I am going to collect under the above heading a few more considerations bearing on this point.

A thing that grows, that develops, cannot, except by very free use of language, be called a machine. We speak of the body as a machine, but we have to qualify it by prefixing the adjective living–the living machine, which takes it out of the mechanical order of things fabricated, contrived, built up from without, and puts it in the order we call vital, the order of things self-developed from within, the order of things autonomous, as contrasted with things automatic. All the mechanical principles are operative in the life processes, but they have been vitalized, not changed in any way but in the service of a new order of reality. The heart with its chambers and valves is a pump that forces the blood through the system, but a pump that works itself and does not depend upon pneumatic pressure–a pump in which vital energy takes the place of gravitational energy. The peristaltic movement in the intestines involves a mechanical principle, but it is set up by an inward stimulus, and not by outward force. It is these inward stimuli, which of course involve chemical reactions, that afford the motive power for all living bodies and that put the living in another order from the mechanical. The eye is an optical instrument,–a rather crude one, it is said,–but it cannot be separated from its function, as can a mere instrument–the eye sees as literally as the brain thinks. In breathing we unconsciously apply the principle of the bellows; it is a bellows again which works itself, but the function of which, in a very limited sense, we can inhibit and control. An artificial, or man-made, machine always implies an artificer, but the living machine is not made in any such sense; it grows, it arises out of the organizing principle that becomes active in matter under conditions that we only dimly understand, and that we cannot reproduce.

The vital and the mechanical cooeperate in all our bodily functions. Swallowing our food is a mechanical process, the digestion of it is a chemical process and the assimilation and elimination of it a vital process. Inhaling and exhaling the air is a mechanical process, the oxidation of the blood is a chemical process, and the renewal of the corpuscles is a vital process. Growth, assimilation, elimination, reproduction, metabolism, and secretion, are all vital processes which cannot be described in terms of physics and chemistry. All our bodily movements–lifting, striking, walking, running–are mechanical, but seeing, hearing, and tasting, are of another order. And that which controls, directs, cooerdinates, and inhibits our activities belongs to a still higher order, the psychic. The world of thoughts and emotions within us, while dependent upon and interacting with the physical world without us, cannot be accounted for in terms of the physical world. A living thing is more than a machine, more than a chemical laboratory.

We can analyze the processes of a tree into their mechanical and chemical elements, but there is besides a kind of force there which we must call vital. The whole growth and development of the tree, its manner of branching and gripping the soil, its fixity of species, its individuality–all imply something that does not belong to the order of the inorganic, automatic forces. In the living animal how the psychic stands related to the physical or physiological and arises out of it, science cannot tell us, but the relation must be real; only philosophy can grapple with that question. To resolve the psychic and the vital into the mechanical and chemical and refuse to see any other factors at work is the essence of materialism.