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The Vital Order
by [?]


Any contrivance which shows an interdependence of parts, that results in unity of action, is super-mechanical. The solar system may be regarded as a unit, but it has not the purposive unity of a living body. It is one only in the sense that its separate bodies are all made of one stuff, and obey the same laws and move together in the same direction, but a living body is a unit because all its parts are in the service of one purposive end. An army is a unit, a flock of gregarious birds, a colony of ants or bees, is a unit because the spirit and purpose of one is the spirit and purpose of all; the unity is psychological.

Only living bodies are adaptive. Adaptation, of course, has its physics or its chemistry, because it is a physical phenomenon; but there is no adaptation of a rock or a clay-bank to its environment; there is only mechanical and chemical adjustment. The influence of the environment may bring about chemical and physical changes in a non-living body, but they are not purposive as in a living body. The fat in the seeds of plants in northern countries is liquid and solid at a lower temperature than in tropical climates. Living organisms alone react in a formative or deformative way to external stimuli. In warm climates the fur of animals and the wool of sheep become thin and light. The colder the climate, the thicker these coverings. Such facts only show that in the matter of adaptation among living organisms, there is a factor at work other than chemistry and physics–not independent of them, but making a purposive use of them. Cut off the central shoot that leads the young spruce tree upwards, and one of the shoots from the whirl of lateral branches below it slowly rises up and takes the place of the lost leader. Here is an action not prompted by the environment, but by the morphological needs of the tree, and it illustrates how different is its unity from the unity of a mere machine. I am only aiming to point out that in all living things the material forces behave in a purposive way to a degree that cannot be affirmed of them in non-living, and that, therefore, they imply intelligence.

Evidently the cells in the body do not all have the same degree of life,–that is, the same degree of irritability. The bone cells and the hair cells, for instance, can hardly be so much alive–or so irritable–as the muscle cells; nor these as intensely alive as the nerve and brain cells. Does not a bird possess a higher degree of life than a mollusk, or a turtle? Is not a brook trout more alive than a mud-sucker? You can freeze the latter as stiff as an icicle and resuscitate it, but not the former. There is a scale of degrees in life as clearly as there is a scale of degrees in temperature. There is an endless gradation of sensibilities of the living cells, dependent probably upon the degree of differentiation of function. Anaesthetics dull or suspend this irritability. The more highly developed and complex the nervous system, the higher the degree of life, till we pass from mere physical life to psychic life. Science might trace this difference to cell structure, but what brings about the change in the character of the cell, or starts the cells to building a complex nervous system, is a question unanswerable to science. The biologist imagines this and that about the invisible or hypothetical molecular structure; he assigns different functions to the atoms; some are for endosmosis, others for contraction, others for conduction of stimuli. Intramolecular oxygen plays a part. Other names are given to the mystery–the micellar strings of Naegeli, the biophores of Weismann, the plastidules of Haeckel; they all presuppose millions of molecules peculiarly arranged in the protoplasm.