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The Vital Order
by [?]

On purely mechanical and chemical principles Tyndall accounts for the growth from the germ of a tree. The germ would be quiet, but the solar light and heat disturb its dreams, break up its atomic equilibrium. The germ makes an “effort” to restore it (why does it make an effort?), which effort is necessarily defeated and incessantly renewed, and in the turmoil or “scrapping” between the germ and the solar forces, matter is gathered from the soil and from the air and built into the special form of a tree. Why not in the form of a cabbage, or a donkey, or a clam? If the forces are purely automatic, why not? Why should matter be gathered in at all in a mechanical struggle between inorganic elements? But these are not all inorganic; the seed is organic. Ah! that makes the difference! That accounts for the “effort.” So we have to have the organic to start with, then the rest is easy. No doubt the molecules of the seed would remain in a quiescent state, if they were not disturbed by external influences, chemical and mechanical. But there is something latent or potential in that seed that is the opposite of the mechanical, namely, the vital, and in what that consists, and where it came from, is the mystery.


I fancy that the difficulty which an increasing number of persons find in accepting the mechanistic view of life, or evolution,–the view which Herbert Spencer built into such a ponderous system of philosophy, and which such men as Huxley, Tyndall, Gifford, Haeckel, Verworn, and others, have upheld and illustrated,–is temperamental rather than logical. The view is distasteful to a certain type of mind–the flexible, imaginative, artistic, and literary type–the type that loves to see itself reflected in nature or that reads its own thoughts and emotions into nature. In a few eminent examples the two types of mind to which I refer seem more or less blended. Sir Oliver Lodge is a case in point. Sir Oliver is an eminent physicist who in his conception of the totality of things is yet a thoroughgoing idealist and mystic. His solution of the problem of living things is extra-scientific. He sees in life a distinct transcendental principle, not involved in the constitution of matter, but independent of it, entering into it and using it for its own purposes.

Tyndall was another great scientist with an inborn idealistic strain in him. His famous, and to many minds disquieting, declaration, made in his Belfast address over thirty years ago, that in matter itself he saw the promise and the potency of all terrestrial life, stamps him as a scientific materialist. But his conception of matter, as “at bottom essentially mystical and transcendental,” stamps him as also an idealist. The idealist in him speaks very eloquently in the passage which, in the same address, he puts into the mouth of Bishop Butler, in the latter’s imaginary debate with Lucretius: “Your atoms,” says the Bishop, “are individually without sensation, much more are they without intelligence. May I ask you, then, to try your hand upon this problem. Take your dead hydrogen atoms, your dead oxygen atoms, your dead carbon atoms, your dead nitrogen atoms, your dead phosphorus atoms, and all the other atoms, dead as grains of shot, of which the brain is formed. Imagine them separate and sensationless, observe them running together and forming all imaginable combinations. This, as a purely mechanical process, is seeable by the mind. But can you see or dream, or in any way imagine, how out of that mechanical art, and from these individually dead atoms, sensation, thought, and emotion are to arise? Are you likely to extract Homer out of the rattling of dice, or the Differential Calculus out of the clash of billiard balls?” Could any vitalist, or Bergsonian idealist have stated his case better?

Now the Bishop Butler type of mind–the visualizing, idealizing, analogy-loving, literary, and philosophical mind–is shared by a good many people; it is shared by or is characteristic of all the great poets, artists, seers, idealists of the world; it is the humanistic type that sees man everywhere reflected in nature; and is radically different from the strictly scientific type which dehumanizes nature and reduces it to impersonal laws and forces, which distrusts analogy and sentiment and poetry, and clings to a rigid logical method.