Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

 
 
The Origin of Life.
A Reply to Dr. Schäfer. (S700: 1912)

 
Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: Printed in the Everyman issue of 18 October 1912. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S700.htm


[[p. 5]] I.

    The great body of intelligent, but non-scientific, readers has been greatly interested, and many of them even mentally distressed, at what seemed to them to be an authoritative declaration by one of the highest expounders of the science of to-day in favour of the materialistic as opposed to the spiritualistic nature of Life, including that of man with all its marvellous powers and possibilities.

    The position of President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science is justly considered to be one of the highest, if not the very highest, honour that can be attained by a student of science in this country, since it is given him by a select body of his compeers, who by their choice declare him to be in the first rank for ability and erudition in his own department.

    When, therefore, Dr. E. A. Schäfer, who has been Professor of Physiology in two of our most scientific Universities, devoted the whole of his Presidential Address to a very lengthy and elaborate discussion as to "the nature, origin, and maintenance of life," it was to be expected that the vast subject would be set before the public with a full summary of the facts, accompanied by a logical statement of the conclusions arrived at by one or other of the opposing schools of thought on this intensely interesting problem.

II.

    Very early in his address Dr. Schäfer expresses his own views very clearly, but in a manner which seems to me to slur over essential points and actually to beg the whole question at issue. This he does by deliberately declaring his inability to give a definition of life, and then proceeds to the statement that "life is not identical with soul," and that whatever he says regarding "life" must not be taken to apply to the conception to which the word "soul" is attached. And that is all he gives us as to what he means by either "life" or "soul."

    This omission is the more important because, as I shall presently show, it is by no means difficult to define the essential features and characteristics which distinguish all living things from inanimate forms of matter; and also because Haeckel and many other physiologists maintain that every cell has a "soul," but of the lowest possible kind; that although really unconscious, yet it experiences "likes and dislikes which determinate its motions."* [*"Riddle of the Universe," M'Cabe's translation, p. 78.] But as this is totally different from the generally received meaning of "soul," which is "that part of man which feels, thinks, desires, etc." (Chambers's Dictionary), it is certainly important to know what Dr. Schäfer means by the word.

    Having thus ignored the soul, as having nothing to do with life from a scientific standpoint, he goes on to state his own conclusions in the following words:--"The problems of life are essentially problems of matter; we cannot conceive of life, in the scientific sense of the word, as existing apart from matter. The phenomena of life are investigated, and can only be investigated, by the same methods as all other phenomena of matter, and the general results of such investigations tend to show that living beings are governed by laws identical with those which govern inanimate matter. The more we study the phenomena of life, the more we become convinced of the truth of this statement, and the less we are disposed to call in the aid of a special and unknown form of energy to explain those manifestations."

III.

    These statements are general and somewhat vague, and must be taken in connection with others of like tendency throughout his Address. Neither here nor in his lengthy account of some of the more remarkable structures or functions of organisms does the writer anywhere point out the fundamental differences between the "matter" of plants and animals when alive and when they have ceased to live--between living, growing matter and the same matter when dead and subject to immediate decomposition.

    He never states, he never even recognises, the essential and unique feature of living things that, from minute particles of the enormously complex substance termed protoplasm, builds up a structure which, by a wonderfully accurate balance of forces, maintains itself for indefinite periods in almost identical forms. Surely this power of waste and repair, this condition of constant internal flux, this taking in of food and converting it into blood and muscle, bone and tendon, hair and skin, together with the marvellous nervous system with its mysterious powers of sensation and motion--surely all this implies laws and forces which are not "identical with those which govern inanimate matter."

    When we consider further that, by slow but incessant adaptive changes throughout the myriads of ages of geological time, this marvellous life-power has produced the infinitely diversified and glorious pageant of the vegetable and animal kingdoms, we are more than ever convinced that the laws, forces and agencies which have sufficed to produce and modify the earth itself are not those which have originated and maintained the life-world. Yet Dr. Schäfer concludes with the amazing assertion that, the more we study these works of life, the more willing we shall be to impute them all to known mechanical and physical forces, and the less need we shall find "to call in the aid of a special and unknown form of energy to explain these manifestations."

IV.

    Before going further it will be well to show, by reference to the writings of some of the greatest of living physiologists, that these views are not generally accepted. Max Verworn, for instance, although opposing "vitalism" as strongly as Dr. Schäfer himself, admits that there is a great difference between the dead and the living cell, and assures us that "substances exist in living which are not to be found in dead cells." He also recognises the constant internal motions of the living cell; the incessant waste and repair of the highly complex organism for indefinite periods; its resistance during life to destructive agencies to which it succumbs the moment life ceases. These characteristics Dr. Schäfer hardly alludes to, and does not even attempt to explain as the result of chemical or mechanical forces.

    Professor A. Weismann, perhaps the greatest of living biologists, describes the wonderful series of changes which occur in a cell before its division. Till quite recently the nucleus, or small spot in the centre of every living cell, was supposed to have no special structure, as nothing was visible in the very best microscopes. But it has now been found by the use of certain stains that a most remarkable series of structural changes occur within it as a preliminary to division. A complex spiral structure first appears, which breaks up into separate loops. These divide transversely and split up longitudinally, each piece being connected by delicate fibres to a knob at the top and bottom of the cell. Division by the growth of a transverse membrane then occurs, the two resulting cells being apparently identical with the parent cell and with each other. But each possesses distinct properties, since they become the starting points of different organs or structures of the body. This implies some selective and directive agency in order that the specially modified cells may be carried to the right place and at the right time.

    [[p. 6]] The complex changes going on in every cell and atom of every living creature during its whole term of life is summarised in the one word "growth"; and, being so familiar, is taken to explain everything, while it really explains nothing, as many of the greatest authorities fully recognise.

    Professor A. Kerner, for example, in his great work on "The Natural History of Plants," after describing the process of cell-division as being almost identical in plants and animals, thus refers to the chemical explanation upheld by the materialistic school of physiologists:--"It does not explain the purposeful sequence of different operations in the same protoplasm without any change in the external stimuli; the thorough use made of external advantages; the resistence to injurious influences; the avoidance or encompassing of insuperable obstacles; the punctuality with which all the functions are performed; the periodicity which occurs with the greatest regularity under constant conditions of environment; nor, above all, the fact that the power of discharging all the operations requisite for growth, nutrition, renovation, and multiplication is liable to be lost. We call the loss of this power the death of the protoplasm."

V.

    A striking example of the "periodicity" alluded to in the above quotation is given in Professor Lloyd Morgan's fine work on Animal Life and Intelligence. It is that of the annual growth of the antlers of a deer, which he thus describes:--"If you lay your hand on the growing antler, you will feel that it is hot with the nutrient blood that is coursing beneath it. An army of tens of thousands of busy living cells is at work beneath that velvet surface building the bony antlers, preparing for the battles of the autumn. Each minute cell knows its work, and does it for the general good--so perfectly is the body knit into an organic whole. It takes up from the nutrient blood the special materials it requires; out of them it elaborates the crude bone-stuff, at first soft as wax, but ere long to become as hard as stone, and then, having done its work, having added its special morsel to the fabric of the antler, it remains imbedded and immured, buried beneath the bone-products of its successors or descendants. No hive of bees is busier or more replete with active life than the antler of a stag as it grows beneath the warm, soft velvet."

VI.

    But such a growth as this, wonderful and beautiful as it is, and absolutely inexplicable as the result of chemical or mechanical forces acting upon protoplasm, is as nothing in comparison with other processes and products of life. The most remarkable of these are the plumage of birds and the metamorphosis of the higher insects.

    If a bird's quill is examined, and the beautifully elastic web carefully separated so as to show the structure of the barbs and barbules of which it is composed, we find it to be the most wonderful piece of mechanism in the world, and one which is wholly beyond the powers of our most ingenious mechanics to reproduce or imitate. The extreme lightness, elasticity, and strength of the horny material of the feather is due to the formation of the thin plates of which it is constructed being split up into hundreds of thousands of parts, connected together by rows of minute elastic hooks, so delicately formed that after being separated the mere pressure of the air locks them together again as firmly as before.

    When we consider the myriads of cells of which each feather consists, each of which must have a special form to fill its place in the structure, and that every feather on a bird's body has a special shape and texture, and often a peculiar colour, so exactly adapted to that of adjacent feathers as to form a special pattern on the outer surface of the bird, and that the whole of this miracle of adaptive structure is reproduced afresh each year with amazing rapidity, how grotesquely inadequate is the statement that all this is produced by chemical and mechanical laws, and that it is quite unnecessary and unscientific to suppose that any special "vital" forces are required to account for them.

VII.

    But in all these cases, and in the whole process of growth and assimilation, from the strange vital phenomena occurring in every cell to its final destination as part of the finished structure of the living organism, a never-ceasing, guiding agency is needed, or disorganisation and death inevitably ensues. It was the absolute necessity for some such power or guiding agency that compelled the arch-agnostic Haeckel himself to postulate a soul in every cell, but, as he frequently declares, a quite rudimentary soul, inasmuch as it is unconscious!

VIII.

    Limitation of space forbids me from giving any details of the second of the marvels of organisation already referred to--that of the metamorphosis of the higher insects, such as the moths and butterflies; the bare facts must suffice. These are, that the worm-like larvæ pass their lives from the egg to the full-grown caterpillar as mere feeding machines. They then become dormant in the pupa-state, when the whole of the internal organs decompose into a pulpy mass, and then, instead of dying, which is the usual result of decomposition, a new and totally distinct winged insect is built up by directive vital forces, a true metamorphosis, and one of the most antecedently improbable and apparently miraculous in the whole series of life-phenomena.

IX.

    We see then that in the whole vast world of life, in all its myriad forms, whether we examine the lowest types possessed of the simplest characteristics of life, or whether in the higher forms, we follow the process of growth from a single cell up to the completed organism--even to that of a living, moving, feeling, thinking, reasoning being such as man himself--we find everywhere a stupendous, unceasing series of continuous motions of the gases, fluids and solids of which the body consists. These motions are strictly co-ordinated, and, taken together with the requisite directing and organising forces, imply the presence of some active mind-power.

    Hence the conclusion of John Hunter, accepted as indisputable by Huxley, that "life is the cause, not the consequence, of organisation." Hence also the "cell-soul" of Haeckel, though minimised to complete ineffectiveness by being unconscious.

    In view of all these marvellous phenomena, how totally inadequate are references to "growing crystals," and repeated assertions that we shall some day produce the living matter of the nucleus by a chemical process; that "the nucleus" is in fact "the directing agent" in all the changes which take place within the living cell, and that "without doubt this substance (when produced chemically) will be found to exhibit the phenomena which we are in the habit of associating with the term life."

    Finally, Dr. Schäfer assures us that, as supernatural intervention is unscientific, "we are compelled to believe that living matter must have owed its origin to causes similar in character to those which have been instrumental in producing all other forms of matter in the universe; in other words, to a process of gradual evolution."

    I submit that, in view of the actual facts of growth and organisation as here briefly outlined, and that living protoplasm has never been chemically produced, the assertion that life is due to chemical and mechanical processes alone is quite unjustified. NEITHER THE PROBABILITY OF SUCH AN ORIGIN, NOR EVEN ITS POSSIBILITY, HAS BEEN SUPPORTED BY ANYTHING WHICH CAN BE TERMED SCIENTIFIC FACTS OR LOGICAL REASONING.

[[p. 7]]


*                 *                 *                 *                 *

Return to Home