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

 
 
The Problem of Life (S751: 1912)
Severe Criticism of Dr. Schaefer. -- "No Proof." --
Dr. Wallace Scornful.
Living Organism Not Made by Mixing Its Elements.

 
Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: An anonymous interview printed on page one of the Daily News & Leader (London) of 7 September 1912. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S751.htm


    Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin's famous colleague, who is now in his ninetieth year, is good-humouredly scornful of the progress which many people believe to be indicated by the observations of Professor Schaefer at this year's gathering of the British Association.

    This evening Dr. Wallace sat with me in the study from which he can look out across Poole Harbour, and poured genial contempt upon the theories of these latter-day materialists regarding life and the possibility of its artificial production.

    "Prof. Schaefer's arguments," said the scientist, "are the same as those of Haeckel1 and all the great agnostics, but he does not really get over the difficulties one iota more than they did, so that there is nothing, in a way, that one can call new. He begins by stating, as it were, his point of view that the problems of life are essentially problems of matter, and that we cannot conceive life in the scientific sense as existing apart from matter."

Vitiates His Reasoning.

    "He puts down what he could conceive and could not conceive as the datum, without any attempt to prove it. Take, for instance, Crookes2 and myself. We have studied the subject of psychological phenomena for forty years, and we know pretty well that there are phenomena of which these men are absolutely ignorant, which prove the existence of life without matter, as it were--certainly without ordinary matter--so that vitiates all his reasoning right away."

    "A little further on he tried to show the similarity of the process of reproduction in living and non-living matter, and the only thing he brings forward is crystals. He says that crystals grow and multiply and reproduce their life, and therefore he appears utterly ignorant that a crystal is simply added to on the outside, whereas life is a thing of wonderful and complex structure and is added to inside. That I consider is a wonderful case of bad reasoning of begging the question."

The Greatest Fallacy.

    "Another and the most important fallacy in the whole thing is the assumption, without showing that there is any difficulty about it, that, if you prove the production of dead matter, you can prove the production of living matter."

    "The nucleus of a cell, he says, is not very complex chemically, and the substance of it can be reproduced, but it is not a living nucleus."

    "When we consider," Dr. Wallace quoted, "that the nucleus is not only itself forming a living substance, but is capable of causing other living substances to be built up"--"is, in fact," Dr. Wallace commented--"the directing agent in all the principal chemical changes that take place, there you see he allows the directive agents. There is no directive agent in that sense with crystals. All the chemist can do is to experiment with dead matter. He cannot subject living matter continuing to live to his chemical processes. Therefore all he gets is the production of dead matter, and he says that is the same as living matter. He repeats again and again that, when you have got the same matter, the same chemical substance, all you have got to do is to produce it chemically, and then it will have all the properties of living matter."

    "That," declared Dr. Wallace definitely, "is the very one thing they haven't gone the slightest step towards."

    "Absolutely Unfounded."

    He quoted Professor Schaefer again: "The composition of these elements in the vital compound represents the chemical basis of life, and when the chemist succeeds in building up this compound it will without doubt be found to exhibit the phenomena which we are in the habit of associating with the term 'life.'"

    "Now that," Dr. Wallace commented, "is absolutely unfounded. There is not the slightest proof of it, and to most people it is absolutely incredible. Yet he says it is without doubt."

    With regard to Professor Schaefer's ruling out the question of the soul in his considerations, he observed that Haeckel did admit a soul, saying that every cell had a soul.

    "All the rest of his address, though it is very careful, is based on the assumption that all the changes which take place in growth and reproduction are chemical. He gives no proof whatever, and the difficulties and the differences are so radical and so enormous that the whole thing is really absolutely worthless. But he is not quite so dogmatic as Haeckel, who denied the possibility of any life but what had developed from matter."

A Mystery.

    "In my last book, 'The World of Life,'" said the veteran author, "I have endeavoured to deal with that fundamental point which all these physiological agnostics, as they call themselves, utterly ignore and pass by, and that is: Whence comes the directing power? The two things, growth and reproduction, are without parallel in any chemical process certainly, and none of these men makes the slightest attempt to get over the difficulty. In my book I deal in detail with these things, and in a chapter on the mystery of the cell I show that some of the greatest modern writers admit that there is a mystery in it, that its changes are most marvellous. All this they ignore--all this directive power which enables the cell to go through a marvellous series of changes and developments, not one of which can be explained by any mechanical or chemical process, they ignore. Professor Schaefer's assertions are so bold that they catch the public ear and the public fancy, but they are entirely valueless."

Complexity of Matter.

    "If," he said, in reply to further questions, "the chemists do produce life, it is not they who produce it. The chemist never goes into the ultimate cause. He does not deal with the directing power. What does force come from? Matter itself, when you get down to its fundamentals, is becoming almost as complex as living matter. In the mere atom there have been shown to exist countless minute things, every part imbued with force. Whence comes the force?"

    "I maintain you cannot explain the smallest portion of dead matter without a series of forces which imply mind, which imply direction. One of my great points, going back and back and back through life, is the matter of the universe in its bulk. You have got to consider the origin of what is called the dead universe, the cosmos, as full of complex directions and laws not quite so complex, but nearly so, as those of living matter. Whence do these forces come?"

The Directing Power.

    "Professor Schaefer never attempts to give any idea of how feeling, sense, the power of perception can possibly arise out of dead matter. He says distinctly it arises from the nervous system. He would produce a nervous system, but is it likely that the nervous system, which is a machine for the manifestation of consciousness, should produce consciousness? Huxley3 said that life is a cause and not a consequence of organization. It is not organization that produces the life, as is assumed all through Professor Schaefer's lectures. If you assume that the directing power is essentially a spiritual power, then you can understand all this, but without it you cannot understand it."

    I asked Dr. Wallace his views on the inevitability of Death.

Necessity of Death.

    "Death," he said, "is absolutely necessary to the process of development through evolution. One of the Cambridge men, who is reliable, therefore, in his mathematics, calculated that, if a certain small organism were allowed to multiply steadily with nothing to prevent it from increasing, in a little over a hundred years it would have produced enough living matter to fill up the whole known universe. That, you see, proves the necessity of death. Here again we see the existence of an antecedent mind, which so constituted matter that it could not be immortal."

    "If living matter had been immortal from the beginning, development would have stopped. All the forces of life are directed in a way that is utterly distinct from chemistry. Anything chemistry can do is quite beside the question. In chemistry only certain things will produce certain results. In life the most diverse things will produce the same results. One man may feed entirely on animal food; another entirely on vegetable. The machinery is the same, yet this same machinery so differently fed produces identical results in bone, muscle, nerve, skin, hair--everything. The organism is like an enormous engine, but an engine which can reproduce itself. There," Dr. Wallace concluded, "is the direct power."


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Editor's Notes

1Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), German zoologist and evolutionist, the most prominent early expositor of Darwinism on the European continent.
2William Crookes (1832-1919), English physicist. Crookes performed a large number of well-publicized tests and examinations of spiritualist mediums in the 1870s.
3Thomas Huxley (1825-1895), English biologist and philosopher.

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