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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
On the Physical Basis of Life
By Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895)
 
From the Fortnightly Review

WHAT, truly, can seem to be more obviously different from one another, in faculty, in form, and in substance, than the various kinds of living beings? What community of faculty can there be between the brightly colored lichen, which so nearly resembles a mere mineral incrustation of the bare rock on which it grows, and the painter, to whom it is instinct with beauty, or the botanist, whom it feeds with knowledge?  1
  Again, think of the microscopic fungus,—a mere infinitesimal ovoid particle, which finds space and duration enough to multiply into countless millions in the body of a living fly; and then of the wealth of foliage, the luxuriance of flower and fruit, which lies between this bald sketch of a plant and the giant pine of California, towering to the dimensions of a cathedral spire, or the Indian fig, which covers acres with its profound shadow, and endures while nations and empires come and go around its vast circumference.  2
  Or turning to the other half of the world of life, picture to yourselves the great Finner whale, hugest of beasts that live or have lived, disporting his eighty or ninety feet of bone, muscle, and blubber, with easy roll, among waves in which the stoutest ship that ever left dock-yard would founder hopelessly; and contrast him with the invisible animalcules,—mere gelatinous specks, multitudes of which could in fact dance upon the point of a needle with the same ease as the angels of the schoolmen could in imagination. With these images before your minds, you may well ask, What community of form or structure is there between the animalcule and the whale; or between the fungus and the fig-tree; and à fortiori, between all four?  3
  Finally, if we regard substance or material composition, what hidden bond can connect the flower which a girl wears in her hair and the blood which courses through her youthful veins; or what is there in common between the dense and resisting mass of the oak, or the strong fabric of the tortoise, and those broad disks of glassy jelly which may be seen pulsating through the waters of a calm sea, but which drain away to mere films in the hand which raises them out of their element?…  4
  Speech, gesture, and every other form of human action, are in the long run resolvable into muscular contraction; and muscular contraction is but a transitory change in the relative positions of the parts of a muscle. But the scheme which is large enough to embrace the activities of the highest form of life covers all those of the lower creatures. The lowest plant or animalcule feeds, grows, and reproduces its kind. In addition, all animals manifest those transitory changes of form which we class under irritability and contractility; and it is more than probable that when the vegetable world is thoroughly explored, we shall find all plants in possession of the same powers at one time or other of their existence.  5
  I am not now alluding to such phenomena, at once rare and conspicuous, as those exhibited by the leaflets of the sensitive plant, or the stamens of the barberry, but to much more widely spread, and at the same time more subtle and hidden, manifestations of vegetable contractility. You are doubtless aware that the common nettle owes its stinging property to the innumerable stiff and needle-like, though exquisitely delicate, hairs which cover its surface. Each stinging-needle tapers from a broad base to a slender summit, which, though rounded at the end, is of such microscopic fineness that it readily penetrates and breaks off in the skin. The whole hair consists of a very delicate outer case of wood, closely applied to the inner surface of which is a layer of semi-fluid matter, full of innumerable granules of extreme minuteness. This semi-fluid lining is protoplasm, which thus constitutes a kind of bag, full of a limpid liquid, and roughly corresponding in form with the interior of the hair which it fills. When viewed with sufficiently high magnifying power, the protoplasmic layer of the nettle hair is seen to be in a condition of unceasing activity. Local contractions of the whole thickness of its substance pass slowly and gradually from point to point, and give rise to the appearance of progressive waves, just as the bending of successive stalks of corn by a breeze produces the apparent billows of a cornfield.  6
  But in addition to these movements, and independently of them, the granules are driven in relatively rapid streams through channels in the protoplasm which seem to have a considerable amount of persistence. Most commonly the currents in adjacent parts of the protoplasm take similar directions; and thus there is a general stream up one side of the hair and down the other. But this does not prevent the existence of partial currents which take different routes; and sometimes trains of granules may be seen coursing swiftly in opposite directions within a twenty-thousandth of an inch of one another; while occasionally opposite streams come into direct collision, and after a longer or shorter struggle one predominates. The cause of these currents seems to lie in contractions of the protoplasm which bounds the channels in which they flow, but which are so minute that the best microscopes show only their effects and not themselves….  7
  If a drop of blood be drawn by pricking one’s finger, and viewed with proper precautions and under a sufficiently high microscopic power, there will be seen, among the innumerable multitude of little circular discoidal bodies or corpuscles which float in it and give it its color, a comparatively small number of colorless corpuscles of somewhat larger size and very irregular shape. If the drop of blood be kept at the temperature of the body, these colorless corpuscles will be seen to exhibit a marvelous activity, changing their forms with great rapidity, drawing in and thrusting out prolongations of their substance, and creeping about as if they were independent organisms.  8
  The substance which is thus active is a mass of protoplasm; and its activity differs in detail rather than in principle from that of the protoplasm of the nettle. Under sundry circumstances the corpuscle dies and becomes distended into a round mass, in the midst of which is seen a smaller spherical body, which existed but was more or less hidden in the living corpuscle, and is called its nucleus. Corpuscles of essentially similar structure are to be found in the skin, in the lining of the mouth, and scattered through the whole framework of the body. Nay, more: in the earliest condition of the human organism, in that state in which it has but just become distinguishable from the egg in which it arises, it is nothing but an aggregation of such corpuscles, and every organ of the body was once no more than such an aggregation.  9
  Thus a nucleated mass of protoplasm turns out to be what may be termed the structural unit of the human body. As a matter of fact, the body in its earliest state is a mere multiple of such units; and in its perfect condition it is a multiple of such units variously modified.  10
  But does the formula which expresses the essential structural character of the highest animal cover all the rest, as the statement of its powers and faculties covered that of all others? Very nearly. Beast and fowl, reptile and fish, mollusk, worm, and polype, are all composed of structural units of the same character: namely, masses of protoplasm with a nucleus. There are sundry very low animals, each of which structurally is a mere colorless blood-corpuscle, leading an independent life. But at the very bottom of the animal scale even this simplicity becomes simplified, and all the phenomena of life are manifested by a particle of protoplasm without a nucleus. Nor are such organisms insignificant by reason of their want of complexity. It is a fair question whether the protoplasm of those simplest forms of life which people an immense extent of the bottom of the sea, would not outweigh that of all the higher living beings which inhabit the land put together. And in ancient times, no less than at the present day, such living beings as these have been the greatest of rock-builders.  11
  What has been said of the animal world is no less true of plants. Imbedded in the protoplasm at the broad or attached end of the nettle hair, there lies a spheroidal nucleus. Careful examination further proves that the whole substance of the nettle is made up of a repetition of such masses of nucleated protoplasm, each contained in a wooden case, which is modified in form, sometimes into a woody fibre, sometimes into a duct or spiral vessel, sometimes into a pollen grain or an ovule. Traced back to its earliest state, the nettle arises as the man does, in a particle of nucleated protoplasm. And in the lowest plants, as in the lowest animals, a single mass of such protoplasm may constitute the whole plant, or the protoplasm may exist without a nucleus….  12
  In the wonderful story of the ‘Peau de Chagrin,’ the hero becomes possessed of a magical wild-ass’s skin, which yields him the means of gratifying all his wishes. But its surface represents the duration of the proprietor’s life; and for every satisfied desire the skin shrinks in proportion to the intensity of fruition, until at length life and the last handbreadth of the peau de chagrin disappear with the gratification of a last wish.  13
  Balzac’s studies had led him over a wide range of thought and speculation, and his shadowing forth of physiological truth in this strange story may have been intentional. At any rate, the matter of life is a veritable peau de chagrin, and for every vital act it is somewhat the smaller. All work implies waste, and the work of life results directly or indirectly in the waste of protoplasm.  14
  Every word uttered by a speaker costs him some physical loss; and in the strictest sense, he burns that others may have light: so much eloquence, so much of his body resolved into carbonic acid, water, and urea. It is clear that this process of expenditure cannot go on forever. But happily the protoplasmic peau de chagrin differs from Balzac’s, in its capacity of being repaired and brought back to its full size after every exertion.  15
  For example, this present lecture, whatever its intellectual worth to you, has a certain physical value to me, which is conceivably expressible by the number of grains of protoplasm and other bodily substance wasted in maintaining my vital processes during its delivery. My peau de chagrin will be distinctly smaller at the end of the discourse than it was at the beginning. By-and-by I shall probably have recourse to the substance commonly called mutton, for the purpose of stretching it back to its original size. Now this mutton was once the living protoplasm, more or less modified, of another animal,—a sheep. As I shall eat it, it is the same matter altered not only by death, but by exposure to sundry artificial operations in the process of cooking.  16
  But these changes, whatever be their extent, have not rendered it incompetent to resume its old function as matter of life. A singular inward laboratory which I possess will dissolve a certain portion of the modified protoplasm; the solution so formed will pass into my veins; and the subtle influences to which it will then be subjected will convert the dead protoplasm into living protoplasm, and transubstantiate sheep into man….  17
  Hence it appears to be a matter of no great moment what animal or what plant I lay under contribution for protoplasm; and the fact speaks volumes for the general identity of that substance in all living beings. I share this catholicity of assimilation with other animals, all of which, so far as we know, could thrive equally well on the protoplasm of any of their fellows or of any plant; but here the assimilative powers of the animal world cease. A solution of smelling-salts in water, with an infinitesimal proportion of some other saline matters, contains all the elementary bodies which enter into the composition of protoplasm; but as I need hardly say, a hogshead of that fluid would not keep a hungry man from starving, nor would it save any animal whatever from a like fate. An animal cannot make protoplasm, but must take it ready-made from some other animal, or some plant; the animal’s highest feat of constructive chemistry being to convert dead protoplasm into that living matter of life which is appropriate to itself.  18
  Therefore in seeking for the origin of protoplasm, we must eventually turn to the vegetable world. The fluid containing carbonic acid, water, and ammonia, which offers such a Barmecide feast to the animal, is a table richly spread to multitudes of plants: and with a due supply of only such materials, many a plant will not only maintain itself in vigor, but grow and multiply until it has increased a millionfold, or a million millionfold, the quantity of protoplasm which it originally possessed; in this way building up the matter of life to an indefinite extent from the common matter of the universe….  19
  After all, what do we know of this terrible “matter,” except as a name for the unknown and hypothetical cause of states of our own consciousness? And what do we know of that “spirit” over whose threatened extinction by matter a great lamentation is arising, like that which was heard at the death of Pan, except that it is also a name for an unknown and hypothetical cause or condition of states of consciousness? In other words, matter and spirit are but names for the imaginary substrata of groups of natural phenomena.  20
  And what is the dire necessity and “iron” law under which men groan? Truly, most gratuitously invented bugbears. I suppose if there be an “iron” law, it is that of gravitation; and if there be a physical necessity, it is that a stone unsupported must fall to the ground. But what is all we really know and can know about the latter phenomenon? Simply that in all human experience, stones have fallen to the ground under these conditions; that we have not the smallest reason for believing that any stone so circumstanced will not fall to the ground; and that we have on the contrary every reason to believe that it will so fall. It is very convenient to indicate that all the conditions of belief have been fulfilled in this case, by calling the statement that unsupported stones will fall to the ground, “a law of nature.” But when, as commonly happens, we change will into must, we introduce an idea of necessity which most assuredly does not lie in the observed facts, and has no warranty that I can discover elsewhere. For my part, I utterly repudiate and anathematize the intruder. Fact I know; and Law I know: but what is this Necessity, save an empty shadow of my own mind’s throwing?  21
  But if it is certain that we can have no knowledge of the nature of either matter or spirit, and that the notion of necessity is something illegitimately thrust into the perfectly legitimate conception of law, the materialistic position that there is nothing in the world but matter, force, and necessity, is as utterly devoid of justification as the most baseless of theological dogmas. The fundamental doctrines of materialism, like those of spiritualism and most other “isms,” lie outside “the limits of philosophical inquiry”; and David Hume’s great service to humanity is his irrefragable demonstration of what these limits are. Hume called himself a skeptic, and therefore others cannot be blamed if they apply the same title to him; but that does not alter the fact that the name, with its existing implications, does him gross injustice.  22
  If a man asks me what the politics of the inhabitants of the moon are, and I reply that I do not know; that neither I nor any one else have any means of knowing; and that under these circumstances I decline to trouble myself about the subject at all,—I do not think he has any right to call me a skeptic. On the contrary, in replying thus I conceive that I am simply honest and truthful, and show a proper regard for the economy of time. So Hume’s strong and subtle intellect takes up a great many problems about which we are naturally curious, and shows us that they are essentially questions of lunar politics, in their essence incapable of being answered, and therefore not worth the attention of men who have work to do in the world. And he thus ends one of his essays:—
          “If we take in hand any volume of divinity, or school metaphysics, for instance, let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames; for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”
  23
  Permit me to enforce this most wise advice. Why trouble ourselves about matters of which, however important they may be, we do know nothing and can know nothing? We live in a world which is full of misery and ignorance, and the plain duty of each and all of us is to try to make the little corner he can influence somewhat less miserable and somewhat less ignorant than it was before he entered it. To do this effectually it is necessary to be fully possessed of only two beliefs: the first, that the order of nature is ascertainable by our faculties to an extent which is practically unlimited; the second, that our volition counts for something as a condition of the course of events.  24
  Each of these beliefs can be verified experimentally, as often as we like to try. Each therefore stands upon the strongest foundation upon which any belief can rest; and forms one of our highest truths. If we find that the ascertainment of the order of nature is facilitated by using one terminology or one set of symbols rather than another, it is our clear duty to use the former; and no harm can accrue, so long as we bear in mind that we are dealing merely with terms and symbols.  25
  In itself it is of little moment whether we express the phenomena of matter in terms of spirit, or the phenomena of spirit in terms of matter: matter may be regarded as a form of thought, thought may be regarded as a property of matter; each statement has certain relative truth. But with a view to the progress of science, the materialistic terminology is in every way to be preferred. For it connects thought with the other phenomena of the universe, and suggests inquiry into the nature of those physical conditions or concomitants of thought which are more or less accessible to us, and a knowledge of which may in future help us to exercise the same kind of control over the world of thought as we already possess in respect of the material world; whereas the alternative or spiritualistic terminology is utterly barren, and leads to nothing but obscurity and confusion of ideas.  26
  Thus there can be little doubt that the further science advances, the more extensively and consistently will all the phenomena of nature be represented by materialistic formulæ and symbols.  27
  But the man of science who, forgetting the limits of philosophical inquiry, slides from these formulæ and symbols into what is commonly understood by materialism, seems to me to place himself on a level with the mathematician who should mistake the x’s and y’s with which he works his problems for real entities; and with this further disadvantage as compared with the mathematician, that the blunders of the latter are of no practical consequence, while the errors of systematic materialism may paralyze the energies and destroy the beauty of a life.  28
 
 
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