The Organic And The Inorganic

2. What is on a priori grounds demanded as a necessity, or set aside as

impossible, on the strength of the axiom of the conservation of energy,

must be proved a posteriori by investigation. It must be shown in detail

that the difference between the organic and the inorganic is only

apparent. And it is here that the mechanical view of life celebrates its

greatest triumph.

For a long time it seemed as thoug
there were an absolute difference

between "inorganic" and "organic" chemistry, between the chemical

processes and products found in free nature, and those within the "living"

body. The same elements were indeed found in both, but it seemed as if

they were subject in the living body to other and higher laws than those

observed in inanimate nature. Out of these elements the organism builds

up, by unexplained processes, peculiar chemical individualities, highly

organised and complex combinations which are never attained in inorganic

nature. This seems to afford indubitable evidence of a vital force with

mysterious super-chemical capacities.

But modern chemical science has succeeded in doing away with this absolute

difference between the two departments of chemistry, for it has achieved,

in retorts, in the laboratory, and with "natural" chemical means, what had

hitherto only been accomplished by "organic" chemistry. Since Woehler's

discovery that urea could be built up by artificial combination, more and

more of the carbon-compounds which were previously regarded as

specialities of the vital force have been produced by artificial

syntheses. The highest synthesis, that of proteids, has not yet been

discovered, but perhaps that, too, may yet be achieved.

And further: intensive observation through the microscope and in the

laboratory increases the knowledge of processes which can be analysed into

simple chemical processes, both in the plant and the animal body. These

are astonishing in their diversity and complexity, but nevertheless they

fulfil themselves according to known chemical laws, and they can be

imitated apart from the living substance. The "breaking up" of the

molecules of nutritive material,--that is to say, the preparation of them

as building material for the body,--does not take place magically and

automatically, but is associated with definitely demonstrable chemical

stuffs, which produce their effect even outside of the organism. The

fundamental function of living matter--"metabolism,"--that is, the constant

disruption and reconstruction of its own substance, has, it seems, been

brought at least nearer to a possible future explanation by the

recognition of a series of phenomena of a purely chemical nature, the

catalytic phenomena (the effects of ferments or "enzymes"). Ingenious

hypotheses are already being constructed, if not to explain, at least to

give a general formulation of these facts, which will serve as a framework

and guiding clue, as a "working hypothesis" for the further progress of


The most recent of these hypotheses is that set forth by Verworn in his

book "Die Biogenhypothese."(60) He assumes, as the central vehicle of the

vital functions, a unified living substance, the "biogen," nearly related

to the proteids which form the fundamental substance of protoplasm and of

the cell-nucleus, and in contrast to which the other substances found in

the living body are in part raw materials and reserves, and in part of a

derivative nature, or the results of disruptive metabolism. Very complex

chemically, "biogen" is able to operate upon the circulating or reserve

"nutritive" materials in a way comparable, for instance, to the action of

"nitric acid in the production of English sulphuric acid." That is to say,

it is able to set up processes of disruption and of recombination,

apparently by its mere presence, but, in reality, by its own continual

breaking down and building up again. At the same time it has the power,

analogous to that of polymerisation in molecules, of increasing, of


The case is the same in regard to physical laws. They are identical in the

living and the non-living. And many of the processes of life have already

been analysed into a complex of simpler physical processes. The

circulation of the blood is subject to the same laws of hydrostatics as

are illustrated in all other fluids. Mechanical, static, and osmotic

processes occur in the organism and constitute its vital phenomena. The

eye is a camera obscura, an optical apparatus; the ear an acoustic

instrument; the skeleton an ingenious system of levers, which obey the

same laws as all other levers. E. du Bois-Reymond, in his lectures on "The

Physics of Organic Metabolism" ("Physik des organischen

Stoffwechsels"),(61) compiles a long and detailed list of the physical

factors associated and intertwined in the most diverse ways with the

fundamental phenomenon of life, namely, metabolism:--the capacities and

effects of solution, diffusion of liquids, capillarity, surface tension,

coagulation, transfusion with filtration, the capacities and effects of

gases, aero-diffusion through porous walls, the absorption of gases

through solid bodies and through fluids, and so on.

Very impressive, too, are the manifold "mechanical" interpretations of

intimate vital characteristics, such as the infinitely fine structure of

protoplasm. For protoplasm does not fill the cell as a compact mass, but

spreads itself out and builds itself up in the most delicate network or

meshwork, of which it forms the threads and walls, enclosing innumerable

vacuoles and alveoli, and Buetschli succeeded in making a surprisingly good

imitation of this "structure" by mechanical means. Drops of oil intimately

mixed with potash and placed between glass plates formed a very similar

emulsion-like or foam-like structure with a visible network and with

enclosed alveoli.(62)

Rhumbler, too, succeeded in explaining by "developmental mechanics" some

of the apparently extremely subtle processes at the beginning of embryonic

development (the invagination of the blastula to form the gastrula); by

imitating the sphere of cells which compose the blastula with elastic

steel bands he deduced the invagination mechanically from the model.(63)

Here, too, must be mentioned Verworn's attempts to explain "the movements

of the living substance."(64) "Kinesis," the power to move, has since the

time of Aristotle been regarded as one of the peculiar characteristics of

life. From the gliding "amoeboid" movements of the moneron, with its

mysterious power of shifting its position, spreading itself out, and

spinning out long threads ("pseudopodia"), up to the contractility of the

muscle-fibre, the same riddle reappears in many different forms. Verworn

attacks it at the lowest level, and attempts to solve it by reference to

the surface tension to which all fluid bodies are subject, and to the

partial relaxation of this, which forces the mass to give off radiating

processes or "pseudopodia." The mechanical causes of the suspension of the

surface tension are inquired into, and striking examples of pseudopod-like

rays are found in the inorganic world, for instance, in a drop of oil.

Thus a starting-point is discovered for mechanical interpretations at a

higher level.(65)