The Position Of Bunge And Other Physiologists

For a long time one of the most prominent figures in the controversy was

Prof. G. Bunge, of Basle, who was one of the first modern physiologists to

champion vitalism, and who has tried to show by analogies and

illustrations what is necessarily implied in vital activity.(82) The

mechanical reduction of vital phenomena to physico-chemical forces, he

says, is impossible, and becomes more and more so as our knowledge

s. He brings forward a series of convincing examples of the way in

which apparent mechanical explanations have broken down. The absorption of

the chyle through the walls of the intestine seemed to be a mechanically

intelligible process of osmosis and diffusion. But in reality it proves to

be rather a process of selection on the part of the epithelial cells of

the intestine, analogous to the selection and rejection exercised

elsewhere by unicellular organisms. In the same way the epithelial cells

of the mammary glands "select" the suitable substances from the blood. It

is impossible to explain in a mechanical way the power which directs the

innumerable different chemical and physical processes within the organism,

whether they be the bewilderingly purposeful reactions in the individual

life of the cell, which seem to point to psychic processes within the

plasm, or the riddles of development and of inheritance in particular; for

how can a spermatozoon, so small that 500 millions can lie on a cubic

line, be the bearer of all the peculiarities of the father to the son?

In Lecture III. Bunge defines his attitude towards the law of the

conservation of energy. In so doing he unconsciously follows the lines

laid down by Descartes. All processes of movement and all functions

exhibited by the living substance are the results of the accumulated

potential energies, and the sums of work done and energy utilised remain

the same. But the liberation and the direction of these energies is a

factor by itself, which neither increases nor diminishes the sum of

energies. "Occasiones" and "causae" are brought into the field once

more. The energies effect the phenomena, but they require "occasiones"

to liberate them--thus a stone may fall to the ground by virtue of the

potential energies stored in it at the time of its suspension, but it

cannot fall until the thread by which it hangs has been cut. The function

of the "occasio" itself is something quite outside of and without

relation to the effect caused; it is a matter of indifference whether the

thread be cut gently through with a razor or shot in two with a cannon


Kassowitz(83) is an instructive example of how much the force of criticism

has been recognised even by those occupying a convinced mechanical point

of view. He subjects all the different theories which attempt to explain

the chief vital phenomena in mechanical terms to a long and exhaustive

examination. The theories of the organism as a thermodynamic engine,

osmotic theories, theories of ferments, interpretations in terms of

electro-dynamics and molecular-physics--are all examined (chap. iv.); and

the failure of all these hypotheses, notwithstanding the enormous amount

of ingenuity expended in their construction, is summed up in an emphatic

"Ignoramus." "The failure is a striking one," and it is frankly admitted

that, in strong contrast to the earlier mood of confident hope, there now

prevails a mood of resignation in regard to the mechanical-experimental

investigation of the living organism, and that even specialists of the

first rank are finding that they have to reckon again seriously with vital

force. This breakdown and these admissions do not exactly tend to

prejudice us in favour of the author's own attempt to substantiate new

mechanical theories.

In the comprehensive text-book of physiological chemistry by R.

Neumeister, the mechanical standpoint seemed to be adhered to as the

ideal. But the same writer forsakes it entirely, and disputes it

energetically in his most recent work, "Betrachtungen ueber das Wesen der

Lebenserscheinungen"(84) ("Considerations as to the Nature of Vital

Phenomena"). He passes over all the larger problems, such as those of

development, inheritance, regeneration, and confines himself in the main

to the physiological functions of protoplasm, especially to those of the

absorption of food and metabolism. And he shows, by means of

illustrations, in part Bunge's, in part his own, and in close sympathy

with Wundt's views, that even these vital phenomena cannot possibly be

explained in terms of chemical affinity, physical osmosis, and the like.

In processes of selection (such as, for instance, the excretion of urea

and the retention of sugar in the blood), the "aim is obvious, but the

causes cannot be recognised." Psychical processes play a certain part in

the functions of protoplasm in the form of qualitative and quantitative

sensitiveness. All the mechanical processes in living organisms are

initiated and directed by psychical processes. Physical, chemical and

mechanical laws are perfectly valid, but they are not absolutely dominant.

Living matter is to be defined as "a unique chemical system, the molecules

of which, by their peculiar reciprocal action, give rise to psychical and

material processes in such a way that the processes of the one kind are

always causally conditioned and started by those of the other kind." The

psychical phenomena he regards as transcendental, supernatural,

"mystical," yet unquestionably also subject to a strict causal nexus,

although the causality must remain for ever concealed. Starting from this

basis, he analyses and rejects the explanations which have been offered in

terms of the analogy of ferments, enzymes, or catalytic processes. In

particular, he disputes Ostwald's "Energismus" and Verworn's Biogen


Among the vitalists of to-day, one of the most frequently cited, perhaps,

except Driesch the most frequently cited, is G. Wolff, a Privatdozent,

formerly at Wuerzburg, now at Basle. He has only published short lectures

and essays, and these deal not so much with the mechanical theory as with

Darwinism.(86) But in these writings his main argument is that of his

concluding chapter: the spontaneous adaptiveness of the organism, which

nullifies all contingent theories to explain the purposiveness in ontogeny

and phylogeny. And in his lecture, "Mechanismus und Vitalismus,"(87) in

which he directs his attention especially to criticising Buetschli's

defence of mechanism, the only problem to which prominence is given is the

one with which we are here concerned. In spite of their brevity, these

writings have given rise to much controversy, because what is peculiar to

the two standpoints is described with precision, and the problem is

clearly defined. His criticism had its starting-point in, and received a

special impulse from an empirical proof, due to a very happy experiment of

his own, of the marvellous regenerative capacity, and the inherent

purposive activity of the living organism. He succeeded in proving that if

the lens of the eye of the newt be excised, it may be regrown. The

importance of this fact is greatly increased if we trace out in detail the

various impossible rival mechanical interpretations which have grown up

around this interesting case. As Driesch says, "It is not a restoration

starting from the wound, it is a substitution starting from a different