THEOSOPHY, Vol. 27, No. 4, February, 1939
(Pages 158-164; Size: 21K)
(Number 80 of a 103-part series)



III: The Microscopic Problems

(Part III of III)

THERE are two basic methods of investigation open to the scientific evolutionist. The macroscopic, which has been treated in the two previous articles, depends upon observation of the gross facts of living and extinct species, followed by the attempt to derive general laws from such observations. The microscopic -- in most cases rather sub-microscopic -- calls for minute analysis of the generative processes of living organisms, with a view to discovering the machinery of evolutionary change. The latter might be regarded as an endeavor to answer the question "how," the former dealing with the "why" of evolution.

The presently accepted facts and theories of the "mechanism" of heredity came much later than Darwinism, and had they been known to Darwin himself, publication of Origin of Species would probably have been postponed, its contentions most certainly much modified, and possibly it would not have appeared at all, since Mendelian heredity would at that date have formed an almost insuperable barrier to the doctrine of the inheritance of acquired characters. Nevertheless, at least one scientist of the last century came very close to the truth, and with her unvarying precision in pointing out the real pioneers of science, H. P. Blavatsky named him:

Those who are not acquainted with the new discovery of Professor Weissmann -- at one time a fervent Darwinist -- ought to hasten to repair the deficiency. The German Embryologist-philosopher shows -- thus stepping over the heads of the Greek Hippocrates and Aristotle, right back into the teachings of the old Aryans -- one infinitesimal cell, out of millions of others at work in the formation of an organism, determining alone and unaided, by means of constant segmentation and multiplication, the correct image of the future man (or animal) in its physical, mental, and psychic characteristics. It is that cell which impresses on the face and form of the new individual the features of the parents or of some distant ancestor; it is that cell again which transmits to him the intellectual and mental idiosyncracies of his sires, and so on. This Plasm is the immortal portion of our bodies -- simply through the process of successive assimilations.... There are but two ways of explaining the mystery of heredity: either the substance of the germinal cell is endowed with the faculty of crossing the whole cycle of transformations that lead to the construction of a separate organism and then to the reproduction of identical germinal cells; or, those germinal cells do not have their genesis at all in the body of the individual, but proceed directly from the ancestral germinal cell passed from father to son through long generations. It is the latter hypothesis that Weissmann accepted and has worked upon; and it is to this cell that he traces the immortal portion of man... when this almost correct theory is accepted, how will Biologists explain the first appearance of this everlasting cell? (The Secret Doctrine I, 223.)
It is somewhat of a mystery why the priest Mendel has secured nearly all the credit for the basic ideas of modern genetics. Probably the explanation lies in the fact that his work was experimental, material, and concrete, while Weissmann's was philosophical, largely deductive. Their conclusions, however, were nearly identical. But irrespective of such questions, the fact remains that ever since the general acceptation of Mendelianism, evolutionist thought has wandered out of one impasse into another. The difficulties arising from the spectacle of an apparently continuous evolution of living beings on the one hand, and a mechanism of heredity which does not permit fundamental changes on the other, have tended to drive biologists and geneticists far apart from paleontologists, and some of the controversial literature reveals almost a note of bitterness and mutual deprecation.

To clarify the issue for the average reader, it will be helpful to begin with a description of the so-called Mendelian mechanism. The carriers of heredity are supposed to consist of sub-microscopic particles ("genes") arranged in the germ-cell in strings (chromosomes) according to a certain mathematical order. The more rigid theories assert that each particle bears a certain definite trait, physical, mental, or what-not. (Actually, none of the experimental correlations has gone beyond purely physical traits.) At conception the germ-cells are joined, leading to a complicated process in which the strings of "genes" of the male and female germs are combined in special ways, the unit-characters or genes from both parents making their relative contribution to the hereditary destiny of the offspring according to certain mathematical laws -- the "laws of chance," some think.

This is the theory stated in crudest and broadest form. With some of the innumerable difficulties it encounters we now propose to deal. It may be said that a satisfactory experimental application of the theory to plant heredity was provided Mendel in the last century. The animal kingdom is not so simple, and the application of the theory to man is mostly speculation. But this ignorance has not dampened the enthusiasm of the leaders of our eugenistic movements, all of which are based upon an almost entirely hypothetical extension of Mendelian theory to man. General observation indicates that it has some application in the transmission of physical traits, and there may be a degree of correlation in that region where physical and emotional or mental states interlock or overlap. Neither in man nor any other species, however, have mental correlations been established. The widely discussed sociological cases, such as the Jukes family, have never been studied in terms of the combined influence of heredity and environment (to say nothing of egoic karma), nor have the observed phenomena been correlated with Mendelian mathematics.

With respect to evolutionary theory, it is obvious that changes must take place in the genes in some manner, otherwise the genes are not the governing factor in heredity. The first attempt to reconcile Darwinian and Mendelian theory was the supposition that changes -- "mutations" -- arise in the germ plasm independently of environment, and that the "survival of the fittest" operates on the species after such mutations take place. This compromise is now modified by the following observations and speculations:

1. Means of changing the genes in a living being, such as X-rays, have been found.

2. As a result of this, it is suspected that other external influences may exist.

3. It is now recognized that the body plasm and the germ cannot be considered separately, there being a constant influence exerted by the geneplasm on the building of the body cells, and probably vice versa. Therefore it is suspected that through some such means the genes can be modified by the environment.

Each of the above suppositions has its difficulties. As to the efficacy of X-rays and other forms of radiation in the production of beneficent modifications, let us quote Prof. H. S. Jennings, one of the leading authorities:

At the present time certain agents are known that bring about such changes; but our knowledge is negligible when confronted with the changes shown in organic evolution. Certain radiations may alter the genes without killing them. But these altered genes bring about injuries and weakness in the individual that carries them. The weakened and injured genes assimilate and reproduce in their damaged condition, giving rise to organisms that are weakened, deformed or abnormal; and this inheritance of the defective condition continues for generations or indefinitely. Similarly weakened or damaged genes are producible by subjecting the developing organism to abnormally high temperatures. Whether radiations and high temperatures may ever cause inherited gene modifications that increase vitality or are beneficial to the organism is a question on which the evidence is not yet clear. Certainly the overwhelming majority of the gene changes so induced are harmful; it may be doubted whether any such changes not harmful have been produced.

But in organic evolution, transmissible gene changes that increase the fitness of the organism for life and development have certainly occurred on a grand scale. We know as yet little or nothing as to how these changes are produced.(1)

Heat has also been tried, with the same general result: changes occur, but there is no agreement that they are orthogenetic -- "directed" changes leading to permanent improvements.(2) As reported by Prof. Edwin G. Conklin, two groups of competent investigators differ, some finding what they regard as "orthogenetic" changes, others seeing no indication of beneficial alteration.

So confused and confusing are the views of biologists on this subject that a mind coming fresh to the problem, with an outlook unbiased by years of attempts to reconcile the old theory with new difficulties, is likely to wonder whether the original scheme might not as well be thrown overboard and a fresh start made.

Spontaneous mutations have been found to be very frequent. In the case of the Drosophila, Prof. Conklin states that 500 mutations were found in 25 million of these flies studied in twenty-five years, affecting every part of the fly and all its vital characteristics. This is certainly a very unstable form of heredity, in which like no longer necessarily produces like, it appearing that anything may happen! When a serious study is made of human heredity, it will be found that mankind mutates even more remarkably and spontaneously!

It is now known that the genes themselves do not operate to form each a separate trait independently, nor with mathematical regularity. Says Dr. Jennings:

The action of the genes in development is not stereotyped and invariable. On the contrary, the genes are elaborately sensitive and responsive to the conditions which surround them; they change their action and effects in accordance with the conditions. Every cell of the developing body contains the same set of genes. Yet this same set produces in diverse parts of the body totally different structures and functions. Some of the cells produce nerve tissue, others muscle, others bone, other correlative tissue, others mucous or serous membrane. Some produce eyes, others wings, limbs, integument, brain, alimentary canal -- all operating with the same set of genes. How in detail the genes so react or are so controlled as to give with the same set the many diverse parts and functions of the organism is as yet one of the darkest problems of biology. Some slight beginnings of knowledge of these matters have come through experimental embryology. By altering the conditions in certain parts of the developing organism, the gene system here may be induced to produce parts that normally it would not have produced. The single cell, with its gene system, appears capable of producing any part or function of the body, depending on the conditions to which it is subjected.(3)
Now surely this comes perilously near to making nonsense of the whole idea of a fixed heredity! Furthermore:
...the single gene does not represent or produce any single part or characteristic of the organism. The single gene does indeed, in many or most cases, have its most conspicuous effect on a certain feature of the organism, as the eye or the blood. But the single gene is known to affect also many other features; and to have a constitutional effect on the organism as a whole. Further, it is known that every feature of the organism is affected by many different genes. Any part or characteristic is built up by the coordinated action of many genes. The genes must be conceived to produce organic materials which interact in a long series of reactions that ultimately produce the developed organism.
How shall this puzzle be resolved? Easily enough, were it possible for theosophists to turn scientific thought to the real "missing link." But this would entail the study of psychology -- psychology of a character quite unfamiliar to scientists -- by every geneticist. Let us illustrate: Imagine a Martian scientist under whose superultra-telemicroscope have fallen the peregrinations of John Jones, a bank clerk on earth. The study proceeding according to orthodox scientific lines, Mr. Jones is assumed to be an unconscious correlation of forces. His movements are observed and catalogued to obtain his scheme of behavior. The result is partly satisfactory: it is learned that five days a week he passes from point A to point B, and back to A again, on regular schedule and by regular route. A is known to Mr. Jones as his home, and B as his bank, but to ascribe to Mr. Jones any conscious conception of either of his points of destination would be regarded by our Martian as rank superstition -- pantheism or animism no less -- or even Theosophy!

The Martian observer meets with certain difficulties -- there are evidently other cycles than the usual A-B-A movement followed daily from Monday to Friday, for on the sixth day Mr. Jones is at point B only half as long as usual, and on the seventh day he doesn't go there at all! What is worse, a rather extended series of observations fails to show any regularity of movement on the one and a half anomalous days. Our Martian thereupon presents to his colleagues a well-received paper on the law already established as governing the movements of Jones, together with remarks on the interesting anomalies observed, which can of course be explained by further observation. (He may possibly suggest falling back on the Martian version of Heisenberg's principle of indeterminacy!) Next year, however, he has further irregularities to report. On certain days Jones has taken a different route, not the shortest between A and B, said avoidance having finally and painstakingly been correlated with the passage at the same time in the opposite direction of a certain Smith. Clearly Jones is Smithophobic; but the relation of debtor and creditor between Jones and Smith, with its psychological correlations, is apt to remain beyond the reach of the Martian instrument for a considerable time. Meanwhile, after some years, our Martian is found wrathfully defending his conclusions against superstitious implications of a supposed consciousness in Jones, taking the stand that of course the whole matter is purely mechanistic, the complete explanation being merely a matter of further research, as clearly shown by the significant progress already made....

All life -- and all is life -- is mechanistic, when acting along lines of least resistance under the influence of the natural tendencies or impulses which characterize the various degrees of evolution of form -- physical, psychic, and mental. Every human being, unless he avails himself of his innate power of initiatory, of will and imagination, will tend to follow a purely mechanistic path determined by the external influence of heredity and environment -- in a word, his Karma. But the metaphysical factors of thought, will, and feeling may emerge and modify these forms of conduct, and must be taken into account before the totality of man's actions can be understood. Such characteristics or powers cannot be defined in terms of the stimuli of modern biology and psychology; they are sui generis, and must be described in terms of themselves. Prof. Conklin seems not far from a perception of this truth:

Another possible solution of this problem was first pointed out by Weissmann in his doctrine of intrapersonal selection, and I proposed the extension of the selection principle to many reactions of living things. We know that all organisms are differentially sensitive, that is they move or grow toward certain sources of stimuli and away from others, and in general they respond positively to stimuli which we would call pleasant or satisfactory and negatively to those which we call unpleasant or unsatisfactory. In short, they are generally able to differentiate and select between that which is satisfactory and that which is not. No one can at present explain this property of life, but apparently it is a general characteristic of all living things. It characterizes the behavior of germ cells and embryos as well as adult organisms. It is the basis of that form of behavior known as "trial and error"; it is fundamental to all learning and is the beginning of intelligence and wisdom in man as well as in higher animals.... There is no mechanistic explanation of this property of life, but the same is true of many other properties of living things. Because we can not at present explain mechanistically the properties of organization of protoplasm and its capacities of assimilation, reproduction and sensitivity is no ground for denying that these properties exist, and the same is true of the property of organic adaptation. But given these properties, science can explain in a mechanistic, that is, in a causal manner, multitudes of structures and functions and reactions that have arisen in the course of evolution.

It seems to me that recent theories of evolution have too often left out of account these fundamental properties of life. Assigning all evolution to externally caused mutations and to environmental selection neglects the fact that the organism is itself a living, acting and reacting system. Life is not merely passive clay in the hands of environment, but is active in response to stimuli; it is not merely selected by the environment but is also itself ever selecting in its restless seeking for satisfaction.(4)

But the real solution will not be evident until there is recognition of a greater, more fundamental, and as yet unsuspected type of "organism" which is invariably present within every living thing:
Complete the physical plasm ... the "Germinal Cell" of man with all its material potentialities, with the "spiritual plasm," so to say, or the fluid that contains the five lower principles of the six-principled Dhyan -- and you have the secret, if you are spiritual enough to understand it. (S.D. I, 224.)

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(1) Science, November 20, 1936.
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(2) Science, August 17, 1934.
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(3) Loc. cit.
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(4) Science, August 17, 1934.
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