THEOSOPHY, Vol. 28, No. 2, December, 1939
(Pages 72-77; Size: 19K)
(Number 83 of a 103-part series)



(Part II of II)

WE have seen how the theosophist and the materialist have simultaneously realized a dream from the same set of facts; the former has witnessed scientific acceptance of the proposition that there is no boundary between the "living" and "non-living"; the latter, as he thinks, has been fortified in his belief that "life" is merely a phenomenon of molecules. How should an impartial observer of the two views -- as if such abstraction were possible! -- determine which is correct?

Obviously, the answer is likely to lie -- for such an observer -- in an attempt to apply the discovered principle to the more highly organized forms of life. It has been the dream of most biologists to resolve all "life" into unconscious molecular motion, and efforts along this line have been unremitting.

Specifically, the task of genetics is to explain the initial formation of the body; other fields of biology are concerned with how that form is maintained. But science has made so little headway in understanding the nature of form that it is now clear that both problems hang on the same "missing link." To date one of the best resumés of the methods used and the progress made is an article by Prof. Edmund W. Sinnott, which leads in Science for Jan. 20, 1939. Prof. Sinnott deals principally with the problem of cell mechanics. As introductory to considering his views, it should be said that most biologists agree that cell development is due to some action of the chromosomes -- strings of matter in the germ cell, which are thought to consist of the mysterious "genes." The intimate likeness of genes to the filterable viruses, and the position of the latter on the borderline of the "living" and "non-living," have been discussed.

Prof. Sinnott's article treats the question of form in terms of the larger units of cells and the organism as a whole, as distinguished from the subject of our prior study -- the viruses and genes, or "atoms" of biology. If his analysis thus should show as logical a continuity from the gene to the entire animal or plant body, as biochemical research has shown from atom to gene, the materialistic contention would seem to gain support, so long as one is content to ignore the implications of the existence of consciousness.

Prof. Sinnott sets the note of his discussion with the word "baffling":

It is not my intention here to undertake the ambitious task of reviewing the significant part which the cell theory has played in the history of morphology, physiology, genetics and indeed of every biological discipline. I do propose, however, to discuss briefly with you certain of its implications for one particular field -- that most baffling of biological enigmas, the problem of the organized development of living things. An organism is not static. It continually changes, but in such a regular and orderly fashion that we must recognize in this developmental process the operation of a constant control. The wealth of knowledge which biologists have acquired about plants and animals has thrown surprisingly little light on what this control is or how it is exercised. To watch a fertilized egg or a tiny primordium march unfalteringly onward until the ultimate form of complex organ or body has been attained is an experience common enough among biologists, but it cannot fail to impress the thoughtful observer with a sense of his ignorance. Until we shall discover what is really happening in this mass of developing protoplasm, what molding and morphogenetic processes are here so subtly at work, our knowledge of living things will still be merely superficial. This is the biologist's frontier. Beyond is undiscovered country into whose borders a few explorers have penetrated here and there just far enough to see how broad and fertile the land is and how well protected against those who seek to enter it.

It is to this problem of organic development, of course, that the cell theory has made one of its major contributions. To understand that growth is accomplished chiefly by the multiplication of essentially uniform cellular elements and that changes in external form and internal structure are related to differences in the rate and plane of cell division and in modification of the characters of the cells themselves, is evidently to take a long and hopeful step along the road toward a knowledge of the process of development. But we must sadly admit that the hopes raised by this first triumph have not been altogether realized. The developmental relations between cells and the higher structures which they compose are still unknown....

Here Prof. Sinnott not only admits that our knowledge is as yet superficial, but says that it may so remain, even after considerably more investigation. Of the problem of the geneticist, he writes:
... He has learned much about the gene as it occurs in the fertilized egg, primarily through a study of gene-controlled differences in the adult organism; but how the gene is actually related to the development of these traits is still unknown. The spectacular analysis of the cell and thus of the entire organism into an aggregation of genic units has thus far proved no more helpful in solving the basic problems of development than was the earlier analysis into an aggregation of cellular units.

But perhaps the process of subdivision should be carried still further. Students of cytogenetics hopefully discuss the possibility of an analysis of the gene into even smaller units and thus of bringing their problem to the very door of the biochemist. Those who feel content only when their problems can be stated in terms of atoms and molecules look to such an analysis for a final solution, but it is permissible to wonder whether, even if the molecular constitution of every gene were known, we should not still be confronted with the problem of exactly how this elaborate series of units actually gets itself built into what we so well have named organism.

With an insight most unusual, Prof. Sinnott at once puts his finger on the difficulty -- the difficulty inherent in inductive as against deductive research, analysis as against synthesis:
The repeated failure of these various attempts to solve the problems of organized development by cutting up the individual into smaller and smaller unitary elements breeds the uneasy suspicion that here again, as in so many other scientific problems, we have been confusing analysis with solution. The scientific temperament feels much more comfortable when it is breaking down a complex phenomenon into simpler parts than when it is trying to pull together a series of diverse facts into a unity of relationship. For a solution of the ultimate riddles, however, synthesis is more important than analysis. It is far less easy to come by, and often requires the intuition of genius itself. Thus the progress of chemistry has been marked by an analysis of the material universe into a series of ninety-two different kinds of atoms, which arrange themselves into units of a higher order, the molecules, and are themselves further resolvable into unitary charges of electricity.... It is not an understanding of units which we now seek, but of unity. We are like the small boy who takes the clock apart to discover the secret of its running, but after he has dissected the works into an impressive array of wheels, gears and springs is unable to put them together again successfully and is still as far as ever from an understanding of synthetic horology. Like him, we need to know the principles underlying the construction and operation of our machine. Analysis is not enough....

It is important to know that a living plant is composed of cellular units, but it is even more important to understand how, through the multiplication and interrelations of these units, the orderly development of an organism is assured. The analysis is more than a century old; the synthesis is still far from consummation.

Prof. Sinnott now raises the question of why attempted syntheses have proved unfruitful, which failure he attributes to inherent difficulties of method and the intractability of the materials studied. Shall we say it is due rather to an inherently materialistic and hence separative bias, which has so affected the minds of researchers that they are virtually incapable of any experiment which does not tear things to pieces? -- that scientists are magnificently potent to destroy, but helpless to create? Shall we say that even a little leaven of the idea of an intelligent and living universe might have inspired these men to seek for a plan of organization, and consequently for the necessary media ("missing links," truly) for the concrete manifestation of such a plan?

The existence of such plans, and of their necessary agents, is actually implicit in Prof. Sinnott's further exposition. After describing certain phases of organic development, he remarks:

This evidence all suggests that the mechanisms controlling growth and differentiation in the fruit are concerned with the entire organ and not with the behavior and interrelationships of the individual cells of which it is composed. The unity of behavior, and thus presumably the unity of organization, inheres in the whole and not in its elements.

On its own level the cell also displays a unity of organization independent of the organ above or of smaller units below. Biologists have long recognized that cell size, for a given tissue, is relatively constant as compared with organ and body size. Every cell also seems to possess a uniform complement of genes. These are not arranged at random but in a very definite order in each chromosome, and this constancy of position seems important in determining the rôle which a gene plays in development. Nor are the chromosomes entirely independent, for events in one have been shown to have effects on the others. The essential elements in the cell seem clearly to be the genes, for it is known that if one or at most a few of these are lacking, the cell will die. So far as can be determined the genes are of the same general order of magnitude and seem to be fundamentally similar units. It is in accord with the facts to regard the cell as an organized group of equivalent but somewhat differentiated genic units, just as we regard the organ as an organized group of equivalent but somewhat differentiated cells.

Of course one can speculate on the possibility that the gene itself is an organized aggregation, at a lower level, of still smaller units, perhaps protein molecules or simpler chemical entities, but our knowledge of genic constitution can go no further than to suggest that such may be the case. What is the ultimate living unit, if there is one, and of what it is composed are questions for the future to answer.

It should be noted that this process of organization is not a mere building up of similar units into an amorphous mass. Their arrangement and inter-relations produce specific patterns which are evidently the result of a control more precise than one which would merely bring them together. Hence arises the problem of the development of organic form, which makes dynamic morphology a fundamental biological discipline.

His conclusion leaves us at just about this point.
Those early biologists who established the cell theory made the first great contribution to such a descriptive study of development, and under the stimulus of their idea, biological analysis has gained many triumphs in the century that is past. We can best honor these pioneers of yesterday, however, not by pushing indefinitely onward over the path they first began to blaze and which now seems destined to end blindly in discouragement and frustration, but rather to follow the pioneers of today along the far more difficult path which will lead, however distantly, to an understanding of biological synthesis. Life is integration. Life is the knitting together of units into patterned wholes. Many of the units we know, thanks to the labors of a hundred years. An understanding of how these units are built into the fabric of an organism is the task for the hundred years that are to come.
This is prophetic, and it is true prophecy; but in its realization research will be led as far from the science of today as the science of today has advanced from the naïve materialism, and in some cases, the puerilities, with which Madame Blavatsky had to deal.

Let us analyze Prof. Sinnott's remarks. If the integrating factor is inherent in the whole and not in its elements, one can only conclude that this factor is somewhat different from the cell substance, that it has a prior, organized form of its own, and finally, since it has not been physically discovered, that its substance is not physical under the present definitions. This is not to say that the formative principle will never be "physically" recognized, since in fact it has been, and not in Theosophy alone; nor can we say that it will not one day be considered as physical, say, as electricity or cosmic rays, both of which were once known -- and in strict definition still are known -- only by their effects. Prof. Sinnott has seen the phenomenal effects of the integrating factor clearly; when will he recognize the noumenon behind them?

The nature of the noumenon which operates to produce organic forms is well enough known to Theosophists. According to The Secret Doctrine:

Science is welcome to speculate upon the physiological mechanism of living beings, and to continue her fruitless efforts in trying to resolve our feelings, our sensations, mental and spiritual, into functions of their inorganic vehicles. Nevertheless, all that will ever be accomplished in this direction has already been done, and Science will go no farther. She is before a dead wall, on the face of which she traces, as she imagines, great physiological and psychic discoveries, but every one of which will be shown later on to be no better than the cobwebs spun by her scientific fancies and illusions. (I, 133-4.)

The Darwinian theory ... of the transmission of acquired faculties, is neither taught nor accepted in Occultism. Evolution, in it, proceeds on quite other lines; the physical, according to esoteric teaching, evolving gradually from the spiritual, mental and psychic. This inner soul of the physical cell -- this "spiritual plasm" that dominates the germinal plasm -- is the key that must open one day the gates of the terra incognita of the Biologist, now called the dark mystery of Embryology. (I, 219.) Complete the physical plasm, mentioned in the last foot-note, 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. (I, 224.)

The astral form clothing the Monad was surrounded, as it still is, by its egg-shaped sphere of aura, which here corresponds to the substance of the germ-cell or ovum. The astral form itself is the nucleus, now, as then, instinct with the principle of life.

When the season of reproduction arrives, the sub-astral "extrudes" a miniature of itself from the egg of surrounding aura. This germ grows and feeds on the aura till it becomes fully developed, when it gradually separates from its parent, carrying with it its own sphere of aura; just as we see living cells reproducing their like by growth and subsequent division into two. (II, 117.)

The whole issue of the quarrel between the profane and the esoteric sciences depends upon the belief in, and demonstration of, the existence of an astral body within the physical, the former independent of the latter. (II, 149.)

Every object in the universe owes its existence to this astral principle, inchoate and unindividualized in the lower forms, distinct and organized in the higher. Below the plant or animal forms, organization is still within the individual powers and affinities of the units; above the mineral, the case is otherwise. Hence, science has brilliantly succeeded in discovering the truth in one realm, and so far has dismally failed in the other. We think, however, that this failure cannot continue for many more years. Whether or not the issue will be determined by open acknowledgment of Theosophical wisdom and priority, will depend in part upon the coming generation of theosophists, some of whom may, when the time comes, find themselves in position to speak the truth.

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