THEOSOPHY, Vol. 28, No. 7, May, 1940
(Pages 292-300; Size: 29K)
(Number 5 of an 8-part series)

[Compiler's Note: All 8 articles have the same name.]



ROBERT A. MILLIKAN, one of the leading physicists of the world, shows in a few short paragraphs of his essay, Time, Matter, and Values, that the crude materialism developed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries today lacks even the faintest similitude of scientific support. He recounts a series of important discoveries in physics, ending with the theory of relativity and the atomic phenomena on which the Heisenberg principle of uncertainty is founded, and concludes:

Result, dogmatic materialism in physics is dead! If we had all been as wise as Galileo and Newton it would never have been born, for dogmatism in any form violates the essence of scientific method, which is to collect with an open mind the brute facts and let them speak for themselves untrammeled by preconceived ideas or by general philosophies or universal systems.(1)
Biologists early borrowed the method of physics and tried to apply it in their study of the phenomena of life. Along with the method of physics, biologists adopted the "dogmatic materialism" of which Dr. Millikan speaks. Modern Biology is in the throes of a struggle to throw off this materialism, again in imitation of physics, and inspired partly by the same reasons. Chief among the causes for the downfall of materialism in physics was the formulation of the electron theory of matter at the turn of the century. The discoveries on which this theory is based show that the substratum of physical reality is not composed of myriads of indivisible billiard-ball atoms, but of units of electricity: physical nature is a system of forces in dynamic equilibrium. Slowly, biologists came to realize that living things, too, are constructed of electrical or dynamic units. The biochemist is now an electrical engineer. According to a modern authority, Prof. Albert P. Mathews,
The main difference between living and lifeless, between irritable and non-irritable protoplasm, is the energy content of its molecules and atoms.... The difference between the reactive molecules of protoplasm and the same unreactive molecules outside of protoplasm is a difference in energy content. The various chemical and physical powers of protoplasm which so strikingly differentiate it from the lifeless are due to this increase in the energy content of its molecules. Living matter contains molecules having a high content of energy and capable of passing to a more stable dead form in which they contain less energy.(2)
A wealth of investigation testifies to the electrical nature of vital phenomena. Russian biologists have concluded that the only difference between living and dead protoplasm is in the lowered magnetic susceptibility of the latter, due to altered electrical tensions.(3) Dr. Grace Kimball has shown that the growth rate of yeast cells can be retarded by placing the cells in the field of permanent magnet.(4) Drs. Cole and Curtis of Columbia University have found that the cells of the Nitella have an electrical "skin" which separates the electrical structure inside the plant from the electrical conditions of its water habitat. They also discovered that the single cells of the Nitella propagate electrical nerve impulses in the same way that nerve fibers in animals and man conduct electrical impulses.(5) It is well known that the cell has electrical polarity. In germ cells the effect of this polarity is conspicuous in the grouping of the contents of the cell (nucleus, mitochondria, golgi bodies, etc.) with respect to its electrical axis. But the position of these bodies does not in itself constitute the basis of polarity: the axis of the polarity remains unaffected when these bodies are displaced by centrifuging or mechanical pressure.(6) It seems clear that the electrical character of protoplasm is not in any way dependent upon the visible constituents of the cell. Biologists must seek for the source of vital electricity in the optically clear fluid of the cell, the hyaloplasm. According to Dr. Edmund Wilson, dean of American cytologists: "Of all the cell-constituents the structureless hyaloplasm is the most constant and most active; and may perhaps be regarded as forming the fundamental basis of the protoplasmic system from which directly or indirectly all other elements take their origin."(7)

Electrical activity, the dynamic characteristic of living protoplasm, is one of the unexplained "brute facts" of modern biology. There are other such facts. One of them is simply stated by Dr. R. E. Coker of the University of North Carolina: "It is not the number of chemicals or their weights which gives character to protoplasm; it is the organization of the substance that is the essence of life, chemically or biologically speaking."(8) Now almost every effective analytical technique of the biologist destroys or alters this organization by the act of examining it; in other words, in order to study vital activities in terms of physical and chemical laws, it is necessary to eliminate the pattern of organization through which what biologists call "life" manifests. Thus the physicist, Niels Bohr, has proposed an idea which Dr. Coker quotes as the "biological principle of uncertainty":

The strict application of those concepts which are adapted to our description of inanimate nature might stand in a relationship of exclusion to the consideration of the laws of the phenomena of life.(9)
Dr. Coker defends this principle by showing the limitations of experiment on living things and concludes: "My vision of the future encompasses no conceivable state of biological and chemical science when all or any biological phenomenon will be reduced to chemical and physical terms."

The question arises, for all biologists who are not mechanists, To what terms can biological phenomena be reduced? If chemical and physical laws cannot alone account for vital activity, what is the "lowest common denominator" of organic life?

A living being is more than a fortuitous concurrence of atoms; the doctrine of Democritus and Epicurus, even when supplemented by Newton's laws of motion, is not sufficient to account for the complex forms which exist above the mineral kingdom.

Here, in the word form, is the clue to the present emphasis in modern biological theory. Atomistic materialism is being replaced by a view that may be named "formal materialism." It is materialism because the suggestion of an indwelling intelligence as the builder of the forms is still too "metaphysical" for serious attention. This intelligence is an implicit necessity of biological discovery, but an explicit heresy to biological theory. While physicists have accepted atoms (rather electrons, protons, etc.) and physical law as the primary facts of their science, biologists are now beginning to regard organic form as sui generis, not reducible to physical terms. In the words of Prof. Ross G. Harrison of Yale, "Living protoplasm is a complex mixture of substances deriving its properties not merely from their chemical nature, but also from their arrangement in space."(10) The essence of life, as Dr. Coker says, is the organization of the substance. A pioneer in the modern study of morphology, Prof. Edmund W. Sinnott of Columbia, states the matter briefly:

...within the last few decades, and recently in increasing numbers, many biologists, as well as thinkers who have approached biological problems through the physical sciences and through philosophy, are agreed in emphasizing one particular problem, one general phenomenon of life, as of primary and dominant significance. This may be stated in a word as the problem of organization. Living things are well termed organisms. The activities of their manifold structures are so integrated and coordinated that a successfully functioning whole individual develops. As to how this is accomplished very little is known.(11)
Prof. Sinnott begins the paper here quoted by saying, "When a science has developed to the level where it can recognize the fundamental problems which confront it, it may be said to have passed from youth to maturity." In fairly facing the problem of form, he justifies the claim of biology to the status of a mature science, for the researches of the present generation of biologists promise to be productive of real knowledge about living things, as distinguished from mere description. "Form," says Prof. Sinnott, "is merely the outward and visible expression, fixed in material shape, of that inner equilibrium which we are seeking to understand." H. P. Blavatsky wrote in The Secret Doctrine in 1888: "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."(12)

Form, then, is the mystery which modern biology must explore. There are two major approaches to this problem, the paths followed respectively by the geneticist and the embryologist. Both attack the problem of form, but from different points of view. We shall first consider the genetic approach.

Genetic theory is concerned with the arrangement of the "genes" in the chromosomes of the germ cell. Different patterns and correlations of the genes are supposed to be productive of the differences among the members of a species. Geneticists have to some extent been able to establish definite correspondences between the position of the genes and certain physical characteristics. This sort of research endeavors to discover the mechanism of heredity, as distinguished from the statistical study of breeding results and the resulting ratios of Mendelian laws. But neither of these methods of genetics has made any fundamental discovery about the nature and origin of form. The biologist has not solved this problem simply by showing that a point somewhere on a chromosome seems somehow to govern the eye color or wing structure of a fruit fly. There are two patterns, that of the genes in the egg, and that of the structure of the mature organism. Some slight correspondence between these two patterns has been established, but one pattern does not therefore "explain" the other.(13) The physical observation that pressure on certain black and white keys of a piano always produces a certain harmonic combination of tones does not explain a Beethoven symphony. Nor would a "map" of the keyboard itself help us to account for the existence of the pattern of the keys.

The "fundamental paradox," in the words of Prof. Sinnott, is "that protoplasm, itself liquid, formless and flowing, inevitably builds those formed and coordinated structures of cell, organ and body in which it is housed."(14) He speaks of the "frustration" that has attended the geneticists' attempt "to solve the elusive problem of what an organism really is."

Ever since the rediscovery of the Mendelian principles of heredity [he writes], this discipline has been enthusiastically pursued by many students who felt that here, at last, something fundamental in biology had made its appearance. The truly sensational development of the chromosome theory, with its demonstration that the genes are definite physical entities(15) occupying constant positions in the chromosomes, has justified this early enthusiasm; but with their first major objective attained, geneticists are coming to realize that their really basic problem is not the location and transmission of genes but the mechanism by which these control the development of an organism, a question about which our ignorance is almost complete.(16)
The practical applications of Mendelian theory reveal nothing more than probability tables. Detailed data establishing the fact of the transmission of hereditary traits do not tell us how the traits are transmitted. Given the necessary information, a Mendelian may predict the general result of a breeding experiment, but his calculation no more explains the nature of heredity than Halley explained the nature of gravitation by predicting the return of a comet.

Thus, the two great problems of genetics are:

(a) How can the many complex and dissimilar structures represented by the whole organism have their formula hidden in a tiny germ cell?

(b) Even granting that the pattern of the whole is in some way contained in the original egg, just how is that pattern made to govern the structural differentiation of the growing organism, with all its diverse processes and rhythms of development?

These are questions to which, as yet, modern genetics has no answer.

Before passing to the field of embryology it will be useful to notice some special difficulties of the gene theory not touched upon above. Under the original impetus of mechanistic assumption, biologists have tried to reduce growth processes to chemical and physical laws. If differentiation is traceable to the genes, then these units should reveal important chemical differences as the cause of specialized organic development. But so far as we know, these differences either do not exist or are very slight. Prof. Albert P. Mathews says that our present knowledge of the composition of the chromatin (nuclear network and chromosomes), while very incomplete, "lends no support to the hypothesis that the chromosomes are made of genes."(17) After reviewing experimental evidence showing the extremely simple composition of the chromosomes in the sperm cells of several species of fish, he observes:

Now, it is very improbable that were the chromosomes constituted of widely differing genes they would show so simple and definite a composition. The nucleic acid of widely different cells appears to be the same. Of course it may be different, but the fact that it shows the same physical properties, analysis numbers, rotatory power, and so on indicates that there are probably not several different nucleic acids.... The theory of special genes and chromosomal inheritance by unit characters is not supported by such chemical evidence as we have so far obtained. Of course such evidence may be obtained later, but what facts we have point, I believe, to a different explanation of inheritance than this one.(18)
It is true, however, that each kind of cell has a different kind of protein. There seems to be some correlation between the quantity of a specific gene-substance and the rate of development of its corresponding tissue in the organism. In 1927 Prof. Richard Goldschmidt, then head of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, published his physiological theory of inheritance, presenting evidence that development involves a number of parallel processes, each occurring in response to stimulation by a particular gene-substance, and each proceeding at a pace determined by the quantity of that substance.(19) In the development of a butterfly's wing, for example, the more plentiful gene-substance corresponding to red seems to cause the red part of the wing to develop more rapidly than the blue part of the pattern, for which there is less gene-substance.(20) Commenting on this theory in his Riddle of Life, a valuable review of recent biological thought, the late Dr. William McDougall points out that it tells nothing as to how the specific genic influences reach their proper destinations in the organism where the specializing work of development is to be done. Again, what about the development of complex organisms which are chemically uniform in every part?

Ludwig von Bertalanffy disposes of the chemical theory of morphogenesis by calling attention to the simple mushroom:

A mushroom [he writes] consists of a material growing irregularly at the circumference of the hotline form, the fieldwork of the fungal threads. Here we find no chemo-differentiation, no separation of organ-forming materials, no unequal distribution of determinative substances which must be the foundation of all development according to the chemical theory; instead we find a wholly homogeneous [chemically] material which nevertheless attains a definite form. Moreover, there is at least the appearance that the same holds for all cases of organogeny. The endless complicated system of bones, the elaborately arranged muscles of the arm or leg, consist -- so far as we know -- of fairly uniform cells, not much different from the case of the mushroom. Chemically homogeneous material, muscle, bone-cells, reaches an organization endlessly complicated in form. Thus it seems that in embryonal development, in addition to chemical differentiation, there is yet another factor, a particular formative factor....

[For the chemical theory] one requisite is presupposed -- namely, the existence of this unbelievably complicated mechanism itself, the cosmos of chemical compounds in which every substance appears just where it is wanted for the production of an organ, under normal conditions just in the quantity requisite for the development of an harmonious organism -- and just at the place, moreover, where that organ belongs.... The problem of organization is not exhausted by calling the germ a polyphasic chemical system. We must not forget that this chemical system, adjusted internally to bring forth a definite organic form, is not in any way comparable with any chemical system known to us in the inorganic world.

There is no escaping from the fact that embryonic Anlagen are more than chemical compounds.... Development cannot be interpreted as though it were only a phenomenon of colloidal chemistry.(21)

Investigations of another character have cast serious doubt on the whole structure of the gene theory. The basic concept of modern genetics is that the chromosomes of the fertilized egg cell are the bearers of the organic pattern followed by the developing embryo. This original egg cell is made up of two major elements, the nucleus and the cytoplasm, the latter being the fluidic and more or less clear portion of the cell. Recently Dr. Ethel Browne Harvey, of the Princeton Department of Biology, reported experiments which show that the early stages of a sea urchin embryo can develop from an egg which has no chromosomes at all -- an egg, that is, from which the nucleus has been removed -- and an egg, moreover, not fertilized in the normal manner by a spermatozoon, but by "hypertonic sea water"! According to Dr. Harvey, "We must change our views about the role of cytoplasm at least in the process of initiation of life, and possibly may be compelled later to assign to it a much more important part in the development of the embryo."(22) Dr. Harvey took fragments of egg -- portions from which the nucleus had been removed by centrifuging -- and activated them with sea water, with this result:
They throw off normal fertilization membranes, division takes place, cleavage follows in a fairly orderly fashion. More and more cells are formed, until there is a group of some 500 cells forming a fairly normal blastula (early embryonic form).

Some of these activated non-nucleate eggs have lived for four weeks. The normal unfertilized egg with a nucleus lives only a day or two.

Stained sections of the eggs after cleavage show well-formed asters (radiating structures in the protoplasm that appear when the chromosomes are ready to divide) often in pairs, but no nuclei and no chromosomes.... We thus see that an egg fragment lacking both maternal and paternal chromosomes has given rise by repeated cleavages to an embryo containing about 500 cells with a certain amount of differentiation.... The early stages of development can, therefore, take place without chromosomes. This means that the maternal cytoplasm is of great importance and has within itself the potentialities of determining at least the early stages of development.... The supposition that the potentialities are innate in the cytoplasm restricts inheritance by genes to later developmental stages, and it may very well be that only the more specific and differential characters are controlled by the genes, whereas the general and fundamental characteristics of living matter are cytoplasmic.... Any difficulty in development seems to be mechanical rather than structural. No particular type of visible or movable granules seems essential to development. These must be concerned with metabolism and respiration. It must therefore be the "ground substance" which is the material fundamental for development -- the matrix which is not moved by centrifugal force and which, in the living egg, is optically empty.(23)

Again we are driven to the paradox described by Prof. Sinnott: "that protoplasm, itself liquid, formless and flowing, inevitably builds those formed and coordinated structures of cell, organ and body in which it is housed." What further vindication is needed for the judgment of H. P. Blavatsky written down more than half a century ago?
...the two chief difficulties [she said] of the science of embryology -- namely, what are the forces at work in the formation of the foetus, and the cause of "hereditary transmission" of likeness, physical, moral or mental -- have never been properly answered; nor will they ever be solved till the day when scientists condescend to accept the Occult theories.(24)

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(1) Time, Matter, and Values (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1932) pp. 92-6.
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(2) In General Cytology, edited by E. V. Cowdry (Chicago: University Press, 1924), p.25.
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(3) New York Herald-Tribune, September 29, 1936.
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(4) New York Times, June 21, 1936.
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(5) Herald-Tribune, August 16, 1937; Times, February 27, 1938.
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(6) Edmund Wilson, The Cell in Development and Heredity (New York: Macmillan Co., 1925), pp. 106-9.
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(7) Ibid., pp. 77-8.
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(8) R. E. Coker, "Philosophical Reflections of a Biologist," Scientific Monthly, February, 1939.
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(9) Loc. cit.
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(10) Science, April 16, 1937.
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(11) Science, January 15, 1937.
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(12) Op. cit. II, 149.
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(13) Prof. Harrison observes on this point, that while "the whole development of the gene theory is one of the most spectacular and amazing achievements of biology in our times, the embryologist, however, is concerned more with the larger changes in the whole organism and its primitive systems of organs than with the lesser qualities known to be associated with genic action ... he is interested more in the back than in the bristles on the back and more in eyes than in eye color.... Already we have theories that refer the processes of development to genic action and regard the whole performance as no more than the realization of the potencies of the genes. Such theories are altogether too one-sided." Loc. cit.
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(14) Loc. cit.
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(15) This is misleading. No one has ever seen the genes, which are but "postulates" of genetic theory. According to Thomas Hunt Morgan, Nobel prize winner in Medicine in 1933 for gene research, "there is no consensus of opinion amongst geneticists as to what the genes are -- whether they are real or prely fictitious." Scientific Monthly, July, 1935. See also W. R. Hunt, Scientific Monthly, June, 1939.
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(16) Loc. cit.
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(17) General Cytology, p. 89.
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(18) Loc. cit.
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(19) Goldschmidt's general theory is outlined and criticised in William McDougall's Riddle of Life (London: Methuen, 1938), pp. 123-30.
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(20) In 1937 Prof. Goldschmidt, for the past several years associated with the University of California, announced his conclusion that the gene is a fiction and that it is theoretically unnecessary! (New York Times, December 7, 1937.) He now regards the chromosome as the unit of heredity transmission, asserting that classical genetics is "chained to an outworn theory." (New York Times, July 3, 1939.)
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(21) Quoted by William McDougall, The Riddle of Life, pp. 129-30.
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(22) New York Times, November 28, 1937.
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(23) Loc. cit. (See also "The Case Against the Cell Theory," by Prof. B. J. Luyet, in Science, March 15, 1940, for a discussion of the implications of this type of research.)
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(24) The Secret Doctrine I, 223.
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