THEOSOPHY, Vol. 28, No. 8, June, 1940
(Pages 339-347; Size: 31K)
(Number 6 of an 8-part series)

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



FROM the philosophical point of view, the primary problem of embryology is the issue between preformation and epigenesis. Almost until the nineteenth century it was widely believed that the germ, egg or seed contains a miniature model of the adult organism. This, the doctrine of preformation, is quite obviously a vestige of the occult teaching expressed in modern times by William Q. Judge: "...the model for the growing child in the womb is the astral body already perfect in shape before the child is born."(1) Early European science, however, had materialized the idea, supposing the pattern of development to be physically present in the germ, so that, as methods of observation became more exact, the preformation theory was discarded. Its decline nevertheless occupied nearly two centuries, for biologists were reluctant to postulate the emergence of "something from nothing," which is the principle behind epigenesis. The first important observations in the line of modern scientific development were made early in the seventeenth century by Fabricius, who published a description of the stages of differentiation in a hen's egg until hatching. The famous William Harvey, a pupil of Fabricius, continued this research, arguing that the embryo arises as a gradual differentiation of unformed material of the egg. But not until von Baer's careful studies of embryological development in the higher animals were published in the thirties of the last century did the doctrine of preformation entirely succumb to epigenesis.(2)

The ghost of preformation, however, will not be laid. It haunts the theories of every biologist who rises above mere description. Preformation has a symbolic survival in the theory of gene configuration. The modern view is simply stated by Dr. L. L. Woodruff: "It took two centuries of research to reveal the fact that, below and beyond its superficial aspects, there is a germ of truth in the principle of preformation hidden in the nuclear architecture -- that the origin of the individual, though obviously through epigenesis, is fundamentally from a sort of preformed basis."(3)

But this "primary preformation" in the nucleus cannot be responsible for the development of eggs which differentiate without any nucleus at all! Dr. Harvey showed that the clear and structureless cytoplasm is "the material fundamental for development," at least in the early stages of the embryo.(4) Thus the modified preformation of modern genetic theory fails to explain the "brute facts" of embryology. In fact, so compelling of attention are the recent discoveries of embryology that today all science looks to the morphologist for a practical solution of the mysteries of form.

Within the past decade there has been an accumulation of remarkable facts about the processes of morphogenesis. Phrases like "electrical architect," "deathless engineer," "master-builder," and "sculptor of life" are now commonplaces in the scientific columns of the daily press. A number of biological laboratories are engaged in exact observation of embryonic development and related phenomena in various species of the lower animals, with results that are startling. There is, however, the important consideration that with some few exceptions vivisection has been the method of research. It is doubtless true that the small amphibians and chickens generally used in these experiments do not suffer as would dogs and other higher mammals, yet suffer they must, in their degree, and this interference with their natural existence, if productive of any knowledge at all, can contribute only to knowledge of the dark side of nature. It is highly significant that the thoughtful observations of Prof. Sinnott (See May issue, p. 295) are those of a plant physiologist, and not a vivisector of animals. Bearing these things in mind, we may see in recent findings of animal embryology the shadow of truths which might have been learned in their fulness through more natural means. [Note: The reference above to the "May issue" also refers to the article just before the one you are now reading here, and is found about a third of the way into it. --Compiler.]

In 1935, Prof. Hans Spemann, of the University of Freiberg, Germany, received the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine for his discovery of the "organizer" of living forms, the culmination of fifteen years of experimental research. The organizer is the principle or entity which, in the theories resulting from these experiments, transforms the undifferentiated protoplasm of the egg into a complex organism. In the early stages of the development of a fertilized egg cell, there is no evidence of any dominance of one part over another. The future embryo is only a mass of cells surrounding a central cavity. Prof. Spemann, however, learned that one particular region, the dorsal lip of the blastopore, determines the formation of the primary axis of development. He found that a fragment of tissue from this region, when transplanted to another part of the original embryo, would grow into another one, causing a double embryo to form. The presence of this "organizer" or principle of form in a small bit of tissue, which has the power to grow an entire embryo, is the foundation of a long series of experiments.

If in a very young embryo of the triton, a piece of tissue that would normally form skin is transplanted to the brain region, it does not become skin but brain. The embryonic skin tissue, removed from the place where, under the influence of the mysterious "organizer," it would naturally become skin, docilely submits to the direction of the organizer in its new location and turns into brain matter! According to the press account of these experiments:

There are several of what may be called assistant "master-builders" in various parts of the bodies of embryo animals, each one having charge of a specific organ at the early stages. The mode of action of the assistant organizers has been determined, as well as the places where they can be found; it is also fairly well established that they are chemical substances. But that does not tell the whole story of the mechanism of life's organization in the embryo, nor is it known what elements the chemical substances are made of and what their structure is.(5)
Dr. Oscar E. Schotté, of Amherst, building on the primary discovery of Dr. Spemann, has reported other experiments disclosing further wonders of the organizers. Spemann had shown that transplanted tissue would assume the character of its new environment -- that potential skin would develop into brain stuff when grafted to the region dominated by the brain "organizer." Dr. Schotté, however, reversed this phenomenon -- he transplanted a small area containing an organizer, and grew the organ it represented in a place far from where it would naturally develop. In this case the organizer in the transplanted tissue dominated the new environment instead of submitting to its influence. This was accomplished by planting a bit of eye tissue from a tadpole embryo in the regenerating tail of another tadpole. Only during the formative stage, while the new tail was growing, would the rapidly proliferating cells be guided by the "eye organizer" or "seed," which was a little sack of protoplasm taken from the part of a frog's egg that would eventually grow into an eye. Dr. Schotté described the process as follows:
If an organizer such as the eye cup be implanted into these shifting masses of cells, an eye field is organized which spreads the material. By some unknown process the eye field must exert its influence beyond its proper limits and the materials constituting the borders of that eye field in turn become organizers for far more remote regions such as an ear, a nose, a mouth ... the transplanted eye cup induces an "eye field" which, with time spreads and becomes an "upper head field," thereby inducing the formation of an ear vesicle. These diverse fields complete each other and eventually a "lower head field" is created.(6)
Thus, from a fragment of embryo, practically a whole head was grown on the regenerating tail of the tadpole. Dr. Schotté concludes that "every cell possesses potentially everything to produce any type of tissue or organ." Similar experiments performed by Prof. Nelson T. Spratt, Jr., zoologist at the University of Rochester, revealed that tiny bits of tissue from the forebrain and eye region of chick embryos would develop into primitive eyes and parts of the forebrain if nourished by blood clots. He observed: "Development of the forebrain and eyes seems to be the expression of an already existing but invisible structural organization."(7)

William Q. Judge wrote in 1893: "...the ethereal design-body will explain how the form grows into shape, how the eyes push themselves out from within to the surface of the face, and many other mysterious matters in embryology which are passed over by medical men with a description but with no explanation."(8) There are, of course, many differences between the astral body of a human being and that of lower animals such as frogs and chickens. The psychic and astral individuality of these creatures is but primitively defined: "The ocean (of matter) does not divide into its potential and constituent drops until the sweep of the life-impulse reaches the evolutionary stage of man-birth."(9) These biological experiments suggest that the natural tendency of matter to run to forms is only partially integrated by the master-pattern of the whole organism, and that interference with natural development becomes the cause for the monster-like phenomena now being produced in the laboratory. But there are cases where even the astral form of human beings may become subject to strange modifications during gestation. Only after the maturity of the child before birth is this form "fixed, coherent and lasting."(10) The tragic cases of circus "freaks," Siamese twins, and other "sports" of nature in the human kingdom illustrate the plasticity of the astral body during embryonic development.

Dr. Ross G. Harrison, of Yale, inventor of the method of "tissue culture" by which Dr. Carrel has kept a chicken heart alive for many years, and one of the world's outstanding authorities in morphological research, has discovered the importance of the time factor in the work of the organizers. Just as with human development, in which a point is reached when the astral form is no longer subject to malformation or modification through the power of the imagination, so there is a similar cycle for the lowly salamander and its organizing centers of form. Dr. Harrison found that the bit of embryonic tissue containing the eye organizer would not manifest its power when transplanted at a very early stage, but would turn into normal belly tissue if grafted in that area. The same experiment, repeated later in the cycle of embryonic development, resulted in the growth of an eye on the belly of the host embryo.(11) Another experiment by Dr. Schotté shows that the process of regeneration of a lost limb or tail reproduces the sensitivity of embryonic development. A portion of the rapidly proliferating tissue in the regenerating tail of an amphibian was placed in the eye of a frog larva from which the lens had been removed. The result is described by Dr. Harrison: "Already 'determined' to form cartilage, bone and muscle in a certain definite configuration, this tissue, nevertheless, under the new and radically different conditions obtaining in the eye chamber, forms a crystalline lens, a structure heretofore unknown to develop either directly or indirectly only out of ectodermal epithelium."(12)

It is evident that these experiments are pitting the formative power of one group of organic "builders" against that of another, inducing a sort of "civil war" of organs within the whole, the victor being the organizer which has had the best start in the "biologic time" of its cycle of differentiation. The nature of the forces which are engaged in these intra-organic struggles is further revealed by the research of Prof. Elmer G. Butler, of Princeton University. He reported last year that X-rays inhibit the work of the organizers -- a significant discovery. He exposed the regenerating tissues of new limbs being grown by salamanders and newts to these penetrating radiations, with the result that no limbs developed. Although under certain conditions the cells continued to multiply, they would not differentiate into specialized tissue, and even cells which had begun to differentiate returned to the unspecialized stage.(13)

The bearing of occult physiology on these results is easily illustrated. In a discussion of the emergence of the root types of the animal kingdom millions of years ago, Madame Blavatsky suggests as a parallel process the spiritualistic phenomenon of materialization. The building up of visible substantial forms according to the lines of an invisible pattern is a remarkable demonstration of the law involved in the development of both species and individuals.(14) In such instances there is a temporary mergence of the plastic astral stuff with the physical, for, as H.P.B. says, astral matter has various and numerous degrees of materiality "from a quite filmy to a viscid state," and "there are precise domains wherein the astral merges into physical evolution."(15) The phenomenon of materialization is an analogue of this mergence, the astral matter becoming semi-material and visible to the eye. Its properties, so far as modern psychic research is concerned, are well described by Dr. Gustave Geley in a report to the General Psychologic Institute of Paris. Of "ectoplasm," the name given astral matter by scientists, he says:

It is variable in color, white, gray, black. It is mobile and timid, retreating to the medium as if for protection. It is sensitive to the light, and strong rays cast upon it give pain to the psychic. It has an immediate, irresistible tendency to organize itself. It forms hands, limbs, faces, complete bodies. It has no means of defending itself. It is like a timid animal. It is ephemeral, yet capable of appearing solid and permanent.(16)
Further testimony of the sensitivity of astral matter to light rays is supplied by Schrenk Notzing in his Phenomena of Materialization. White light, he says, acts destructively on the psychic projections from the medium's body. "It appears to produce a molecular softening of the invisible rods!"(17) Conan Doyle makes a similar observation in his History of Spiritualism. The effect of a sudden flash of light is to drive the protruding astral structure back into the body of the medium with the force of a snapped elastic band. He tells of a medium who was bruised from breast to shoulder by the astral impact of ectoplasm recoiling from the flash of an electric torch.(18)

The Theosophic teaching that the astral body is electrical and magnetic in essence explains this unusual sensitivity of the materializing substance to light. Separated from the coarse rind of the physical body, the astral is unprotected against the vibrations of the light. It was to be expected, therefore, that the powerful X-rays would have the power to reduce the "organizers" to impotence; these radiations penetrate the delicate stuff of the embryo, or of the regenerating tissue, and obliterate the electrical pattern which guides the differentiating cells into specialized structures. A similar effect was obtained by Prof. H. J. Muller of the University of Texas. He exposed the chromosomes of fruit flies to X-rays, producing thousands of insect monstrosities -- "Flies with eyes that bulged, flies with eyes that were sunken; ... flies with extra legs or antennae or no legs or antennae; flies with wings of every conceivable shape or with virtually no wings at all."(19) This line of experiment was taken up by S. Y. Karayevoy of the Moscow Institute of Genetics. The Soviet biologist found that ultra short wireless waves would induce mutilations and various other changes in the chromosomes of peas. In time he learned to predict just what effect would follow, depending upon wave length, time of exposure, and the distance of the peas from the source of radiating energy.(20)

Manifestly, these crude attacks on the mystery of form can do little more than confuse the investigators. Far more productive of knowledge about nature's processes of patterned growth are the researches of Alexander Gurwitsch, a Russian scientist who in 1924 reported that cell division in plants and animals is caused by some type of radiation. His experiments, with some others, are described in a Science Service news dispatch:

Gurwitsch found that if the tip of one of the rootlets of an onion or a turnip was fixed so as to point at right angles to the side of another root, though as much as a quarter of an inch away, the cells in the side nearest the tip would multiply more rapidly than elsewhere and so bend the root away. That this influence was not due to the emission of some gaseous emanation from the root tip was proved by the interposition of a thin sheet between the two roots. Glass and gelatin sheets stopped the transmission of the growth stimulation power but quartz did not. This is characteristic of ultra-violet rays and Gurwitsch concludes that the radiation from the root tips has a wave-length of 180-200 millimicrons, which would place it among the ultra-violet rays of high frequency.

The German botanist, N. Wagner, has repeated these experiments with bean and onion roots and measured the effect by counting the number of new cells produced in the roots acted upon. The increase is as high as 70 per cent in some cases. Old cells that have ceased growing show the greatest relative increase.

The German bacteriologist, M. A. Baron, has found that the radiation from onion roots will likewise accelerate the growth of anthrax bacillus and other bacteria. The growing tip of toadstools gives off these same growth-generating (mitogenetic) rays.

The Siemens Electrical Company has taken up the question and Doctors Hauser and Vahle working in these laboratories report that certain growing animal tissues, such as cancer, emit such rays.

These results, if confirmed, will radically revolutionize present theories of life and growth. It has hitherto been assumed that the impulse to cell subdivision was somehow due to the direct contact of certain chemical substances transmitted through the tissues, but it now seems that an energy agency is active in vital processes, an immaterial radiation of the nature of light but of too high a frequency to be detected by our eyes.(21)

The study of the electrical polarity of cells in connection with developmental processes presents evidence of parallel significance. The lowly liverwort, Marchantia, exhibits striking functional polarity in regeneration. Even very small pieces, according to Prof. Edmund Wilson, "retain their original polarity, the new apical region being formed typically from or near to the most apical region of the piece; and since these pieces may be very small, Vöchting concluded that every cell is probably polarized in the same sense and may give rise to a complete plant."(22) Prof. Wilson reports observations of lower animals showing that different kinds of animal cells -- germ-cells, gland-cells, and epithelial cells -- exhibit differences in polarity according to their function. Gradients of polarity, corresponding to varying rates of metabolism, have been discovered; "the electrical gradients closely correspond with the metabolic, levels of high metabolic rate being electronegative to those of lower." Further, "the polarity of the adult body is modeled on that of the ovum." On the nature of polarity, Prof. Wilson observes:
Fundamentally, both the nature and origin of polarity are unknown. We know only its visible expression, which in most cases is both structural and functional, appearing on the one hand in a polarized grouping of the cell-components, on the other in differences of functional or metabolic activity with respect to the axis thus marked off.(23)
The refined techniques of modern biochemical research, while deepening the mystery involved in the mechanistic hypothesis, make the work of the astral body clearer with each new observation. In a recent study of the alga, Valonia, X-ray photographs of the cell were taken to determine the directions of the cellulose chains which constitute its structure. The chain directions, it was found, fell into two distinct sets, one set comprising meridians to the cell -- which was in the form of a prolate spheroid -- the other set forming what appeared to be logarithmic spirals closing down on the poles of the cell. A constant angle between the two sets of lines was maintained. The cell wall of the Valonia consists of many thin laminae, and the chain direction alternates regularly from one lamina to the next. According to the observer:
The surprising thing is that the chain directions should be preserved so well, not in adjacent, but in alternate layers, all the way through the cell wall. We have no satisfying explanation yet of this early, though striking enough, achievement in molecular architecture, but the mechanism can hardly involve orientation by deposition on cellulose chains already laid down, as was once thought. Some factor internal to the cellulose wall is indicated, some directional rhythm in the protoplasmic lining that synthesizes the cellulose. Valonia is one of the lowliest of living creatures, and we have learnt much about its metabolism and wall structure -- but we know nothing really.(24)
It seems inevitable, as Prof. Wilson is inclined to believe, that biologists must fall back upon "the assumption of a 'metastructure' in protoplasm that lies beyond the present limits of microscopical vision." While admitting that such a view does not command the acceptance of many cytologists, he points out that both the chemist and the physicist have been obliged to make analogous assumptions.(25)

Today the theory of "metastructure" literally demands the assent of students of morphogenesis. No other hypothesis fits the facts. But it is no "hypothesis." The astral body is a manifest reality for all those who will examine the countless evidences of its designing action within and behind every form in nature.

[Note: Here is the link to "Mesmerism", the article by William Q. Judge that is referenced in the 10th footnote found below. The excerpt quoted is found at the beginning of the 26th paragraph of the article, which has a total of 32. --Compiler.]

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(1) The Ocean of Theosophy, p. 40.
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(2) See L. L. Woodruff, editor, The Development of the Sciences (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1923), pp. 244-7.
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(3) L. L. Woodruff, Foundations of Biology (New York: Macmillan, 1936), pp. 265-6.
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(4) See No. V of this series, THEOSOPHY, May, 1940 (XXVIII, 300). [Note: This refers to the article just before the one you are now reading here, and is found in about the last six paragraphs of the article. --Compiler.]
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(5) New York Times, September 10, 1936. (According to Dr. Oscar Schotté, the organizers appear to be chemically one of the sterols or higher alcohols, similar in nature to the basic substance of hormones, vitamins, the bile acids and certain cancer-producing compounds -- all of which, the theosophist may suggest, are probably gross forms of astral matter. New York Herald Tribune, April 27, 1937.)
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(6) New York Herald Tribune, April 27, 1937.
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(7) Newsweek, January 9, 1939.
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(8) The Ocean of Theosophy, p. 40.
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(9) The Secret Doctrine I, 178.
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(10) THEOSOPHY I, 189. See also "The Mystery of Regeneration," THEOSOPHY XXV, 508. [Note: The first reference here, from Volume I of THEOSOPHY magazine, is to the article by William Q. Judge entitled "Mesmerism". A link to it, as well as the number of the paragraph that the excerpt is found in, has been placed at the end of this article. As far as the second reference here goes, to the article entitled "The Mystery of Regeneration", it follows this series. A link to it is found both at the end of the 8th and last article in the series, as well as the link to it found on the index page which contains the list of articles in the series. --Compiler.]
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(11) New York Times, April 28, 1939.
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(12) Science, April 16, 1937.
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(13) New York Times, April 21, 1939.
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(14) The Secret Doctrine II, 737.
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(15) Ibid., 251, 257.
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(16) Quoted by Hamlin Garland in Forty Years of Psychic Research (New York: Macmillan Co., 1937), p. 262.
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(17) Op. cit., p. 25.
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(18) Op. cit., II, 126.
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(19) Waldemar Kaempffert, Science Today and Tomorrow (New York: Viking Press, 1939), pp. 177-8.
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(20) New York Times, July 2, 1937.
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(21) Science, June, 15, 1928.
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(22) The Cell in Development and Heredity (New York: Macmillan Co., 1925), pp. 106-9.
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(23) Loc. cit.
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(24) W. T. Astbury, Annual Review of Biochemistry VIII (1939), 128.
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(25) Op. cit., p. 78.
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