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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 22

Addendum to "the Contrast Between Crystallization and Life."

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Addendum to "the Contrast Between Crystallization and Life."

Some disappointment may be felt that the recent meeting of the British Association (1879) has brought forth little that is new, and still less that is conducive to the material prosperity of the country.

The meeting appears to me nevertheless to have been an important one, as it has tended to lay bare to a certain extent the primitive rock of nescience, the knowledge of which must precede any real advance in science.

It is perhaps too much to expect of an assembly of wise men that they should be able to take all at once the grand position of the acknowledgment of ignorance; and yet there seems to have been some approach to such an admission.

It would be only too cheering to anticipate that in a future meeting our leading men of science could advance to as lofty a height as one in no respect their inferior in power of thought, "script (greek?)"*

The inaugural address of the president is an admirable resume of all that recent researches have been able to discover in reference to living matter; with the exception of certain works of a most accurate observer, Dr. Lionel Beale,—to my thinking the most interesting of all.

Why no reference should be made to these may be conjectured, but must not be asserted. In the meantime it is

* Rom. xvi. 27.

page 2 satisfactory to learn that (as I have shown in the preceding paper),—

"It is quite true that between lifeless and living matter there is a vast difference, a difference greater far than any which can be found between the most diverse manifestations of lifeless matter. Though the refined synthesis of modern chemistry may have succeeded in forming a few principles which until lately had been deemed the proper product of vitality, the fact still remains that no one has ever yet built up one particle of living matter out of lifeless elements—that every living creature, from the simplest dweller on the confines of organization up to the highest and most complex organism, has its origin in pre-existent living matter—that the protoplasm of to-day is but the continuation of the protoplasm of other ages, handed down to us through periods of indefinable and indeterminable time."

In other words, "life proceeds from life."

We have, it seems, made a great advance in calling living matter protoplasm! but of what makes the difference between living and non-living matter we are as much in the dark as ever. "When, however, we say that life is a property of protoplasm, we assert as much as we are justified in doing." Life is a property of living matter, and "there's an end on't."

Organization begins in the midst of this living matter from an invisible, intangible, inexplicable power acting upon the protoplasm.

Dr. Allman's observations on protoplasm form an admirable introduction to and comment on the subject of my paper:—

"I have chosen, then, as the matter of my address to you to-night, a subject in whose study there has during the last few years prevailed an unwonted amount of activity, resulting in the discovery of many remarkable facts, and the justification of many significant generalisations. I propose, in short, to give you in as untechnical a form as possible some account of the most generalised expression of living matter, "and of the results of the more recent researches into its nature and phenomena.

"More than forty years have now passed away since the French naturalist, Dujardin, drew attention to the fact that the bodies of some of the lowest members of the animal kingdom consist of a structureless, semi-fluid, contractile substance, to which he gave the name of Sarcode. A similar substance occurring in the cells of plants was afterwards studied by Hugo von Mohl, and named by him Protoplasm. It remained for Max Schultze to demonstrate that the sarcode of animals and the protoplasm of plants were identical.

The conclusions of Max Schultze have been in all respects confirmed by subsequent research, and it has further been rendered certain that this same protoplasm lies at the base of all the phenomena of life, whether in the animal or the vegetable kingdom. Thus has arisen the most important and significant generalisation in the whole domain of biological science.

"Within the last few years protoplasm has again been made a subject of special study; unexpected and often startling facts have been brought to light, and a voluminous literature has gathered round this new centre of research. I believe, therefore, that I cannot do better than call your attention to some of the more important results of these inquiries, and endeavour to give you some knowledge of the properties of protoplasm, and of the part it plays in the two great kingdoms of organic nature.

page 3

"As has just been said, protoplasm lies at the base of every vital phenomenon. It is, as Huxley has well expressed it, 'the physical basis of life.' Wherever there is life, from its lowest to its highest manifestations, there is protoplasm; wherever there is protoplasm, there too is life. Thus, coextensive with the whole of organic nature—every vital act being referable to some mode or property of protoplasm—it becomes to the biologist what the ether is to the physicist; only that instead of being a hypothetical conception, accepted as a reality from its adequacy in the explanation of phenomena, it is a tangible and visible reality, which the chemist may analyse in his laboratory, the biologist scrutinise beneath his microscope and his dissecting needle.

"The chemical composition of protoplasm is very complex, and has not been exactly determined. It may, however, be stated that protoplasm is essentially a combination of albuminoid bodies, and that its principal elements are therefore oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen. In its typical state it presents the condition of a semi-fluid substance—a tenacious, glairy liquid, with a consistence somewhat like that of the white of an unboiled egg. While we watch it beneath the microscope movements are set up in it; waves traverse its surface, or it may be seen to flow away in streams, either broad and attaining but a slight distance from the main mass, or else stretching away far from their source, as narrow liquid threads, which may continue simple, or may divide into branches, each following its own independent course; or the streams may flow one into the other, as streamlets would flow into rivulets and rivulets into rivers, and this not only where gravity would carry them, but in a direction diametrically opposed to gravitation; now we see it spreading itself out on all sides into a thin liquid stratum, and again drawing itself together within the narrow limits which had at first confined it, and all this without any obvious impulse from without which would send the ripples over its surface or set the streams flowing from its margin. Though it is certain that all these phenomena are in response to some stimulus exerted on it by the outer world, they are such as we never meet with in a simply physical fluid—they are spontaneous movements resulting from its proper irritability, from its essential constitution as living matter.

"Examine it closer, bring to bear on it the highest powers of your microscope—you will probably find disseminated through it countless multitudes of exceedingly minute granules; but you may also find it absolutely honogeneous, and, whether containing granules or not, it is certain that you will find nothing to which the term organization can be applied. You have before you a glairy, tenacious fluid, which, if not absolutely homogeneous is yet totally destitute of structure.

"And yet no one who contemplates this spontaneously moving matter an deny that it is alive. Liquid as it is, it is a living liquid; organless aid structureless as it is, it manifests the essential phenomena of life."

We see clearly from the above that "the physical basis of life" is structureless, and that organization has nothing essentially to do with its characters. Yet with some inconsistency the learned Professor instructs us in the somewhat effete notion that all things proceed from a cell.

Script (Greek?) seemed to be the starting point, or near it, of the new philosophy, returning to the earlier doctrine of Thales, the Ionian, that all things originate from water; aid now we are carried by a cross gale some thousand leagues astray.

page 4

"When the protoplasm thus becomes surrounded by a cellulose wall it seldom retains the uniform arrangement of its parts which is often found in the naked cells. Minute cavities or vacuoles make their appearance in it; these increase in size and run one into the other, and may finally form one large cavity in the centre, which becomes filled with a watery fluid, known as the cell sap. This condition of the cell was the first observed, and it was it which suggested the often inapplicable term 'cell.' By the formation of this central sap cavity the surrounding protoplasm is pushed aside, and pressed against the cellulose wall, over which it now extends as a continuous layer. The nucleus either continues near the centre, enveloped by a layer of protoplasm, which is connected by radiating bands of protoplasm with that of the walls, or it accompanies the displaced protoplasm, and lies embedded in this on the walls of the cell."

I direct particular attention to the above admission, that the term Cell is often inapplicable. But the idea thus embodied is the very keystone of the arch, and if taken away, the whole attempted explanation of organic structure from previous organization falls to the ground.

"We have now before us a being which has arrested the attention of naturalists almost from the commencement of microscopical observation. It is the famous Amœba, for which ponds and pools and gutters on the house-roof have for the last 200 years been ransacked by the microscopist, who has many a time stood in amazement at the undefinable form and Protean changes of this particle of living matter. It is only the science of our own days, however, which has revealed its biological importance, and shown that in this little soft nucleated particle we have a body whose significance for the morphology and physiology of living beings cannot be over-estimated, for in Amœba wo have the essential characters of a cell, the morphological unit of organization, the physiological source of specialised function.

"The term 'cell' has been so long in use that it cannot now be displaced from our terminology; and yet it tends to convey an incorrect notion, suggesting, as it does, the idea of a hollow body or vesicle, this having been the form under which it was first studied. The cell, however, is essentially a definite mass of protoplasm having a nucleus imbedded in it. It may, or may not, assume the form of a vesicle; it may, or may not, be protected by an enveloping membrane; it may, or may not, contain a contractile vacuole; and the nucleus may, or may not, contain within it one or more minute secondary nuclei or 'nucleoli.'

"Haeckel has done good service to biology in insisting on the necessity of distinguishing such non-nucleated forms as are presented by Protamœba and the other Monera from the nucleated forms as seen in Amœba. To the latter he would restrict the word cell, while ho would assign that of 'cytode' to the former."

The essential character of a cell is, then, that of "simple structureless protoplasm;" as they are, some of these simple cell-beings manage to "fashion for themselves an outer membranous or calcareous case, often of symmetrical form and elaborate ornamentation, or construct a silicious skeleton of radiating spiculæ, or crystal clear concentric spheres of exquisite symmetry and beauty."

But how do they accomplish these wonders? The answer page 5 seems to be that "in every one of these cases the entire body has the morphological value of a cell, and in this simple cell reside the whole of the properties which manifest themselves in the vital phenomena of the organism."

If you are not content with this explanation you assume to yourself the morphological value of "thinking protoplasm," and forget that you are only a listener. Your business is simply to receive and assimilate, like an Amœba.

Something works in the simple undifferentiated mass of protoplasm, leading it to all needful actions of self-preservation, or continuation of the species, or the clothing itself with a habitation of marvellous symmetry and beauty. It is an absolute monarchy within its own kingdom.

"Organization does not long rest on this low stage of unicellular simplicity, for as we pass from these lowest forms into higher, we find cell added to cell, until many millions of such units become associated in a single organism, where each cell, or each group of cells, has its own special work, while all combine for the welfare and unity of the whole.

"We have already seen that every cell possesses an autonomy or independent individuality, and from this we should expect that, like all living beings, it had the faculty of multiplying itself, and of becoming the parent of other cells."

"Script (Greek?)," * "the rule of many is not good," as sang old Homer in his day; but into this difficulty wo are plunged as soon as a more important structure has to be reared. All cells are rulers (Vignette) and yet all submit to one dictator (Script (Greek?))!

"The whole complex organism is a society of cells, in which every individual cell possesses an independence, an autonomy, not at once so obvious as in the blood cells, but not the less real. With this autonomy of each element there is at the same time a subordination of each to the whole, thus establishing a unity in the entire organism, and a concert and harmony between all the phenomena of its life.

"In this society of cells each has its own work to perform, and the life of the organism is made up of the lives of its component cells. Here it is that we find most distinctly expressed the great law of the physiological division of labour. In the lowest organisms, where the whole being consists of a single cell, the performance of all the processes which constitute its life must devolve on the protoplasm of this one cell; but as we pass to more highly organised beings, the work becomes distributed among a multitude of workers. These workers are the cells which now make up the complex organism. The distribution of labour, however, is not a uniform one, and we are not to suppose that the work performed by each cell is but a repetition of that of every other. For the life processes, which are accumulated in the single cell of the unicellular organism, become in the more complex organism differentiated, some being intensified and otherwise modified and allocated to special cells, or to special groups of cells, which we call organs, and whose proper duty is now to take charge of the special processes which

* Iliad, II. 204.

page 6 have been assigned to them. In all this we have a true division of labour— a division of labour, however, by no means absolute; for the processes which arc essential to the life of the cell must still continue common to all the cells of the organism. No cell, however great may be the differentiation of function in the organism, can dispense with its irritability, the one constant and essential property of every living cell. There thus devolves on each cell or group of cells some special work which contributes to the well-being of all, and their combined Labours secure the necessary conditions of life for every cell in the community, and result in those complex and wonderful phenomena which constitute the life of the higher organisms."

Here we have realised the complete democracy of cells, united with absolute subjection (in spite of all their irritability) to something which regulates all the division of labour, and orders everything for the common good;—a perfect model of government, in fact, and one which never is interfered with through the obstructiveness of any part. How is it there is so much good sense in the individual cells, and so much folly as is often found in the structure when completed?

There is "a special charm in those broad generalizations, no "doubt," and perhaps the audience were so carried away by this charm as to believe that one particle of protoplasm could develop into a man, although they had just been told the contrary by the Professor:—

"Recent researches, indeed, render it almost certain that fertilization, whether in the animal or the vegetable kingdom, consists essentially in the coalescence and consequent loss of individuality of the protoplasmic contents of two cells."

There must, it seems, be two cells concerned, and a fusion of two into one, and these two must be of different and even opposite qualities, or there would be no result.

What, then, becomes of the unity of protoplasm, and what of the unicellular theory? And what of "the great law of "Evolution, which is shaping the destiny of our race? "

Protoplasm, it appears, "lies at the base of every vital "phenomenon," but "to suppose that all protoplasm is identical "where no difference cognizable by any means at our disposal "can be detected would be an error. Of two particles of "protoplasm, between which we may defy all the power of the "microscope, all the resources of the laboratory to detect a "difference, one can develop only to (sic) a jelly-fish, the other "only to [into] a man; and one conclusion alone is here possible, that deep within them must be a fundamental difference "which thus determines their inevitable destiny, but of which "we know nothing." (!)

We might have responded,

"Well hast thou said, Athena's wisest son,
All we can know is, nothing can be known,"

page 7 if the President had been content to rest there; but unfortunately he proceeds to explain the incognizable thus, "and "can assert nothing beyond the statement that it must depend "on their hidden molecular constitution."

Fine words to blind the vulgar eye, and to conceal the absolute ignorance hinted at above. But common sense does not rest satisfied with this evolutionist non-explication; since the Professor propounds as facts things which the vulgar mind is quite competent to pronounce fictions—for example, the hatching of an unimpregnated egg (compare p. 20).

"There is one form of cell which, in its relation to the organic world, possesses a significance beyond that of every other—namely, the egg. As already stated, the egg is, wherever it occurs, a typical cell, consisting essentially of a globule of protoplasm enveloping a nucleus (the "germinal vesicle"), and with one or more nucleoli (the "germinal spots") in the interior of the nucleus. This cell, distinguishable by no tangible characters from thousands of other cells, is nevertheless destined to run through a definite series of developmental changes, which have as their end the building up of an organism like that to which the egg owes its origin. It is obvious that such complex organisms as thus result—composed, it may be, of countless millions of cells—can be derived from the simple egg cell only by a process of cell multiplication. The birth of new cells derived from the primary cell or egg thus lies at the basis of embryonic development. It is here that the phenomena of cell multiplication in the animal kingdom can in general be most satisfactorily observed, and the greater number of recent researches into the nature of these phenomena have found their most fertile field in the early periods of the development of the egg."

The context shows that any reference to the male element would have disturbed the continuity of the argument.

The statement I have previously quoted differs in this, that it is the female which is studiously ignored ("one particle of protoplasm can develop to a man"), though we have always been accustomed to think that her help was absolutely necessary.

The duality of sex is indeed, of itself, fatal to the evolutionist doctrine.

The British Association teaches us through its President that "all recent research has been bringing out in a more "and more decisive manner the fact that there is no dualism "in life—that the life of the animal and the life of the plant "are, like their protoplasm, in all essential points identical."

This proposition, if very true, can scarcely be esteemed new; since all the world knows that (if Darwinism be correct) there is no essential difference between a cow and a cabbage. We have even, in the human race, some examples of beings who display in youth considerable powers of locomotion and a certain manifestation of will and choice; but after they marry and settle, lead what might seem a rather vegetative kind of existence.

page 8

It is pleasant to find admitted in this discourse, that even the amoeba "cannot grow as a crystal would grow [increase], by accumulating on its surface molecule after molecule of matter." Very true! as will be seen in the "contrast" I have drawn; but then why attempt to throw learned dust in our eyes, as if "hidden molecular constitution" could explain all the mysteries of propagation? for example, the continuation of the specialities of both parents in equal shares in the offspring; so that the most striking intellectual peculiarities (even) are transmitted, say from father to daughter, or even to grandson, again crossing the sex or vice versa,. To tell us that all this depends on the "molecular constitution" of "oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen," as "the principal elements of protoplasm," is to insult the reason with which (pace the evolutionists) the Divine Being has been pleased to endow us.

I have shown with what mathematical and unchanging exactness atoms and molecules act in all their chemical combinations. How is it that in life they play mischief with us by transmitting not only hereditary diseases, but even far more deplorable tendencies?

Lastly, I am glad to perceive that wo may pretty safely write requiescat in pace on the tombstone of our young acquaintance "Bathybius," alluded to in this pamphlet (compare p. 3-3).

"The President had alluded to a certain thing to which he (Professor Huxley) had given the name of 'Bathybius,' and it was said, with perfect justice, he had brought Bathybius into notice. At any rate he had christened it, and he was in a certain sense its earliest friend. A number of admirable persons had taken the little thing in hand and made much of it. He had hoped, indeed, that his young friend Bathybius would turn out a credit to him, but he was sorry to say as times had gone on Bathybius had not verified the promise of his youth. (Laughter.) In the first place, he could not be found when he was wanted; and, in the second place, when he was found, all sorts of things were said about him."—Times. "His own judgment was in an absolute state of suspension about it."


Another very important admission is "that the term 'cell' has been so long in use that it cannot now be displaced from our terminology, and yet it tends to convey an incorrect notion." No doubt it does, as I have shown in the treatise referred to (compare p. 21). Let the term then be abandoned! Thus one bubble after another bursts, as the stream of time hurries us forward. Pass another five years, and critics will perhaps have occasion to remark that other theories of great promise—

"Are melted into air, into thin air,

And like the baseless fabric of this vision

Leave not a rack behind."

Lord's Meade, October 7th, 1879.

∵ The quotations, with one exception, are taken from Nature.