SCIENCE     versus     MATERIALISM

by     Reginald O. Kapp

SECTION II - DOUBLE DETERMINATENESS

Chapter XII - A PROBLEM


CLOUDS assume many shapes. Occasionally one may look like the profile of Dante. When it does we think it rather peculiar and we do not expect the picture to last. Were two clouds to look like that we should be greatly surprised. For several portraits of Dante to appear together in the sky would cause comment far and wide. Whatever may be the outline of one cloud, this outline is practically never copied in others. The laws of probability are against it. For clouds are delicate things. They are easily changed and dispersed. They obey no law of form or order, but follow only wayward breezes. They appear and vanish in obedience to small variations in the air's temperature and humidity.

Living organisms also are delicate things. Their frail bodies are built up of that most unstable substance called protoplasm. Only a little rough handling suffices to change or destroy this. Yet we are not at all surprised to look up at the sky and to see there a number of sparrows all exactly alike.

Why should clouds all be different and sparrows all similar? Does our question seem trivial? Perhaps it seems so. Facts which are so very familiar are often regarded as beneath the attention of scientists and philosophers. There is a tendency, at least among the lay public, to think that these great men ought always to discover new facts, not merely to interpret old ones. But even a problem about very well known facts can be made to look less trivial if it is given an imposing name and some capital letters. So we will call this one the Problem of Repeated Form. In the organic world the same vulnerable structures are repeated over and over again to an almost identical pattern. Why?

This problem is distinct from the other two which we have so far discussed, namely those presented respectively by the mechanical analogy and the reality of purpose and function. It is important that this distinction should be realized. For there is a common fallacy that materialists would have an easy victory if only living organisms were not something more than machines. No one seems to have pointed out that they might be less, much less, than machines and yet present the complacent materialist with a problem to which he has no answer. Over and over again critics of materialism point out what wonderful things living organisms can do. Living things", we are reminded, "move by themselves, they are self-repairing, they reproduce their kind. Machines can do nothing of the sort." In The Interpretation of Development and Heredity E. S. Russell finds subtler and more profound arguments against materialism, but he still insists on the "more than machines". "The organism is not, like a machine," he writes, "a static construction, but a constantly changing organization of functional activities, which tend towards some end, and in such tendency is influenced by its past. Its activity is related both to its past and its future."

All this is very true. But it does not dispose of the materialist very effectively. His obvious answer is that it is unfair to taunt him because scientists do not yet know everything. "We must have patience," the materialist will say with perfect justification. "We must remember that science has solved many riddles already and may be expected to solve the most difficult ones in due course. Whenever the working of a living organism is understood, we find conformity to the laws of physics and chemistry. This is good enough for me."

But it ought not to be good enough for him, as we have made clear already. This is why we are now posing a problem which would remain even if living organisms were more static than machines, even if they were no more than the clay pots which, in humbler metaphor, the Persian poet likened to ourselves. We want to show that the materialist cannot explain even quite simple facts about living things. He cannot even tell us why a number of sparrows are as much like each other as a row of clay pots on a shelf.

The reader may think that we are being too severe and that scientists have already found a solution of the Problem of Repeated Form. But it is not so. We doubt if this problem has ever been expressed even, either in the words we have used or in any others. There is nothing to indicate that materialists (or their opponents for that matter) have realized that there is such a problem, let alone that they have attempted to solve it.

The obvious answer is that the substance forming the body of a living organism is guided, selected, and controlled while the substance forming a cloud is merely wafted about indiscriminately. As it is not in the nature of Matter unaided to exercise guidance, selection, and control we must infer that the characteristic structure of living organisms is due to non-material influences. This, we say, is the obvious answer and the one which any unprejudiced layman would accept without question. Materialists have done nothing to refute this obvious answer, so we may ask whether it is necessary for us to consider the problem further.

It is. For if materialists have not attempted to deal with the Problem of Repeated Form yet, they may bring arguments which seem to dispose of it. We can, indeed, recollect two lines, of reasoning in materialistic writings which have some relevance to our problem. Both are unsound. But we can foresee that one or the other will be urged to prove (a) that there is no problem; and (b) that there is a materialistic solution to it. We ourselves do not want to adopt a non-materialistic solution until we have disposed of every possible materialistic one, and both the lines of reasoning to which we have referred have been backed by such high authority that we cannot pass them over.

The first argument is that the laws of probability are quite sufficient to account for the structure of living organisms, the second that the process which leads to the formation of living organisms is fundamentally the same as the process which leads to the formation of crystals and is, therefore, entirely due to the unaided action of Matter on Matter. When we come to examine these two arguments we shall find that they stand at opposite poles of materialistic thought. For, in effect, the first denies that guidance, selection and control are exercised at all in the organic world, while the second asserts that Matter unaided is capable of exercising guidance, selection and control. Let us consider each in turn.

We cannot recall for the moment where and when in the writings of biologist-philosophers we first met the claim that chance alone suffices to explain the structure of living substance, though the argument itself has dwelt in our memory on account of the picturesque way in which it was put forward.

By the laws of probability, we have read more than once, a monkey typing without time limit must in the depths of eternity produce the complete works of Shakespeare. For if the monkey exercised no selection at all, every possible sequence of letters would occur once in a way. One of these sequences would necessarily be identical with Shakespeare's works. Similarly, it is suggested, atoms of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen flying about indiscriminately may in the whole of space and eternal time once in a way become assembled in the form of living substance with all its properties. Hence, we are left to infer, the existence of sparrows and all other living things presents no mystery.

This line of reasoning does, of course, explain why, occasionally, a cloud portrays Dante's ascetic features. The frequency with which this occurs is a measure of the probability that drops of water, making up a cloud in indiscriminate formation, will present any one particular picture. This probability is only high when the configuration is quite simple. The more detail we demand, the smaller is the chance that we will get it.

The configuration which constitutes a sparrow's body is certainly far from simple, as even those would agree who have not been initiated into the mysteries of science. The repetition of form in any living organism is highly detailed. Any number of sparrows of the same species and strain do not only have the same external outline, they also have the same internal structure. When we consider any single feature instead of the general shape of the whole body we still find a Problem of Repeated Form.

When, for instance, a scientist turns his attention to the tail feathers, he finds that in those plucked from any number of sparrows there is the same sort of horny material made up with the same kind of chemical constitution. In corresponding parts of the tail feathers of all sparrows of the same strain atoms of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen are present in the same proportion and form the same molecules.

This is not all. When more searching methods are employed even than those available to a skilled analytical chemist, a still more detailed repetition is found. X-ray analysis shows that in similar parts of corresponding feathers similar molecules are similarly spaced and similarly orientated. Science proves that there is a Problem of Repeated Form right down to atomic dimensions. Each atom has its place and finds it.

The same detailed correspondence is found in other fields of bio-chemistry. In his Presidential Address to the Physiology Section of the British Association delivered in Oxford in 1936 Professor Leathes referred to this. A protein molecule consists of a chain of some hundreds of links. Each link is a complex group of atoms constituting an amino-acid. About twenty amino-acids are known, any or all of which may occur in varying sequence and proportions in a given protein molecule.

Yet in any particular tissues we always find the same sequence and the same proportions. "It is probable", said Leathes, "that the order as well as the proportion in which each amino-acid occurs in the molecule is fixed, and it is this specific order and proportion that accounts for the specific character and properties of the protein."

Leathes further pointed out that, even if the chain consisted of fifty links only, instead of a few hundred, the possible alternative sequences would amount to 1048. Astronomy", he continued, "deals with big figures. Light it is said, takes 300,000 years to travel from one end of the Milky Way to the other; this distance expressed in Angstrom units, 10,000,000 of which go to a millimeter, would be less than 1032." In other words, the odds against any particular arrangement when fifty assorted amino-acids are assembled indiscriminately is a one followed by forty-eight noughts. These odds are comparable with those that a bullet fired at random fast enough to escape from the earth would register a bullseye on a minute target placed in the Milky Way in some place unknown to the rifleman. "The peculiar thing about the chemistry of living matter", said Leathes, "is not that the reactions in it are novel, but that in the rough and tumble of ordinary liquid systems their occurrence is almost infinitely improbable. When there is life circumstances exist which make them the rule." The Problem of Repeated Form could not have been stated more cogently.

By the standards of probability it is, indeed, a formidable problem. There are more atoms in a sparrow's body than letters in Shakespeare's complete works. If the monkey would have to commandeer a long stretch out of eternity in order to achieve these, a much longer stretch would have to be allowed to the atoms of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and whatever else there may be in a sparrow's body to become assembled in such a formation as we find there. Yet this configuration does not occur but once in a long, long while. It occurs here and now, over and over again. Could defiance of the laws of probability go further?

Yet it has been claimed that the illustration of a monkey at a typewriter can help to solve the mystery of organic structures. We are bound to wonder what part of the teaching in that spiritual home which we have called the Colleges of Unreason can have led any biologist-philosopher to make this claim. Is it argued from some perverted logic that events which are highly improbable must, therefore, occur very often? Or are the students at these Colleges told to ignore the findings of men like Leathes? Are they taught that a sparrow's body is very simple and just the sort of configuration into which atoms are likely to fall when they are flying about indiscriminately?

Or is it taught, perhaps, at these Colleges that atoms never fly about indiscriminately? Do the physics books used there say that Matter acting unaided on other Matter exercises selection, guidance, control, that Matter unaided is perfectly able to defy the laws of probability? This seems to us possible, particularly as the lead against vitalism has been taken by biologists. We beheve that the great Philosophy of Unreason is based on a perfectly sound biological but an equally unsound physical foundation; that correct facts about evolution, genetics and behaviour are mixed up with certain all-too-common fallacies about the nature of Matter. This surmise is certainly borne out by the second line of reasoning which, we fear, biologist-philosophers will use to explain away the Problem of Repeated Form. This is the line of reasoning which starts from the resemblance to be traced between living organisms and crystals.

"The same detailed patterns are not repeated only among sparrows. This also happens in the inorganic world. Crystals are a good example. Find out why a number of rock salt crystals are all alike and you will know why the sparrows are all alike." So runs the argument which we will discuss in the next chapter.

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