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
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
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
"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
Top of Page