So biologists do believe that living organisms conform to
specified requirements. Yet when they turn philosopher they
declare that living organisms are due to the unaided action of
Matter on Matter. Do they, then, deny the biologist? Or
do they believe that it is in the nature of Matter unaided to
produce specifications and to follow them? We have found
in the course of our reading that many of the most eminent
among the biologist-philosophers do believe this. The
theories which they propound with complete self-assurance
can have no other meaning. In other words, biologist-
philosophers base their materialism not on what they know
about biology but on what they think they know about
Needham is among these when he speaks of an element of
drill in crystal-formation. Soldiers being drilled in the barrack
square perform specified movements and arrange themselves
in specified formations. When Needham makes a distinction
between molecules which move aimlessly hither and thither
and molecules which conform to an element of drill he makes
a distinction between specified and unspecified behaviour.
He implies that inanimate Matter does not only possess order,
but that it also gives orders. For how can things be drilled
unless orders are given?.
The attitude expressed thus clearly by Needham and often
too evasively by others to provide suitable passages for quotation has become prevalent. It is the attitude which has earned
for our most recent amateur philosophers the reputation of
being "no crudeat materialists". Though these may deny the
existence of any non-material influences they attribute to
Matter such remarkable accomplishments that reviewers can
detect an idealistic streak in the modern materialism. It is so
nice to think that even molecules do not always behave aimlessly. What a good Material Universe ours must be if such
minute particles have sufficient self-discipline to conform to
an element of drill quite by themselves without the aid of
any non-material influences! "Which of us when he observes
unfailing obedience to the laws of physics and chemistry," we
shall soon be told, "can deny that Matter possesses all the civic
and military virtues?"
There must be something very wrong in the twentieth
century's conceptions of the nature of Matter and of the nature
of the laws of physics, if the fashionable philosophical outlook can be so easily caricatured. We shall have to search for
the root of the error in due course. At present we are only
concerned with one further illustration of the current belief
that things untouched by Life must meet specified requirements. We refer to certain views only too commonly expressed about the nature of the atom. We select this particular
illustration because it is relevant to the things we have been
saying in the last two chapters. In fact, we have a suspicion
that, during perusal of these chapters, this or that reader will
have said to himself: "What about the atom?"
We suspect this because of what we have read in those
materialists who pride themselves on their up-to-dateness.
"The old cry 'mere machines,' popular with the old-fashioned
mechanists, has been superseded long ago," they tell us.
"Crystals, too, can be proved to be an unsuitable analogy.
The true prototype of a living organism is to be found in the
In a paper entitled "Quantum Mechanics as a Basis for
Philosophy," for instance, and published by The Philosophy of
Science of January 1934. Professor. B. S. Haldane says: "An
atom is a complex system which automatically repairs itself
after the loss of one or more electrons." Here Haldane applies
the language of biology to the inorganic world. He does not
declare that biologists have no right to use such words as
"repair" and "loss". He tells us that physicists may use
them with perfect justification when speaking of atoms. And
by doing so he seeks to eliminate any distinction between the
organic and the inorganic world.
We have shown already that such words as "repair" and
"damage" can only be applied to specified systems. And if
Haldane beheved that the atoms found in Nature were unspecified, that they were allowed to have any structure, he
would not use the word "loss". He does not say that an
electron just falls on an ionized atom as a stone falls down a
sloping bank. He implies instead that an ionized atom captures
an electron as a hungry sparrow captures a grain of corn.
Haldane's mode of expression attributes initiative to the atom
analogous to the initiative exerted by a sparrow.
It might be suggested that Haldane could have said what he
meant just as well without the use of the words "loss" and
"repair". But this is exactly what he could not have done.
Had he avoided these words he would have sacrificed the
analogy he sought to establish. In other words, Haldane's
use of language and his claim to have found in the atom. a
significant analogy, such as a sloping bank could not provide,
reveal his belief that atoms are not allowed, like heaps of
rubble, to be constructed anyhow, but that they have to be
thus and not otherwise.
The analogy has been carried beyond the seeking of nourishment and the healing of wounds. In our little collection of
quotations "we have found two passages which convey concisely an attitude which we have found expressed in more
diffuse terms many times. The first is from the late J. B. S.
Haldane. He is reported in Nature of July 11th, 1931, page 78,
to have said at the International Congress of the History of
Science and Technology: "Atoms seem now as if they had
properties similar to those which vitalists attributed to living
J. B. S. Haldane did not only say that atoms have the same
properties as living organisms. He said that they have, in
particular, those properties which vitalists attributed to living
organisms and which materialists, presumably, did not. If
the passage means what it seems to, it is that it is quite scientific
to be a vitalist about atoms, but quite wrong to be a vitalist
about living organisms. That anyone could take such a
remark seriously only shows how interesting the atom must
appear to some of our modern biologist-philosophers.
The other passage occurs in Lowson's book The Causes of
Evolution, where it is attributed to J. B. S. Haldane: "If we
ever explain life and mind in terms of atoms, I think we shall
have to attribute to the atoms the same nature as that of minds
or constituents of minds such as sensations." If this were true,
let us realize, the removal of an electron from an atom would
not be only damage. It would amount to painful damage.
On page 60 ofJ. B. S. Haldane's The Philosophical Basis of Biology
we have even found the suggestion that atoms reproduce!
Is love among the sensations which we are expected to attribute to atoms? Perhaps Jacques Maritain means something
similar (if he means anything) when he writes in Science and
Wisdom: "The admirable renewal of contemporary physics
gives to the scientist a sense of the mystery which is stammered
by the atom and the universe."
Before modern amateur philosophers the atom evidently
looms as something very special and significant, though J. B. S.
Haldane extends this significance to large molecules. "It is
time that materialists asked themselves in a little more detail
'what sort of a thing is mind?' " he says in The Scientific
Worker of February 1938, on page 19. "They would, I think,
discover that the properties of mind were decidedly like those
of the system of energy associated with a large molecule."
A significant position is, moreover, given to the atom by the
emergent school of philosophy. The atom is regarded by
this school as being at the beginning or near the beginning of
the evolutionary process; and evolution is claimed to manifest
a universal tendency for complexes of a lower order to form
complexes of a higher order. The atom is given a low but
significant place in this scale which is said to rise through
simple assemblies of atoms forming small molecules to more
complex assemblies forming large molecules; through increasingly complex assemblies of these to unicellular organisms
and from these, onwards and upwards, through multicellular
organisms to thinking and feeling beings. Certain forms are
assigned an intermediate position between the living and
non-living, and these are declared to be just above the large
molecules and just below the unicellular organisms. Biologists
who belong to this school say that such intermediate forms
existed at an early stage of evolution and were similar to the
genes which are now known to be an essential constituent of
living cells. They also suggest that such intermediate forms
may survive to-day as viruses.
Thus it is stated in the supplement to Science of February 3rd
l939 on page 99: "The essential point about these huge
chemical molecules of the viruses is that they are believed to
represent the borderline between animate and inanimate
matter." Our italics. In the same article the wonderful statement occurs that "the process of organic development flows
uninterruptedly from atom to man." Our first ancestor
was presumably, an atom possessing peculiar reproductive
Now the atom, minute though it is, is a collection of still
more minute objects such as protons, neutrons, electrons.
A cloud is a collection of drops of water. The end moraine
of a glacier is a collection of boulders and pebbles and grains
of sand. Atoms, clouds, end moraines of glaciers all contain
energy unevenly distributed. Why is the atom singled out in
each of the quotations and theories enumerated above?
Would the authors be content to substitute cloud for atom?
We feel sure that they would not.
They would not succeed in persuading themselves that a
cloud suffered any loss or damage through removal of a
portion of its substance or that a cloud ever did anything to
replace a loss. They would not say that, as it grew, it captured
more drops of water. They would not succeed in persuading
themselves that clouds have any of those mysterious properties
which vitalists attribute and materialists deny to living
organisms. They would not succeed in persuading themselves
that clouds have any of the sensations which Haldane has been
attributing to atoms. They would think it less effective to
declare that a cloud stammers a sense of mystery. They would
not succeed in persuading themselves that the properties of
Mind are like the system of energy associated with a large
cloud. They would not succeed in persuading themselves that
clouds hold any position at all in the evolutionary scale, high
Why not? Why this distinction between atoms and other
inorganic objects? The old-fashioned mechanists made no
such distinction. To them every object living or lifeless was
attributed only to the interplay of mechanical forces. Nor
do those materialists who invoke only the monkey of chance
make any such distinction. To them every object is but the
fortuitous result of uncoordinated happenings. In the past
only the vitalists drew a line. And they drew it between the
organic and the inorganic world. Now our up-to-date
materialists draw a line, too. But they do not draw it in the
same place. Atoms are on the same side of their line as living
organisms. Clouds and the end moraines of glaciers are on
the other side.
To avoid a crude materialism, it would seem, one must
idealize Matter, or rather some bits of Matter. And the bits
considered most suitable in this Year of Grace 1939 are atoms.
Teach that these have something significant in common with
living organisms and one may hope to please the Bishops,
although one may still refuse to invoke non-material influences.
But it is not very clear what this thing is which atoms and
living organisms are supposed to have in common. In one
of the passages quoted above it is said to be sensation, in
another the properties of Mind, while there is a hint that it
may be reproductive power. But most authors are less
definite, for fear, perhaps, of giving themselves away. A
cynic would suggest that the one thing which atoms and
living organisms have in common is their mysteriousness.
The way an atom works is certainly hard to explain even
today. The most recent discoveries in quantum-physics have,
if anything, added to the mystery. The way the Mind works
is also mysterious. Can this be the reason why living organisms
and atoms are, to-day, placed on one side of the dividing line
and clouds on the other?
Partly, perhaps, but not altogether. There is a more plausible
justification in the regular structure attributed to the atom
in our text-books. If all those who stress the philosophical
significance of atoms believe that these are specified structures
they have every reason for drawing the line where they do.
And a somewhat superficial reading of physics, particularly
a reading coloured by biological thought, may well result in
such a belief.
We may read in text-books what the atom is like. And the
more we read about it the more we may be led to think that,
in the atom, Matter proves its ability to follow a specification
unaided. Our first introduction to the subject will probably
have been via classical mechanics. In terms of this branch of
physics we will have learnt that the atom is somewhat like a
miniature solar system. There is a central massive nucleus
corresponding to the sun. This is, in itself, a complex formation made up of a number of constituent parts, except in the
hydrogen atom where it may, but does not always, consist
of a single proton. The nucleus always carries a positive electric charge corresponding to the sun's gravitational field. It
attracts one or more negatively charged electrons, the number
depending on the magnitude of the positive charge on the
nucleus. These negative electrons rotate about the nucleus
as planets revolve about the sun. Hence every text-book
description must convey the impression that the atom is not,
like a cloud, allowed to have any structure, but that it must
like a sparrow be "thus and not otherwise". And a description in terms of quantum mechanics would convey the same impression.
Consider the number of specified requirements met by the
atoms as described in text-books. As just one example there is
the requirement that the nucleus of the Oxygen atom shall
carry exactly eight unit positive charges of electricity, no
more and no less. Is eight not a specified number? Does not
this requirement prove that the Oxygen atom. shall be thus
and not otherwise?
No. It only proves that we call every atom an Oxygen atom
when its nucleus happens to carry eight unit positive electric
charges. Nature does not call for the number eight. It allows
any number. But when we do not find eight we do not say
Oxygen. We say something else. When we find ten we say
Neon, when we find seventy-two we say Hafnium, when we
find but one we say Hydrogen and when we find none at all
we call the thing a Neutron.
But perhaps we have chosen a bad illustration in referring
to the number of charges on the nucleus. There is still the
specific requirement that there shall be exactly as many
planetary electrons as there are positive charges and that
these planetary electrons shall describe specific orbits. Is not
the requirement that an Oxygen atom shall have eight planetary electrons an excellent analogy to the requirement that
an insect shall have six legs? If one of the eight electrons is
removed from an Oxygen atom we do still say "Oxygen".
Only we call the thing an ionized Oxygen atom, just as we still
say "insect" if one leg has been removed. Only we speak of
an injured insect. And are we not to detect some correspondence between the symmetry of the atom and the symmetry of all living things?
In fact, such an apt analogy must confirm biologists in their
conviction that the methods of physicists and biologists are
fundamentally identical. Since it is evident to them that the
atom is a specified structure they must think that the task of
the physicist is to discover what the specifications for lifeless
objects are just as it is the task of a biologist to discover what
the specifications for living objects are. The biologist remembers that he himself must study many sparrows before he can
be sure what a normal sparrow is like. He dare not base
generalizations on incomplete statistical material lest his conclusions be invalidated by some abnormality. Similarly, he
probably believes, physicists study a large number of atoms
before they can say what the normal atom is like. A few of
those observed may have less electrons than the average just
as a few sparrows may be found with some deficiency. But
the physicist finds that such missing electrons are soon replaced just as an abrased piece of skin soon heals. Consequently the occasional existence of a few incomplete Oxygen
atoms need not be taken as proof that eight planetary electrons are not a specified requirement.
This, we feel sure, is how many biologists and others visualize
the physicist's methods. What they have read about atoms
must then lead them to think that a Problem of Repeated Form
is not only met in the organic world. To state the number of
Oxygen atoms in our Universe one would have to say a million
million many times over. Does not this prove that for atoms
as well as for sparrows there is a formidable Problem of
Again ' no. And for this simple reason. The atom as
described in text-books is not a discovery. It is an invention.
The description given by physicists is as certainly a specification as the description of sparrows given by biologists is a
specification. But there is this difference. The description of
the atom is a man-made specification. It is one which Nature
does not follow. The description of a sparrow is a specification which Nature does follow.
With some difficulty the text-book atom can, perhaps, be
manufactured in a laboratory; not, of course, by a process of
assembly, but by a process of creating specified conditions.
But once produced the text-book atom, far from doing something to preserve, itself as Haldane believes, is destroyed very
quickly. Its life is, probably, but a small fraction of a second.
How then are atoms constructed in Nature? The answer is:
"Anyhow". This means that the text-book model is not
precluded. But it is a rare accident, since any conceivable
alternative structure may occur as well. In Nature, for instance,
all or any of the planetary electrons may be, and often are,
lacking. The atoms in those massive stars known as white
dwarfs are stripped of all their electrons. So are possibly the
atoms well inside our sun. If it were true that removal of but
one electron constituted damage we should need a stronger
word to describe the condition of the atoms in a white dwarf
star. We should have to say that they were terribly mutilated,
In these stars atomic nuclei and electrons are all very crowded
and very violently agitated. If a sample of substance taken from
such a star were represented by a model large enough to render
the nuclei and electrons visible we should not be able to detect
any of that order, nor any evidence of that organization which
our up-to-date amateur philosophers like to picture in the
microstructure of the Universe. Each particle would appear
to move independently of the others. One could never
associate any particular electron with any nucleus. One could
not observe any electronic paths even remotely resembling
planetary orbits. In a white dwarf star each particle, be it
nucleus or electron, is driven hither and thither by turbulent
electro-magnetic fields as a leaf is tossed about by a whirlwind.
These are extreme conditions. In other stars which are
not quite so hot, only some atoms are stripped entirely. Others
retain some of their planetary electrons while a few may, for
fleeting moments, possess the full text-book number. At the
comparatively unusual temperature of our .Earth's surface the
full number is the rule rather than the exception.
But this does not mean that the atoms on the Earth copy
the text-book model in the least. For the planetary electrons
very rarely behave in any way like planets. The vast majority
of atoms at moderate temperatures are in more or less irregular
groups called molecules. Nature allows any grouping. In
such a group some or all the electrons form a cloud of particles
in erratic movement pervading the whole structure.
It is only sometimes possible to associate any given electron
with any particular nucleus in a molecule. And it is never
possible to perceive anything which could, by the widest
stretching of language, be called order, system or organization. The atom is every bit as useless an analogy to a living
organism as a cloud or any other fortuitous inorganic arrangement of particles. And inorganic molecules reveal no more
trace of order, system or organization than atoms. The theory
of the emergent school of philosophy, that molecules become
more highly organized as they become larger and more
complex, is nothing but a wild fantasy.
Such fantastic theories are only possible because biologists
have not learnt to distinguish between what the physicist
observes and what he invents, nor to realize how much of his
experimental material has been invented by himself and
manufactured by human effort to his specification. The
physicist investigates, let us say, pure copper. But pure copper
is not found in Nature. Only copper ores are found and these
have totally different properties. Pure copper is a material.
which meets a specification. And it is a specification which
Nature does not follow. The bottles on the shelves of a
chemical laboratory contain substances which someone has
specified and someone has manufactured and which Nature
does not produce. The text-book atom is but another example
of one of the things which meet a specification devised by the
physicist, not by Nature.
But the biologist hardly realizes this because his own methods
are so different. He does, for the greater part of his time, investigate and describe what he has found and not what he has
invented. His observational material is manufactured for him
So it is true enough that both the physicist and the biologist
study things which conform to the requirements of specifications. But the specifications which the physicist knows are
of his own making and have been put into effect by human
beings. The specifications which the biologist knows are not
of his own making and they are put into effect by an unknown
agency which, for want of a better word, we call Life.
This is why vitalists are right in drawing a line between the
organic and the inorganic world. The old-fashioned mechanists
who refused to draw any line at all were, at least, logical
though they were mistaken. But the newer materialists who
draw their line right through the inorganic world are illogical
as well as mistaken, and they make the greater error. For they
do not realize that if physicists were to describe what they
find in Nature instead of what they have invented they would
sum up their observations in the words: "Chaos, everywhere
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