Properties of Living Bodies
3.1. Life vs. the inanimate
[This topic is discussed in Modes of the Finite, Part 3, Section 1, Chapters 1-6.]
Our object at this point is to find out the nature of life in general; and so we will be investigating the lowest forms of life, to find the properties that all living things have, even those that are \least" alive.
DEFINITION: Vegetative life is the type of life all living bodies possess; it is characterized by the properties of nutrition, growth, reproduction, and repair of injuries.
Do not confuse "vegetative life" with "plant life." Plants engage in photosynthesis (as part of nutrition), but a living being can nourish itself without photosynthesis (animals breathe oxygen, for instance, to perform more or less the same function). Bacteria and other protistae are neither plants nor animals, really; the attempt to classify them as one or the other becomes at times quite arbitrary.
So what we are talking about here is really a level of life rather than a definite class of living things; all living bodies live with (at least) vegetative life--and live only vegetative lives during parts of their lives (as when animals sleep).
Note that We can say that vegetative life is the lowest form of life because all living bodies can do what "pure" vegetative beings can do, but vegetative beings do not have the additional properties that conscious beings have.
That is, since properties reveal the nature, then when some being X can do all that Y can do and some things that Y cannot do, then X is by nature less limited than Y--or is a "higher form of being" than Y.
3.1.1. Nature of the inanimate
Let us now point out some characteristics of inanimate (i.e. non-living) bodies that we will try to show are not manifested by living ones.
These are all, as it happens, ways of considering the second law of thermodynamics, which says that "the entropy of the universe always increases," and which means, once the mystery is taken out of the language and the mathematics, that when a physical system acts, energy gets lost out of it; or that the tendency of physical systems is to go from more organized to less organized states.
Another way of stating this is that the natural state of an inanimate body is to have "locked up" within it the smallest amount of energy that is compatible with the particular unifying energy (configuration of the system). And this in turn seems to imply that inanimate unifying energies are such that they can't increase in degree and stay the same kind of energy; and so if there is extra energy in the system, it can't be absorbed into the unifying energy, and must somehow be got rid of.
If we put this into the philosophical description of bodies that we developed in the previous chapter, four characteristics of inanimate bodies emerge:
Characteristics of inanimate bodies
1. An inanimate body's equilibrium is its lowest energy-level..
That is, the inanimate body is in its natural state when it has within it the least total energy it can have.
2. The purpose of any change in inanimate bodies is determined by the amount of excess energy in the body.
That is, when an inanimate body is unstable, it is always because it has too much energy; and depending on how much this excess is, it will change so as to reach the most readily available lowest-energy state.
3. Inanimate bodies are displaying all of the properties they are able to display in the condition they are in.
That is, if the body is in equilibrium, it is at its lowest-energy state, and so it can have no energy "locked up" within it that it can display at some other time. If it is at a higher-energy state, it is engaged in a process of getting to its lowest-energy state as quickly as possible; and so it is displaying the properties of the process.
4. Inanimate bodies cannot defend themselves against outside energy which they are capable of absorbing.
The reason is that the inanimate body has no excess energy locked up within it enabling it to put up a shield against some attack. Hence, if there is energy that can get into it, it will absorb the energy, and so become unstable.
Scientists use a term to refer to this natural lowest-energy condition of inanimate bodies; and so let us take over this expression and define it in a philosophical context:
DEFINITION: Ground-state equilibrium is an equilibrium at the lowest energy-level compatible with the particular form of unifying energy.
What the second law of thermodynamics says, then, is that the direction of a natural change in an inanimate body is always toward less energy within the system; inanimate changes (unless energy keeps being pumped into them) go from higher energy states to lower ones, implying that the equilibrium which is inanimate purpose (the "ground state") is the lowest energy state.
This is why, of course, "perpetual motion" machines are not possible, even in principle: if they are in equilibrium (at their ground state), they will do no work; if they do work, they must be unstable, and will tend to lose energy to get to the ground state, at which point they will stop. To keep them going, they must be "plugged in" to some outside energy source which forces them into an unnatural (unstable) condition.
The second point explains why inanimate changes are very predictable. If you know (particularly if you measure carefully) what scientists call the "initial conditions," you know the future state. The reason is that you know how much energy the body (or system) has to lose; and with a few experiments, you can find out what the closest available ground-state is of this unstable system. And since the system will always take the shortest route to the closest available ground-state, you know what is going to happen.
The third point also indicates what makes the sciences of physics and chemistry "exact" sciences. It is not that physicists and chemists know that much more than other scientists, or that somehow they have hit upon the "really true" scientific method. It is that inanimate bodies cannot act spontaneously. A spontaneous act is one which is not triggered by some outside stimulus. All acts of inanimate bodies (beyond the minimum set that express their ground-state equilibrium) are a response to excess energy introduced from outside.
And, of course, the fourth point, which is connected to this one, establishes that when outside energy is introduced into the object, then the inanimate body can't just absorb it without doing anything, because it is then unstable, and must get rid of it. Hence, everything about an inanimate body is in principle predictable.
I might remark here that quantum mechanics does not seem to bear this out; because introducing energy into very small bodies such as atoms does not allow you to predict what their future equilibrium will be, since there are several equally available future ground states to be the purpose of a given instability--and therefore, it is a matter of chance which one a given atom will wind up in.
But this does not destroy the point made here, since if, say, there are five possible purposes for a given atomic instability and the atoms are put into that instability, you know (a) that none of the atoms will wind up in anything but one of these five states, and (b) that a fifth of them will wind up in each of the states, since there is nothing to select among the states. Thus we can say that when more than one equally weighted purpose exists for a given instability, the object's behavior is not individually but statistically predictable.
But this is a book about living bodies, and we can't pursue this further.
Let me just illustrate what happens in an inanimate body by supposing you have a room with walls that are painted blue. You will notice that when the light is not turned on, the walls of your room are black--i.e. not doing the property called "color." It isn't that they are colored but you can't see it; it's that color is their response to light. So their ground-state equilibrium does not involve displaying the property called "color."
What happens when you turn the light on is that when the light energy hits the molecules of paint, they absorb most of the wave lengths of the light that is hitting them; and they reach equilibrium by vibrating (turning the energy into heat). But they "reflect" certain wave lengths in this way: the wave lengths that are compatible with the molecules (the blue ones), put some electrons into an "excited" (unstable) "orbit." The molecule can't exist at the excited energy level, and the electron falls back down to its ground state, radiating out the blue light again. The blue light radiated out is, of course, the blue color you see when you look at the wall in the light.
And since the light is constantly falling on the wall, knocking molecules constantly out of equilibrium, they constantly radiate out this wave length as they get back into equilibrium, only to be knocked back into instability the next moment--and that is why the color seems "static" to us, and why it disappears when we turn the light off. Then the poor molecules can take a rest and stay in their ground states.
Now let us look at living bodies and see what the properties of nutrition, growth, reproduction, and repair imply with respect to their natures. The act of nutrition is quite different from merely absorbing energy.
DEFINITION: Nutrition is the act of taking foreign bodies or parts of foreign bodies into the system, breaking up these bodies, and using both the energy and the parts to replenish the living body's supply of energy and parts.
"Nutrition" is not the food absorbed; it is the act of taking in food and using it.
Immediately we have a striking difference from inanimate bodies. They absorb energy, not other bodies, and in fact tend, by and large, to resist getting other bodies inside them. When they do "absorb" other bodies (such as with quicksand or paper soaking up water), we find that these "bodies" are really systems, and the "other body" slips in between the bodies that make up the system; or if the other body is absorbed into it, (as when a sodium atom "absorbs" a chlorine atom) the result is a substantial change of both the "absorber" and the "absorbee," and something different from both (e.g. table salt in the case above) results.
But living bodies take in all kinds of things, and only change accidentally while doing it--though the things they take in change substantially, of course. Nevertheless, (of course) all of the living body's acts, including that of nutrition, give up energy from the system to the environment.
That is, living systems do not seem to have "repealed" the second law of thermodynamics. But still, there is something funny going on. The act of nutrition in itself gives up energy as it breaks up the food; but the breakup of the food produces more energy than the living system used in breaking it up; and therefore, there is a net gain in energy by the assimilation of the food.
Living bodies need energy to be able to break up the food; and they get this in various ways. Plants use the energy of sunlight falling on them as the "trigger"; animals use respiration of oxygen.
If we put these two facts together, we find (a) that the living being has a natural tendency toward its ground state or lowest energy-level (death and decay); but (b) it is constantly fighting this tendency by means of nutrition.
Evidence for (a) is first, that every act tends to give up energy, which means that the living body is in an unstable condition, and is losing its energy; and second, that parts wear out and make it impossible for the living body to stay alive.
Evidence for (b) is the act of nutrition itself. This act, common to all living bodies, replaces energy lost and even replaces parts that are lost or worn out. In fact, in the lower forms of life, as in starfish, for instance, cutting off a leg will result in the starfish's regenerating the whole lost leg--and the leg's regenerating the whole lost starfish!
An interesting fact to note also is that nutrition is not going on all the time; it is "triggered" by certain mechanisms within the body itself indicating a drop in energy below some critical level (in us it is mainly a drop in the blood-sugar level), and it stops at a certain point when the organism is "full." Even plants that absorb food through the roots do not keep absorbing it. Osmosis is so constructed that when there is no "need" for more, no more can get in.
3.2.1. Biological equilibrium
This last item of evidence indicates that there is a certain energy level that the body seeks to maintain through nutrition. That is, once the organism has matured and is not growing any more, nutrition still goes on; but now it has as its function keeping the organism in its mature condition as long as possible. Food that would bring it above this "optimum" energy level is (in the long run) rejected; food is sought when it falls below this level.
DEFINITION: Biological equilibrium is the above- ground-state energy level which a living being tries to maintain through nutrition.
Note that the operative word here is "above-ground-state." This is an equilibrium, because it is a definite energy-level that the living body "wants" to stay at. It can't just stay there, however, precisely because the energy-level it wants to maintain is too high for its ground state, and as a body it is unstable, and is tending downward to the ground state. Therefore, biological equilibrium must be actively maintained by the living body, because of its counter-tendency as a body.
Living bodies have two different equilibria: the ground-state equilibrium they have as bodies, and the biological equilibrium they have as living.
But this is very strange. The equilibrium of any body is its natural condition, the one it is headed towards when it is unstable. And certainly it does seem that the living body is headed toward its biological equilibrium, because when its energy gets too low, it eats and replaces the lost energy. But of course the energy gets too low because with every act it performs, it loses energy, according to the second law of thermodynamics--and so in this respect, it is headed for its ground state.
And eventually, each living body does get to its ground state; it dies (and decays). And in this sense, the purpose of each living body is death and decay. But this is its purpose as a body only. As living, it is constantly fighting off its tendency toward death; its purpose as living is its biological equilibrium.
The living body's natural state as living (its biological equilibrium) is an unnatural condition for that same body from the point of view of the body's physics and chemistry.
The reason is, of course, that the biological equilibrium is a higher energy level than the body's ground state, and so the body is unstable in this respect. And this is shown by the fact that every living act the body performs loses energy. Hence, the living body's natural condition as living is unnatural for that same body as a body.
There is, then, a tension in a living body between these two natures it has; and during most of the body's life, the living nature wins out over the downward tendency of the body as a body; but it doesn't seem to be able to do this forever.
In any case, it would seem that living bodies cannot be adequately described by the physics and chemistry of the bodies.
Notice that the biological equilibrium is not something forced upon the body from outside, the way the color of the wall is forced by the light's constantly falling upon it. Biological equilibrium is not a response to outside energy, but something determined by the internal structure of the living body itself. Each organism (not only each type of organism, but each individual of each species) has its own special energy-level which it seeks and tries to maintain. Some dogs, for instance, are very peppy, and others, even of the same breed, are lethargic.
The biological equilibrium must be accounted for by some peculiarity about the living body's unifying energy.
The reason for this should be obvious. The strange seeking of this high-energy state can't be accounted for by the parts, because these are just physico-chemical systems (as can be seen by the fact that they are built from the food that is taken in). Hence it must be something about how the parts are dynamically organized that gives the whole as a whole a "need" to maintain an energy level so high that it is unstable in itself (as a body).
You can see now, I think, how philosophy and biology can complement one another. Biology has been investigating nutrition for centuries; but since it concerns itself with how the living body breaks up the food, gets energy from it, finds the "right" parts it needs and sends them to the "right" places, and so on, it has tended to ignore the rather obvious fact that the very doing of this implies that the organism is making an equilibrium out of instability, and is spontaneously keeping itself at an energy level beyond itself. Biologists' orientation is so much toward the physics and chemistry and the mechanics of what is being done, that they are apt to miss the implication that the living body cannot be a mere physico-chemical body.
This is confirmed by comparing the simplest living body (the bacterium) with the most complex inanimate one: the virus. Bacteria nourish themselves, reproduce, and so on; they must maintain themselves, or they die. Viruses are in equilibrium when left to themselves; they don't nourish themselves, they don't grow, they don't reproduce, or repair injuries.
When introduced into an organism, however, they are attracted by the cell walls (to oversimplify); and on hitting one, they collapse, shooting their insides into the cell. The living cell then replicates virus particles instead of doing its own job, because the insides of the virus are DNA similar to the molecules the cell's unifying energy uses to direct its activity. So viruses, unlike bacteria, don't do anything at all to maintain themselves or reproduce themselves; they "are done to" by the environment, just like any inanimate body. They are in equilibrium until acted on (by a cell wall); and then they react.
It seems that with the first property of living bodies, we have already been able to learn something significant. Let us go on.
DEFINITION: Growth is the process of increasing in energy and adding parts until the living body reaches biological equilibrium.
Growth is a process, because the growing organism does not simply maintain itself; it becomes different, as can be seen from the fact that its total energy is different at the end from the beginning.
As a process, growth implies instability and a purpose; and an instability, you will recall, is a discrepancy between the unifying energy and the total energy of the body. The unifying energy "needs" a certain total energy, which it doesn't have if the body is unstable.
A growing body, then, from the beginning, is biologically unstable; but its instability consists in the fact that it has too little energy and two few parts (too little material) to be at its mature state: its biological equilibrium.
The direction of the change in growth is the opposite of the direction of change in inanimate bodies.
Inanimate bodies always start from an energy-level that is too high to sustain, and go downward to their ground state. Living bodies start from an energy-level that is too low and increase their total energy up to the biological equilibrium. This is another indication that living bodies are doing what is "unnatural" for them as physico-chemical systems.
Note that the initial energy-level in a living body (the one it has at the instant it is formed), while it is too low for the biological equilibrium, it is even at the beginning too high for physico-chemical equilibrium--as can be seen from the fact that a living body right at the beginning will "go down" to death if it can't get food to nourish itself.
So the growing organism is in two instabilities at once: it is physically and chemically unstable (and so headed down toward the "ground-state" of death and physico-chemical equilibrium), and at the same time biologically unstable (and so headed upward toward biological equilibrium).
Observe that growth is not a steady process, but occurs in "spurts." This is because the growing body is unstable physically as well as biologically, and has to be able to survive at the various stages of growth as it acquires energy, in spite of its continual tendency at any stage to go down to ground-state equilibrium.
Life is not "constant growth." Growth stops once maturity is reached. Once maturity is reached, life tends to stay the same.
That is, growth is not to be confused with the "processes" that go on once the mature state (biological equilibrium) is reached, which processes have as their purpose maintenance of the same total energy. Growth usually takes up less than a third of the organism's life. True, the organism is always changing; but once maturity is reached, this is not because the organism is "headed" anywhere; it is because of the tension between the biological and bodily natures of the organism. In order to stay the same, it must change to recover the lost energy.
In most organisms, this mature state involves the fact that the organism doesn't get any bigger. In certain plants, getting bigger (and increasing in some sense in total energy) seems to go on all through life--as in trees, for instance. But even here, the getting bigger is connected with the lapse into a dormant state during the winter and a consequent need to produce new leaves, which (for various reasons) can't be produced in the place where the old leaves were. Hence, this sort of "growth" is really a special kind of maintenance in the face of a certain special condition.
The biological equilibrium is not determined by the quantity of the unifying energy.
The reason why this must be so is (a) that the quantity of the unifying energy in the body's initial condition is less than the final one; and so (since the final amount of energy isn't there, the amount can't determine the final state), and (b) the mature state varies from individual to individual in living beings, in an unpredictable way. That is, there is no way, by looking at babies of any species, to determine which of them will grow up to be very energetic adults, and which will have less energy--until you see them growing for a while, noticing which grow faster, and so on.
It does seem, however, that the biological equilibrium is determined basically by individual characteristics of the genetic structure of the organism.
Every living body has a distinctive set of chromosomes (DNA molecules), which are complex carbon-chain molecules which set limits on what the unifying energy can do. The "genetic code" of the molecules determines (a) the basic kind (or kinds) of unifying energy that can organize this living body, and (b) the basic biological equilibrium of this particular body (giving it individual characteristics within the kind of organism). But the chromosomes are not the same as the unifying energy itself, since they exist in the corpse after death (which is no longer organized in the living way), and a given set of chromosomes is often compatible with more than one form of organization (as in the seed and the plant, the caterpillar and the butterfly, the organism and its cells kept alive in a tissue culture).
The genetic structure of the cell is somewhat analogous to the program on a disk in a computer. The program isn't the electrical energy that does the computing, nor is it the "limit" in the sense of the voltage of the internal electrical current; but the electrical impulses "read" the program and thus are directed in their activity.
(Note, however, that a computer has to be plugged into an outside source of energy, and that, like any inanimate object, it goes from a high energy state to a lower one. That is, a computer is always being forced to act by the energy coming in from the outlet or the battery; it simply "runs down," and never, whatever the program, has a spontaneous tendency to "run up.")
What does this analogy tell us? That the unifying energy of the living being "reads" the genetic code like a program and directs the building of the body and its "basic operating system" according to the specifications in this code.
The unifying energy is to some extent independent of the genetic code of the organism, as well as to the parts of the body it organizes.
The reason for this is that, while the unifying energy is due to the genetic code, it actively uses the genetic structure to guide itself; it is not a product of it (or the corpse would still have life).
The way the living body is organized, then, is quite strange. It seems not dependent on its own energy level, nor does it seem to depend on the parts of the body itself--since it is what builds the parts, and sometimes even builds a whole new set of parts halfway through the life cycle. The only part of the body it could be said to depend on is the genetic code in each cell; but even there, it seems to be using the genetic code rather than being used by it. And yet, the unifying energy of the body is nothing but the way the parts of the body are interacting.
A rather startling indication of Conclusion 7 is the following: In some cases of growth of a species, there is a definite metamorphosis, indicating two entirely distinct forms of unifying energy. A plant ordinarily forms a seed, which has its own biological equilibrium, which it maintains until water from outside disrupts this; at which point, the parts begin a new growth process whose purpose is the mature plant.
Similarly, a caterpillar develops organs which adapt it to an entirely different kind of life from the butterfly it turns into: it eats leaves rather than nectar, it has many pseudo-legs, not six real ones; it does not have the three-segmented body that a butterfly has, and so on. So, though the caterpillar and the butterfly are the same biological species, they are organized in two entirely different ways. That is, though the biological classification is the same, they are really two different kinds of bodies. The organism undergoes a substantial change at metamorphosis.
In these cases, the unifying energy is reading different parts of the same genetic code, and using them to form different structures of itself as activity which organizes the body and gives it its nature as "power" to act. The caterpillar and butterfly are one species, biologically, but they have two different kinds of nature.
But even given this, we can conclude the following:
When an organism is in the process of growth toward a given mature state, then it has the same form of unifying energy as it has in the mature state.
Why is this? Because growth, as a "running up" cannot be due to the energy-level of the organism, and hence not to the quantity of the unifying energy. Therefore, it must be controlled by the form of the unifying energy. The instability implied in the growth is that the form "needs" a higher energy-level (and more complex parts) in order to do its job, rather than that the energy-level "needs" a certain structure to exist.
Therefore, the purpose is in the form of the unifying energy rather than its quantity or even the genetic code--because the genetic code can contain several possible biological equilibria, which the unifying energy must select from.
Hence, when a given process with a given direction is actually going on, this is due to the form of the unifying energy. The caterpillar, for instance, grows as a caterpillar until a certain point is reached, which triggers a substantial change--and from this moment (when it begins to spin the cocoon and then gets into the chrysalis, where it builds new organs), its development takes a new direction, whose purpose is the butterfly; and so from this moment it has the form of organization of a butterfly, even though it does not look like one yet, because at the beginning it still has the (unstable) parts of a caterpillar.
As far as human development is concerned, there is no "seed" or "caterpillar" stage. Development of the body is continuous in the direction of adulthood right from fertilization onward. Therefore, from that time on until death, the organism is a human being.
This is confirmed by the fact I mentioned in the last chapter, that all the organs are there in the two-month fetus--organs that make no sense for its life in the uterus, such as eyes, hands, lungs, esophagus, etc., but are adapted to life after birth. You might just as well say that the baby is not organized as a human being because it hasn't developed any teeth for the first year or so. Hence, the human embryo and fetus are human beings; they are not "potential" human beings.
This is an extremely important point, with significant ethical implications. "Pro-choice" people are apt to claim that a woman having an abortion is either "removing a part of her body," or that the fetus is like a seed and is only "potentially human," and is not yet a human being. But as to the first point, the embryo or fetus does not act for the mother, but for itself even at the expense of the mother (making her sick, fighting antibodies her body produces against it, etc.), which indicates that it is another organism; it is no more a "part of the body" than a tick or tapeworm is. And as to the second point, the facts indicate that there is no justification for saying that an embryo is "not yet" human. Hence, when a woman has an abortion she is in fact killing a human being, whatever she may think.
One of the most mysterious of the properties of living beings in many ways, is that of reproduction. It does no good to the organism itself, but simply ensures that there will be other organisms of the same type. Georg Hegel was so intrigued with this that he called it "the cunning of the concept" (meaning, in this case, the form) which, as it were, "foresees" that the body is ultimately doomed (because irreplaceable parts wear out), and so "escapes" from the body "into" another one, and so keeps going.
Our investigation so far has indicated, as we just said above, that the form of the unifying energy of the body is to some extent independent of (a) of its own energy-level, (b) own genetic structure, and (c) the parts of the body; and Hegel's interpretation of reproduction is in the same direction.
But remember, the form of organization of the body is not a "something" that has "got inside" the body and "gets out" like a rat deserting a sinking ship; it is simply an abstraction in itself--it is nothing but the way the parts are behaving toward each other. And in reproduction, the "form" doesn't "escape" at all, really. It stays in the parent, and all the parent actually produces is either just a complex chemical or something living with a different and lower form of life, which under the proper conditions, often totally apart from the parent gets reorganized with the same kind of unifying energy as the parent (but at its own biological equilibrium level). Seeds don't have the same kind of unifying energy as the trees they turn into; fish eggs live different lives from fish, and are fertilized by the male after being laid. So the form the unifying energy doesn't really escape at all.
Still, it is true that reproduction preserves the form of the unifying energy beyond the limits that can be managed with a single body; and since reproduction does not seem to have any function within the organism itself (since all that happens is a loss of energy and parts, which are quickly replaced through nutrition), this does seem to be its only real function.
Once again, we seem have previous conclusions confirmed:
The form of the unifying energy of the living body is independent of its quantity and even of the body it organizes, since the same form is maintained throughout a succession of bodies, each of which has a different biological equilibrium.
So it isn't just that the unifying energy is independent of the body; the form of the unifying energy has some independence of its own quantity, since it produces another body with the same form but a different quantity in its unifying energy. And all this from something that is really the force by which the parts are acting on each other.
In reproduction, the parent organism neither benefits nor is harmed by producing offspring.
There is, in this sense, no reason (in the sense of "incentive") for reproduction. "No incentive!" you say. "Think of the sex drive!" Yes, but why do organisms have a sex drive? All the other properties and tendencies of the living body are for the sake of the body itself; this one does nothing for it; it just produces another body. As far as the organism itself is concerned, sex is no different from urination or defecation: the organism just gets rid of what (to it) is waste.
It is not surprising, then, that sex goes by the name of "love," if love means unselfishness. The mystery is in why this unselfish activity should be built into organisms that can't think or realize what they are doing. And they all not only have it, it is one of the strongest drives in all organisms.
Reproduction of some simple organisms is asexual; they simply divide. This kind of "reproduction," of course, also occurs in all the cells within a given organism as they multiply to make up the complex body. But there is also sexual reproduction; and even many of the simple organisms that can reproduce by simple division also reproduce sexually.
Sexual reproduction is ingenious in two ways: (a) it forces the organism, for this "unselfish" act, to seek out another organism of the same type to perform it; and (b) it mixes the genetic code of the two parent organisms in such a way that the form of life can maintain itself even in the face of a changing environment.
As to the first peculiarity, it would seem more efficient for all organisms to be like plants, with both sets of sex organs, so that they could impregnate themselves; but this sort of thing is the exception rather than the rule among organisms that can go looking for a partner.
But the second peculiarity has an implication that is much less "mystical," and it confirms what we saw under growth as Conclusion 5:
The natural tendency of reproduction is not toward either diversity or unlimited population. Population reaches an equilibrium in numbers, and also in form. Reproduction's tendency is for the organism to stay the same indefinitely.
This needs considerable discussion. First of all, notice that the tendency to reproduce depends on the natural enemies that the organism has; those organisms that tend to get eaten have a lot of offspring, while organisms like lions that nobody messes with have very few. So the tendency in reproduction is not to fill the world with offspring, but to have enough to ensure that the species (the form of unifying energy) continues forever.
And it has been shown that, even in cases where a species' natural enemies are removed, the population of that species explodes--but only up to a point. Eventually, the numbers of organisms encroach upon the food supply for that species, and they become nervous and do not reproduce as much; and after that, the population hovers around the number of individuals which can survive in the new situation.
As to the tendency not to become diverse, we will have to discuss the mechanics of evolution to see this.
When you hear scientists talk about evolution, you sometimes get the impression that it is a built-in tendency for organisms to change and diversify. All the evidence seems to indicate that we have now a much greater diversity of organisms than existed millions of years ago, and the evidence of the structure of these organisms is very compelling that somehow or other, the organisms got differentiated through reproduction. Henri Bergson, in fact, wrote a book called Creative Evolution, in which he spoke of an élan vital (a vital drive) that "creatively" headed all organisms toward differentiation and diversity.
The trouble is that the mechanism for doing this works in exactly the opposite direction.
Here is what the science behind evolution says: Gregor Mendel's studies of genes indicates that when a given gene from one parent is different from that from the other, one dominates completely; and so only if the organism gets the "recessive" gene from both parents will it show the "recessive" property. Thus (with a simple, single gene) the chances are three out of four for keeping things the same. With complex genes, this is even greater. So the fact that the dominant gene is the one that is used by the unifying energy to build the organism means that the tendency here is to stay the same if possible.
Secondly, the genes themselves do not spontaneously change, but only when they are interfered with by outside energy (such as cosmic radiation). There is no "genetic growth" that goes on spontaneously. So the genetics of the organism is so constructed that it can adapt somewhat to changes in the environment without actually altering its basic structure; and so if the environment changes back, it simply reverts to its original form.
Nevertheless, sometimes something unnatural occurs and the genes of an organism are interfered with. Ordinarily, this will produce a body that cannot live, and so the changed genes are lost.
But there is a very unlikely possibility here. An organism with mutant (changed) genes just might have a unifying energy that (a) can survive and (b) is better adapted to the environment than its parents. In this case, it tends to reproduce more (because it's healthier), and the other offspring of the original parents, as less well adapted, tend to die out. If this happens several times in succession, then the form of unifying energy at the end is incompatible with the ancestral one--and biologists say a new species has evolved.
But the point is that this new organism evolved by accident, not because of some inner drive. The organism itself tends to want to keep the form of its unifying energy throughout the generations.
As a footnote to this process, I should note two things: First, Scientists have never been able actually to produce a new species in the laboratory. They can produce mutants; but even with fruit flies, which reproduce at enormous rates, when they breed the mutants with each other to try to get an organism that will not reproduce with the originals (the sign of a new species), either they die off, or they become infertile, or they mutate back. Very frustrating for the theory.
Secondly, some of the parts of organisms that have evolved (like the eye) are extremely complex, even in their simplest form, and cannot come about by the alteration of a gene or two. And if the whole complex system isn't in place, the organ won't work, and the mutant with the non-functioning rudimentary organ will be less well adapted to the environment, and will therefore (according to the theory) die off.
So in order for evolution to work as it seems to have, you have to suppose very complex changes in the genes occur all at once, and somehow these catastrophic alterations of the genes result in an organism with a special organ that fits it better for the environment it finds itself in. The chances against this ever happening are billions and billions to one.
But even supposing that it happened (and it would have to have happened billions of times over, not just once), it is still the case that it is the chance beneficial result of what is in itself destructive interference with the organism, not some built-in tendency of the organism toward diversity.
Note further that, if the environment is stable, then evolution will reach a limit at which the type of organism in question is best adapted to it; and once this happens, all further mutants will be less well adapted, and will die off. So even the tendency toward diversity based on interference with the genes stabilizes over time, given a stable environment.
Of course, in the real world, the environment of any organism is not stable; and so the changes keep occurring. My point is that the internal tendency of life is to stay the same.
We must remember that we are talking about the lowest type of living body here. All living bodies have these mysterious properties; but some (animals and humans) have more mysterious ones still. The final property shared by all living bodies is that of the ability to fend of attacks from hostile energy, and repair injuries done by such attacks.
Living bodies tend to repair injuries done to them and return to their former condition; they also spontaneously produce defenses against possible injuries.
From the point of view of physics and chemistry, this universal characteristic of living things is even more uncanny than the others, if possible. Inanimate objects just respond to energy acting on them; living bodies respond to energy they can use, and actively fight off energy that can do them harm.
If an organism is cut open, for instance, it has mechanisms by which it can seal off the cut so that it doesn't lose the fluid it has inside it; and then while the cut is closed over, it rebuilds the part that was cut out.
I mentioned that in lower forms of life, this can mean rebuilding practically the whole organism. Apparently as life becomes more complex, the higher forms just don't have enough internal energy to be able to do this and also perform their other properties. They still seal off the cut, but the organism has to make do with, say, only one arm instead of the two it had to begin with.
(Note that the rebuilding of a limb by an organism, with the limb rebuilding the rest of the organism--so that now there are two where there was originally only one--does not imply that the limb before being cut off was a different body, only "hitched onto" the other. A starfish is a single organism, with only one unifying energy. It is just that, when the part is cut off, the interaction of the parts of the leg is such that it can keep existing, and so builds a new body.)
But even more remarkable, when you think about it, are things that have evolved, like thorns on roses that discourage possible animals from eating them, spines on porcupines, stink on skunks, and so on. It is as if evolution "knew" that these would be needed, and figured out a way of defending the species against its most formidable attackers.
The anticipation of future injuries indicates that the living body, even at the lowest level, has some contact with and control over its surroundings, and is independent of simple action-and-reaction.
And all of this happens, at this lowest level of life, through reproduction. And the interesting thing is that characteristics acquired during a given organism's life are not transmitted genetically; so if one organism develops an ingenious method of defending itself from harm, this is not passed on to future generations unless by chance interference with the genes, the organism's genetic structure is so altered that the offspring happen to get it.
That is, as we said, evolution is not something that happens from within the organism at all; it is chance interference from outside that alters the genes at random. Randomness is really exceedingly clever, though, isn't it?
Over the ages, the dispute has gone back and forth about whether living beings are of the same basic nature as inanimate bodies or not.
Plato (400 B. C.), who held that the "soul" was a spiritual something "trapped" inside a body, concluded from this that animals (and presumably plants) were the result of being trapped (perhaps for sins as human) into more limiting bodies--and it would follow that living beings were essentially different from inanimate ones.
Aristotle (350 B. C.), however, thought of the "soul" as the basic form of activity of the matter, which was the "potency" to be active in this living way. Though he considered life as superior to inanimate reality, there was not a radical difference for him, and he cites instances of where meat, exposed to sunlight, spontaneously "turns into" flies; or, in other words, living beings can come from inanimate ones.
Neither Plato nor Aristotle had any concept that living beings might have evolved to the state they are in. All the evidence available to them indicated that all the species that now existed had always existed, since fossil evidence was not available, and it was clear that living things reproduced their species and that monsters and mutants died off (i.e. that the answer to the question, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" is "Yes.").
St. Augustine (400), in his Christianization of a Platonic kind of philosophy, took over Christianity's view that the material universe had a beginning, and that there was a development up to "the New Jerusalem" which would end the world's process. He did seem to hold for a kind of biological evolution (though he wasn't much interested in it) in his attempt to interpret the seven "days" of creation. He took over the Stoic notion of "seeds of intelligibility" which were in things but didn't develop for long periods of time--and so were "created" at the beginning to emerge in their proper time under God's providence. For him, the direction of evolution was explained by God's plan for the world.
Descartes (1600), approaching reality from the problem of consciousness, considered, somewhat as Plato did, that the human being was a mind inside a body; and he drew the conclusion that animals and plants were not really conscious and were just complex machines. Indeed, the human body itself was a complex machine.
From here on there has been a dispute between the "mechanists" (who consider living beings as totally explainable in terms of physics and chemistry) and the "vitalists," who hold that there is something special about living things.
The vitalists seemed to be ahead for a long time, because no chemist had succeeded in producing an "organic" compound, and so these were thought to be producible only within living bodies. Louis Pasteur (1870) laid to rest the "spontaneous generation" of living from inanimate bodies with his experiments; and so there was thought to be an unbridgeable gap between life and non-life.
Charles Darwin (or, as some say, Alfred Wallace, whom Darwin seems to have pirated the idea from) in the 1860's had the idea that species evolved from other species by natural selection, and then Gregor Mendel shortly afterward with his experiments in genetics provided a mechanism that would allow for it. But this was still within the "vitalist" tradition.
The synthesis of urea (a simple organic compound) and the subsequent discovery of the physical and chemical mechanisms by which life operates (especially the discovery of the chemistry of the DNA molecule in the middle of this century) has shifted the dispute back in the direction of mechanism.
The fashion now is to consider the matter as laid to rest, on the supposed grounds that what "vitalism" was founded on was the erroneous beliefs that organic compounds could be synthesized only in living beings, and the workings of the living being were impossible to describe in terms of physics and chemistry.
What has been overlooked, however, in all this is that, though any single operation is an operation that is physico-chemical (at least on the lowest levels of life), the tendency of the operations themselves is directly against their natural tendency in terms of physics and chemistry. The issue is by no means dead.
We have in this chapter given a sketch of the properties living bodies have that inanimate ones don't, and indicated something of what that difference implies. In the next chapter, we will try to define what life is based on our discoveries here.
SUMMARY OF CHAPTER 3
Vegetative life, the lowest form of life, characterized by nutrition, growth, reproduction, and repair of injuries, indicates that living bodies are different from inanimate ones.
Inanimate bodies have only one equilibrium: the ground-state equilibrium, which is the lowest energy level that the body with the particular form of unifying energy can exist at. Hence, when they are unstable, it is because they have too much energy, which they then lose. The amount of this excess energy is what determines their purpose (the future ground-state equilibrium). They have no energy in reserve, and so (whether in equilibrium or unstable) are always doing all they can in the condition they are in; nor, for this reason, can they defend themselves against energy falling on them.
Nutrition is the act by which a body takes in other bodies and uses their destruction to replenish its energy and used-up parts; thus, nutrition adds energy to a body. Bodies that nourish themselves (living bodies) therefore, have an equilibrium (biological equilibrium) which is an additional equilibrium above the ground-state equilibrium (which they also have as bodies); biological equilibrium is instability from the point of view of the physics and chemistry of the living body. This added, super-high equilibrium must be due to the unifying energy of the body, since its parts are physical systems.
Growth is the process by which the living body starts at an energy level too low for its biological equilibrium, and with too little material (though already too high for ground-state equilibrium), and gets rid of its biological instability by acquiring more energy and material until it reaches its biological equilibrium and then simply maintains it. Once at the mature state, the tendency of life is to stay the same. This direction of growth is the opposite of that of inanimate bodies, and indicates that the form of the unifying energy determines the biological equilibrium (the purpose of growth); the form of the unifying energy is therefore independent of its quantity and of the body's parts, even though it is nothing but the interaction of the parts. As long as an organism is growing, it has the same form of unifying energy (and so is the same kind of body) as the mature organism.
Reproduction involves the producing of another body of the same type, implying the same form of unifying energy, but with its own biological equilibrium energy-level. This indicates that the form of the unifying energy is somehow independent of the body it organizes (though not necessarily capable of existing without organizing some body). Reproduction is very mysterious in that it does not benefit the individual organism; it looks like a natural form of love or unselfishness.
Reproduction does not occur indefinitely; a population equilibrium seems to be aimed at, and accidental changes in the type of organization head the species toward a specific equilibrium, of the organism as best adapted to its environment.
Repair of injuries indicates that the organism is free from and to some extent in control of the energy in its environment, in that it can defend itself and return to biological equilibrium when harmed. It even anticipates possible future injuries and takes steps to avoid them.
Exercises and questions for discussion
1. Are inanimate bodies always at their ground-state equilibrium? If not, how can they exist?
2. Suppose you have a machine run by batteries and it's got a computer in it so that when the battery runs down below a certain level, it's programmed to plug itself into an outlet and recharge the battery. Is it alive?
3. How can biological equilibrium be equilibrium if the body starts losing energy as soon as it reaches it (and so doesn't stay there)?
4. If reproduction doesn't benefit the organism, and doesn't benefit the form of unifying energy either (which is only an abstraction), why do all living beings have this tremendous urge to reproduce?
5. If living beings are essentially superior to inanimate bodies, how can evolution be possible, since the greater cannot come from the less?