Imágenes de página

concerned. In the explanation of the mysterious functions of life, it brings to its aid the knowledge of sciences that are purely physical in their character, receiving from none more assistance in casting light on these functions than from the science of chemistry. Since, however, the exact relation of chemistry is too often misunderstood, it is proposed as a subject not only interesting in its general nature, but as involving consequences of importance to our religious belief, to devote a few pages to the consideration of the true relation which Chemistry holds to Physiology.

Physiology, treating of the phenomena peculiar to life, in its widest sense, comprehends a description of the organs through which these phenomena are manifested,—that is, includes anatomy. Since these phenomena take place in accordance with certain laws, which are equally recognized in mechanics and in living beings, it has been the custom to attempt an explanation of all vital operations by pure mechanical rules. Acting on such premises man has been compared to a machine ; and not only have poets labored to depict the excellencies of this machine, the harmonious adaptation of all its parts, and the transcendent accuracy with which its operations are carried on,-but the scientific man, forgetting all that is mysterious and wonderful in the structure of the human frame, and hence, necessarily, all that is peculiar to it as the habitation of the soul—the direct impress of its Creator,-has too often studied it as a mere machine, with a vital principle that he has improperly considered as of no more account than the main spring of a watch, or the steam generator of an engine. Such a view, however, of his wonderful habitation, so mysteriously connected with the animating principle which controls it for awhile and leaves it to decay and become loathsome to its brethren,--at one moment striving against all the destructive tendencies of nature, and at another yielding to them, and suffering all its parts to mingle with the common earth,--such a view, we say, is too low, paltry and insignificant for any but superficial observers of nature to adopt.

When chemistry began to shed some light on certain of the operations, which take place within the recesses of the body,the figure changed, and though not much used in poetry under its new form, (since poetry eschews with hearty good-will all reference to mortars and retorts, alembics, beaker glasses, and the other pharaphernalia of the chemist's laboratory,) yet, as science had aided the physiologist to explain some of the workings of the body, with enthusiastic acknowledgments, he was ready to adopt chemistry as the interpreter of all its mysteries, and it is now compared to a laboratory. The figure was more rationalthan the preceding one, since certain actions of life can be imitated out of the body if organic matter be used for the purpose, and we can thereby bring explanation to clear up mystery, and to serve as a light to guide us in after examination. But nothing is surer than that these chemical operations in the system, are continually held in check by a vital force. Indeed they may almost be considered as the destructive agencies of life, which are forever warring against its integrity, rather than the preservative agencies which build up and bind together its various parts. Again, vital actions, even when most chemical, vary either in kind or degree, from those exhibited in the laboratory, as well as in the time required for their performance. illustration of this, may be quoted, “ The shortness of the time in which the aliment becomes acid in depraved digestion, -a series of changes being produced in a few hours, which would require in the laboratory as many weeks," and in cases of disease, “ where the functions of the stomach are nearly suspended, whatever is introduced into it remains unchanged and even the nutritious mucilages are not digested.'

Fully aware of the folly of such comparisons, and not only folly, but the danger, since they induced men to build up theories on mere visionary notions, which theories impeded the progress of rational medicine by fencing it in with the whims and caprices of their authors, William Hunter is said to have spoken to his class, on one occasion, as follows: “Gentlemen, some physiologists will have it that the stomach is a mill, oth

is a fermenting vat, others again, that it is a stew

As an

ers that

* Paris' Pharmacologia, 56.

pan-but in my view of the matter, it is neither a mill, a fermenting vat, nor a stew-pan, but a stomach, Gentlemen, a STOMACH.”

The danger, however, does not rest in the probability that the treatment of disease may be wrong, which depends on the physician, considering the body as a mere machine or a laboratory; it goes still further, and tends to sap the foundations of our belief in the doctrines of revealed religion. He who is accustomed to overlook the origin of life and merely to view it as an aggregate of chemical phenomena, finds it not difficult to advance the notion, that life itself may be included under the same head, and that the vital principle is only another and more refined form of electricity, and he will not hesitate long before he considers this the primal creative force. Though early education may keep him from going to this extreme, yet, his one-sided examination of the phenomena of life, will lead him far in that direction. Hence, arise the daring disciples of Mesmer, and a host of other quasi-investigators, into the mysteries of life, who do not hesitate to materialize thought, and to boast a mastery over the minds of their fellows, by virtue of an electric influence which they project from themselves. Hence, also, arise the semi-scientific experiments of Reichenbach on Odyle, and a thousand others much less entitled, on score of mind, to respect than this veteran of science.

All this springs from a blind attachment to the belief, that since chemistry can aid us in the explanation of many actions of the body, therefore we must be indebted to her for a full explanation of life, -it springs from a wrong apprehension of the true relation which chemistry bears to physiology, -a misconception of the true use of the former in explaining the latter.

Chemistry, in its widest range, can only give man a knowledge of the ultimate constituents of matter, the combinations of which they are susceptible, the laws governing such combinations, and the forces thereby developed. But matter presents itself in two forms, --one called unorganized, which is gifted with certain general properties, among which is promi

nent what has been called vis inertia—a kind of indifference

-a as to what state or condition it may occupy,—the other called organized, which presents a marked contrast to the first, from its being produced in living beings, having its condition under the control of a vital force. The first can be separated into smaller portions,—be removed from its physical connections, while the second being produced in living beings, when separated from them speedily yields to the destructive processes of nature. The first is solely governed by the laws of natural philosophy and chemistry ; the second only yields to them as modified by what is called the vital force, which force constitutes the mystery of physiology.

The vital force, from the very inception of life—the punctum saliens of the organized being-acts in a different manner from any mere mechanical or chemical force, achieves results altogether unattainable by these latter, and is not to be explained by any analogies which may seem to exist between them and it. We can, it is true, reduce the whole mystery of animal life down to that of the existence of a single cell, which shall be absolutely microscopic in its character, and yet we will be foiled if we attempt to explain the production of this starting point of the organism by principles of either mechanics or chemistry. Its very simplicity is still too far above the grasp of mere physical science.

With bodies then made up, so to speak, of an aggregation of such cells, we must find it impossible to explain even this aggregation. Thus we find that there is a something connected with an organism, even from its origin, which is far beyond human ken. The very word itself—its derivation primarily from the Greek sprov—indicates its application to something which has a work or task assigned it by nature; and we fird that an organism differs from a machine in being animated with one life, and requiring all its parts for its own perfection as well as for the conservation of that power in them, which prevents their subjection to the action of decay,-parts removed from the whole become dead, that is they yield to the laws which control inorganic matter; and parts removed from a machine are not changed at all in their structure nor in their tendency to decay; an organism has the power of repairing the losses of structure, which its own duties necessarily produce, and it only closes its activity when accident may check its operations, or the vital force may have accomplished the mysterious duties for which it was created; the machine gradually wears out, and in its greatest perfection, requires constant repair ab extra. There can, necessarily, be no comparison here. Are we more successful in our comparison, if we avail ourselves of all the discoveries of modern chemistry to illustrate the nature of that vital force which builds up and gives character to an organism, and then compare it to chemical action? Are the actions of organs to be explained by the doctrines of chemical affinity, or are the organic constituents governed by any such affinity ? Let us examine an example. Among the organic constituents are found two, albumen and fibrine. On examination by the chemist, it is found that they are composed of the same elementary bodies, not widely differing from each other. Both contain carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulphur. The chemical difference does not give an insight into the different parts they play in the system. But the former acts as the material, out of which nearly all the tissues are formed, and shows nothing more than an aggregation of granules when examined microscopically. It is converted into fibrine by the vital force, and then we find indications of organization. How these are produced, the science of chemistry must ever fail to explain. And if we wish to make them obedient to the laws of chemical affinity, it is necessary first to remove them from the control of the vital force, -we must destroy the life which is in them and then we can subject them to the action of chemical agents. These two compound bodies, along with others, form organs having the same chemical constitution, though with widely different properties. The language of chemistry fails to give expression to the real uses of these two substances, since it is unvarying, while they are constantly changing in their properties.

This is but one instance. Instances might be multiplied to

« AnteriorContinuar »