Peckham Experiment 1 Living Things

Living cannot be interpreted in terms of material-dynamics. Some other cosmic principle is at work not included in and not defined by the laws of matter or of radiation, however “deep the waters” into which the study of these have led. “The universe can be best pictured, although still very imperfectly and inadequately, as consisting of pure thought, the thought of what, for want of a wider word, we must describe as a mathematical thinker”. [The Mysterious Universe,  Sir James  Jeans. (Cambridge  University  Press, 1930),  p. 136.] Possible though it is to conceive of thought without personal attributes, that concept is nevertheless impossible divorced from the quality of livingness. But this picture does not disclose to us the nature of the livingness behind thought; it only implies that when the laws of Living are disclosed they may demand yet one more co-ordinate on our graphs and yet another mathematic even more intricate than the last.

Setting out as biologists to study Living, we shall not attempt to define the nature of Life any more than the physical scientist defines the ultimate of Energy, but merely proceed to examine its manifestations in the living entity and to determine the laws that underlie its operation.

But for the manifest of Life we have as yet no exact name, that is to say, we are not any more discriminately aware of its nature and identity than man must always have been of the sun’s rays before Science began to work its own magic with them. So, before proceeding to grope our way forward in the study of the manifest of Life we must name it. Throughout this book we propose to call it ‘function’.

Appropriation of the word ‘function’ for the manifest of Life raises with workers in other fields of Science an issue demanding clarification. The physiologist, long first in the field in the study ,of the mechanism of the living body, uses the word ‘function’ freely, and in our understanding indiscriminately, to cover several distinguishable operations of organism not all of which are significant in the study of living. To illustrate this we might refer to one of the common technical procedures of the physiologist where, by excision or other means, he isolates organs from the general influences of the body in which they occur, and fixing their environmental conditions, proceeds to observe their ‘functional’ response under given stimuli. Perhaps the best known and extreme example of this type of procedure is the excised chicken-heart which was kept beating in a bottle some twenty-five years after the death of the chicken. This heart ceased to beat and ‘died’ owing to a single oversight in which there was failure to adjust the perfusing fluid,—evidence that its ‘survival’ was dependent upon the rigid fixation of its environment.This brilliant experiment gives  us information about the mechanism  of heart  muscle,  but it gives none either  of the functioning heart or of the living chicken.   It is not unlike the information gained  from  the  bench  test of an  internal  combustion engine.   A bench test is a valuable test, but it gives no indication of the final performance, for example, of an aeroplane in flight,—a tool in the hands of a skilled pilot instant to adjust the  machine  to  the  least  suspicion  of environmental  change. The conditions imposed upon the engine by the will of the living pilot in response to changes he encounters in the environment will to a very large extent nullify the value of the information gained from the bench test for what is commonly called ‘practical’ use—for which the engine was in fact invented. Certainly the inferences to be drawn from the performance of the engine in these two circumstances are not identical. With most physiological studies this is no less true; they yield information about the body but not about its  ‘living’.

So, two distinct and different studies may be made: one of the responses of organism, organs or tissues in a controlled, artificial or fixed environment—-physiological operation; the other of the behaviour of the living organism as a unity in an ever changing and free environment—biological function. It is for the latter that we shall consistently reserve the word ‘function’ in this book.

The next step is to determine through what unit function is manifest; and where and how it can most easily be studied. A unit is the smallest ‘parcel’, aggregate or organisation which exhibits the characteristic attributes of any substance, potency or entity. Technically, living entities are called ‘organisms’.

Before therefore, we can answer these two questions, a further question must be asked: What is an organism? By ‘organism’ we understand any living entity capable of performing the full cycle of its specific existence. Not all living entities fall within this definition. For example, a soldier-ant is a living entity but it is not an organism, for alone it is unable to complete the cycle of ant-hood. In the ant species various operations integral to ant are delegated to various entities in the heap. The queen alone can lay eggs; the soldiers protect the queen; the workers feed her, etc. Each entity has its own special work to contribute to the organism, and without that contribution the function of ant is abrogated and continued life in the organism, ‘ant’, ceases. [See The Soul of a While Ant, Marais. (Methuen).] The ant-heap alone represents the full range of function of ant-hood. It is then the ant-heap that represents the unit-organism ‘ant’. Similarly, it is the hive of bees—not the single bee representing a specific operation essential to the hive, or colony—that forms the organism ‘bee’.

“And for their monarch Queen—an egg casting machine Helpless without attendance as a farmer’s drill, By bedels driven and gear’d and in furrows steer’d Well watched the while, and treated with respect and care – So long as she run well, oil’d stoked and kept in trim”. [Bridges. The Testament of Beauty.  (Clarenden Press, 1929], p.55.]

Bridges knew the Queen to be but the ovary—a mere organ of the organism—’bee’. But here in the hive of bees there is so extreme a degree of separation of the respective organs of the whole organism that the casual observer has been deceived into regarding each bee as a separate organism.

Seen from the same aspect of function, two frogs, male and female, compose the organism ‘frog’, for though one frog or one soldier-ant is an integral part of the organism ‘frog’ or ‘ant’, neither alone represents the unit-organism capable of the full functional cycle of their species. This is so obvious that it may be wondered why we stress the point. It is, however, of the greatest importance to the student of function, for were we to study bull-frogs or soldier-ants alone, in ignorance of their connection with the facultative species ‘frog’ or with the ant-heap, we should never arrive at a knowledge of the full functional capacity of their respective species. The part cannot declare the function of the whole.As students of function in man (homo sapiens) we must then at the outset be careful not to take anything for granted: not to mistake the individual for the whole organism, for, as we have seen, the individual may be but an organ of a more complex organism. By a mistake of this order we should be doomed to miss the manifestations of function that we are seeking. In studying the mechanics and dynamics of the human body this point is not of the same critical significance. For instance, the student has merely to make an adjustment for the sex of the individual studied, to arrive at a knowledge of the mechanism of the body of the species. If he is conversant with the anatomy of a man it will serve—with the addition of facts about the difference in weight, shape, structure of bone, etc., together with a knowledge of the difference in the sex organs—for a knowledge of the anatomy of the human species. What knowledge he has of the biochemistry of the alimentary system can be applied with success to either sex indiscriminately. When we come, however, to function, this method no longer serves, for we find that man and woman are not functionally identical entities exhibiting merely superficial differences aligning them for cooperation, as in the reciprocity of mechanism; not merely two entities with capacities so nearly equivalent that they can shoulder the same tasks and by means of a statistical correction be regarded as interchangeable units, as, for example, in the ‘science’ of economics, in industry, or in the labour market. In the functional sphere man and woman do not work reciprocally as in mechanism, but mutually as diverse parts or organs of a unified organism —like a small ant-heap linked in the continuity—or what later we shall have to call the ‘specificity’—of a ‘functional organisation’.

After mating has occurred, invoking a new functional organisation, we no longer have a man and woman who, shackled like the links of a chain, have joined hands in marriage, but one bi-polar unity—with maleness and femaleness at its opposite poles. How can we visualise such a unity? In the physical realm it is perhaps not unlike the solution of metal within metal such as we find in some of the amalgams. Or, in the physiological realm, perhaps we are led to recall the bi-axial construction of the features of the human body: right and left handed, right and left kidneyed, right and left hearted, right and left eyed. The unity of the mated pair, dual like the body, is right and left individualled, as it were. Thus, the human organism, like the body itself, is a unity balanced in function as in feature.

The reader may perhaps find this a difficult conception to grasp; may object that any process of merging of two individualities suggests loss rather than gain, and hence is one that cannot represent the true picture of progressive human functioning. On the contrary, the new polarity of the functioning organism brings with it for each individual a measure of fulfilment unobtainable by either alone.

We know the opprobrium implied in the expression ‘one-eyedness’. This is not without reason. If we look more closely at the mechanism of optics we see that each eye looking separately sees a field more limited than that covered by the two together. But this is not all. Binocular vision does not merely reproduce in a combined and enlarged picture the field of view of each separate eye. The two eyes acting as a unity create a novel image. So there emerges the ‘solid reality’ of a stereograph, which no one-eyed vision can achieve. What applies to vision seems to apply to all functional action : it is dependent upon duality operating in unity. So too with the mated pair we find duality operating in the unity of male and female. Hence man also is bipolar in function. There is no sacrifice here ; neither is it compromise. Just as the eyes in binocular vision produce a stereograph, an origination or novelty, so it is the ‘parenthood’ engendered by the unity of two diversities—mature manhood and womanhood —which originates, or brings the new to birth.

Thus when two diverse individuals function as an organism, all that they encounter acquires a new significance. It is not merely the addition of the experience of one to that of the other, making the combined view a larger whole seen, but that with new polarity a new quality is given to their apprehension. And this quality of perception is given not only to what is experienced at the moment, but that experience itself influences what they in their new functional orientation will in the future experience —hence altering their every action.The supreme and most concrete example of such an origination or novelty from the fusion of two diversities is, of course, the child. It is a reproduction neither of mother nor of father ; indeed, not a reproduction at all. It is a new and unique individuality that is originated through the bipolarity of organismal function.

So it is through the unified mutual action of two entities, man and woman, that alone the full function of Man is manifest; that full and rich diversification of his species proceeds, and that human potentiality finds its full expression. Thus while the individual man (or women) is a satisfactory subject for study by the zoologist, physiologist or pathologist, only man-and-women as a unity can meet the needs of the biologist setting out to study function. [See also The Case for Action, p. 60-65.] What then are we to call this functional unity— this concept of the biological unit? We have named it ‘family’ implying by that word the mated pair either with or as yet without children, and it is in this sense that the word ‘family’ will be used throughout this book.

There are other difficulties and subtle snares with which biological material confronts the student. Function is not always explicit. Like force, it may be potential or latent; that is to say, the full range of functional manifestation of the species may only become explicit in certain circumstances the nature of which we do not yet understand, and which may well chance to be absent when and as we observe. We may, in fact, only be familiar with rudimentary manifestations of function in the life of any species. In ignorance of any fuller manifestation, how easy to take these to be the full expression of its potentialities. A striking example of such a situation is to be found in the case of the Mexican axylotl, tadpole of the salamander (Amblystoma). This large aquatic tadpole can and usually does live, breed, rear its kind and die in its unmetamorphosed (tadpole) state. Only many years after it had become known to the zoologist and familiar as a fashionable parlour pet was it discovered to be merely the tadpole or larval state of a land-walking salamander catalogued as a different species. Because the axylotl was able to live and propagate its kind in its immature form, its potentiality for living a different and wider existence, for acquiring lungs and walking on dry land, was missed even by the zoologist. [It is possible in the laboratory to effect the metamorphosis from tadpole to salamander within a few days by the injection of thyroid extract. From this we must infer that the potency of endocrine secretions cannot be overestimated in their effect upon function.]

To snares of this nature the experimenter must be alive as he approaches the field of function in human biology, for he may not assume that man as we now know him is man whose potentialities have already found their full expression.We have already shown in an earlier publication [Biologists in Search of Material, p. 78 et seq.] that there are three distinct states in which man may exist while carrying on his daily life. Hampered by disorders he may suffer from the ravages of disease; cloaking his disorders by the use of his reserves, he may be buoyed up by a false sense of ‘wellbeing’, or, lastly, he may live a full functional existence in which his development is proceeding according to his potentiality. The difference between these three states has been shown to depend on the several relationships of the individual to his environment. In the last of these three states only, is man free to act in mutual response to an ever changing environment. It is this last state which we recognise as the legitimate field of Health or ‘wholeness’. This field of Health or sanity with which we as biologists are concerned will be found to be distinct from that of Sickness, where subject to disorder the individual obeys the laws of pathology. In Health man observes a different natural law:— the law of function with which we are here concerned.

It might with reason be asked:—Why entertain the idea of using man, with all his complexity, as the experimental animal in what is so new and difficult a field, for surely the first necessity is to find the simplest organism for investigation? The zoologist hitherto concerned with the classification of species and the particulate description of living entities, has turned naturally to unicellular entities having little anatomical structure other than a delimitating membrane enclosing a nucleus surrounded by a body of cytoplasm, such for example as amoeba, or paramecium.[ for a popular account of amoeba see  Cine-Biology, Burden, Field  & Percy Smith. (Penguin 1941).] These are the simplest for his purpose. But when attention is turned to function the scene begins to shift. When the amoeba encounters food in the immediate environment the whole entity flows towards the attractive morsel; it stretches out its body in the form of embracing limbs—pseudopodia, surrounds the food particle, and, dragging its whole body forward in the direction of its embrace, engulfs the prize. Whatever attracts it, the appearances to all intents and purposes are identical— an all-or-nothing type of enveloping action for each and every new experience embraced. How confusing to the observer this apparent similarity of expression for all the delights of life!

In order to observe functional action in its discretionate form we are forced to the opposite end of the zoological scale and it is to Man himself we turn. Man wishing to eat can take his food with finger and thumb and while doing so can carry on simultaneously many other distinct and intricate operations. Five fingers have been differentiated in his hand, each capable of separate co-ordination to effect discretionate movement; he has acquired a constant and material gullet, stomach, liver; he has a renal system and complete and well-defined nervous system, etc.—all of which have acquired through age long differentiation of his species a high degree of special and independent action. The human organism then, is the most convenient primer for the biologist who as student of function seeks to elucidate the laws of living.

What of the next question? How does the biological organism or any lesser biological entity proceed to its fulfilment through function? We have been accustomed to regard the living entity at its inception and in its most primitive state, as no more than a focus of livingness in a limitless and apparently passive and wholly unfamiliar environment. There is interposed between the two—that is between the entity and its environment—no more than the semblance of a membrane created by the difference in direction and rate of two dissimilar motions. Thus we usually visualise the simple cell, amoeba. Thus we marvel at the sureness with which the unprotected speck of protoplasm, presumptively unguided and born into what is usually conceived as a ‘hostile’ environment, shapes and forms itself with such unfailing accuracy and, acquiring the specific features of its kind, reaches maturity. Whence comes the material for its growth and development? It is from its environment that has been presumed to be hostile.

The picture of the amoeba lured to engulf a particle of food in its nearby surrounding medium is diagrammatic of the process of accretion in all living entities. The amoeba embracing a particle from the environment, engulfs the morsel and digests it. On such meals it lives and grows. This tells us the source of its increment: all material for increase comes from the environment. It tells us nothing, however, of the method by which the individual converts the ingested environmental moiety into the substance of its own body. So, before the significance of the above picture can be understood, the fate of the engulfed environmental contribution must be followed.

Once within the body, the morsel is picked to pieces, chemically analysed, sorted out and separated. Certain selected portions are then as it were reshaped and woven into its very substance according to its specific order, thereby adding to and developing its unique basic design. This process—the living power to build up a basic organic design from the substance of the environment —is called ‘synthesis’. The process of acquisition is the same whether it be of food, light, or any other engulfed ‘experience’. Once of the body, all is stamped with the trademark of the receiving house, part transitorily, part, and that a highly selected portion, indelibly marked or ‘sensitised’ with the individuality of its new host.From this ‘factory’ there is an enormous output, some to be sure consisting of rejected intake ; some the product of physiological work done—heat produced, etc. The higher we rise in the zoological scale the more important and distinctive becomes the other surplus of highly elaborate biological synthesis, for owing to the specificity it acquires in the ‘factory’ through which it has been processed, it is potent in the environment to which it is returned—leaves, fruits, hoof, skin, hair, urine, faeces, etc. In his intuitive wisdom in the past, the good cultivator of the soil has for centuries known the value of these so-called ‘waste’ products for maintaining fertility. It is modern civilisation that has applied the word ‘waste’ to them. To the physiologist also they are ‘waste’—a nuisance—for their excretion brings about changes in the environment which he is seeking to stabilise and fix for the conduct of his experiment. Perhaps indeed it was the physiologist’s original use of this word ‘waste’ for goods returned from the body’s factory, that has been responsible for hindering our appreciation of the significance for living of these materials returned to the environment, and hence of their significance to the future of the living organism itself.

In the field of function where individual and environment work in strict mutuality they assume an importance of a magnitude not yet recognised. For all the products of work done must be included in this category—the objective products of the living entity’s subjective process of development. When we come to Man his surplus of synthetic products cast into the environment are well nigh overwhelming, for, besides his physical excreta, there are the products of his mind and of his skill: his inventions, his music, his art, his science—all shed fruits of his synthesis. Let an apple fall, and as a result a Newton sets in motion a train of further human synthesis that changes the face of man’s world!

Thus, the environment is the source of diversity as well as the recipient of the diversification of that which is taken from it by the organism. Each different factor or change in the environment that impinges on the organism, each new food particle digested, each new co-ordination learned as a result of experience made possible by any new environmental disposition, results in the development of further specificity in the organism and leads to a still more versatile power of apprehension of further environmental contributions. Also, and consequently, it leads to still further novelty in the products subsequently received into the environment. So that in the presence of adequate nutriment, function implies an ever increasing diversification, in the organism and in the environment alike.

This is the functional picture of life in flow. It is to be seen in a progressive mutual synthesis participated in by both organism, and environment. It is wholeness—Health.

Here then is a picture not of hostility between the organism and its environment but of mutuality at work in the living world. Yet hitherto the development and indeed the very existence of the organism has been pictured by the scientist as a ‘struggle’ for survival [ Cf for example Man on his Nature, Sir Charles Sherrington, Chapter XII, Conflict with Nature, p. 359. (Cambridge University Press, 1940).]; while Man in his acknowledged supremacy is alleged to have ‘conquered’ Nature, i.e. his environment, rather than to have wooed Her in the sensitivity of a mutual—or loving —relationship.It is in the modern revival of ancient methods of agriculture [The testament of Agriculture, Sir Albert Howard. (Oxford University Press, 1940).] and in the science of ecology that hitherto there has been the fullest appreciation of the mutuality of function in the organism,with its essential shuttle-like throw from environment to organism and from organism to environment, each throw changing the design, each change affording a stimulus to the next change that is to follow. Yet plant, animal and man live by the same biological law. The laws that govern growth and development apply equally to the organism as a whole, or to its parts.As we have proceeded, there may have been gathering in the mind of the reader a growing speculation, perhaps an almost nervous apprehension, as to the constitution of the environment itself in this mutual transaction. Neither has this thought escaped the biologist. He begins to appreciate that the process of diversification so characteristic of organism and, as a result of the life process, equally apparent in the environment, must denote some progressive order in the latter. Can it be that the environment, also ‘in process’, is taking on an orientation as ordered as that which the embryologist can follow so clearly in the differentiation of the embryo—like the chick developing from the amorphous material of the egg? Is, then, the process we call ‘evolution’, with all its manifest expressions, but one universal expression of the ‘organ-ation’ of the environment itself? Is the environment alive?

The mutual action of organism and environment, associated as we rise in the biological scale with an increasing degree of autonomy of the organism, recalls forcibly to mind the circum­stances of a single cell, such for instance as the liver cell, set in the body of which it is an infinitesimal part. The cell acts as liver cell carrying on the specific function of ‘liverness’, yet always, in health, ‘aware’ of, and subject to, the wider needs of the body of which it is part and from which it derives sustenance. It is this relationship to the body which alone gives significance to its individuality as liver cell as well as to its unique function of liverness.

The pathologist is only too familiar with the situation that arises where this delicately poised relationship of the cell’s autonomy within the sphere of a greater organisation—the body —is absent. When the cell multiplies without reference to the impulses of the greater organisation of the body of its inhabita­tion, the result is cancer, the definition of which might be stated as ‘multiplication without function’—loss of individuality. Such procedure ushers in antagonism, disrupting the mutual associa­tion between the cell and its environment—and ends in the ultimate destruction of the cell, of the body in which it grows, or of both.

Thus the body as an organisation is, in fact, the ultimate significance of the cell. Can it then be that Man himself is but a cell in the body of Cosmos ; and that Cosmos is organismal as he is?

Without being able to define the factual basis for their intuition —for that can only come through science—wise men in all ages have acted with a deep intuitive consciousness of this as a truth. Upon it they have built their hopes, their conduct and their religions. Only now, as intuitive apprehension seems to be wearing thin and threadbare, are men of science being led, through the study of function, to suspect that there may even be a physical basis for these primitive intuitive actions ; that in fact the significance of human living lies in the degree of ‘mutuality established with an all pervading order, Nature— whether we deify her or not.

So in order to study function, we must turn to the organism and its environment, in process of mutual synthesis; the organism of choice for our study being the human family, homo sapiens. Herein then lies a challenge to adventure. The student at this point must be willing to put from him the comfortable cloister of the traditional laboratory where he has learnt the structure and the classification of species; he must leave the protected harbours of the physiologist where the merest zephyrs of the environment are steadied and controlled ; he must part company too with the student of medicine who, informed by the science of suffering (pathology), has been searching for negative evidence of function (health) in the shadow of sickness and amidst the shades of the dying. Leaving these behind him, now as biologist prepared to sail upon the open sea of humanity where the manifold winds of the environment play in ceaseless change, he may set out on a further search into the science of Living.