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Life Is Like That

ISSUE:  Autumn 1932

The Insect Menace, By L. O. Howard. New York: The Century Company. $3.50. The Wisdom of the Body, By Walter B. Cannon. New York: W. W. Norton and Company. $3.50. Kamongo. By Homer W, Smith, New York: The Viking.Press. $2.00.

Histories of modern thought have chronicled the struggles, often bitter, between the invading hordes of scientific barbarians and the defenders of ancient ways of thought, the theologians, humanists, and lovers of tradition generally. Sometimes the historian admires, sometimes he deplores the changes which three centuries have wrought; but whatever the bias, such histories stick pretty closely to a conventional conception of their subject. They are accounts of the wars between opposing intellectual dynasties, and take little note of the lot of unthinking people, who pass their lives in instinctive adjustment to the world in which they find themselves. For these the change has amounted to a spiritual migration. They find themselves in a world of steel and power, which they themselves have cooperated to create, but which has reacted subtly on their very instincts, making new habits of thought familiar and old ones impossible.

The nature of the change can best be illustrated by a story told by William James—one of the many illustrative anecdotes which enliven the foot-notes of his “Psychology.” Railroads had just been built in Switzerland, and a group of peasants were gathered in awe-struck wonder around their first locomotive. The pastor of the village church, a man of some education, was trying to explain to them how it worked, when one of them said, “But, Herr Pastor, sure there be a horse inside!” A queer kind of horse, to be sure, as James remarks, but only on some such basis was an explanation possible.

“When modern man is informed by the physiologist that there is inside a horse a queer kind of steam engine which makes it go, it strikes him as at least the right kind of explanation. This is the spiritual migration. Primitive man dwelt in a world filled with living creatures; modern man finds himself more at home in the world of matter. The savage sees all nature as a manifestation of personality, vindictive in the tempest and earthquake, benign in the sun and mountains, of uncertain disposition in the river that now waters and now lays waste his fields. The monotheism of the Old Testament is doubtless a theological improvement, but it leaves untouched the essence of this mode of thought. The abolition of personality in “natural” events has been the achievement, unique in history, of Western culture. And this change in attitude has been fed on the power over inanimate nature to which it has given birth. Man has chained the thunderbolt and harnessed the flood to his bidding; and these creations of his have chained and harnessed his mind to ways of thought his forefathers never knew.

I have labored the point unnecessarily, perhaps; it is certainly obvious that our mechanical civilization begets a corresponding type of mind. But the converse assertion, that the change has involved the loss of something important, that modern man is less at home in the world of the living, is not merely not obvious, it will be vigorously denied by most of the champions of science. Have not the biological sciences given us a knowledge of living things comparable to our understanding of the laws of matter? Do we not know infinitely more about birds and beasts and plants than any savage? Professor Haldane has expressed the belief that the next century will see a development of biology comparable with the present development of physics. This may seem over-sanguine to other biologists, but few if any would question the ultimate attainment of this goal.

If a physicist is to be permitted to be skeptical, in the face of the opinion of those who “ought to know,” he must justify his doubts. Here, for instance, are three books on biological themes, each by a master in his field. They are only a tiny sample of those triumphs of the human intellect which make plausible the optimism of Professor Haldane; but taken together they give a fair cross-section of the biologist’s approach to life, and it is this point of view, this underlying philosophy, which is here important. Let us take a look at their contents, as documents in the case.

“The Insect Menace” is a record of man’s warfare with the insignificant and prolific, and Dr. Howard, as Chief of Staff of the army of American entomologists, tells the story with the authority of a participant. Written primarily with the avowed object of awaking public interest in the importance of the struggle, its first claim is on the attention of those who wish to function intelligently as citizens: for Dr. Howard makes it convincingly clear that individual intelligence and expert knowledge will be of no avail without cooperation. The corn borer, for instance, can be practically eliminated if all stalks are destroyed before the next spring, but a few careless or recalcitrant farmers can make useless the efforts of the rest. No one could accuse Dr. Howard of any lack of enthusiasm for the pure science, but as one experienced in the mentality of hard-headed taxpayers, he submerges this and bases his argument on economic grounds, most of the book being devoted to the thesis that it is cheaper for society to support entomologists than boll-weevils and fruit-flies. In the introductory chapters, however, which give a sketch of the extent and variety of the insect world, the pure naturalist emerges. These chapters are, for the student and other bad citizens generally, for those who have “elected, not to live, but know,” the most interesting part of the book. For here we look at the struggle with the detachment of the historian, as one example among thousands of the endless warfare between all living things. Seen thus sub specie aeternitatis, man does not cut quite the figure he usually assumes. Pride and humility have ever alternated in man’s emotional response to nature, but the spiritual migration which I have described has brought with it a reversal of their bases. The Psalmist boasts of man’s dominion over animate nature; before the stars and mountains, in the presence of flood and tempest he stands abashed—his authority does not extend to the “horse” inside of these. Modern man feels himself the potential lord of all such impersonal cosmic forces; it is the stream of life which eludes his control. His inanimate foes may be powerful, but they do not shift their ground or choose their time to strike. The concept of a cosmic force is too coarse a net to ensnare the subtleties of the living ones, and thus his chief weapon fails him. One race of insects, the bees, he exploits, but he is in turn exploited by a thousand parasites. The ant, the weevil, and the grasshopper take their toll of all the fruit of his labor, and he dies of yellow fever or sleeping sickness that a mosquito or tsetse fly may make a meal.

Dr. Cannon’s book is really a treatise on human physiology as seen from a special angle. It is a description of the human body as a self-adjusting system, and is based largely on Dr. Cannon’s own work and that of his pupils. “The Wisdom of the Body” is a fascinating and impressive account of the triumphs of physiology, and that means the triumphs of the mechanistic concept: the application of physics and chemistry to the problems of the living organism. The reader must get for himself the details of the story which Dr. Cannon tells, of how uniform conditions are preserved in the body in the face of external disturbances. His account of the unravelling of these details is an exciting saga of the adventuring mind, and in the solution of each problem the mechanistic concept has been a master-key.

But how about the body as a whole? Is the idea of a machine also adequate here? This has been claimed by many. Jacques Loeb, for instance, could see nothing that could not be thus explained. But I do not think Dr. Cannon goes so far. I would not for the world call him a vitalist—the word is a fighting epithet with most biologists—but he seems to realize as few do the essential limitations of the mechanistic approach; it is applicable to parts, not wholes. The arm is a machine, the heart is a machine, the kidney may present problems in physics and chemistry which can be handled by themselves, but all of these separate contrivances exist for the sake of the whole, the organism, which exists for itself. This is the point of view which Dr. Cannon’s title connotes, and which appears at intervals whenever he considers the body as a single entity. Here we see the organism, immensely wise and resourceful because immensely experienced, having purposes instead of existing and being used for purposes. Of a bone, an organ, or a secretion we may legitimately ask, what is its function, in terms of physics and chemistry? Of the organism, such a question is without meaning. We cannot know what it is, but only that it is.

The philosophy which with Dr. Cannon remains mostly in solution, is distilled off and concentrated by Dr. Homer Smith in “Kamongo.” Here the physiologist tries to tell us what he makes of it all. “Kamongo” is the native African name for a species of lung-fish found in the upper Nile and a few other rivers. Dr. Smith has spent years in the study of these strange creatures, which have both lungs and gills and are able to live out of water. When the dry season comes, those that are trapped in the shallow pools and swamps bury themselves in the mud which bakes hard around them. Thus encased, they can remain for several years if necessary, breathing air, but with vital processes slowed down to almost complete suspension until the rain comes again to free them. The physiological problems offered by these dormant creatures are of extraordinary interest, but these are touched on here only incidentally—it is the evolutionary problem that guides the thought of the book. The lung-fish is the flower in the crannied wall, which Dr. Smith plucks in order to tell us what God and man is.

Other scientific men have made this attempt to reveal themselves, but I can think of no one who has succeeded so eminently. Much of this success is due to the form he has chosen. Like Plato, he has realized that direct exposition is a medium too harsh for the flickering half-lights by which ultimate things are seen; that fiction is the best garb for truth when reason is unavoidably tinged with emotion. But Dr. Smith shows himself an artist, not merely in his choice of a medium, but in his mastery of it. The argument is unfolded by the dialogue between a young physiologist, Joel, and an Anglican priest, referred to as the Padre—fellow passengers on a steamer bound for Suez through the Red Sea. Joel is returning from an expedition to collect lung-fish ; the Padre from an exile as a missionary in the African jungle. Not only is the dialogue revealing, but every part of the setting, every incidental event of the voyage contributes to the effect of the whole.

And the conclusion? There is none. Have I not said the author is an artist? A cruder craftsman, a less honest intellect, might have left the priest overwhelmed by the logic of the physiologist, but Dr. Smith, mechanist though he is and must be in the prosecution of his work, is wise beyond his calling. We are left with the opposition of the two types of mind, the one constructing its world of matter and force, the other of mind, personality, purpose:—each man trying sincerely to find a way into the mind of the other, and each feeling lost as in a foreign land.

This is the trouble; this it is that raises doubts as to Professor Haldane’s prophecy. The mechanistic assumption has laid out an enormous program of discovery, and over the truths which will be thus revealed it holds pragmatic sway. But the problems thus solved are partial problems. The few great generalizations of biology, such as evolution, have been won with other weapons: life has been explained in terms of life. Perhaps when the key is in our hands it will turn out to be something so simple that a child can understand it. The symbol for zero is a simple thing, but it has made modern physics possible and the Greek genius failed to invent it. Something like that. Who knows?


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