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A History of Science, Volume 5(of 5) by Williams

More diversified in their capacities


In the life history of at least one of the myriad star systems there has come a time when, on the surface of one of the minor members of the group, atoms of matter have been aggregated into such associations as to constitute what is called living matter. A question that at once suggests itself to any one who conceives even vaguely the relative uniformity of conditions in the different star groups is as to whether other worlds than ours have also their complement of living forms. The question has interested speculative science more perhaps in our generation than ever before, but it can hardly be said that much progress has been made towards a definite answer. At first blush the demonstration that all the worlds known to us are composed of the same matter, subject to the same general laws, and probably passing through kindred stages of evolution and decay, would seem to carry with it the reasonable presumption that to all primary planets, such as ours, a similar life-bearing stage must come. But a moment's reflection shows that scientific probabilities do not carry one safely so far as this. Living matter, as we know it, notwithstanding its capacity for variation, is conditioned within very narrow limits as to physical surroundings. Now it is easily to be conceived that these peculiar conditions have never been duplicated on any other of all the myriad worlds. If not, then those more complex aggregations of atoms which we must suppose

to have been built up in some degree on all cooling globes must be of a character so different from what we term living matter that we should not recognize them as such. Some of them may be infinitely more complex, more diversified in their capacities, more widely responsive to the influences about them, than any living thing on earth, and yet not respond at all to the conditions which we apply as tests of the existence of life.

This is but another way of saying that the peculiar limitations of specialized aggregations of matter which characterize what we term living matter may be mere incidental details of the evolution of our particular star group, our particular planet even--having some such relative magnitude in the cosmic order, as, for example, the exact detail of outline of some particular leaf of a tree bears to the entire subject of vegetable life. But, on the other hand, it is also conceivable that the conditions on all planets comparable in position to ours, though never absolutely identical, yet pass at some stage through so similar an epoch that on each and every one of them there is developed something measurably comparable, in human terms, to what we here know as living matter; differing widely, perhaps, from any particular form of living being here, yet still conforming broadly to a definition of living things. In that case the life-bearing stage of a planet must be considered as having far more general significance; perhaps even as constituting the time of fruitage of the cosmic organism, though nothing but human egotism gives warrant to this particular presumption.

Between these two opposing views every one is free to choose according to his preconceptions, for as yet science is unable to give a deciding vote. Equally open to discussion is that other question, as to whether the evolution of universal atoms into a "vital" association mass from which all the diversified forms evolved, or whether such shifting from the so-called non-vital to the vital was many times repeated--perhaps still goes on incessantly. It is quite true that the testimony of our century, so far as it goes, is all against the idea of "spontaneous generation" under existing conditions. It has been clearly enough demonstrated that the bacteria and other low forms of familiar life which formerly were supposed to originate "spontaneously" had a quite different origin. But the solution of this special case leaves the general problem still far from solved. Who knows what are the conditions necessary to the evolution of the ever-present atoms into "vital" associations? Perhaps extreme pressure may be one of these conditions; and, for aught any man knows to the contrary, the "spontaneous generation" of living protoplasms may be taking place incessantly at the bottom of every ocean of the globe.

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