1902 Encyclopedia > Biology > Scope of Biology. Properties of Living Matter.

(Part 1)


Scope of Biology

The Biological sciences are those which deal with the phenomena manifested by living matter; and though it is customary and convenient to group apart such of these phenomena as are termed mental, and such of them as are exhibited by men in society, under the heads of Psychology and Sociology, yet it must be allowed that no natural boundary separates the subject matter of the latter sciences from that of Biology. Psychology is inseparably linked with Physiology; and the phases of social life exhibited by animals other than man, which sometimes curiously foreshadow human policy, fall strictly within the province of the biologist.

On the other hand, the biological sciences are sharply marked off from the abiological, or those which treat of the phenomena manifested by not-living matter, in so far as the properties of living matter distinguish it absolutely from all other kinds of things, and as the present state of knowledge furnishes us with no link between the living and the not-living.

The Properties of Living Matter

These distinctive properties of living matter are --

1. Its chemical composition -- containing, as it invariably does, one or more forms of a complex compound of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, the so-called protein (which has never yet been obtained except as a product of living bodies) united with a large proportion of water, and forming the chief constituent of a substance which, in its primary unmodified state, is known as protoplasm.

2. Its universal disintegration and waste by oxidation; and its concomitant reintegration by the intus-susception of new matter.

A process of waste resulting from the decomposition of the molecules of the protoplasm, in virtue of which they break up into more highly oxidated products, which cease to form any part of the living body, is a constant concomitant of life. There is reason to believe that carbonic acid is always one of these waste products, while the others contain the remains of the carbon, the nitrogen, the hydrogen, and the other elements which may enter into the composition of the protoplasm. The new matter taken in to make good this constant loss is either a ready-formed protoplasmic material, supplied by some other living being, or it consists of the elements of protoplasm, united together in simpler combinations, which consequently have to be built up into protoplasm by the agency of the living matter itself. In either case, the addition of molecules to those which already existed takes place, not at the surface of the living mass, but by interposition between the existing molecules of the latter. If the processes of disintegration and of reconstruction which characterize life balance one another, the size of the mass of living matter remains stationary, while, if the reconstructive process is the more rapid, the living body grows. But the increase of size which constitutes growth is the result of a process of molecular intus-susception, and therefore differs altogether from the process of growth by accretion, which may be observed in crystals and is effected purely by the external addition of new matter so that, in the well-known aphorism of Linnaeus, the word "grow," as applied to stones, signifies a totally different process from what is called "growth" in plants and animals

3. Its tendency to undergo cyclical changes.

In the ordinal course of nature, all living matter proceeds from pre-existing living matter, a portion of the latter being detached and acquiring an independent existence. The new form takes on the characters of that from which it arose; exhibits the same power of propagating itself by means of an offshoot; and, sooner or later, like its predecessor, ceases to live, and is resolved into more highly oxidated compounds of its elements.

Thus an individual living body is not only constantly changing its substance, but its size and form are undergoing continual modifications, the end of which is the death and decay of that individual; the continuation of the kind being secured by the detachment of portions which tend to run through the same cycle of forms as the parent. No forms of matter which are either not living, or have not been derived from living matter, exhibit these three properties, nor any approach to the remarkable phenomena defined under the second and third heads. But in addition to these distinctive characters, living matter has some other peculiarities, the chief of which are the dependence of all its activities upon moisture and upon heat, within a limited range of temperature, and the fact that it usually possesses a certain structure, or organization.

As has been said, a large proportion of water enters into the composition of all living matter; a certain amount of drying arrests vital activity, and the complete abstraction of this water is absolutely incompatible with either actual or potential life. But many of the simpler forms of life may undergo desiccation to such an extent as to arrest their vital manifestations and convert them into the semblance of not-living matter, and yet remain potentially alive. That is to say, on being duly moistened they return to life again. And this revivification may take place after months, or even years, of arrested life.

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Biology - Table of Contents

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