The Theosophical Forum – June 1937

WHERE LIFE BEGINS — Arthur A. Beale

In the February number of Harpers Magazine (1937) is a fascinating article on this subject by George W. Gray. Mr. Gray is on a serious quest. He is trailing the illusive origin of Life, and we wish him joy, for if he persists he will find himself on a path that will lead him to the heart of the Universe.

Anything that we may offer is not intended as patronage, or in any way to discount the sublime, painstaking, and logical issues developed by modern scientific savants in their marvelous research work. We seek rather to lead their minds a little farther into realms unexplored by modern science; inexplorable, in fact, by present methods and apparatus, but beaten tracks for those ancient scientists and philosophers who have investigated these hidden realms and have recorded, collated, and interpreted what they have found. It is because the Masters of Wisdom have consented to give us some of the products of their strenuous labors, incorporated in what we know today as the Theosophical philosophy (religion-science-philosophy, in fact), that we are able to throw more light upon the question, "Where does Life begin?" Mr. Gray commences his article by saying:

Supreme among the problems now confronting science, is the determination of the nature of life. There are countless immediate human questions pressing for solution, questions of disease and their cure, of eugenics, and the improvement of mentality, of lengthening the life span, of the control of aging and death; but these practical objectives wait directly upon the fundamental problem.

Having expressed his dissatisfaction with current dictionary definitions of life, pointing out that logically the asserted necessary attributes of life such as growth, reconstruction, reproduction, stimulus, irritability, are applicable also to those kingdoms now reckoned as non-living, he then plunges into the mystery of cell-life and the important part played by the nucleus with its denizens of chromosomes, these latter builded of units called by Weismann the idants and ids. Ultimately he reaches those units described by science as genes (Gr. reproducers) which, we are told, no one has ever seen: a single gene is too fine for even the ultra-microscope. Their existence, therefore, is problematical, yet they are necessary and logical units. Truly the conception of such units is bordering on metaphysics.

In spite of this, Mr. Gray still considers it necessary to limit his conception of life to certain organic (so called) entities that stand out as separate from dead matter (also so called); in the former class he includes the human, beast, and vegetable kingdoms, but stops short at the mineral. He admits the possibility that the ultimate "gene" of the chromosome may be a molecule, making the proviso that "it must be a large one" — a weak argument in our opinion, since if, as we hope to emphasize, these genes are agents of consciousness, and special streams of consciousness, we do not admit that consciousness has dimensions. Even the consciousness of a divine being, vast though it be in reach, could operate through an entity no larger than the problematical ion of science.

It would appear that recent researches of scientists are leading them in this direction. It has been found that the chromosomes are chainlike structures made up of transverse "bands." These bands are not necessarily the genes themselves, but they represent the genes; and scientists such as Calvin B. Bridges have counted as many as 5,000 bands in the chromosomal material of the cell; while Painter believes that with the further development of microscopy the number may be raised to 10,000. An interesting point to note here is that by relatively exact methods of separation of these bands, scientists conclude that while all are necessary in the cell activities, one alone of a group carries the mysterious element of life, and if this "indispensable unit of life" is missing, the whole hierarchy of genes are inoperative, and the group dies and disintegrates. The same principle is traceable in certain organic chemical products of thymo-nucleic acid, an essential of nuclear protein, and its relation to four flanking products, adenine, cystonine, thymine, and guanine. If one molecule of phosphorus in these chemical products were dislodged, possibly the whole group might perish; whereas other molecules, e. g., of hydrogen, might be dislodged with no appreciable disaster. The analogy is evident: certain molecules or composite molecules are comparable to the genes, all being useful in building up transformations, but only certain ones absolutely vital to the continuance of the group.

The most interesting part of the article refers to the remarkable and intensive work of Dr. Stanley, an organic chemist, selected by the Rockefeller Institute to try to settle once for all the character and nature of a virus. "Virus" is a term used to indicate the poison of an infectious disease. It is found in the secretions or tissues of an animal suffering from an infectious disease. For some time it was considered that germs with a definite shape and character, identifiable by a microscope, were responsible for all infectious diseases; and much time has been spent by bacteriologists in trailing the culprits, and they have finally been successful in getting the "finger-prints" of many reputable criminals: notably, Koch's tubercular bacillus, anthrax bacillus, bacillus lyssae, klebs-loeffler bacillus of diphtheria.

But a time came when other diseases did not yield to the explorers the specific germ, and yet they were proved to be definitely infectious. Such were influenza, parrot fever, scarlet fever, yellow fever, poliomyelitis (infantile paralysis). All these were evidently associated with a virus. So strong a hold had the germ theory on scientific minds, that the inference was that the germs were there right enough, but that our microscopes were not powerful enough to make them visible. Nor could they be isolated by the process of filtration; with the finest porcelain filter they came out in the filtrate, which none of the known germs did.

Dr. Stanley's work was to examine the virus itself and find out its nature and chemical composition. He chose for his inquiry the oldest known virus, that which causes the tobacco mosaic disease, a disease that has been a devastating enemy of the tobacco growers. His methods were clever, ingenious, and fascinating in process, and command our admiration. In brief they were as follows: He gathered the leaves of infected tobacco plants, pressed out the tainted juice, put some of this in a test tube and added pepsin. Now pepsin is an enzyme which digests or breaks up proteins. Was the virus, perchance, of the nature of a protein? He kept the solution under proper conditions for pepsin digestion, and at the end of the experiment rubbed some of it on the leaves of a tobacco plant. He found that the virus was absolutely harmless; its fangs had been drawn. The virus was probably a protein then.

Next, taking more of the virulent tobacco juice he added in the test tube certain chemicals which precipitate proteins. Solid precipitates formed, and the remaining juice was again found to be harmless. The virus had been tracked down to this solid, but it was necessary to purify the solid so that it contained no extraneous matter. He put it in a neutral liquid and added an ammonium compound which has the faculty of "edging protein out of solution without changing the protein." Needle-like crystals formed at the bottom of the test-tube. These he dissolved and recrystallized, dissolved and recrystallized many times, a process calculated to eliminate from the crystals any concealed extraneous agents. Yet when he redissolved them in a large quantity of neutral liquid more than a hundred million times their bulk and applied the liquid to a tobacco plant, the well-known signs of the disease were soon evident. The virus then, surely, was in the crystals, and the crystals contained no living (so called) matter, for, says the author of the article, "we know no plant or animal, no bacterium, no protoplasm, that can undergo crystallization."

So again there comes the perplexing question: "Where does life begin?" Dr. Stanley has tracked down beyond the limits of living matter a mysterious molecule that, under suitable conditions, does just what bacteria do. (This virus in question, while showing no signs of reproduction and other activity in a neutral liquid in the test tube, bursts into most fecund life when contacting the tobacco plant.)

Mr. Gray draws attention to the remarkable analogies there can be made between the actions of this protein and those of the genes. Both have stages of activity and quiescence; both possess the reproductive faculty, both are at times unstable, both appear to be of approximately the same order of size. However, he quotes Oscar Riddle in suggesting that the gene represents a higher order of organization than the virus.

He sums up the position in these words:

Perhaps the nearest we can come to a definition is to say that life is a stage in the organization of matter The ascent of life, from azotobacter to man, is a hierarchy continually becoming more complex and more versatile. And so with the ascent of matter, from the single electron to the enormously numerous colony of electrical particles which make up the simplest living cell — it too is a hierarchy of continually increasing complexity, of organization.

— a more or less Theosophical concept without certain important keys which our philosophy gives. What then have we to say?

There are many questions involved in these notes upon which our archaic teachings can throw a flood of illumination. Mr. Gray was brought up in a school, as we were, in which a distinction is made between living and dead matter. We were taught that in order to be a live thing, the object must have a certain definition of form and attributes laid down as essential. He has found the required attributes beyond the limits that science has stipulated, and this disconcerting discovery leads him to say that perhaps the virus is a molecule of a double personality, alive and yet not alive. He has been trailing an ignis fatnus and has almost convinced himself of the fact.

What illumination does our philosophy throw on these problems opened up by Mr. Gray's article?

Let us first consider the three fundamental propositions in The Secret Doctrine:

1. "An Omnipresent, Eternal, Boundless, and Immutable PRINCIPLE on which all speculation is impossible, since it transcends the power of human conception. . ." It is the Cause, Source, and again the Recipient of all things. It simply "is." Our nearest approach in words is BE-NESS, the Boundless and Universal Consciousness. The Self.

2. The Law or process of periodicity, a ceaseless alternation of manifestation and disappearance.

3. Universal Unity, "the fundamental identity of all Souls with the Universal Over-Soul."

So we come to view the Universe on these universal principles.

Everything conceivable has at the core of its core, the essence of this Boundless Principle, containing potentially all it may, can, and will become.

During manifestation, the teachings tell us, every entity starts as a spark of this divine essence, clothing itself with emanations from itself, and as a pilgrim, grows and learns, in fact evolves through an infinite range of forms, from the undifferentiated and spiritual (in the sense of non-physical) to the most complex conceivable. This principle, being universal, works on all planes. So we conceive of a universal ocean of CONSCIOUSNESS, working through a universal energy of LIFE. The Orientals call this latter Prana. Therefore, there is no beginning of life. It simply is, and is only one aspect of what one might call para-consciousness, just as matter or substance is another aspect of consciousness, coming through para-substance, which the Orientals call mulaprakriti. Thus there is a trinity of consciousness-matter-energy in a ceaseless unity and evolving through infinite grades of beings which, as they weave their destiny, realize their infinite potentialities.

The methods of their activity are: 1. Reimbodiment, every imbodiment being appropriate to its degree of evolution. 2. The law of consequences, every movement or activity producing a result. 3. Hierarchies; the process of grouping all the degrees of development, every group having its head or hierarch, or god of the group, and every group forming an entity as part of a greater hierarchy with its hierarch or chief. 4. Swabhava, or essential characteristic; for instance, a rose evolves a rose, but there may be hierarchies of roses according to the evolution of internal potentialities. 5. Evolution, the gradual and orderly succession of unwrapping of internal potentialities; when an entity has learnt its lessons, it can repeat them quickly. It has taken aeons and aeons to evolve man, but when he returns for a fresh imbodiment, he can run through the same processes in nine months. Both 6 and 7 involve higher conditions not concerning us here, though they are essential steps.

Now applying these teachings to our present scheme, we get the picture of a universal life-principle, working through the various garments of evolution of entities, changing its nature according to the forms through which it works. So life is equally inherent in elementals, minerals, plants, beasts, humans, and gods, but the life shows up in its various forms: elemental life, mineral life, plant life, beast life, human life. In relation to this earth, every entity in its essential nature has to pass through all these schools of learning. This does not mean that a stone becomes a plant; it means that the entity has to pass through the stone state, the plant state, etc., every entity retaining in its nature the essence of the kingdoms through which it passes. Every man's body is in its make-up a complex of elemental, mineral, plant, and beast nature, all in the process of humanizing.

So we see in a cell from the human body an elemental nature, a mineral basis, a vegetable process, propensities of animal nature — in the loves, the attractions, the repulsions of particles — and the mental intelligence, this last acting as a directing force through the nucleus, operating through the chromosomes, and directly distributed through the problematical but essential genes. Now the nucleolus per se is more physical, i. e., nearer in nature to the cell-body, the somatic; the chromosomes are less physical, are more spiritual in consciousness; and the genes fade out of the picture as visible entities and yet are more spiritually conscious in their potency than their imbodying chromosomes. Beyond that they become for us only an energy, but if we had the eyes to see, we should perceive that they are still imbodied life.

There is recognised in our philosophy a principle that where consciousness moves from one plane to another it does so through what is called a laya-center, or concentration-point. In the cell it is indicated by the nucleolus of the nucleus. This does not mean that on the other side of this laya-center there is no matter, but merely a different grade of matter. The real nature of the universe is what is called astral; it exists in all grades, from the highest spiritual to the grossest physical, and according to its grade, so is the grade of life and the grade of consciousness working through it. All evolution tends from the spiritual to the material and then back to the spiritual, carrying along with it the experiences of its material state.

So we see in the virus of tobacco a form of consciousness, with its swabhava of characteristic activity. (Too bad for the tobacco plant!) This form of consciousness is imbodied in an invisible sheath, and is in the organic chemical state of evolution. There is no dead matter, all is alive; though the time will come when those activities called "life" will be indrawn into the Self and for a time be lost as "life," to become part of the para-consciousness. This periodical withdrawal does not bring about the annihilation of life. The dewdrop falls into the open sea. The process is part of the operation of periodicity. So also is the crystallization of the virus protein. In this crystallized state it is latent in its virulence, and analogous to the minerals. It is not dead; it is only asleep, latent.

Then there is the question of the inoperative nature of certain genes when they fail to contact the proper environment of an ovum. Is this not a question of the presence or absence of electro-magnetic harmony? Mr. Gray refers to some cases where a sperm, contacting an ovum without a nucleus, is nevertheless able to evolve a perfect embryo. Here the electro-magnetic harmony is provided for in the somatic part of the cell. Weismann amplifies this point where he describes how in the development and loss of the polar bodies, some of the chromosomes migrate, creating a deficiency or vacuum in the ovum, which is replaced or made up for by the invading sperm — a collection of foreign chromosomes.

Turning again to the matter of the laya-center: let us think of it in the nucleus of the cell as the focal point through which the Reincarnating Ego, drawing its stream of consciousness from man's own Spiritual Ego, directs the building of the temple (the body) from a higher plane. The laya-center of the nucleus is already electrified by the magnetic contact of the genes of the sperm, one of which contains the impress of the ego. And thus through the mystic center a permanent connexion is made whereby there can flow through the ego the stream of creative consciousness from "above." Thus the ego forms a link by which, through the trials of its child, the human personality and the body, it learns and evolves.

We might conclude the above reflexion by saying that when, therefore, Mr. Gray sets out in search of the origin of life, he must go back to the fountain source of all things. He will have to carry on his search not only in the realms visible, not only in organized and identified forms, but into invisible realms, in problematical units, problematically imbodied, which are parts of a hierarchy that has one Source — the SELF.


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