The Theosophical Forum – December 1941

ORIGIN OF LIFE — Emma D. Wilcox

In the history and legends of all peoples from the beliefs of the crudest savage to the religions and philosophies of the most advanced minds of civilizations a dominant question has been, Whence came life, and what was its creation?

Today Science has taken the search from the hand of religion and philosophy, and geology and biology go hand in hand in seeking the beginnings of life. Both agree that life expresses itself in what is termed protoplasm. Here we come to the reef upon which all ships of science break. If protoplasm is life, when did it appear on Earth and where did it originate?

If the story of Geology is true as to the slow evolution of the globe of our Earth from an original gaseous or semi-fluid or molten state, then how and when did the first protoplasm appear? Also, if protoplasm is a chemical combination of simple, native elements, then what changes occurred in the evolutionary process to combine them as life in one case, and otherwise leave them free? The quandaries of thought into which such reasonings bring them are acknowledged by the scientists themselves. Many of them are complaining that the new experiments are drawing them more and more toward metaphysical concepts, many of which the old Greek philosophers held.

In one of her writings, H. P. Blavatsky speaks of a cyclic curve to scientific theories which in each new era brings around a recurrence of thought of an antecedent one but modified. A hint as to the reason for this is given by her:

Occult philosophy divulges few of its most important vital mysteries. It drops them like precious pearls, one by one, far and wide apart, and only when forced to do so by the evolutionary tidal wave that carries on humanity slowly, silently, but steadily toward the dawn of the Sixth-Race mankind. — The Secret Doctrine, I, 558

Where, how, and when did life originate on Earth? In our western world, the general thought may be summed up into three main theories, each of which may be accepted as a facet in the Occult teaching of universal Life within its myriad forms. These three theories can be named as Special Creation from without; Spontaneous Generation from within; and Biogenesis.

The first is the theological one of an extra-cosmic Creator who said: "Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth" (Genesis, i, 2); and later, it is interesting to note, the order was given that the "waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life." This latter agrees with the story of geology that the first forms of life developed in marine waters.

Science, as well as the Occult teaching, repudiates the idea of an anthropomorphic God creating something out of nothing, but some scientists are no better in thinking that life springs into existence by the chance meeting of certain chemical elements. As H. P. Blavatsky words it:

Have they not, these Titans of thought, dragged down God from His hiding-place, and given us instead a protoplasm?Isis Unveiled, I, 223

And as to special creation, she states:

No more than Science, does esoteric philosophy admit design or "special creation." It rejects every claim to the "miraculous," and accepts nothing outside the uniform and immutable laws of Nature. But it teaches a cyclic law, a double stream of force (or spirit) and of matter, which, starting from the neutral center of Being, develops in its cyclic progress and incessant transformations. The primitive germ from which all vertebrate life has developed throughout the ages, being distinct from the primitive germ from which the vegetable and the animal life have evolved, there are side laws whose work is determined by the conditions in which the materials to be worked upon are found . . .

. . . so there are centers of creative power for every root or parent species of the host of forms of vegetable and animal life. This is, again, no "special creation," nor is there any "Design," except in the general "ground-plan" worked out by the universal law. But there are certainly "designers," though these are neither omnipotent nor omniscient in the absolute sense of the term." — The Secret Doctrine, II, 731

What Science, of necessity, acknowledges as "Mind-stuff," we recognize to be intelligent entities, as part of Universal Being, working in and through universal nature.

Belief in the idea of spontaneous generation of living things from inorganic matter is so deeply ingrained that it still persists in the popular mind. This probably arose out of the old idea of a primordial slime, a mixture of earth and water from which under the heat of the sun, plants and animals sprang into existence. Certain forms of lichen, for instance, were supposed to be caused by dampness transforming the dead wood into organic life, or the leaf-like shoots which appear on the surface of pools and stagnant waters were thought to be a condensation of sun and water into organic life.

Since the discovery of micro-organisms — with which both earth and air are teeming — has disproved any possibility of spontaneous generation of living organisms in earth-life today, the question has been raised as to the first appearance of protoplasm, such as might occur from the slow gradual formation of such groupings of chemical elements needed in organic substances. The millions of years given by geology to the Azoic Age would allow for this. Recent discoveries in the action of enzymes seem to aid this theory. In some bacteria nuclear particles are found scattered through the cell, not in a unit; in others, quite as simple, a sort of symbiosis of differing protein units proves an enzyme activity. As yet, science has no generally accepted theory as to how enzymes act and remain unchanged even when removed from their organism. In The Secret Doctrine, we find these words:

. . . should spontaneous generation be indeed proven impossible in our present world-periods and actual conditions — which the Occultists deny — still it would be no demonstration that it could not have taken place under different conditions. . . .

. . . If spontaneous generation has changed its methods now, owing perhaps to accumulated material on hand, so as to almost escape detection, it was in full swing in the genesis of terrestrial life. Even the simple physical form and the evolution of species show how Nature proceeds." — S. D., I, 150

The following from The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett is as true today as when written, some sixty years ago:

Life, after all, — the greatest problem within the ken of human conception is a mystery that the greatest of your men of Science will never solve. . . . It can never be grasped so long as it is studied separately and apart from universal life. . . . Let them try and examine, or analyze life apart from organism, and what remains of it? Simply a mode of motion; which, unless our doctrine of the all-Pervading, infinite, omnipresent Life is accepted — . . . has to remain unsolved. . . . The greatest, the most scientific minds on earth, have been keenly pressing forward toward a solution of the mystery, leaving no bye-path unexplored. . . . and all had to come to the same conclusion — . . . namely, that life in its concrete manifestation is the legitimate result and consequence of chemical affinity; as to life in its abstract sense, life pure and simple well, they know no more of it today, . . . Spirit, life and matter, are not natural principles existing independently of each other, but the effects of combinations produced by eternal motion in Space." (pp. 158-9)

Biogenesis or an eternal continuity of life is now held by an increasing number in Science. The three main qualities of protoplasm, found inherent in no other form of matter, presuppose that the nature of organic life is entirely different from inorganic; these three qualities being the power that protoplasm has of producing internal motion, of self-nutrition and of reproduction.

Geology tells us that the Earth in its beginnings was at one time a molten liquid mass and at another covered by gases which were incapable of sustaining life. Then, if life can only come from life, where was it during those ages? Two theories as to this question are prominent today. One theory holds to the possibility of a transference of protoplasmic germs from another planet, but that raises the question as to how they originated there? The theory does not answer the question. Meteoric stones have been found to contain organic carbon in their centers it is true, but as to free organic compounds or micro-organisms passing through space to Earth, recent discoveries of the power of cosmic and ultra-violet rays to transform or destroy organic matter make improbable such transference. Scientists are also finding out the presence of continental layers around the Earth in space, the existence of which was told sixty years ago by the Theosophical Teachers:

our globe has its own special laboratory on the far-away outskirts of its atmosphere, crossing which, every atom and molecule change and differentiate from their primordial nature." — The Secret Doctrine, I, 583

And again, speaking of the simple chemical elements of which all matter, organic as well as inorganic, is composed:

differentiated as these elements were in the beginning still they were not the compound bodies known to science as they are now. . . . for all these are the productions already recombined by the atmospheres of globes completely formed — even to fire — so that in the first periods of the earth's formation they were something quite sui generis. Now that the conditions and laws ruling our solar system are fully developed; and that the atmosphere of our earth, as of every other globe, has become, so to say, a crucible of its own, Occult Science teaches that there is a perpetual exchange taking place in space of molecules, or of atoms rather, correlating, and thus changing their combining equivalents on every planet . . . the essence of cometary matter, for instance, . . . during rapid passage through our atmosphere, undergoes a certain change in its nature. — S. D., I, 142

A very interesting theory to a Theosophist is that of the viability of germs lying latent within the mass of the globe and awakening as soon as cooling of waters and solidifying of soil material gave proper environment for growth. Much study is being made of fertility of seeds held in desert areas of geologic time and within glacial moraines. A thought apparently along this line is by W. F. Swann:

The fact that vital phenomena do not make themselves immediately evident in so-called non-living matter is no criterion as to the certainty of their complete absence therefrom. It is, in fact, not inconceivable that the existence of completely non-living matter as such might be unstable, and that the living activity might increase, perhaps slowly at first, but possibly at an increasing speed, until, at any rate, in the presence of suitable conditions and environment, it finally attained a steady state in which there was a definite equilibrium between the living and the non-living matter.

This idea of organic life being latent during the formative period of the globe is a step toward the Theosophical teaching, because the seeds of that life were inherent in the Earth when it came into its present imbodiment. Every material form in the manifested universe is a vehicle by which life expresses itself in slow and progressive development from simple to complex, then at the acme of that degree of unfoldment it returns to latency:

the absolute universality of that law of periodicity, of flux and reflux, ebb and flow, which physical science has observed and recorded in all departments of nature. An alternation such as that of Day and Night, Life and Death, Sleeping and Waking, is a fact so common, so perfectly universal and without exception, that it is easy to comprehend that in it we see one of the absolutely fundamental laws of the universe. — S. D., I, 17

In the mineral kingdom, the Monadic Life is "crystallized and immetallized"; in the vegetable, it expresses itself as seed, plant, fruit, and seed again. In the human kingdom, evolution at present is by incarnation as birth, growth, death, and a return in reincarnation.

Life is One; what is called life is its manifestation in form. To our physical perception Life is substance; to our conscious mind, Universal Life is Conscious Intelligence.

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