An eminent biologist writes in the latest Encyclopaedia Britannica that living protoplasm is "a self-regulating, self-repairing, physico-chemical complex mechanism"; and that life is "the sum of its physico-chemical processes . . . a series without break, and without the interference of any mysterious extraneous force." In other words, life is a by-product of matter and material laws, and evolution from the simplest forms to the human stage has proceeded by purely mechanical and physical means!
Modern science has set certain limits to its field of operations. Anything that can be observed by the five senses or through instruments and made the subject of experimentation, is considered within the field of science. Not all scientists deny the existence of agencies outside this observable realm, but declare, rather, that such factors are not at present within the province of scientific research.
However there are certain basic questions concerning evolution that are far from being explained by the material means to which science has confined itself. For example, the origin of life is still unknown. What is life? How did it first appear? The chemical constituents of living protoplasm have been determined, but to create life through combining the necessary elements has thus far proved impossible. Latest findings imply that previous definitions of "life" have been too narrow and the borderline between living and so-called "dead" matter is shadowy indeed.
Material limitations in outlook also apply to the larger subject of evolution. The fact of an evolutionary process is assured, but the burning question is whether it can be explained in terms of physics and chemistry and the influences of heredity and environment. We know without doubt that the chick grows forth from the egg; but we are a long way from knowing the machinery by which it happens and all that it involves.
Which is the saner view, that life and intelligence infill and develop bodies, or that consciousness and mind are by-products derived from complex structures built by chance combinations of atoms? When a certain lobe of the brain is injured, memory is impaired. The materialist might deduce from this fact that memory is a function of the tissues and secretions of this portion of the brain. An equally logical explanation would be that memory is a function of consciousness and the lobes of the brain instruments through which aspects of consciousness are expressed. When the instrument is destroyed, that avenue of expression is cut off. It is like viewing ourselves in a mirror: when the mirror is broken we can no longer see our faces, but certainly we would not say that our faces have been destroyed!
In the past, the chief problems of evolution have stemmed from the limitations imposed by science itself. Engrossed in studying the physical world, the endeavor has been to explain it in terms of material forces and energies, and the physical influences of internal faculties such as will and intelligence have been neglected. In fact, the materialists of the last century asserted that matter was the First Cause from which all else has been derived; and there are many today who still adhere to this view.
A distinction must be made between the facts of science and the theories devised to explain them. With scientific facts it would be foolish to quarrel; but scientific theories should be clearly recognized as such and closely examined. There can be no blame attached here, because much fault lies in the tendency to teach scientific hypotheses as fact and in the public acceptance of theories which the scientists themselves consider only tentative. It must also be said that a great number of leading scientists today and in the past have recognized the deficiencies of a purely materialistic attitude. In 1910, Alfred Russell Wallace, who was a contemporary of Darwin and a co-author of the evolutionary hypothesis, said in speaking about materialism:
Consider for a moment the question of nourishment. Men of various races eat different foods; men of the same race may follow diets as separate and distinct as chalk and cheese. But in all cases the main result is the same. The food is converted into blood. That is interesting enough, marvelous, baffling enough, but mark what follows:
This blood circulating through the body becomes at one point hair and at another nail; here it transforms itself into bone and there into tissue; at the same moment that it changes into skin it changes into nerve; it is at once the bone in my finger and the eye in my head. Materialism forges such words as secretion, but no word signifying unconscious and accidental actions can explain this mystery. It is building up the horns and hides of animals, the feathers and beaks of birds, the scales and bones of reptiles, the wings and eyes of insects, the brains of poets and the muscles of workmen.
Now, is it not madness to say that blood can do all these quite marvelous and diverse things of itself; that without consciousness and without direction it flows to a finger-tip and accidently becomes nail, or mounts to the skull and fortuitously becomes hair? Is it more consonant with reason to say that the blood does its work by itself and without meaning to do it, or that it is intelligently controlled to its purpose by a conscious direction?
It may not be possible for us to say how the guidance is exercised, and by exactly what powers, but for those who have eyes to see and minds accustomed to reflect, in the minutest cells, in the blood, in the whole earth, and throughout the stellar universe — our own little universe, as one may call it — there is intelligent and conscious direction; in a word, there is Mind.
If evolution is considered to be simply the development of bodies and by-products, it becomes purposeless, ignores because it cannot explain life's finer qualities, and leaves no room for such things as beauty and morality. The choice is between a mere evolution of forms and an evolution of beings through forms.
There are two reasons why science as a whole will have to follow the lead of some of its foremost thinkers and adopt a more religious and philosophical, but no less real, attitude. The first is that the visible world cannot be explained by assuming that it is the only world there is, and that its functions are entirely independent of mind and consciousness.
The second reason why science must more closely ally itself with subjects not of a purely materialistic nature is because the safety and well-being of humanity require it, and the finer instincts of mankind demand it. Forces have been harnessed which can either marvelously transform the world or demolish the progress of centuries. A new synthesis is therefore imperative in order to give a wholeness to the scientific outlook, and such an integration would not only provide an answer to many scientific problems, but would guarantee that science would be permanently allied with all that would produce a nobler mankind and thus a better world.
(From Sunrise magazine, May 1952; copyright © 1952 Theosophical University Press)