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The Science of Metamorphoses

Controlling Life: Jacques Loeb and the Engineering Ideal in Biology

by Philip J. Pauly
Oxford University Press, 252 pp., $24.95


The history of biology is the history of struggles over the difference between the animate and the inanimate. Natural philosophy, through the Renaissance, and folk wisdom for a much longer time, saw the entire natural world as a single interconnected system in which radical transformations of qualities of both living and nonliving things were entirely credible. It was not merely that one inanimate kind of substance could, by alchemical transformation, be made into another, or that a vain boy could become a flower, but that the inanimate and the animate were interchangeable. Men could be petrified and marble statues turned to warm flesh in the embrace of their admirers. Papal staves put forth leaves, while moldy cheese and rags bred forth mice.

Aristotle believed animals could come from mud and that the animate and inanimate graded imperceptibly into one another on the scala naturae. But even the ancients were ambivalent about the ease with which inanimate matter could make that imperceptible transition. Despite Lucretius’ assurance that “even today many animals spring from the earth, formed from the sun’s heat and rain,” it was not regarded as an everyday occurrence. In the Metamorphoses, Ovid gives few examples like the case of Pygmalion’s statue and the creation of man from clay by Prometheus.

The raising of the dead by Jesus was, after all, the evidence of special powers and the leafing out of the Pope’s staff a sign of special grace. Moreover, the transition from Aristotle’s view to our present belief that the living are separated from the dead by a one-way bridge was a long and problematical one. Already in the seventeenth century William Harvey had declared ex ovo omnia, but the idea of spontaneous generation—that life originated from nonliving matter—was given a boost when Leeuwenhoek, looking through his microscope, saw a multitude of tiny living particles swimming by.

The Whig history of science we learn in school tells us that by the end of the eighteenth century Spallanzani had nailed down the case against spontaneous generation by his experimental approach to what was purely metaphysical speculation by wicked Aristotelians. But, as a matter of fact, the very same experiments done by others got the opposite result, supporting spontaneous generation. The disproofs of spontaneous generation that we now regard as definitive, those of Pasteur showing that microorganisms reproduce, were carried out in response to a public solicitation by the French Academy of Sciences for someone to finally settle the issue—in 1860.

We should not imagine, like the Whig historians of science, that the struggle over spontaneous generation was a story of the triumph of materialism and empiricism over superstition and a priori natural philosophy. On the contrary, nineteenth-century materialists took sides against the biogenetic law, the rule of “all life from life.” For if there were an unbridgeable gap between the nonliving and the living, how could we explain the primal origin of life except by the infusion of a vital spirit into clay by a Promethean God? Moreover, that vital spirit, distinct from the known material forces of the universe, must be lurking in all living organisms, impalpable and unmeasurable. Nothing could be more anti-materialist than the claim for the uniqueness of life.

The struggle over spontaneous generation embodies the contradiction that plagues biology even today. On the one hand, mechanist materialist biology assumes that living beings are simply another form of the motion of matter and that the reductionist tactic of tearing matter into smaller and smaller bits will reveal all there is to know about life. On the other, biologists have never been able to create the living from the nonliving, nor do they even know where to begin. The biogenetic law seems as unbreakable as ever.

In support of the multibillion-dollar project to determine the DNA sequence of the entire set of human genes, the eminent molecular biologist Walter Gilbert has claimed that when we know the entire human genome we will know what it is to be human. But that must mean that at the very minimum we will know what it is to be living flesh. Yet neither Gilbert nor any other molecular biologist that I know of has suggested that knowing what a human being is will enable us to make one. That is, biologists, while believing that living organisms are nothing more than a form of matter and its motions, also believe that there is some principle of organization of living matter that is shared with no other natural assemblage of atoms. The question biologists keep asking themselves is “Why is this matter different from all other matter?”

The distinction between knowing what things are made of and knowing how to create or manipulate them permeates science and yet is a source of confusion for reductionist biologists. The problem is that in the very operation of determining what things are made of we take them to bits, and in ways that destroy the very relations that may be of the essence. “We murder to dissect.” Nor is this true only for whole organisms or cells. Despite a knowledge of the structure of protein molecules down to the very placement of their atoms in exact three-dimensional space, we do not have the faintest idea of what the rules are for folding them up into their natural form. That does not prevent us, however, from being able to fold them up correctly in some cases by blind empirical fiddling. In the view of most biologists the disjunction between knowing what and knowing how is only a reflection of temporary ignorance, and, anyway, the successful manipulation of the world is only secondary to the primary goal of understanding. But that view has not been universal and some have regarded the control of life to be the object of the enterprise, putting the question of understanding quite aside. The most famous of the bearers of this “engineering ideal” in biology, Jacques Loeb, is the subject of Philip Pauly’s superb book, Controlling Life. Rarely does a scientific biography so clearly illumine deep and long-lasting ideological differences in the conduct of scientific work.1

Jacques Loeb was trained as a medical doctor at the University of Strasbourg and came to the US in 1891. When he moved to the University of California at Berkeley in 1902 after ten years at the University of Chicago, a page one headline in Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner announced that “Illustrious Biologist Joins Faculty of State University,” accompanied by a four-column artist’s sketch of Professor Loeb and his magnifying glass. Of course, Hearst was a California booster and November 1902 was during a rare slack period when the United States, having completed one of those Caribbean adventures so loved by Mr. Hearst, had not yet started on its next. Nevertheless, even a Nobel Prize winner these days can hardly count on more than a one-column feature on the day of the big news, and is unlikely to be noticed by the local stringer for the Times when he decides to trade in State Street for Union Square.

The reason for Loeb’s popular and journalistic fame had been announced just three years earlier in the Chicago Tribune: “Science Nears the Secret of Life: Professor Jacques Loeb Develops Young Sea Urchin by Chemical Treatment—Discovery That Reproduction by This Means is Possible a Long Step Towards Realizing the Dream of Biologists, ‘to Create Life in a Test Tube.’ ”

Indeed for many Loeb had created “life in a test tube.” The modern anti-abortion movement did not invent the idea that life begins at the mystical moment of fertilization. The passive and comatose egg is quickened into life by the active wriggling sperm, like Sleeping Beauty recalled to life by a princely embrace. Loeb’s successful induction of embryonic development without the benefit of sperm—“artificial parthenogenesis”—seemed closely akin to spontaneous generation.

Indeed, a headline in the Boston Herald completed the connection: “Creation of Life. Startling Discovery of Prof. Loeb. Lower Animals Produced by Chemical Means. Process May Apply to Human Species. Immaculate Conception Explained.” The intoxication of the press was extraordinary. The confusion between artificial parthenogenesis and spontaneous generation might be expected, but the conflation of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception with the doctrine of the Virgin Birth seems inexcusable in a Boston newspaper.2

As Pauly so clearly shows, Loeb’s triumph was neither the accidental consequence of a program devoted to broader ends nor a critical step in an analytical project designed to “understand” development and reproduction. It was, rather, “a natural consequence of his conviction that biology was and should be an engineering science concerned with transforming the natural order.” It was the coming together of the nineteenth-century ideological commitments to materialism, on the one hand, and an optimistic progressivism on the other. The phenomenal world was material and only material, and through the workings of human intellect that material world could be manipulated for any desired end. It was not that all things lay within the possibility of human understanding but that they lay within the sphere of human action. Indeed, we owe to Loeb this extraordinary epistemological position, an extension of Ernst Mach’s operationalist view that

the proof of the explicability of any single life phenomenon is furnished as soon as it is successfully controlled unequivocally through physical or chemical means or is repeated in all details with nonliving materials….

We cannot allow any barrier to stand in the path of our complete control and thereby understanding of the life phenomena. I believe that anyone will reach the same view who considers the control of natural phenomena is the essential problem of scientific research.3

Moreover, such control of life was the object of the entire enterprise: “I believe that it can only help science if younger investigators realize that experimental abiogenesis is the goal of biology.”4

Pauly notes the inevitable journalistic comparison of Loeb with Victor Frankenstein, but he makes nothing of the problem that the engineering ideal raises, the problem of the unintended consequences of pragmatism that is the central theme of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Shelley and her husband were greatly interested in and greatly disturbed by the instrumentalism of the most eminent and influential English scientist of the early nineteenth century, Sir Humphry Davy. Davy’s Discourse, Introductory to a Course of Lectures on Chemistry, which Mary Shelley read just before beginning her own Frankenstein, was the inspiration for her fictional Professor Waldman, Frankenstein’s teacher and model.

Davy’s scientific work was a series of diverse researches in chemistry, biology, and practical physics that were often instigated by practical demands. He made discoveries in agricultural chemistry and invented the Davy lamp, which allowed miners safe illumination in gas-filled mines. He investigated the electricity of the torpedo fish and the composition of ancient coloring materials. He was the very model of a modern scientist general, solving the mysteries of nature for the benefit of human life. But his philosophical writings on chemistry show that for him, as for Loeb, understanding was simply control; scholarship was secondary to artisanry.

  1. 1

    For a review of Pauly’s book that emphasizes questions of power and mastery, see David Joravsky’s essay in The New York Review, November 19, 1987.

  2. 2

    Although not, perhaps, in Loeb, a Jew by birth and an atheist by conviction, who made the same parallel.

  3. 3

    Die Umschau 7 (1903): 21, quoted by Pauly (p. 114).

  4. 4

    The Dynamics of Living Matter (Macmillan, 1906), p. 223.

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