§5. The Triad in Physiology


391. I have invented a little game or experiment with playing cards to illustrate the working of these principles; and I can promise the reader that if he will try it half a dozen times he will be better able to estimate the value of the account of habit here proposed. The rules of this game are as follows: take a good many cards of four suits, say a pack of fifty-two, though fewer will do. The four suits are supposed to represent four modes in which a cell may react. Let one suit, say spades, represent that mode of reaction which removes the source of irritation and brings the activity to an end. In order readily to find a card of any suit as wanted, you had better lay all the cards down face up and distribute into four packets, each containing the cards of one suit only. Now take two spades, two diamonds, two clubs, and two hearts, to represent the original disposition of the nerve-cell, which is supposed to be equally likely to react in any of the four ways. You turn these eight cards face down and shuffle them with extreme thoroughness.•P1 Then turn up cards from the top of this pack, one by one until a spade is reached. This process represents the reaction of the cell. Take up the cards just dealt off, and add to the pack held in the hand one card of each of those suits that have just been turned up (for habit) and remove from the pack one card of each suit not turned up (for forgetfulness). Shuffle, and go through with this operation thirteen times or until the spades are exhausted. It will then generally be found that you hold nothing but spades in your hand.

392. Thus we see how these principles not only lead to the establishment of habits, but to habits directed to definite ends, namely the removal of sources of irritation. Now it is precisely action according to final causes which distinguishes mental from mechanical action; and the general formula of all our desires may be taken as this: to remove a stimulus. Every man is busily working to bring to an end that state of things which now excites him to work.

393. But we are led yet deeper into physiology. The three fundamental functions of the nervous system, namely, first, the excitation of cells; second, the transfer of excitation over fibres; third, the fixing of definite tendencies under the influence of habit, are plainly due to three properties of the protoplasm or life-slime itself. Protoplasm has its active and its passive condition, its active state is transferred from one part of it to another, and it also exhibits the phenomena of habit. But these three facts do not seem to sum up the main properties of protoplasm, as our theory would lead us to expect them to do. Still, this may be because the nature of this strange substance is so little understood; and if we had the true secret of its constitution we might see that qualities that now appear unrelated really group themselves into one, so that it may be after all that it accords with our theory better than it seems to do. There have been at least two attempts to explain the properties of protoplasm by means of chemical suppositions; but inasmuch as chemical forces are as far as possible themselves from being understood, such hypotheses, even if they were known to be correct, would be of little avail. As for what a physicist would understand by a molecular explanation of protoplasm, such a thing seems hardly to have been thought of; yet I cannot see that it is any more difficult than the constitution of inorganic matter. The properties of protoplasm are enumerated as follows: contractility, irritability, automatism, nutrition, metabolism, respiration, and reproduction; but these can all be summed up under the heads of sensibility, motion, and growth. These three properties are respectively first, second, and third. Let us, however, draw up a brief statement of the facts which a molecular theory of protoplasm would have to account for. In the first place, then, protoplasm is a definite chemical substance, or class of substances, recognizable by its characteristic relations. "We do not at present,« says Dr. Michael Foster 1) (1879), »know anything definite about the molecular composition of active living protoplasm; but it is more than probable that its molecule is a large and complex one in which a proteid substance is peculiarly associated with a complex fat and with some representative of the carbohydrate group, i.e., that each molecule of protoplasm contains residues of each of these three great classes. The whole animal body is modified protoplasm.« The chemical complexity of the protoplasm molecule must be amazing. A proteid is only one of its constituents, and doubtless very much simpler. Yet chemists do not attempt to infer from their analyses the ultimate atomic constitution of any of the proteids, the number of atoms entering into them being so great as almost to nullify the law of multiple proportions. I do find in the book just quoted the following formula for nuclein, a substance allied to the proteids. It is C[29]H[49]N[9]P[3]O[22]. But as the sum of the numbers of atoms of hydrogen, nitrogen, and phosphorus ought to be even, this formula must be multiplied by some even number; so that the number of atoms in nuclein must be two hundred and twenty-four at the very least. We can hardly imagine, then, that the number of atoms in protoplasm is much less than a thousand, and if one considers the very minute proportions of some necessary ingredients of animal and vegetable organisms, one is somewhat tempted to suspect that fifty thousand might do better, or even come to be looked upon in the future as a ridiculously small guess. Protoplasm combines with water in all proportions, the mode of combination being apparently intermediate between solution and mechanical mixture. According to the amount of water it contains, it passes from being brittle to being pliable, then gelatinous, then slimy, then liquid. Generally, it has the character of being elastico-viscous; that is to say, it springs back partially after a long strain, and wholly after a short one; but its viscosity is much more marked than its elasticity. It is generally full of granules, by which we can see slow streaming motions in it, continuing for some minutes in one way and then generally reversed. The effect of this streaming is to cause protuberances in the mass, often very long and slender. They occasionally stick up against gravity; and their various forms are characteristic of the different kinds of protoplasm. When a mass of it is disturbed by a jar, a poke, an electric shock, heat, etc., the streams are arrested and the whole contracts into a ball; or if it were very much elongated, sometimes breaks up into separate spheres. When the external excitation is removed, the mass sinks down into something like its former condition. Protoplasm also grows; it absorbs material and converts it into the like of its own substance; and in all its growth and reproduction, it preserves its specific characters.

394. Such are the properties that have to be accounted for. What first arrests our attention, as likely to afford the key to the problem, is the contraction of the mass of protoplasm on being disturbed. This is obviously due to a vast and sudden increase of what the physicists call »surface tension,« or the pulling together of the outer parts, which phenomenon is always observed in liquids, and is the cause of their making drops. This surface tension is due to the cohesion, or attraction between neighboring molecules. The question is, then, how can a body, on having its equilibrium deranged, suddenly increase the attractions between its neighboring molecules? These attractions must increase rapidly as the distance is diminished; and thus the answer suggests itself that the distance between neighboring molecules is diminished. True, the average distance must remain nearly the same, but if the distances which had previously been nearly equal are rendered unequal, the attractions between the molecules that are brought nearer to one another will be much more increased than those between those that are removed from one another will be diminished. We are thus led to the supposition that in the ordinary state of the substance, its particles are moving for the most part in complicated orbital or quasi-orbital systems, instead of in the chemical molecules or more definite systems of atoms of less complex substances, these particles thus moving in orbits not being, however, atoms, but chemical molecules. But we must suppose that the forces between these particles are just barely sufficient to hold them in their orbits, and that in fact, as long as the protoplasm is in an active condition, they are not all so held, but that one and another get occasionally thrown out of their orbits and wander about until they are drawn in to some other system. We must suppose that these systems have some approximate composition, about so many of one kind of particles and so many of another kind, etc., entering into them. This is necessary to account for the nearly constant chemical composition of the whole. On the other hand, we cannot suppose that the number of the different kinds is rigidly exact; for in that case we should not know how to account for the power of assimilation. We must suppose then that there is considerable range in the numbers of particles that go to form an orbital system, and that the somewhat exact chemical composition of the whole is the exactitude of a statistical average; just as there is a close equality between the proportions of the two sexes in any nation or province, though there is considerable inequality in each of the different households. Owing to the complexity of this arrangement, the moment that there is any molecular disturbance, producing perturbations, large numbers of the particles are thrown out of their orbits, the systems are more or less deranged in the immediate neighborhood of the disturbance, and the harmonic relations between the different revolutions are somewhat broken up. In consequence of this, the distances between neighboring particles, which had presented a systematic regularity, now become extremely unequal, and their average attractions, upon which the cohesion depends, is increased. At the same time, the particles thrown out of their systems shoot into other systems and derange these in their turn, and so the disturbance is propagated throughout the entire mass. The source of disturbance, however, being removed, interchanges of energy take place, in which there is a tendency to equalize the vis viva of the different particles, and they consequently tend to sink down into orbital motions again, and gradually something very like the original state of things is reestablished, the original orbital systems remaining, for the most part, and the wandering particles in large proportion finding places in these systems or forming new ones. Some of these particles will not find any places, and thus there will be a certain amount of wasting of the protoplasmic mass. If the same disturbance is repeated, so far as the orbital systems remain the same as they were before, there will be a repetition of almost exactly the same events. The same kinds of particles (the same I mean in mass, velocities, directions of movement, attractions, etc.) which were thrown out of the different systems before will generally get thrown out again, until, if the disturbance is repeated several times, there gets to be rather a deficiency of those kinds of particles in the different systems, when some new kinds will begin to be thrown out. These new kinds will differently perturb the systems into which they fly, tending to cause classes of particles like themselves to be thrown out, and, in that way, the direction of propagation of the disturbance, as well as its velocity and intensity, may be altered, and, in short, the phenomenon of fatigue will be manifested. Even when the protoplasmic mass is left to itself, there will be some wandering of particles, producing regions of slight disturbance, and so inequalities of tension; and thus, streams will be set up, movements of the mass will take place, and slender processes will be formed. If, however, the mass be left to itself for a very long time, all the particles that are readily thrown out will, in all the changes that are rung on the combinations of situations and velocities in the orbital systems, get thrown out; while the others will constantly tend to settle down into more stable relations; and so the protoplasm will gradually take a passive state from which its orbital systems are not easily deranged. The food for those kinds of protoplasm that are capable of marked reaction has to be presented in chemically complex form. It must doubtless present particles just like those that revolve in the orbital systems of the protoplasm. In order to be drawn into an orbital system, a particle, whether of food matter or just thrown off from some other system, must have the right mass, must present itself at the right point, and move with the right velocity in the right direction and be subject to the right attractions. It will be right in all these respects, if it comes to take the place of a particle which has just been thrown off; and thus, particles taken in are particularly likely to be of the same material and masses and to take the same places in the orbits as those that have been shortly before thrown off. Now these particles being the exact representatives of those thrown off, will be likely to be thrown off by the same disturbances, in the same directions, and with the same results, as those which were thrown off before; and this accounts for the principle of habit. All the higher kinds of protoplasm, those for example which have any marked power of contraction, are fed with matter chemically highly complex.1)


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