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Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

Anti-Dühring Part 11:Chapter 8: PHILOSOPHY OF NATURE. THE ORGANIC WORLD (Concluded)

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The book is here.

“As is well known, it is only chemical action, and not gravitation or other mechanical or physical forms of motion, that is explained by atoms.”

This is one of those points that no one will dispute; I’m only quoting it because I like it. We learn the laws of motion for biology from the study of biology; we learn the laws of motion of the formation of rocks from the study of rocks. This is not to deny that these interact (indeed, it is to insist on it); rather it is to say that we ought not to promiscuously apply the laws of one field of study to another. One of the recent examples of this (now, thankfully, in its well-deserved grave) was memetics, which tried to apply the laws of motion of evolutionary biology to the laws of motion for the spread of ideas.

“All organic bodies, except the very lowest, consist of cells, small granules of albumen which are only visible when considerably magnified, with a nucleus inside.”

Don’t panic about the word “albumen.”  We’ll get there.

“Life is the mode of existence of albuminous bodies, and this mode of existence essentially consists in the constant self-renewal of the chemical constituents of these bodies.”

Don’t panic! The next paragraph saves us:
“The term albuminous body is used here in the sense in which it is employed in modern chemistry, which includes under this name all bodies constituted similarly to ordinary white of egg, otherwise also known as protein substances. The name is an unhappy one, because ordinary white of egg plays the most lifeless and passive role of all the substances related to it, since, together with the yolk, it is merely food for the developing embryo. But while so little is yet known of the chemical composition of albuminous bodies, this name is better than any other because it is more general.”

So much for the term; it was the generally accepted term at the time because no one had come with a better, because not enough was understood. “Look! These all behave in a similar way!” “Then we need a name for things that behave that way.” “Why do they behave that way?” “We don’t know yet.” “Okay, let’s come up with a name that at least doesn’t mislead us too much.”

Okay, clear?

Let’s move on.

“But what are these universal phenomena of life which are equally present among all living organisms? Above all the fact that an albuminous body absorbs other appropriate substances from its environment and assimilates them, while other, older parts of the body disintegrate and are excreted. Other non-living, bodies also change, disintegrate or enter into combinations in the natural course of events; but in doing this they cease to be what they were. A weather-worn rock is no longer a rock, metal which oxidises turns into rust. But what with non-living bodies is the cause of destruction, with albumen is the fundamental condition of existence.”

What is interesting about this is how well it holds up to this day. A living thing absorbs certain kinds (“appropriate”) of matter into itself, which then becomes part of it, and it excretes what it cannot use. When this process stops, we no longer consider it a living thing, and it immediately begins to dissolve into something else.

We spoke earlier about contradictions in nature: “Life, the mode of existence of an albuminous body, therefore consists primarily in the fact that every moment it is itself and at the same time something else….” It is itself, and not itself; it is constantly becoming itself, making that which is not itself part of itself. Life is the continual creation and resolution of this contradiction.

 

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

9 Comments

  1. The problem with this formulation is that nowadays no-one can agree on what constitutes life; in particular, the vexed question of whether a virus is alive continues to be a vexed question, and looks set to carry on being a vexed question for the foreseeable future.

    And that is profoundly counter-intuitive because we have no difficulty in distinguishing between ourselves and rocks, weather-beaten or otherwise, and thus may tend to assume that the difference between life and non-life must always be equally self-evident…

  2. Valid point. But then, part of Engels’ point is that there aren’t hard and fast, permanent, fixed lines between living/not living; alive/dead; morning/night; male/female; physics/chemistry; touching/not touching; positive/negative &c &c.

    Plus, of course, we must remember Brust’s Law. 🙂

  3. I’m glad I read this before I cracked the chapter. I might have panicked. Starting the chapter as soon as I hit post if you want to time me.

  4. Things I had to look up: desmids (I didn’t need to know this, but I was glad I checked it because how freaking cool is this algae?! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Micrasterias_radiata.jpg), Allons donc! (I correctly assumed this meant, roughly, “Hooker, please!”)

    Okay, notes:

    “Through such repeated cell fission the whole animal is gradually developed in full out of the embryonal vesicle of the animal egg, after it has been fertilised…”

    “…certainly indicates a person who — however difficult this may be to believe at the present day — knows absolutely nothing of this process; here it is precisely and exclusively development that is going on, and indeed development in the most literal sense, and composition has absolutely nothing to do with it!”

    Engels writes pleasingly about biology and scores points with me. His continued savaging of Dühring on this particular point proves how important the precision and beauty of correctly-applied language are to him.

    “If the circulation of substances through special channels from one internal point is the essential hallmark of life, then we must declare that all those animals which have no heart and those which have more than one heart are dead.”

    Way to go, asshole, you just killed the Doctor‼ I bet Moffat is a big Dühring fan.

    “If therefore we want to know what life is, we shall evidently have to look a little more closely at it ourselves.”

    Of course we want that. We’re sick of examining the ways Dühring is wrong about defining and classifying life. It isn’t enough to show that his answers are wrong, we must investigate better answers. Not necessarily correct ones, but better.

    “it is here merely translated by Herr Dühring into his own elegant and clear language” SICK BURN, Engels.

    “Wherever we find life we find it associated with an albuminous body.”

    So much wonderful SFF has been written speculating how to get around this point. And then, on the next page: “…if chemistry ever succeeds in producing albumen artificially…” As if it were a foregone conclusion that chemists will create life in a lab. I love it.

    “From a scientific standpoint all definitions are of little value. … But for ordinary usage such definitions are very convenient and in places cannot well be dispensed with; moreover, they can do no harm, provided their inevitable deficiencies are not forgotten.”

    This is a great bit. Also, Dühring is a fuckup because he proceeds as though his definitions (and ideas and theories) have no deficiencies.

    This whole chapter was a pleasure to read, not the grind of futile efforts to parse that some of the previous ones have been. Biology is more awesome and beautiful than any other science.

  5. “Way to go, asshole, you just killed the Doctor‼ I bet Moffat is a big Dühring fan.”

    Okay, that made me laugh. A lot.

    And, yeah, me too; there are a couple of places where Engels makes pointed remarks about how Dühring uses language, and they always make me smile.

    Your point about deficiencies is interesting, because it reminds me that Dühring came out of a legal background, where definitions are sacred, and where any category that isn’t fixed and unmoving is, at a minimum, problematic.

    And, yeah, I like this chapter, and I like biology; although after seeing that one segment of “From the Earth to the Moon” I’m developing a startling appreciation for geology.

    Anyway, I’ll get back to reading probably late tonight or tomorrow.

  6. Thank you for providing the only context in which that joke will ever be funny.

    “Your point about deficiencies is interesting, because it reminds me that Dühring came out of a legal background, where definitions are sacred, and where any category that isn’t fixed and unmoving is, at a minimum, problematic.”

    Isn’t it interesting that he has that background and yet he’s so often wrong about words? He seems most wrong when he really *insists* on the wrongness, like with the development/composition thing. He decides something and then can’t work on it anymore, that thing is done and fixed.

    Geology sounds cool if I think of it as “rock biology.”

  7. Actually, Brust seems to have a number of laws, but I’m going with the counter-intuitive one, though that is, of course, an intuitive response.

    It’s interesting that you have both picked up on the ‘words’ problem; there are echoes of Alice through the Looking Glass, where she encounts someone whose words mean exactly what he wants them to mean…

  8. skzb

    Stevie: Right. That’s the only one I call, “Brust’s Law.” And hey, a writer and a copyeditor interested in someone’s chronic misuse of language? Go figure. 🙂

  9. I had been thinking about how difficult it is to be precise; it may be that less is more when it comes to conveying meaning.

    Ian Banks did it beautifully in his statement on his illness; he formally expressed his thanks to his NHS doctors, but in the very first sentence he used the language of that culture as a graceful tip of his authorial hat.

    On this side of the pond the only condition worse in medspeak than ‘very poorly’ is ‘dying, right now’, which is why anyone fluent in medspeak here laughs reading that first sentence; he nailed it perfectly…

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