“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.”
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.