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The System of Animate Nature, vol. 1

1914 to 1916
University of St. Andrews

‘Care must be taken to make sure that what seem to be unconformabilities are not due to the inadequacy of our knowledge. We have been led in our study to see that the general results of Biology are not out of line with transcendental conclusions reached along other paths.’ In the first part of J. Arthur’s Thomson’s book The System of Animate Nature, he discusses how primitive man slowly recognized an empirical order of nature. This in turn gradually gave way to an ‘ever broadening and deepening’ scientific order and an increasing control of nature. But as science advanced, there also came about a ‘world-outlook verging on philosophy . . . a movement towards a harmonious interpretation of Nature and experience’.

Thomson first introduces the reader to the world of organisms and the inorganic, to ‘the abundance and insurgence of life’. He briefly discusses the twenty-five thousand named vertebrates and ten times as many named ‘backboneless animals’ and focuses on the interrelatedness and complex adaptations of such creatures. Thomson is careful to caution the reader that in comparing the two, ‘we must avoid exaggerating the differences.

He then describes what he calls livingness, a twofold relation of action and reaction between organisms and their environment. Self-maintenance is the power of persisting in a complex specific metabolism, an ‘up-building and down-breaking of protean substances in a colloid state’. Although maintenance is the immediate goal, there are capacities for growth and development. Mechanical formulae do not suffice for answering biological questions. Chemical and physical descriptions help, but ultimately, biology must answer the facts of life.

In the second half of the book, Thomson delves into the kind of life this organism has and how unique it is. Borrowing from Driesch (another Gifford lecturer and fellow traveller in psychical research), the author believes there is a vitalism that imbues organisms, even plants, with a ‘psycho-physical individuality which has enregistered within itself the grains of experience and experiment’. Among unicellular organisms there is often a ‘restless locomotor activity’ which (among) ‘the many brainless and even ganglionless animals’ can be considered ‘the counterpart of intelligent behaviour’. Along with intelligence is instinct; Thomson develops this comprehensively: instinct as reflex, as part of intelligent behaviour and as cooperative behaviour. With higher animals, birds and mammals there is evidence of objective ‘trial-and-error’ experiment from which they profit. Subjectively, this ‘implies some perceptual inference.’

Regardless of theory, Thomson stresses that the mind gradually develops in the individual; it evolves gradually in the race of an animal and is ‘intimately inter-dependent on psychical and neural processes’. With these biological facts, the author feels the best theory is a ‘two-aspect’ or ‘identity’ one which regards ‘living creatures as a psycho-physical unity, psychosis and neurosis being two aspects of one and the same continuous life’. Thomson holds to the old adage: ‘Surely life is more than food.’ The aptness of living creatures is how they transcend ‘mechanical and dynamical formulation’. The organism as a whole is characteristically purposive. There appears to be self-determination, as animal behaviour is regulatory, selective, controlled and purposive.

Purpose translates into man’s contemplative and ‘disinterested delight’ in the beautiful. In animate nature there are ‘far-reaching correspondences to our ideals of the True, the Beautiful, and the Good, which suggest a rehabilitation of Natural Theology’. It is impossible in natural science to ‘pass over the pervasiveness of beauty in the realm of organisms’. As Thomson slowly comes to the end of his discourse, he returns to transcendence in the form of aesthetic attitude. He defines what the naturalist would call the beautiful, analyzes its qualities and draws the reader’s attention to the need for sensitivity. Long before Rachel Carson, Thomson unequivocally declares ‘that all natural, free-living, fully-formed, healthy living creatures must be contemplated without prejudice; in their appropriate surroundings they are artistic harmonies—a joy to behold.’

  • David Kahan, University of Glasgow