The Story of the Living Machine A Review of the Conclusions of Modern Biology in Regard to the Mechanism Which Controls the Phenomena of Living Activity

The Story of the Living Machine
A Review of the Conclusions of Modern Biology in Regard
to the Mechanism Which Controls the Phenomena of Living

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The problem before us in this section is to find out to what extent animals and plants are machines. We wish to determine whether the laws and forces which regulate their activities are the same as the laws and forces with which we experiment in the chemical and physical laboratory, and whether the principles of mechanics and the doctrine of the conservation of energy apply equally well in the living machine and the steam engine.

It might be inferred that the proper method of study would be to confine our attention largely to the simplest forms of life, since the problems would be here less complicated, and therefore of easier solution. This, however, has not been nor can it be the method of study. Our knowledge of the processes of life have been derived largely from the most rather than the least complex forms. We have a better knowledge of the physiology of man and his allies than any other animals. The reason for this is plain enough. In the first place, there is a value in the knowledge of the life activities of man entirely apart from any theoretical aspects, and hence human physiology has demanded attention for its own sake. The practical utility of human physiology has stimulated its study for centuries; and in the last fifty years of scientific progress it has been human physiology and that of allied animals that has attracted the chief attention of physiologists. The result is that while the physiology of man is tolerably well known, that of other animals is less understood the farther we get away from man and his allies. For this reason most of our knowledge of the living body as a machine must be derived from the study of man. This is, however, fortunate rather than otherwise. In the first place, it enables us to proceed from the known to the unknown; and in the second place, more interest attaches to the problem as connected with human physiology than along any other line. In our discussion, therefore, we shall refer chiefly to the physiology of man. If we find that the functions of human life are amenable to a mechanical explanation we cannot hesitate to believe that this will be equally true of the lower orders of nature. For similar reasons little reference will be made to the mechanism of plant life. The structure of the plant is simpler and its activities are much more easily referable to mechanical principles than are those of animals. For these reasons it will only be necessary for us to turn our attention to the life activities of the higher animals.

What is a Machine?—Turning now to our more immediate subject of the accuracy of the statement that the body is a machine, we must first ask what is meant by a machine? A brief definition of a machine might be as follows: A machine is a piece of apparatus so designed that it can change one kind of energy into another for a definite purpose. Energy, as already noticed, is the power of doing work, and its ordinary active forms are heat, motion, electricity, light, etc.; but it may be in a passive or potential form, and in this form stored within a chemical molecule. These various forms of energy are readily convertible into each other; and any form of apparatus designed for the purpose of producing such a conversion is called a machine. A dynamo is thus a machine so adjusted that when mechanical motion is supplied to it the energy of motion is converted into electricity; while an electromotor, on the other hand, is a piece of apparatus so designed that when electricity is applied to it, it is converted into motion. A steam engine, again, is designed to convert potential or passive energy into active energy. Potential energy in the form of chemical composition (coal) is supplied to the engine, and this energy is first liberated in the active form of heat and then is converted into the motion of the great fly-wheel. In all these cases there is no energy or power created, for the machine must be always supplied with an amount of energy equal to that which it gives back in another form. Indeed, a larger amount of energy must be furnished the machine than is expected back, for there is always an actual loss of available energy....