Home » All text of Paley Natural Theology, Chapter 8 » Of Mechanical Arrangement in the Human Frame

Of Mechanical Arrangement in the Human Frame

We proceed, therefore, to propose certain examples taken out of this class: making choice of such as, amongst those which have come to our knowledge, appear to be the most striking, and the best understood; but obliged, perhaps, to postpone both these recommendations to a third; that of the example being capable of explanation without plates, or figures, or technical language.

Of the Bones

I. I challenge any man to produce, in the joints and pivots of the most complicated or the most flexible machine that was ever contrived, a construction more artificial, or more evidently artificial, than that which is seen in the vertebrae of the human neck. [Pl. VII. fig. 1.] Two things were to be done. The head was to have the power of bending forward and backward, as in the act of nodding, stooping, looking upward or downward; and, at the same time, of turning itself round upon the body to a certain extent, the quadrant we will say, or rather, perhaps, a hundred and twenty degrees of a circle. For these two purposes, two district contrivances are employed: [Pl. VII. fig. 2, 3, 4.] First, the head rests immediately upon the uppermost of the vertebrae, and is united to it by a hinge-joint; upon which joint the head plays freely forward and backward, as far either way as is necessary, or as the ligaments allow; which was the first thing required.—But then the rotatory motion is unprovided for. Therefore, secondly, to make the head capable of this, a farther mechanism is introduced; not between the head and the uppermost bone of the neck, where the hinge is, but between that bone, and the bone next underneath it. It is a mechanism resembling a tenon and mortice. This second, or uppermost bone but one, has what anatomists call a process, viz. a projection, somewhat similar, in size and shape, to a tooth; which tooth, entering a corresponding hole or socket in the bone above it, forms a pivot or axle, upon which that upper bone, together with the head which it supports, turns freely in a circle; and as far in the circle as the attached muscles permit the head to turn. Thus are both motions perfect, without interfering with each other. When we nod the head, we use the hinge-joint, which lies between the head and the first bone of the neck. When we turn the head round, we use the tenon and mortice, which runs between the first bone of the neck and the second. We see the same contrivance, and the same principle, employed in the frame or mounting of a telescope. It is occasionally requisite, that the object-end of the instrument be moved up and down, as well as horizontal or equatorial motion, an axis upon which the telescope and the hinge turn round together. And this is exactly the mechanism which is applied to the motion of the head: nor will any one here doubt of the existence of counsel and design, except it be by that debility of mind, which can trust to its own reasonings in nothing.

We may add, that it was, on another account also, expedient, that the motion of the head backward and forward should be performed upon the upper surface of the first vertebrae: for, if the first vertebrae itself had bent forward, it would have brought the spinal marrow, at the very beginning of its course, upon the point of the tooth.

II. Another mechanical contrivance, not unlike the last in its object, but different and original in its means, is seen in what anatomists call the fore-arm; that is, in the arm from the elbow to the wrist. [Pl. VIII. fig. 1,2.] Here, for the perfect use of the limb, two motions are wanted; a motion at the elbow backward and forward, which is called a reciprocal motion; and a rotatory motion, by which the palm of the hand, as occasion requires, may be turned upward. How is this managed? The fore-arm, it is well known, consists of two bones lying alongside each other, but touching only towards the ends. One, and only one of these bones, is joined to the cubit, or upper part of the arm, at the elbow; the other alone to the hand at the wrist. The first by means, at the elbow, of a hinge-joint, (which allows only of motion in the same plane,) swings backward and forward, carrying along with it the other bone, and the whole fore-arm. In the meantime, as often as there is occasion to turn the palm upward, that other bone, to which the hand is attached, rolls upon the first, by the help of a groove or hollow near each end of one bone, to which is fitted a corresponding prominence in the other. If both bones had been joined to the cubit, or upper arm, at the elbow, or both to the hand at the wrist, the thing could not have been done. The first was to be at liberty at one end, and the second at the other: by which means the two actions may be performed together. The great bone, which carries the fore-arm, may be swinging upon its hinge at the elbow, at the very time that the lesser bone, which carries the hand, may be turning round it in the grooves. The management also of these grooves, or rather of the tubercles and grooves, is very observable. The two bones are called the radius and the ulna. Above, i.e. towards the elbow, a tubercle of the radius plays into a socket of the ulna; whilst below, i.e. towards the wrist, the radius finds the socket, and the ulna the tubercle. A single bone in the fore-arm, with a ball and socket joint at the elbow, which admits of motion in all directions, might, in some degree, have answered the purpose of both moving the arm and turning the hand. But how much better it is accomplished by the present mechanism, any person may convince himself, who puts the ease and quickness, with which he can shake his hand at the wrist circularly, (moving likewise, if he pleases, his arm at the elbow at the same time,) in competition with the comparatively slow and laborious motion with which his arm can be made to turn round at the shoulder, by the aid of a ball and socket joint.

III. The  spine, or back bone, is a chain of joints of very wonderful construction. [Pl. IX. fig. 1,2.] Various, difficult, and almost inconsistent offices were to be executed by the same instrument. It was to be firm, yet flexible, (now I know no chain made by art, which is both these; for by firmness I mean, not only strength, but stability:) firm, to support the erect position of the body; flexible, to allow of the bending of the trunk in all degrees of curvature. It was farther also (which is another, and quite a distinct purpose from the rest) to become a pipe or conduit for the safe conveyance from the brain, of the most important fluid15 of the animal frame, that, namely, upon which all voluntary motion depends, the spinal marrow; a substance not only of the first necessity to action, if not to life, but of a nature so delicate and tender, so susceptible, and so impatient of injury, as that any unusual pressure upon it, or any considerable obstruction of its course, is followed by paralysis or death. Now the spine was not only to furnish the main trunk for the passage of the medullary substance from the brain, but to give out, in the course of its progress, small pipes therefrom, which, being afterwards indefinitely subdivided, might, under the name of nerves, distribute this exquisite supply to every part of the body. The same spine was also to serve another use not less wanted than the preceding, viz. to afford a fulcrum, stay, or basis, (or, more properly speaking, a series of these) for the insertion of the muscles which are spread over the trunk of the body; in which trunk there are not, as in the limbs, cylindrical bones, to which they can be fastened: and, likewise, which is a similar use, to furnish a support for the ends of the ribs to rest upon.

Bespeak of a workman a piece of mechanism which shall comprise all these purposes, and let him set about to contrive it; let him try his skill upon it; let him feel the difficulty of accomplishing the task, before he be told how the same thing is effected in the animal frame. Nothing will enable him to judge so well of the wisdom which has been employed; nothing will dispose him to think of it so truly. First, for the firmness, yet flexibility, of the spine, it is composed of a great number of bones (in the human subject, of twenty-four) joined to one another, and compacted by broad bases. The breadth of the bases upon which the parts severally rest, and the closeness of the junction, give to the chain its firmness and stability; the number of parts, and consequent frequency of joints, its flexibility. Which flexibility, we may also observe, varies in different parts of the chain: is least in the back, where strength more than flexure, is wanted; greater in the lions, which it was necessary should be more supple than the back, and greatest of all in the neck, for the free motion of the head. Then, secondly, in order to afford a passage for the descent of the medullary substance, each of these bones is bored through the middle in such a manner, as that, when put together, the hole in one bone falls into a line, and corresponds with the holes in the two bones contiguous to it. By which means the perforated pieces, when joined, form an entire, close, uninterrupted channel; at least, whilst the spine is upright, and at rest. But, as a settled posture is inconsistent with its use, a great difficulty still remained, which was to prevent the vertebrae shifting upon one another, so as to break the line of the canal as often as the body moves or twists; or the joints gaping externally, whenever the body is bent forward, and the spine thereupon made to take the form of a bow. These dangers, which are mechanical, are mechanically provided against. The vertebrae, by means of their processes and projections, and of the articulations which some of these form with one another at their extremities, are so locked in and confined, as to maintain, in what are called the bodies or broad surfaces of the bones, the relative position nearly unaltered; and to throw the change and the pressure, produced by flexion, almost entirely upon the intervening cartilages, the springiness and yielding nature of whose substance admits of all the motion which is necessary to be performed upon them, without any chasm being produced by a separation of the parts. I say, of all the motion which is necessary; for although we bend our backs to every degree almost of inclination, the motion of each vertebrae is very small: such is the advantage we receive from the chain being composed of so many links, the spine of so many bones. Had it consisted of three or four bones only, in bending the body the spinal marrow must have been bruised at every angle. The reader need not be told, that these intervening cartilages are gristles; and he may see them in perfection in a loin of veal. Their form also favors the same intention. They are thicker before than behind; so that, when we stoop forward, the compressible substance of the cartilage, yielding in its thicker and anterior part to the force which squeezes it, brings the surfaces of the adjoining vertebrae nearer to the being parallel with one another than they were before, instead of increasing the inclination of their planes, which must have occasioned a fissure or opening between them. Thirdly, for the medullary canal giving out in its course, and in a convenient order, a supply of nerves to different parts of the body, notches are made in the upper and lower edge of every vertebra, two on each edge, equi-distant on each side from the middle line of the back. When the vertebrae are put together, these notches, exactly fitting, for small holes, through which the nerves, at each articulation, issue out in pairs, in order to send their branches to every part of the body, and with an equal bounty to both sides of the body. The fourth purpose assigned to the same instrument is the insertion of the bases of the muscles, and the support of the ends of the ribs; and for this fourth purpose, especially the former part of it, a figure, specifically suited to the design, and unnecessary for the other purposes, is given to the constituent bones. Whilst they are plain, and round, and smooth, towards the front, where any roughness or projection might have wounded the adjacent viscera, the run out behind, and on each side, into long processes, to which processes the muscles necessary to the motions of the trunk are fixed; and fixed with such art, that, whilst the vertebrae supply a basis for the muscles, the muscles help to keep these bones in their position, or by their tendons to tie them together.


15It seems proper to remark here, that the form of expression made use of in this case implies what is not strictly true. The spinal marrow, or more properly the spinal nerve, is not a fluid but a solid cord extending from the brain down through the canal of the spine, from which branches are distributed to all parts of the body. Dr. Paley in this instance probably had in view the animal spirits, a subtile fluid, which was formerly believed to be seated in the brain, and carried through the nerves to the different parts.—Ed.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5