Home » All text of Paley Natural Theology, Chapter 7 » Of the Mechanical and Immechanical Parts and Functions of Animals and Vegetables

Of the Mechanical and Immechanical Parts and Functions of Animals and Vegetables

It is not that every part of an animal or vegetable has not proceeded from a contriving mind; or that every part is not constructed with a view to its proper end and purpose, according to the laws belonging to and governing the substance or the action made use of in that part; or that each part is not so constructed as to effectuate its purpose whilst it operates according to these laws; but it is because these laws themselves are not in all cases equally understood; or, what amounts to nearly the same thing, are not equally exemplified in more simple processes, and more simple machines; that we lay down the distinction, here proposed, between the mechanical parts and other parts of animals and vegetables.

For instance; the principle of muscular motion, viz. upon what cause the swelling of the belly of the muscle, and consequent contraction of its tendons, either by an act of the will, or by involuntary irritation, depends, is wholly unknown to us. The substance employed, whether it be fluid, gaseous, elastic, electrical, or none of these, or nothing resembling these, is also unknown to us: of course, the laws belonging to that substance, and which regulate its action, are unknown to us. We see nothing similar to this contraction in any machine which we can make, or any process which we can execute. So far (it is confessed) we are in ignorance, but no farther. This power and principle, from whatever cause it proceeds, being assumed, the collocation of the fibres to receive the principle, the disposition of the muscles for the use and application of the power, is mechanical; and is as intelligible as the adjustment of the wires and strings by which a puppet is moved. We see, therefore, as far as respects the subject before us, what is not mechanical in the animal frame, and what is. The nervous influence (for we are often obliged to give names to things which we know little about)—I say the nervous influence, by which the belly, or middle, of the muscle is swelled, is not mechanical. The utility of the effect we perceive; the means, or the preparation of means, by which it is produced, we do not. But obscurity as to the origin of muscular motion brings no doubtfulness into our observations upon the sequel of the process: Which observations relate, 1st, to the constitution of the muscle; in consequence of which constitution, the swelling of the belly or middle part is necessarily and mechanically followed by a retraction of the tendons: 2dly, to the number and variety of the muscles, and the corresponding number and variety of useful powers—which they supply to the animal; which is astonishingly great: 3dly, to the judicious, (if we may be permitted to use the term, in speaking of the author or of the works of nature,) to the wise and well-contrived disposition of each muscle for its specific purpose; for moving the joint this way, and that way, and the other way; for pulling and drawing the part to which it is attached, in a determinate and particular direction; which is a mechanical operation, exemplified in a multitude of instances. To mention only one: The tendon of the trochlear muscle of the eye, to the end that it may draw in the line required, is passed through a cartilaginous ring, at which it is reverted, exactly in the same manner as a rope in a ship is carried over a block or round a stay, in order to make it pull in the direction which is wanted. [Pl. V. fig. 1.] All this, as we have said, is mechanical; and is accessible to inspection, as capable of being ascertained, as the mechanism of the automaton in the Strand. Suppose the automaton to be put in motion by a magnet, (which is probable,) it will supply us with a comparison very apt for our present purpose. Of the magnetic effluvium, we know perhaps as little as we do of the nervous fluid. But, magnetic attraction being assumed, (it signifies nothing from what cause it proceeds,) we can trace, or there can be pointed out to us, with perfect clearness and certainty, the mechanism, viz. the steel bars, the wheels, the joints, the wires, by which the motion so much admired is communicated to the fingers of the image: and to make any obscurity, or difficulty, or controversy in the doctrine of magnetism, an objection to our knowledge or our certainty concerning the contrivance, or the marks of contrivance, displayed in the automaton, would be exactly the same thing, as it is to make our ignorance (which we acknowledge) of the cause of nervous agency, or even of the substance and structure of the nerves themselves, a ground of question or suspicion as to the reasoning which we institute concerning the mechanical part of our frame. That an animal is a machine, is a proposition neither correctly true nor wholly false. The distinction which we have been discussing will serve to show how far the comparison, which this expression implies, holds; and wherein it fails. And whether the distinction be thought of importance or not, it is certainly of justice in endeavouring to bring a cloud over our understandings, or a distrust into our reasonings upon this subject, by suggesting that we know nothing of voluntary motion, of irritability, of the principle of life, of sensation, of animal heat, upon all which the animal functions depend; for, our ignorance of these part of the animal frame concerns not at all our knowledge of the mechanical parts of the same frame. I contend, therefore, that there is mechanism in animals; that this mechanism is as properly such, as it is in machines made by art; that this mechanism is intelligible and certain; that it is not the less so, because it often begins or terminates with something which is not mechanical: that whenever it is intelligible and certain, it demonstrates intention and contrivance, as well in the works of nature as in those of art; and that it is the best demonstration which either can afford.

But whilst I contend for these propositions, I do not exclude myself from asserting, that there may be, and that there are, other cases, in which, although we cannot exhibit mechanism, or prove indeed that mechanism is employed, we want not sufficient evidence to conduct us to the same conclusion.

There is what may be called the chemical part of our frame; of which, by reason of the imperfection of our chemistry, we can attain to no distinct knowledge; I mean, not to a knowledge, either in degree or kind, similar to that which we possess of the mechanical part of our frame. It does not, therefore, afford the same species of argument as that which mechanism affords; and yet it may afford an argument in a high degree satisfactory. The gastric juice, or the liquor which digests the food in the stomachs of animals, is of this class. Of all menstrual, it is the most active, the most universal. In the human stomach, for instance, consider what a variety of strange substances, and how widely different from one another, it, in a few hours, reduces to a uniform pulp, milk, or mucilage. It seizes upon everything, it dissolves the texture of almost everything that comes in its way. The flesh of perhaps all animal; the seeds and fruits of the greatest number of plants; the roots, the stalks, and leaves of many, hard and tough as they are, yield to its powerful pervasion. The change wrought by it is different from any chemical solution which we can produce, or with which we are acquainted, in this respect as well as many others, that, in our chemistry, particular menstrual act only upon particular substances. Consider, moreover, that this fluid, stronger in its operation than a caustic alkali or mineral acid, than red precipitate, or aqua-fortis itself, is nevertheless as mild, and bland, and inoffensive to the touch or taste, as saliva or gum-water, which it much resembles. Consider, I say, these several properties of the digestive organ, and of the juice with which it is supplied, or rather with which it is made to supply itself, and you will confess it to be entitled to a name, which it has sometimes received, that of “the chemical wonder of animal nature.”

Still we are ignorant of the composition of this fluid, and of the mode of its action; by which is meant, that we are not capable, as we are in the mechanical part of our frame, of collating it with the operations of art. And this I call the imperfection of our chemistry; for should the time ever arrive, which is not perhaps to be despaired of, when we can compound ingredients, so as to form a solvent which will act in the manner in which the gastric juice acts, we may be able to ascertain the chemical principles upon which its efficacy depends, as well as from what part, and by what concoction, in the human body, these principles are generated and derived.

In the meantime, ought that, which is in truth the defect of our chemistry, to hinder us from acquiescing in the inference, which a production of nature, by its place, its properties, its action, its surprising efficacy, its invaluable use, authorizes us to draw in respect of a creative design?

Another most subtile and curious function of animal bodies is secretion. This function is semi-chemical and semi-mechanical; exceedingly important and diversified in its effects, but obscure in its process and in its apparatus. The importance of the secretory organs is but too well attested by the diseases, which an excessive, a deficient, or a vitiated secretion is almost sure of producing. A single secretion being wrong, is enough to make life miserable, or sometimes to destroy it. Nor is the variety less than the importance. From one and the same blood ( I speak of the human body) about twenty different fluids are separated; in their sensible properties, in taste, smell, color, and consistency, the most unlike one another that is possible; thick, thin, salt, bitter, sweet: and, if from our own we pass to other species of animals, we find amongst their secretions not only the most various, but the most opposite properties; the most nutritious aliment, the deadliest poison; the sweetest perfumes, the most fetid odors. Of these the greater part, as the gastric juice, the saliva, the bile, the slippery mucilage which lubricates the joints, the tears which moisten the eye, the wax which defends the ear, are, after they are secreted, made use of in the animal economy; are evidently subservient, and are actually contributing to the utilities of the animal itself. Other fluids seem to be separated only to be rejected. That this also is necessary (though why it was originally necessary, we cannot tell) is shown by the consequence of the separation being long suspended; which consequence is disease and death. Akin to secretion, if not the same thing, is assimilation, by which one and the same blood is converted into bone, muscular flesh, nerves, membranes, tendons; things as different as the wood and iron, canvass and cordage, of which a ship with its furniture is composed. We have no operation of art wherewith exactly to compare all this, for no other reason perhaps than that all operations of art are exceeded by it. No chemical election, no chemical analysis or resolution of a substance into its constituent parts, no mechanical sifting or division, that we are acquainted with, imperfection or variety, come up to animal secretion. Nevertheless, the apparatus and process are obscure; not to say absolutely concealed from our inquiries. In a few, and only a few instances, we can discern a little of the constitution of a gland. In the kidneys of large animals, we can trace emulgent artery dividing itself into an infinite number of branches; their extremities everywhere communicating with little round bodies, in the substance of which bodies the secret of the machinery seems to reside, for there the change is made. We can discern pipes laid from these round bodies towards the pelvis, which is a basin within the solid of the kidney. [Pl. VI. fig. 2.] We can discern these pipes joining and collecting together into larger pipes; and when so collected, ending in innumerable papillae, through which the secreted fluid is continually oozing into its receptacle. This is all we know of the mechanism of a gland, even in the case in which it seems most capable of being investigated. Yet to pronounce that we know nothing of animal secretion, or nothing satisfactorily, and with that concise remark to dismiss the article from our argument, would be to dispose of the subject very hastily and very irrationally. For the purpose which we want, that of evincing intention, we know a great deal. And what we know is this. We see the blood carried by a pipe, conduit, or duct, to the gland. We see an organized apparatus, be its construction or action what it may, which we call that gland. We see the blood, or part of the blood, after it has passed through and undergone the action of the gland, coming from it by an emulgent vein or artery, i.e. by another pipe or conduit. And we see also at the same time a new and specific fluid issuing from the same gland by its excretory duct, i.e. by a third pipe or conduit; which new fluid is in some cases discharged out of the body, in more cases retained within it, and there executing some important and intelligent office. Now supposing, or admitting, that we know nothing of the proper internal constitution of a gland, or of the mode of its acting upon the blood; then our situation is precisely like that of an unmechanical looker-on, who stands by a stocking-loom, a corn-mill, a carding-machine, or a threshing-machine, at work, the fabric and mechanism of which, as well as all that passes within, is hidden from his sight by the outside case; or, if seen, would be too complicated for his uninformed, uninstructed understanding to comprehend. And what is that situation? This spectator, ignorant as he is, sees at one end a material enter the machine, as unground grain the mill, raw cotton the carding-machine, sheaves of unthreshed corn the threshing-machine; and, when he casts his eye to the other end of the apparatus, he sees the material issuing from it in a new state; and, what is more, in a state manifestly adapted to future uses; the grain in meal fit for the making of bread, the wool in rovings ready for spinning into threads, the sheaf in corn dressed for the mill. Is it necessary that this man, in order to be convinced that design, that intention, that contrivance has been employed about the machine, should be allowed to pull it to pieces; should be enabled to examine the parts separately; explore their action upon one another, or their operation, whether simultaneous or successive, upon the material which is presented to them? He may long to do this, to gratify his curiosity; he may desire to do it to improve his theoretic knowledge; or he may have a more substantial reason for requesting it, if he happen, instead of a common visiter, to be a mill wright be profession, or a person sometimes called in to repair such-like machines when out of order; but, for the purpose of ascertaining the existence of counsel and design in the formation of the machine, he wants no such intromission or privity. What he sees is sufficient. The effect upon the material, the change it produced in it, the utility of that change for future applications, abundantly testify, be the concealed part of the machine or of its construction what it may, the hand and agency of a contriver.

If any confirmation were wanting to the evidence which the animal secretions afford of design, it may be derived, as has been already hinted, from their variety, and from their appropriation to their place and use. They all come from the same blood: they are all drawn off by glands: yet the produce is very different, and the difference exactly adapted to the work which is to be done, or the end to be answered. No account can be given of this, without resorting to appointment. Why, for instance, is the saliva which is diffused over the seat of taste, insipid, whilst so many others of the secretions, the urine, the tears, and the sweat, are salt? Why does the gland within the ear separate a viscid substance, which defends that passage; the gland in the upper angle of the eye, a thin brine, which washes the ball? Why is the synovial of the joints mucilaginous; the bile bitter, stimulating, and soapy? Why does the juice which flows into the stomach, contain powers, which make that organ the great laboratory, as it is by its situation the recipient, of the materials of future nutrition? These are all fair questions; and no answer can be given to them, but what calls in intelligence and intention.

My object in the present chapter has been to teach three things: first, that it is a mistake to suppose that, in reasoning from the appearances of nature, the imperfection of our knowledge proportionably affects the certainty of our conclusion; for in many cases it does not affect it at all: secondly, that the different parts of the animal frame may be classed and distributed, according to the degree of exactness with which we can compare them with works of art: thirdly, that the mechanical parts of our frame, or those in which this comparison is most complete, although constituting, probably, the coarsest portions of nature’s workmanship, are the most proper to be alleged as proofs and specimens of design.