Science of Change

By W. Dougherty

In the latter half of the eighteenth century a Frenchman, Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, formulated a chemical theory which is summarized in the term "the invariance of matter." Briefly, the idea that he proposed was that the chemical elements, that is, the physical atoms of which all material substance is constructed, are "invariant" or changeless in the sense that they could never be either created or destroyed; nor could they be transformed one into another. For example, in his way of thinking, one could say that an atom of oxygen may combine with two atoms of hydrogen to form a molecule of water. But that molecule was not itself an element because it could be broken down into the elements hydrogen and oxygen, which were believed to be ultimate particles incapable of being reduced into simpler or different units. Hence this theory denied the possibility of performing any experiment which would, for instance, transmute the element hydrogen into the element oxygen.

This idea of the invariance of matter became an officially accepted dogma of the vast majority of the nineteenth century scientists. The implications of this were enormous, especially in fields such as biology, where the investigator is faced with the almost unbelievably intricate and rapidly changing physical bodies of living beings. To many who must have been rather bewildered and even awestruck by the elusive and shifting complexities of these "living physical machines," this concept of the invariance of the elements apparently provided a solid foundation of changelessness on which to build their understanding of life. Hence they postulated, and later taught as an infallible law, that all life arises out of the properties of the chemical elements, i.e., of physical atoms. This seemed only logical to them, for at that time they were largely unaware of the ever greater complexity and mutability that more recent science is discovering daily in the atomic realm. The atoms seemed so permanent, so absolute -- surely, they felt, these elements must be more fundamental than, and hence the originators of, the living organisms which are built up from them.

But not everyone was convinced by this line of thought. About 1850, a scientist named Von Herzeele reported on a series of experiments with germinating seeds. After determining the seeds' average calcium content, he let the rest of the seeds germinate (sprout) under conditions where they were completely isolated from any source of additional calcium. According to the invariance theory, the total amount of calcium in the isolated seeds should have remained constant throughout all subsequent growth. However, when Von Herzeele analyzed the seeds after thirty days, he found that they contained a good deal more calcium than had been present initially. Logically, two explanations appeared most likely. Either the additional calcium had been 'created' (formed out of something that was not physical matter), or else the calcium atoms had come from the transmutation of one element into another.

When Von Herzeele published the results of his experiments, he aroused an immediate and highly emotional storm of controversy among his fellow scientists. Some clung desperately to their cherished invariance theory, hurling invective and ridicule at anyone who dared to question it. Von Herzeele's methods were scrutinized minutely. When mere possibilities of imprecision in his procedures were discovered, these were seized upon as an "explanation of his errors" without sufficient further study to determine if these imperfections were in fact relevant to his results.

Later, in the early decades of this century, rigorously controlled atomic experiments led the scientific community to abandon the theory of the absolute invariance of the elements. It was then realized that, far from being the ultimate building blocks of matter, the elements were themselves compounded structures of great complexity. The most modern researches suggest that atoms also undergo constant and inconceivably rapid change.

But this broadened and refined view of the atomic elements did not seem to carry over into the biological sciences. The complexities discovered by physicists were generally viewed by biologists and biochemists as not really changing the basic "law" of invariance as far as living organisms were concerned. Certainly, they did adapt their thinking somewhat to the physicists' theories. For instance, they accepted the idea that the atomic elements are built up of negative particles called electrons circling a positively charged nucleus which is composed of protons and neutrons. But they accommodated these new insights to the old invariance theory by saying that, in the chemical reactions of living organisms, only the outermost of the circling electrons are involved. Since atomic theory says that it is the composition of the nucleus which determines an atom's identity as a particular element, and since this inner structure was believed to be affected only by extremes of temperature and pressure which are thought to be completely inimical to life, they felt quite justified in continuing to believe in elemental invariance as far as living organisms are concerned. Hence they could also cling to the notion that the physical atoms, despite their now recognized complexity, were still the fundamental basis and thus the origin of all life.

Naturally, a few of the truly great innovative scientists remained skeptical. They recognized that this idea that matter must be the source of life was not based on any direct evidence, but solely on a widely accepted yet still largely unproven theory.

In his book, Biological Transmutations (Swan House Publishing Co., Binghamton, N.Y., 1972; 163 pages), Louis C. Kervran summarizes a great deal of information about his lifelong investigations into this question of the biological immutability of the elements. He recalls how, as a young boy living in Brittany, France, he was intrigued when he noticed that hens kept in his backyard were able to lay eggs with hard, calcium rich shells even though he could not discover any appreciable source of calcium in the hens' food or environment. Neither their feed nor water, nor even the ground they scratched, could provide a significant source of this element so essential to sturdy eggshells. Though he asked his teachers and others about this chemical riddle, no one could give him a reasonable explanation of it.

This and other similar phenomena remained in the quiet background of his thought as elusive but powerfully tantalizing mysteries of nature. Decades later they were to be reawakened with full and urgent intensity as the result of his investigations, on behalf of the French government, into a tragic series of deaths by carbon monoxide poisoning of several men working as metal welders on construction projects. The seriousness of the problem eventually led Kervran to suspend any kind of blind faith in the principle of invariance and instead to subject it to rigorous test. So he devised an experiment involving teams of oil derrick workers who performed very heavy labor on unshaded metal platforms in the extreme heat of the Sahara Desert. It has long been recognized that such work is dangerous, and could lead to serious illness or even death. Yet these workers were able to perform it day after day without any apparent ill effects.

Kervran's experiment consisted of very carefully weighing and analyzing everything that the workers ingested and expelled, whether through bodily waste, perspiration, and so forth. The surprising results of this experiment were completely inconsistent with the classical invariance theory. For, over the six-month period of the test, the men ingested more of the element sodium than they expelled, and expelled more of the element potassium than they ingested. Furthermore, their total heat intake (in the form of the calories in their food, sun exposure, etc.) was so much greater than what they used up or lost (through work, perspiration, etc. ), that they should have all quickly died of fever. Yet all were not only alive, but quite healthy. These results showed that the law of the invariance of the elements does not always apply to living organisms, at least not to people. Kervran thereupon postulated a human temperature-regulating reaction by which excess heat is used up in a biological transmutation involving the combination of an atom of sodium with an atom of oxygen to form an atom of a third and different element, potassium.

We should bear in mind that this relationship was found to apply to men who were working under the watchful eyes of competent medical investigators. In addition, these scientists were not interested in studying the various causes of heatstroke. Rather, they sought to learn how a particular group of men avoided this problem. And indeed, they appear to have discovered one way in which the human body can sometimes accomplish this end. But that such a transmutation reaction is not invariably successful is amply attested to by the numerous cases of sunstroke which we meet in our ordinary experience.

The realization that living organisms can transmute elements, together with additional experiments with hens, led Kervran to a solution the mystery of the hard-shelled chicken eggs. He had observed that hens in regions with granite soils (such as Brittany) needed no additional source of calcium to produce calcium rich eggshells. But hens in regions with clay soils do need a sufficient calcium supply unless they are given mica (which is common in granite regions). Kervran used this information to postulate that the hens transmute some of the potassium in the mica into calcium, which they then use to form the eggshells. Hence chickens, like men, are seen to be highly competent alchemists, transmuting base or less useful elements into very valuable ones.

As when Von Herzeele published his findings over a hundred years before, the publication of Kervran's results in 1960 generated a storm of controversy. Old, established and widely accepted notions rarely bow out gracefully. And the idea of the fundamental primacy of the physical elements is still very strong in the biological sciences. Yet there are definite signs that this time these discoveries will not simply be buried under an avalanche of irrational derision. For instance, P. Baranger, chief of a noted organic chemistry laboratory in Paris, has repeated Von Herzeele's experiments using the full rigor and precision possible today. His results were in full agreement with Von Herzeele's.

There is no possibility of even mentioning all the fascinating evidence about the transmutations provided by Louis Kervran's book. However, the weight of the experimental data offered by him and others suggests that the scientific community may be headed toward an acceptance of the idea of biological transmutations of the elements. The implications of such a change of thought could be profound. Philosophically, the idea of the relative changelessness of the physical elements led most scientists to see life as an aspect of matter. Now it is finally realized that in fact it is the living organisms which transform the elements. Hence it is life that is more relatively permanent than the matter which forms the raw material for the bodies or vehicles of living beings. Thus one might say that it is physical matter which conforms to the laws of life, of consciousness, rather than the reverse.

Thus also would the consciousness of Western mankind be freed from the degrading and unjustified assertion that man is but a mass of highly sophisticated dirt. Instead, we might see ourselves, even from the scientific viewpoint, as living, self-conscious beings, whose dignity arises not out of our material intricacy, but out of our own inherent life essence And hence we may see ourselves, not as competitors in a material struggle for dominance, but rather as brothers, each sharing an inviolable life essence, each helping all others to grow -- to become an ever more harmonious expression of the whole.

(From Sunrise magazine, April 1975; copyright © 1975 Theosophical University Press)

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