The Fitness of the Environment

An inquiry into the biological significance of the properties of matter.

Lawrence J. Henderson


Henderson raises questions about the properties of the environment that William Paley might have raised. He notes that natural selection did not produce these properties but that they are essential to life as we know it. Yet he describes the natural theology of Paley and others in his preface as "older speculations of natural theology" which have "long since passed into oblivion".(p v)

p v "Darwinian of environment is quite as essential a component as fitness.. organic evolution" "actual environment is the fittest possible abode of life."

p vi "When at length it became possible quantitatively to describe the chemical equilibria in such systems, it was at once clear that, of all known substances, phosphoric acid and carbonic acid possess the greatest power of automatic regulation of neutrality (the concentration of ionized hydrogen and hydroxyl at the neutral point.)"

"One does not like to accept a fact of such far-reaching importance as mere chance, and yet no other explanation was at hand. For, after the briefest consideration, it was obvious that here, at least, natural selection could not be involved. .. numerous other similar cases."

p vi "so firmly established .. belief that natural selection is .. quite adequate to account for biological fitness."

Introduction by George Wald, 1958 edition.

p xvii About the book "its intelligence and insight have survived many of its facts." "asks great questions and has the good sense to leave the greatest of them unanswered.."

p xvii "The great questions are those an intelligent child asks, and finding no answer, learns to stop asking. That is known as growing up. It is one of the fruits of education. Einstein asked a few such questions as a child, and never gave them up, that is genius."

p xix Book written in 1912. Rutherford and nucleus in 1911, Atomic numbers 1913-14, Bohr model 1913, Lewis valence 1916. There was no concept of hydrogen bonds or chemical resonance.

p xx Henderson makes much of C H O. Wald would add N. I would ask, why not P also because of ATP, but he makes the point that 99% of living parts are made up of C H N O. They are the smallest, most tightly bound atoms that produce multiple bonds.

p xxi Many of the properties of water come from hydrogen bonds, which Henderson didn't know about. Good discussion here -- include in hp? Good line "Water is the only molecule that can turn around without turning around" Part of discussion of hydrogen bonds in water, with good diagrams.

p xxii Connects hydrogen bonds of water with surface tension, etc. Gives references including his own 1954 Scientific American article.

p xxiii Out-Sagans Sagan and out-Drakes Drake in his optimism that habitable planets and life must abound in the universe.

p xxiv In discussing C N O H he muses "suppose they were less unique .. you wouldn't have to go far in that direction to make life impossible.."

Ch 1: Fitness

p 1 Purpose and order. Interesting philosophical statement about purpose and order. Starts out like it is the universal heritage of man, but then takes the line that increasing science and understanding "steadily changed .. order and purpose into the plainest of necessary results." After promising openness to a discussion of the possibility of purpose he jumps in bed with Monod and his "chance and necessity".

p 3 "natural order as automatic result of natural law .. order .. as proof of law" Barr deals with this very well in "Modern Physics and Ancient Faith", pointing out that the order that comes from law is information-free, and therefore the existence of complex specified information is a hint of something past physical law.

p 4 A sop thrown to teleology, but then invokes Darwin to squash it.

p 5 Discusses Fitness, includes as footnote Bridgewater's Treatise - paints a lot of components of fitness, like anthropic fine tuning.

p10-35 Mostly general science which has been superseded by more thorough developments. He does show a remarkably accurate understanding of astronomy, the use of spectra to judge that other stars have similarities to our Sun and have the same elements.

p36 Goes back to the statement of the problem of fitness of the environment.

p37 "Such is the purpose, and the justification, for setting up the postulates of complexity, regulation, and metabolism as inherent in that mechanism which is called the living organism. With them, at length, we face the problem which awaits us. To what extent do the characteristics of matter and energy and the cosmic process favor the existence of mechanisms which must be complex, highly regulated, and provided with suitable matter and energy as food? If it shall appear that the fitness of the environment to fulfill these demands is great, we may then ask whether it is so great that we cannot reasonable assume it to be accidental, and finally we may inquire what manner of law is capable of explaining such fitness of the very nature of things."

This paragraph is an example of what makes this book so intriguing. At times he locks into immutable law and takes the Monod route, he assumes that Darwin explains life, but then in paragraphs like this raises the hint of something superseding Monod and Darwin in the way nature is constituted.

Ch 2: The Environment

p 38 Has a section on astronomy which is surprisingly accurate, seeing that it was written in 1912. I didn't know they had used atomic spectra that early to judge that the sun and stars were made out of the same elements as earth. Comes to the conclusion that we couldn't live just anywhere in the universe.

p 52 Geophysics. Notes that the Earth is particularly fit, and again cites the Bridgewater Treatises to note that this peculiar fitness has been much discussed in natural theology. The tone of his discussion of the remarkable characteristics of the Earth is similar to Ward and Brownlee in their Rare Earth.

p55 Atmosphere v



Ch 3: Water

p72-132! A 60pg chapter on water that I need to review carefully for hph. He refers several times to the Bridgewater treatises which include natural theology, and makes other comments to distance himself from a theological view of the extraordinary nature of water as divinely created with its extraordinary properties. But it is almost to the extent that I would say "Methinks he doth protest too much!" He does exhibit a respect almost akin to reverence about how critical the detailed properties of water are to the existence of life as we know it.

p79 Explores the implications of water's stability: "In the second place water is really, at the temperature of the earth and in comparison with most other chemical substances, an extremely inert body, for the union of hydrogen with oxygen is so firm that it is not readily dissolved." I had not thought about this much, but it makes it possible for water to act as a solvent without changing the substances dissolves, and to form the medium for many chemical reactions.

p80 Starts the survey of the many remarkable thermal properties of water.

p80 Specific heat anomalously high: table p81. Only notable comparable specific heats are ammonia at 1.23 and hydrogen at 3.4.

p82 Discussion of law of Dulong and Petit.

p83 Table to illustrate Dulong & Petit for ideas, but data not current.

p85 Comments that a good discussion of remarkable heat capacity of water from theological perspective is Whewell's Bridgewater Treatise, Chapter IX. I need to investigate the Bridgewater Treatise collection in general.

p86 He argues against the use of theological concepts and "natural theology" in general, but is fair enough to compliment some for their thoroughness, e.g. Josiah Parsons Cooke in "The Credentials of Science", 1888.

p87 Discusses the stabilizing of temperatures by this large specific heat with table of comparative data.

p89 Importance to human metabolism of the large specific heat of water. One reason for the importance is that the rates of all chemical reactions are strongly temperature dependent, typically more than doubling with a 10°C increase in temperature.

p89 I used his example on body temperature stabilization in slides on water Jan 2016. 165lb person must give off about 2400 kilocalories a day, otherwise the body temperature would raise more than 32°C. But if the body had the specific heat of most common substances, the temperature rise would be between 100 and 150°C, making the temperature much harder to regulate.

p92 Begins discussion of anomalous latent heats of water. Also anomalously high freezing point.

p94 Table of melting points

p95,96 table of latent heats of melting. Water at 80cal/gm higher than any other common substance other than ammonia which is 108.

p98,100 Table of latent heats of evaporation, again water being higher than any other.

p100-102 Discussion of examples of importance in stabilization of temperatures.

p106 Discussion and table of thermal conductivity of water.

p106-110 Expansion of water before freezing essential to life. For seawater, the max density is below the freezing point.

p111 Water as a solvent.

p118 Ionization in water

p126 Surface tension comparison, - 132 implications, discussion of adsorption.

Ch 4: Carbonic Acid

p133 Carbonic acid, its roles and importance of CO2 to life. Involved in the self-regulation essential for life processes.

Ch 5: The Ocean

p177 Constant osmotic pressure

p187 Marine organisms like seawater, advanced life similar but with changes that could come from adaptation - the fitness of the ocean

Ch 6: The Chemistry of the Three Elements

p191 The chemistry of C, H, O

Ch 7: The Argument

p249 Summary of the argument for the fitness of the environment

p267 Outline summary of the argument

p271 Two propositions

Ch 8: Life and the Cosmos

p274 OK with Darwin, but expresses reservation about natural selection as the only mechanism.

p274-275 "Yet natural selection does but mold the organism; the environment it changes only secondarily, without truly altering the primary quality of environmental fitness. This latter component of fitness, antecedent to adaptations, a natural result of the properties of matter and the characteristics of energy in the course of cosmic evolution, is as yet nowise accounted for. It exists, however, and must not be dismissed as gross contingency. Coincidences so numerous and so remarkable as those which we have met in examining the properties of matter as they are related to life, must be the orderly results of law, or else we shall have to turn them over to final causes and the philosopher."

"There is, in truth, not one chance in countless millions of millions that the many unique properties of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, and especially of their stable compounds water and carbonic acid, which chiefly make up the atmosphere of a new planet, should simultaneously occur in the three element otherwise than through the operation of a natural law which somehow connects them together. There is no greater probability that these unique properties should be without due cause uniquely favorable to the organic mechanism. These are no mere accidents; an explanation is to seek. It must be admitted, however, that no explanation is at hand."

p277-278 After talking about some properties that could be just coincidences, he continues: "Be that as it may, chemical science is still a very long way from accounting for the simultaneous occurrence of the various characteristics of water, especially if we include such things as heat of formation, solvent power, the process of hydrolytic cleavage, the degree of solubility of carbon dioxide, the anomalous expansion on cooling near the freezing point, etc."

"There is, in fact, exceedingly little ground for hope that any single explanation of these coincidences can arise from current hypotheses and laws. But if to the coincidence of the unique properties of water we add that of the chemical properties of the three elements, a problem results under which the science of to-day must surely break down. If these taken as a whole are ever to be understood it will be in the future, when research has penetrated far deeper into the riddle of the properties of matter. Nevertheless an explanation cognate with known laws is conceivable, and in the light of experience it would be folly to think it impossible or even improbable."

"Such an explanation once attained might, however, avail the biologist little; for a further problem, apparently more difficult, remains. How does it come about that each and all of these many unique properties should be favorable to the organic mechanism, should fit the universe for life? And for the answer to this question existing knowledge provides, I believe, no clew."1

1.The great difficulty appears to be that there is no possibility of interaction. In our solar system at least, the fitness of the environment far precedes the existence of the living organisms.

p278-279 "Thus regarded, our new form of the old riddle appears twofold, and, on that account, for the present more unanswerable. There is but one immediate compensation for this complexity; a proof that somehow, beneath adaptations, peculiar and unsuspected relationships exist between the properties of matter and the phenomena of life; that the process of cosmic evolution is indissolubly linked with the fundamental characteristics of the organism; that logically, in some obscure manner, cosmic and biological evolution are one. In short, we appear to be led to the assumption that the genetic or evolutionary processes, both cosmic and biological, when considered in certain aspects, constitute a single orderly development that yields results not only contingent, but resembling those which in human action we recognize as purposeful. For, undeniably, two things which are related together in a complex manner by reciprocal fitness make up in a very real sense a unit, - something quite different from the two alone, or the sum of the two, or the relationship between the two. In human affairs such a unit arises only from the effective operation of purpose."

"Now it is most clearly evident from the experience of centuries that ordinary teleology is dangerous doctrine in science, and in the past, accidents apart, it has been invariably sterile."

The underlining is my added emphasis to demonstrate that the data he has presented has dragged him, kicking and screaming, into a consideration of purpose (teleology).

280 "We have found that the properties of the environment, biologically considered, present the same fitness as the properties of life. In each case the fitness results, at least in part, from an evolutionary process. Through the main lines of later development these are both known, though in both cases we stop short, perhaps far short - of the origins - the origin of life and the origin of the universe - if indeed they have ever originated.Can we then deny that in the one as in the other process there is a tendency, a bent, a direction of flow or development? I think not, and it seems clear that the facts of physical science call for an explanation of the tendency to fitness of the environment in the same way that formerly the facts of biological science called for an explanation of the tendency to fitness of the organism."

He has at this point come to a statement of the anthropic principle, though he has doubts about whether the universe had an origin. Really remarkable considering that it was before quantum mechanics, and certainly long before Watson and Crick and the CMB.

p281 Concedes that he is off into philosophy, but is apologetic about that.

p280-300 Off into vitalism - no longer relevant.

p301 Cosmic evolution. Again brings up teleology and quotes the famous LaPlace statement to Napoleon.

p302 Muses about whether the universe is cyclic.

p305 Teleology again, and continues his refrain that mechanism is enough. Reiterates the negation of vitalism. Lowers the hammer on teleology. "For this conclusion we possess two arguments: the argument that in such aspects as concern physical science, and apart from differences scientifically explicable, organic and inorganic phenomena are alike, and therefore a specifically vital teleology is unnecessary; and the argument that inorganic science unquestionably has no need of non-mechanistic teleology. Hence we are obligated to conclude that all metaphysical teleology is to be banished from the whole domain of natural science."

Interesting that after reflecting on the extraordinary nature of the "fitness", he conludes "only mechanism matters", actually limiting his metaphysic to methodological naturalism. We sometimes summarize that by "his meter stick is his metaphysic". But he continues:

p305-306 "What then becomes of fitness? Clearly there are two logical possibilities. Either there exists an unknown mechanistic explanation of that common issue of the organic and cosmic evolutionary processes, or there does not. If such an explanation be possible, at least it must be admitted that it is very hard to conceive. Yet, recalling the difficulty before the idea of natural selection arose of imagining any mechanistic explanation whatever of fitness, we shall do well not to decide against such a possibility."

Interesting that here, he has been influenced by the presumption that natural selection has indeed answered all the basic questions about the development of life.

p306 "On the other hand,it is conceivable that a tendency could work parallel with mechanism without interfering with it, according to a view which has been held by such thorough-going materialists as Decartes, .. Although I have no intention of here seeking a choice between these two hypotheses, being in fact convinced that now, at all events, no choice is scientifically possible, and doubting if properly speaking they are alternatives at all, I do feel concerned to remove from the latter view, if I may, some of the objections which are commonly raised against it in scientific circles, conscious that in this attempt I am overstepping the boundaries of natural science." Quote from Herbert Spencer here. Go back and quote this - essentially "follow the evidence where it leads".

It looks like that after having positioned himself in the "only mechanism matters" camp, he is still deeply conflicted about it. It really looks like the struggles of an honest man. He goes on to the analogy with a house, which clearly can be fully explained with physical principles, but it is untenable to conceive that the house could therefore build itself.

p307-308 "It is evident that a perfect mechanistic description of the building of a house may be conceived. Within the world of physical science the whole process is logically complete without consideration of the architect's design and purpose. Yet such design and purpose, whether or not in themselves of mechanistic origin, are at one and the same time determining factors in the result, and nowise components of the physical process. Now it seems clear that a similar effect of a tendency working steadily through the whole process of evolution is also at least conceivable, however small its bearing upon science, provided. like time itself, it be a perfectly independent variable, making up, therefore, with time the constant environment, so to speak, of the evolutionary process. The tendency must not be demonstrable either by weighing or by measuring, else it would amount to an interference within the mechanistic process, and it must not be itself liable to any kind of variation whose detection would directly reveal it. Where then can the origin of such a tendency be located? Why clearly, if we accept the induction in favor of mechanism, only where Bergson has shrewdly placed his vital impetus, at the very origin of things, just before mechanism begins to act. In short, our new teleology cannot have originated in or through mechanism, but it is a necessary and preestablished associate of mechanism. Matter and energy have an original property, assuredly not by chance, which organizes the universe in space and time."

"This is in very truth a metaphysical doctrine; but it has strong claims to sympathetic regard from men of science. In the first place, it leaves mechanism with the perfectly free hand which that process has undoubtedly earned in the world of phenomena. Secondly, it does but add one further riddle, and that an old and familiar one, to those two already tacitly recognized by most scientists: the existence of the universe and the existence of life. Given the universe, life, and the tendency, mechanism is inductively proved sufficient to account for all phenomena."

p308-310 "The existence of the universe, on the other hand, is no concern of the scientist. Whatever else it may achieve, mechanism can never explain, cannot even face the problem of the existence of matter and energy. Within the world of science these are conserved; only outside that world can they have originated or not originated. As for the existence of life, in spite of our utter ignorance, it must be admitted that a half century has greatly diminished the number of substantial biologists who really look forward to its scientific explanation, and the greatest chemists have ever shared such a view. Liebig is reported by Lord Kelvin to have replied to the question whether he believed that a leaf or a flower could be formed or could grow by chemical forces. 'I would more readily believe that a book on chemistry or on botany could grow out of dead matter.' Darwin, too, once said, 'It is mere rubbish thinking at present of the origin of life; one might as well think of the origin of matter.' Since Liebig's day the chemical organization of the cell has become in scientific knowledge vastly more complex than it was before, and I know of no biological chemist to whom the spontaneous, that is to say, the mechanistic, origin of a cell is scientifically imaginable, though all believe that once formed, cells exist as mechanisms in a mechanistic universe. Thus the chemist puts his mind at rest regarding the existence of life, just as the physicist calms his regarding the existence of matter, simply by turning his back on the problem. Thereby he suffers nothing in his practical task as a man of science."

p310-311"Returning now to fitness, we may be sure that, whatever successes science shall in future celebrate within the domain of teleology, the philosopher will never cease to perceive the wonder of a universe which moves onward from chaos to very perfect harmonies, and quite apart from any possible mechanistic explanation of origin and fulfillment, to feel it a worthy subject of reflection. From this point of view, however, science need expect no interference, but without any last vestige of former shackles may pursue the search after mechanistic explanations of all natural phenomena."

"At length we have reached the conclusion which I was concerned to establish. Science has finally put the old teleology to death. Its disembodied spirit, freed from vitalism and all material ties, immortal, alone lives on, and from such a ghost science has nothing to fear. The man of science is not even obliged to have an opinion concerning its reality, for it dwells in another world where he as scientist can never enter."

He has now essentially reached the position of Steven Jay Gould's NOMA, or non-overlapping magisteria, or maybe Gould got it from him. He is taking the position that there is no material evidence in the operation of nature that would point to a designer, but he is taking that from the point of view of direct induction. It does seem to me that it is reasonable to take seriously abductive approaches, like the conclusion that there must be an architect for the house, even though it is not demanded by the departure of the process from physical laws. It does seem that he has been affected by the success of natural selection as an explanatory framework without fully recognizing its lack of adequacy for both the beginning of life and macroevolution. It also seems that in setting aside vitalism, he is too quickly dismissing the abductive inference of intelligence in the development of life's complexity.

p312 His final paragraph: "There is , however, one scientific conclusion which I wish to put forward as a positive and, I trust, fruitful outcome of the present investigation. The properties of matter and the course of cosmic evolution are now seen to be intimately related to the structure of the living being and to its activities; they become, therefore, far more important to biology than has been previously suspected. For the whole evolutionary process, both cosmic and organic, is one, and the biologist may now rightly regard the universe in its very essence as biocentric."

Going back to Wald's introduction to the 1958 reprinting of this 1913 book:

p xvii About the book "its intelligence and insight have survived many of its facts." "asks great questions and has the good sense to leave the greatest of them unanswered.."

p xvii "The great questions are those an intelligent child asks, and finding no answer, learns to stop asking. That is known as growing up. It is one of the fruits of education. Einstein asked a few such questions as a child, and never gave them up, that is genius."

That does seem to be a fitting tribute to this work. I'm reading it in 2015, over 100 years since its first publication, and not many science works would have relevance over that span.

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