11. How biologists and ecologists first started to lose the plot

We cannot produce a quantum biology without first properly understanding energy. And the etymological fallacy becomes particularly poignant when grappling with energy’s historical origins. It is surely surprising to see how greatly ecologists and biologists have lost touch with a concept first spawned within their discipline.

Few biologists and ecologists seem to appreciate that although the energy concept was rapidly “kidnapped” by the physical sciences, it made its first coherent appearance in biology. It was developed from biology, and through such luminaries as Robert Boyle, Julius Mayer, Antoine Lavoisier, Max Rubner and others. Boyle, for example, believed that magnetism, electricity, gravity and the mysterious force of “animal heat”—the energy biological organisms used to maintain themselves—were all corpuscular (Boas, 1958). He particularly held to a corpuscular theory of heat and fire. He was prepared to accept what he called “intermediate”, non-corpuscular, explanations, but only until such time as they were more properly explained via the mechanical qualities of their relevant corpuscles.

The etymological fallacy becomes particularly poignant when grappling with the historical origins of energy. It is surely surprising to see how greatly ecologists and biologists have lost touch with a concept first spawned within their discipline. Few seem to appreciate that although rapidly “kidnapped” by the physical sciences, energy made its first coherent appearances in biology. It was developed from biology, and through such luminaries as Robert Boyle, Julius Mayer, Antoine Lavoisier and others. Boyle, for example, believed that magnetism, electricity, gravity and the mysterious force of “animal heat”—the energy biological organisms used to maintain themselves—were all corpuscular (Boas, 1958). He particularly held to a corpuscular theory of heat and fire. He was prepared to accept what he called “intermediate”, non-corpuscular, explanations, but only until such time as they were more properly explained via the mechanical qualities of their relevant corpuscles.

Boyle’s New Experiments, Physicomechanical Touching the Spring and Weight of Air and its Effects discussed many of his experiments validating his ideas about both the physiological and the physical properties of the atmosphere (West, 2005). He conducted experiments on what he called the “spring”—i.e. the pressure—of air explicitly to show the close linkage between combustion and respiration. Robert Hooke, Boyle’s young assistant, joined him for many of these experiments, with Hooke being largely responsible for the technical innovations incorporated in Boyle’s very efficient—and revelatory—vacuum pump.

In Experiments 10-15, Boyle described how a candle flame became smaller, turned blue, and burned higher up the wick as he gradually reduced the pressure in his vacuum pump. Oxygen was still unknown, and he had initially expected the flame to get larger and burn more brightly. Removing air would surely make more “room” for the flame to burn, and to place all its combustion products. But the flame did not spread out and “take up more space”. It instead expired, showing that either the air, or something in it, was necessary for combustion. But exactly what, he was uncertain.

Boyle’s Experiment 40 had direct, biological, implications for both combustion and respiration. He inserted a bee, a large fly, and a white butterfly into his flask, and again used his pump to remove the air. The fly fell down the side of the flask, while the bee fell down from the flower. He was now unsure whether the air was simply too rarefied for them to sustain flight, or whether something more profoundly physiological had happened to them. The white butterfly, however, removed many such doubts for it swooned while its wings trembled. It was obviously physiologically affected. It was therefore now likely that something in the air was equally necessary for respiration. He now sought for a way to confirm this hypothesis.

It is of course difficult to distinguish a medically and artifically induced loss of ability to breathe from one caused by a lack of the materials needed to breathe. But that is the distinction Boyle was now investigating.

Experiment 41 extended Boyle’s investigations into this associated biological dimension. He placed a lark with a broken wing in his flask. It had been shot by a hunter and so could not fly. The lark’s incapacity now removed the problem caused by creatures falling down possibly only because of rarefaction. The only issues now—or so he felt—would be physiological. When Boyle now pumped out the air, the lark went into convulsions; recovered when he reintroduced it; only to convulse again, and die, when he for the second time removed the air. There was no distinction between his investigations into the now famous PV T of Boyle’s law, and his investigations into respiration.

Boyle felt his conclusions were justified because he observed the same results when he repeated his experiment with a mouse. And when he was confronted with the objection that the mouse might be dying simply because it was being deprived of its ‘creature comforts’—i.e. exhibiting a loss in its inbuilt desire to breathe—rather than because it was being deprived of air and so becoming incapable of breathing, Boyle surrounded the mouse with a paper bed to sleep in; gave it some cheese; and put it by a warm fire overnight. The mouse ate the cheese and seemed otherwise contented. But as soon as he deprived it of air, it died. He therefore concluded that animals died of asphyxiation once a flame placed in that same testing chamber had been extinguished. His overall conclusion was that some special component in the air was essential for both respiration and combustion, and that neither of these processes could occur without the presence of that special component. We now of course know that both processes require oxygen.

But what was particularly significant was Boyle’s extension of his biological ideas into physics. His above pressure experiments on the spring in the air were intended to prove his corpuscular theory. They of course became Boyle’s law, PV = T, and now—through the first law of thermodynamics—the foundation of all science. Boyle nevertheless maintained, as an important philosophical principle, that all the transformations in substances he had elicited had occurred for no reason other than changes in the number, the position, and the motion of a single and more primary stuff—a basic physical substratum of matter. But that matter, he insisted, was divided into corpuscles. In his later The Excellency and Grounds of the Corpuscular or Mechanical Philosophy, 1674, he demonstrated the comprehensiveness, rationality, intelligibility and simplicity of the corpuscularian approach, using it to describe heat, cold, taste, colour, the structure of air and much else besides. All natural phenomena could—and from now on should—be explained entirely by the motion and reorganization of those basic corpuscles. All changes in substances were to be explained quantitatively, by stating methods, and by framing hypotheses. Natural philosophers, he declared, would from now on be better off adopting a discrete and corpuscular approach, basing everything on direct observation, and validating all proposals, as he had done, by experiment and laboratory experience. This included trying out the ideas on biological organisms.

Boyle also insisted that substances acted on each other directly. The corpuscles he described came together to form groups, and those groups of corpuscles affected each other. No transformations were mediated by abstract and shadowy forms, nor by the essential qualities exemplified in the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle.

If a given substance underwent a transformation, through interacting with another, then it was because of direct interaction between their two sets of corpuscles, and not because of any ‘innate drive’ courtesy of any essences. This also held true, in his view, for biological entities. But the fact that his conclusions arose from his investigations into matters biological would soon become obscured as biologists gradually came to insist there was something “different” about their subject matter.

The French physicist and chemist Antoine Lavoisier followed in Boyle’s footsteps. His first-ever table of chemical elements announced the modern age and made modern biology possible. He explicitly wanted to create a “Newtonian chemistry” to match Newtonian physics, and for that reason collaborated with Laplace (Guerlac, 1975, 1976; Melhado, 1985; Donovan, 1988). His Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, 1789, contained a clearly stated and logical outline of his ideas about chemistry, which were universally adopted. It was as a part of that overt attempt to import Newton’s ideas and influence into chemistry that he compiled the first ever table of chemical elements which he called ‘simple bodies’ or ‘simple substances’. His entire table was built upon his reflections upon, and investigations into, respiration and combustion, and his very new “oxygen theory”. He also, and for the first time, recognized the distinct and gaseous nature of oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen as material substances. He even insisted that carbon—as opposed to say charcoal—was a distinct element, thus at last giving that element—and so his table—hegemony over biology. Thanks to him, stoichiometry, which is essential to unravelling the mysteries of DNA, became possible. He enabled scientists to devise methods of chemical analysis with the explicit intent of determining the elements and structures of all compounds before and after a given reaction, laying bare the processes and procedures involved. The Lavoisier table at last made a logical and orderly examination of all biological and chemical events possible, and facilitated the discovery of energy.