Plant, Animal and the Human Being – Reading 2
“The question now is, is it true at all to put the kingdoms of Nature in series in this way? Can it be done? Or, if we do, are we doing justice to their most evident and essential features? Compare a creature of the plant kingdom with an animal to begin with. Taking together all that you observe, you will not find in the forming of the animal anything that looks like a mere continuation or further elaboration of what is vegetable. If you begin with the simplest plant, the annual, you may well conceive its formative process to be carried further in the perennial. But you will certainly not be able to detect, in the organic principles of plant form and growth, anything that suggests further development towards the animal. On the contrary, you will more likely ascertain a polarity, a contrast between the two. You apprehend this polarity in the most evident phenomenon, namely the contrasting processes of assimilation: the altogether different relation of the plant and of the animal to carbon, and the characteristic use that is made of oxygen. I may remark, you must be careful here, to see and to describe it truly. You cannot simply say, the animal breathes-in oxygen while the plant breathes oxygen out and carbon in. It is not so simple as that. Nevertheless, the plant-forming process taken as a whole, in the organic life, reveals an evident polarity and contrast (as against the animal) in its relation to oxygen and carbon. The easiest way to put it is perhaps to say: What happens in the animal, in that the oxygen becomes bound to carbon and the carbonic acid is expelled, is for the animal itself and for man too. — an un-formative process, the very opposite of formative, a process which must be eliminated if the animal is to survive. And now the very thing which is undone in the animal, has to be done, has to be formed and built in the plant. Think of what in the animal appears in some sense as a process of excretion, what the animal must get rid of makes for the forming and building process in the plant. It is a tangible polarity. You cannot possibly imagine the plant-forming process prolonged in a straight line, so as to derive therefore the animal-formation. But you can well derive from the plant-forming process what has to be prevented in the animal. From the animal the carbon has to be taken away by the oxygen in the carbonic acid. Turn it precisely the other way round, and you will readily conceive the plant-forming process.
You therefore cannot get from plant to animal by going on in a straight line. On the other hand you can without false symbolism imagine here an ideal mean or middlepoint, on the one side of which you see the plant — and on the other the animal — forming process. It forks out from here (Fig. 7). What is midway between, — let us imagine it as some kind of ideal mean. If we now carry the plant forming process further in a straight line we arrive not at the animal but at the perennial plant. Imagine now the typical perennial. Carry the stream of development which leads to it still further; in some respects at least you will not fail to recognise in it the way that leads toward mineralisation. Here then you have the way to mineralisation, and we may justly say; In direct continuation of the plant forming process there lies the way that leads to mineralisation. Now look what answers to it at the contrasting pole, along the other branch (Fig. 7). To proceed by a mere outward scheme, one would be tempted to say: this branch too must be prolonged. There would be no true polarity in that. Rather should you think as follows: In the plant-forming process I prolong the line. In the animal-forming process I shall have to proceed negatively, I must go back, I must turn round; I must imagine the animal-forming process not to shoot out beyond itself but to remain behind — behind what it would otherwise become.
Observe now what is already available in scientific Zoology, in Selenka’s researches for instance on the difference between man and animal in the forming of the embryo and in further development after birth, — comparing man and the higher animals. You will then have a more concrete idea of this “remaining behind”. Indeed we owe our human form to the fact that in embryo-life we do not go as far as the animal but remain behind. Thus if we study the three kingdoms quite outwardly as they reveal themselves, without bringing in hypotheses, we find ourselves obliged to draw a strange mathematical line, that tends to vanish as we prolong it. This is what happens at the transition from animal to men, whilst on the other side we have a line that really lengthens.”