Biology as viewed through 19th Century Lenses

Most modern readers have difficulty appreciating the resilience of spiritual or metaphysical overtones to 19th Century scientific thought, alternatively referred to as “vitalism” & “teleology”. At this point, a quick historical digression is in order.

What exactly is life?”! Traditional education systems were well-grounded in the classics, and many 19th Century naturalists could relate to an ancient Greek philosopher named Aristotle who was convinced no real boundary existed between “living” and “non-living”. According to Aristotle, non-living matter could give rise to living things because our universe possesses some vital life force or soul, “anima”, which could “animate” non-living matter. In Aristotle’s view: the universe, as a whole, had its own soul. In modern terms the universe could be considered as some giant fractal and we are all but elements therein. Even today, various mystical traditions hold similar ideas.

Is there something magical, spiritual or supernatural to life? Many 19th Century Scientists (beholden to Aristotle) reckoned; yes. Maybe there is some supernatural force – present in air perhaps – after all, we need air to live! This unknown was not called “x” as in algebra. In Biology, it was called “vital force” or “vital principle”. That explains why the ancient Hebrews did not believe that life began at conception. According to the Hebrew Testament, life (“ensoulment”) commenced with the baby’s first breath. Connection with vital principle somehow meant connection with air! Meanwhile, “may-the-force-be-with-you” movies were ultimately inspired by Aristotelian traditions. (Go figure!)

Scientists were also beholden to ancient “vitalism” traditions that air (or maybe electricity present in air) was obviously important to spontaneous generation i.e animation! Medical Science’s job was to figure out how to harness this vital force to cure disease and undo death. Remember the novel Frankenstein was considered credible in its day.

Pasteur’s famous experiments proved that sterilized broth exposed to air via swan necks never generated microscopic life, provided they avoided contamination. Pasteur went on to characterize anaerobic microbes (confirming air is not “vital”) and even figured out how to sterilize wine (“Pasteurization”). Only as a later afterthought, were techniques developed to “pasteurize” milk. French scientists always had a firm grip on priorities!

That all said: Pasteur still believed in Aristotelian Vitalism! Pasteur reckoned that all life processes (including fermentation) were special reactions that could only occur in living organisms. Living cells produced pure optical enantiomers. Scientists in the lab could only synthesize “racemic” mixtures. According to Pasteur, those marvelous macromolecules made by living cells could never be made in a test-tube; and for some good, albeit obscure “vitalistic” reason.

There just had to be something special, maybe even supernatural, to life. Pasteur maintained that living things (the cells) still contained some mysterious “vital force” albeit not associated with air. Many 19th Century scientists embraced Pasteur’s modified faith in Aristotelian Vitalism.

It turns out Pasteur was wrong for all the right reasons! Even through to the 20th Century, spiritual and metaphysical considerations impinged on scientific consideration; explaining bizarre and persistent Neo-Platonic/Aristotlelian theories that included Haeckel’s Biogenetic Law not to mention various versions of “Orthogenesis” that presumed some innate teleological “arrow of progress” that was somehow driving evolution. Hindsight permits a modern, but decidedly unfair chuckle, at the expense of earlier efforts to make sense of the Natural World.

Ironically, Darwin’s solid grounding in divinity training enabled him to totally reject all such metaphysical speculation out of hand. Natural Selection alone explained, for example; how moles, still possessing rudimentary eyes could lose the sight their ancestors once possessed…

… or how parasites, formerly free-living, could become degenerate both in form and function while inflicting great suffering upon their hosts. Darwin’s great insight (as embraced again later, by August Weismann) was to acknowledge the evident lack of direction, “intelligent design” or moral order to the Natural World. The loss of Annie, his 10 year old daughter to childhood disease only seemed to buttress Darwin’s lack of faith in any putative interventions by a merciful Deity.  A few short years after Annie’s death, Darwin wrote a letter to his friend musing: “What a book a Devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low & horridly cruel works of nature!” 

The English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson had just two years prior to Annie’s death, completed his epic poem (seventeen years in the making): In Memoriam A.H.H. This poem represented the acme of Victorian Society’s search for meaning in a cruel world seemingly devoid of divine beneficence.

Canto 54
…So runs my dream, but what am I?
An infant crying in the night
An infant crying for the light
And with no language but a cry …

 

Canto 56:
…Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed …

Ironically, the penultimate line above was co-opted and frequently echoed as an oft-repeated rallying call to arms for Social Darwinism: i.e. for laissez-faire capitalism, eugenics, scientific racism, imperialism and Fascism/Nazism. Did Darwin’s Nihilism inexorably and inevitably lead to catastrophe? By freeing scientific thought from metaphysical conjecture, did Darwin become the Devil’s Chaplain of the 20th Century?

More on that later…

42 thoughts on “Biology as viewed through 19th Century Lenses

  1. According to Aristotle, non-living matter could give rise to living things because our universe possesses some vital life force or soul, “anima”, which could “animate” non-living matter. In Aristotle’s view: the universe, as a whole, had its own soul.

    I am not sure this is entirely correct, though there is much of Aristotle I have not read.

    My second-hand knowledge of Aristotle is that he thought that all “forms” (morphe) were eternal. There has always been a form of frog, a form of oak, a form of human, etc. I don’t know if he ever says that living things can come from non-living things or that there is a world-soul. Maybe he does. I associate those ideas with the Stoics, not with Aristotle.

    Ironically, the penultimate line above was co-opted and frequently echoed as an oft-repeated rallying call to arms for Social Darwinism: i.e. for laissez-faire capitalism, eugenics, scientific racism, imperialism and Fascism/Nazism. Did Darwin’s Nihilism inexorably and inevitably lead to catastrophe? By freeing scientific thought from metaphysical conjecture, did Darwin become the Devil’s Chaplain of the 20th Century?

    Laissez-faire capitalism, eugenics, scientific racism, and imperialism all predate the publication of Origin of Species. It would be better put to say that apologists of those practices used Darwin’s ideas to support those practices, rather than say that Darwin’s ideas led to those practices. The origins of laissez-faire capitalism lie in Locke and Smith, for example, not in Darwin. Advocates of laissez-faire capitalism used Darwin’s ideas to support their political agenda.

    (Interestingly, this was part of the political background to Bryan and Darrow; Bryan opposed Darwinism because of it was used to justify rapacious capitalism. The tragedy of the Scopes trial is that we’ve largely forgotten that on the political side, Bryan was right and Darrow was wrong. But there have been many people since who thought that there’s no contradiction in thinking that Darrow was right about the science and Bryan was right about the politics.)

    I think it would take a lot of argument — not just guilt-by-association — to really show that Darwinism leads to nihilism. Russian nihilists may have used Darwin’s ideas in their propaganda — I know that Bakunin does, for example — but it’s causes were political and economic. German nihilism took their point of departure (arguably) from Kant, and maybe some Schopenhauer. And while Nietzsche certainly thought of nihilism as the great spiritual and moral danger facing 19th-century Europe, it’s arguable that his understanding of Darwinism was filtered through Spencer and that he did not really understand Darwin’s ideas.

    I think we really need to distinguish between the content of a theory and how a theory is used to support an ideology. Failing that make that distinction would lead a lot of serious blunders.

  2. Mung:
    What ifDarwinism is an ideology?

    I certainly won’t deny that it can be used as such. But it is also a scientific theory, and more importantly, the intellectual ancestor to a scientific theory that is pretty much our current best explanation of adaptation and speciation.

  3. Just on one point.
    The bible, written by God not hebrews, did not say life only began at birth. in was clearly said humans were in the womb and it was at conception that human souls were put in. in fact its famous that the bible says we are conceived in sin. WE , people, are here at conception. Thats why abortion is immoral.

  4. Robert Byers:
    Just on one point.
    The bible, written by God not hebrews, did not say life only began at birth. in was clearly saidhumans were in the womb and it was at conception that human souls were put in. in fact its famous that the bible says we are conceived in sin. WE , people, are here at conception. Thats why abortion is immoral.

    You need some education in Biblical exegesis.

    Frequently bandied prophetic citations from the bible merely affirm divine omniscience and not life at conception (e.g. Jeremiah 1:5 or Luke 1:43).

    Meanwhile, Exodus 21:22-24 unequivocally confirms abortion is not murder. More apropos to a correct biblical understanding of abortion example would be the Sanhedrin’s discussion of what to do with a pregnant woman who has been sentenced to death. They conclude she should be beat on the stomach prior to the execution; thereby preventing her from going into labor. Destroying the fetus in the womb protected them from inadvertently killing an innocent upon taking its first breath. In order for a fetus to be considered a nefesh adam (a living person), its head must emerge from the birth canal.

    Careful reading of the Evangelist Luke would seem to agree with this interpretation of ensoulment.

    Luminaries no less than St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas maintained that early abortion constituted a sin of contraception, not murder. Texts from other Fathers of the Church could easily be found to support a similar conclusion and the Church at various times did accept the Aristotelian distinction between a formed and a non-formed, or an animated and a non-animated fetus.

  5. Kantian Naturalist:

    I am not sure this is entirely correct, though there is much of Aristotle I have not read.

    My second-hand knowledge of Aristotle is that he thought that all “forms” (morphe) were eternal. There has always been a form of frog, a form of oak, a form of human, etc. I don’t know if he ever says that living things can come from non-living things or that there is a world-soul. Maybe he does. I associate those ideas with the Stoics, not with Aristotle.

    Some commentators have suggested that Aristotle’s term soul is better translated as “lifeforce”.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_the_Soul#cite_note-1

    I find Aristotle somewhat obscure on this all. The point still remains that so-called “Aristotelian” thinking prevalent even to the 19th Century subscribed to a defunct theory of vitalism that was in fact labeled “Aristotelian” in origin.

    Kantian Naturalist:

    I think we really need to distinguish between the content of a theory and how a theory is used to support an ideology. Failing that make that distinction would lead a lot of serious blunders.

    My point exactly! Notice how I ended with a series of rhetorical question marks. I just want the Darwin’s detractors to weigh in on “Darwinism as ideology” before slaying that shibboleth.

  6. TomMueller: My point exactly! Notice how I ended with a series of rhetorical question marks. I just want the Darwin’s detractors to weigh in on “Darwinism as ideology” before slaying that shibboleth.

    I don’t know many of “Darwin’s detractors” are still around TSZ. I think most of them have given up in disgust.

  7. Kantian Naturalist: I don’t know many of “Darwin’s detractors” are still around TSZ. I think most of them have given up in disgust.

    I note with bemusement there still persists specious & illucid ad hominems attacks on hapless Darwin on this forum even yet.

  8. TomMueller: I note with bemusement there still persists specious & illucid ad hominems attacks on hapless Darwin on this forum even yet.

    I note that even dead, Darwin continues to win most arguments.

  9. petrushka: I note that even dead, Darwin continues to win most arguments.

    Not to take anything away from mr. Darwin but I think that owes more to the quality of most of his opponents than his own. 😛

  10. Rumraket: Not to take anything away from mr. Darwin but I think that owes more to the quality of most of his opponents than his own.

    The data probably have something to do with it. Even IDists could make some sense if the evidence supported them, in spite of themselves.

    At least one hopes so. I’d hate to think that ID fails only because its supporters are generally not much good, and not because their “evidence” fails.

    Glen Davidson

  11. GlenDavidson: The data probably have something to do with it.Even IDists could make some sense if the evidence supported them, in spite of themselves.

    At least one hopes so. I’d hate to think that ID fails only because its supporters are generally not much good, and not because their “evidence” fails.

    I am worried that we are encountering an army of unworthy straw men on this forum.

    Check out Richard Dawkins one hour interview with the Vatican’s former chief astronomer, Fr. Coyne who is treated with great deference and respect… we are talking Richard Dawkins here!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zkS1B0huWX4

    Listen – I am no defender of the faith. Frankly, Dawkins makes more sense to me than Coyne. I can still respect Coyne – just as much as Dawkins apparently respects Coyne.

    I also respect other intelligent individuals (such as Francisco Ayala) who as scientists also seem to subscribe to a Theistic POV. Science is neutral on questions theological. How could it be otherwise?

    Coyne, Ayala, and even Dobzhansky hold/held theistic beliefs – I suggest these are not silly superstition even though they are not based on empirical evidence.

    Some versions of religious belief constitute incoherent superstition – but the views of Coyne, Ayala, Schweitzer and Dobzhansky do not fall under that rubric!

    Now Intelligent Design – that is a straw horse of another color!

    Here is Fr. George Coyne’s take:

    “Intelligent Design isn’t science even though it pretends to be. If you want to teach it in schools, intelligent design should be taught when religion or cultural history is taught, not science.”

    ID pretends to be something it is not (science) and pretends not be something it is (creationism).

    Check out this link:

    http://philosoraptor.blogspot.ca/2007/11/bad-guy-team-up-id-ssk-so-i-was.html

    Though, of course, Michael Behe and the lot from Dover were basically busted because they were so obviously pushing a religious view for religious reasons. (In one draft of the ID textbook, Pandas and People, researchers found that the ID folk had just gone through an old creationist textbook they’d written and tried to replace ‘creationism’ and ‘creation’ with ‘intelligent design theory’ and ‘intelligent design.’ The most amusing part of the whole business came when it was discovered that they’d forgotten to delete correctly, and had thus included in one of their manuscripts words like “creaintelligent designtionism.” Now there’s a transitional form for ya…

    Lewis Black did a great spoof on the ID textbook Pandas and People. – I would be grateful if anybody could find it.

    Which brings me back to an earlier post:

    http://theskepticalzone.com/wp/the-disunity-of-reason/comment-page-20/#comment-122269

  12. Patrick: Only if you do it right.

    Stop it! All of you! Rumraket & Petrushka included! … you guys are killing me!

    LOL! LOL! LOL! LOL! LOL! LOL! LOL! LOL! LOL! LOL! LOL! LOL! LOL!

  13. TomMueller: You need some education in Biblical exegesis.

    Frequently bandied prophetic citations from the bible merely affirm divine omniscience and not life at conception (e.g. Jeremiah 1:5 or Luke 1:43).

    Meanwhile, Exodus 21:22-24 unequivocally confirms abortion is not murder.More apropos to a correct biblical understanding of abortion example would be the Sanhedrin’s discussion of what to do with a pregnant woman who has been sentenced to death. They conclude she should be beat on the stomach prior to the execution; thereby preventing her from going into labor.Destroying the fetus in the womb protected them from inadvertently killing an innocent upon taking its first breath. In order for a fetus to be considered a nefesh adam (a living person), its head must emerge from the birth canal.

    Careful reading of the Evangelist Luke would seem to agree with this interpretation of ensoulment.

    Luminaries no less than St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas maintained that early abortion constituted a sin of contraception, not murder.Texts from other Fathers of the Church could easily be found to support a similar conclusion and the Church at various times did accept the Aristotelian distinction between a formed and a non-formed, or an animated and a non-animated fetus.

    I would disagree with all of this. In heaps of verses, including John the baptist kicking in the womb, its clear that a human is in the womb and from conception. We are conceived, come into being , in sin .Otherwise you would have a fetus(not human) in a state of sin. Impossible. only people.
    The exodus case makes the case. But its a big subject.
    Sanhedrin dudes are irrelevant and were bad guys.
    It matters nothing about old commentators on the bible like these saints.

  14. Allan Miller:
    Robert Byers,

    Sinful zygotes. Whataheapacrap.

    At conception is where we come into the world and here we are talking about it.
    Its not mere goo. its the soul and information contained within the goo.

  15. Robert Byers: I would disagree with all of this. In heaps of verses, including John the baptist kicking in the womb, its clear that a human is in the womb and from conception.

    You calling Saint Augustine a liar? Church doctrine was very clear on this point from the outset: The soul was NOT present at conception. The soul commenced (according to Exodus 21:22-24) with the first breath – on this one point there is NO DEBATE!

    Only after co-opting pagan philosophy did Christians deviate from scripture and invoke Aristotelian notions of animation or form.

    A fetus is a long way from a conceptus because it is already formed and is moving (i.e. animated as in anima = soul). Therein lay the difference that later theologians seized upon.

    Texts from other Fathers of the Church support a similar conclusion and the Church at various times did accept the distinction between a formed and a non-formed, or an animated and a non-animated fetus. Until the mid nineteenth Century, many theologians maintained that the soul emerged forty days after conception in the case of males or ninety in the case of females. After such point, abortion was equated with murder, but not before.

    Robert Byers:The exodus case makes the case. But its a big subject.

    Thank you for conceding the point – why are you now still belaboring it?

    Robert Byers:Sanhedrin dudes are irrelevant and were bad guys.

    Except they understood Biblical Hebrew better than you!

    Robert Byers: It matters nothing about old commentators on the bible like these saints.

    Like Saint Augustine you mean? Who emphatically disagrees with you?

    Robert Byers: In heaps of verses, … its clear that a human is in the womb and from conception.

    As I mentioned earlier, these verses only testify to God’s omniscience and not the status of the soul at conception. Please refer me to any Biblical verse that refers to a conceptus (not a moving or formed fetus) that is not simultaneously boasting about God’s omniscience.

  16. Robert Byers,

    At conception is where we come into the world and here we are talking about it.
    Its not mere goo. its the soul and information contained within the goo.

    I dare say. But sin? Whataheapacrap.

    This grovelling is one of the most mystifying aspects of Christianity to me. “I was sinful from way back before I even had a brain. Then I Was Saved. Well, I’m still sinful, but now I grovel a lot”.

  17. TomMueller,

    I don’t really want to get in the subject.
    pro-life arguments always use exodus verses for proving the child is in the womb from pregnancy.
    It doesn’t matter what old saints think. Only the bible where Christian thought is being discussed.
    Its a big issue bit the bible always insist we come out women and so were in wiomen before that. So soul being put in at birth.
    The bible has heaps of verses saying we exist from conception in our nature as humans. As i said we are conceived in sin. Only people live in sin.
    that alone settles it.

  18. Robert Byers: I don’t really want to get in the subject.

    I can understand why not – your thesis is untenable!

    Robert Byers: …pro-life arguments always use exodus verses for proving the child is in the womb from pregnancy…The bible has heaps of verses saying we exist from conception in our nature as humans.

    You are as usual quite wrong on that! Any verse I am aware of only testifies to God’s omniscience and not the status of the soul at conception. I already asked you. Please refer me to any Biblical verse that refers to a conceptus (not a moving or formed fetus) that is not simultaneously boasting about God’s omniscience.

    Your silence in this regard speaks volumes and apparently already answers my question.

    Robert Byers: It doesn’t matter what old saints think. Only the bible where Christian thought is being discussed….that alone settles it.

    Now you are in big trouble indeed! You pretend to advocate sola scriptura thereby dismissing tradition or ecclesiastical authority – even that of Saint Augustine.

    OK – have it your way.

    Then scripture it is!

    Exodus 21:22-24

    QED

  19. Kantian Naturalist: I don’t know many of “Darwin’s detractors” are still around TSZ. I think most of them have given up in disgust.

    I can understand why! Presumed guilt by association with some others present must have been galling to the extreme and more than a little embarrassing!

    Pity…

  20. Natural Selection alone explained, for example; how moles, still possessing rudimentary eyes could lose the sight their ancestors once possessed…

    Natural selection cannot explain moles. And evolution by intelligent design can explain how moles, still possessing rudimentary eyes could lose the sight their ancestors once possessed

  21. Frankie: Natural selection cannot explain moles. And evolution by intelligent design can explain how moles, still possessing rudimentary eyes could lose the sight their ancestors once possessed

    OK – I’ll bite.

    Please explain that to me.

    … and

    …while you are at it: some cogent explanation or other of human predispositions to hiccups, heart attacks, haemorrhoids and hernias as part of Intelligent Design would also be greatly appreciated.

    Of course Darwinian evolution can rise to the task – I wonder out loud if you can.

  22. Frankie: And evolution by intelligent design can explain how moles, still possessing rudimentary eyes could lose the sight their ancestors once possessed

    I’ll have some of that!

  23. TomMueller,

    LoL! Yes Darwinian evolution can account for diseases and deformities but nothing more. It cannot explain eyes, vision systems, living organisms, ATP synthase, bacterial flagella and thousands of other biological systems and subsystems.

    ID explanation for the loss of eyes/ sight is simple- the organisms didn’t need it and having exposed eyes would be detrimental.

  24. TomMueller: OK – I’ll bite.

    Please explain that to me.

    … and

    …while you are at it: some cogent explanation or other of human predispositions to hiccups, heart attacks, haemorrhoids and hernias as part of Intelligent Design would also be greatly appreciated.

    Of course Darwinian evolution can rise to the task – I wonder out loud if you can.

    I’d just as soon prefer that we can avoid having yet another TSZ thread be overrun by moronic spam by bots like Frankie and Fifthmonarchyman. Let’s stop feeding the trolls, people.

  25. Frankie:

    ID explanation for the loss of eyes/ sight is simple- the organisms didn’t need it and having exposed eyes would be detrimental.

    So if I am understanding you correctly, ID suggests that blind organisms with rudimentary eyes evolved from ancestral organisms with functional eyes, moles for example.

    Uhmmm – is that your story and are you sticking with it?

  26. Kantian Naturalist: I’d just as soon prefer that we can avoid having yet another TSZ thread be overrun by moronic spam by bots like Frankie and Fifthmonarchyman. Let’s stop feeding the trolls, people.

    LoL! Your projection is duly noted.

    Can’t have people questioning the bald assertions of evolutionists.

  27. TomMueller: My apologies…I shall troll-bait no more.

    Whatever, we all know that you can’t support your claims. And I will keep reminding people of that fact

  28. TomMueller:
    some useful links for laymen on the evolution of sight (not to mention the lack of ID)

    http://www.nyas.org/publications/detail.aspx?cid=93b487b2-153a-4630-9fb2-5679a061fff7

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2011/10/26/how-many-genes-does-it-take-to/

    http://carlzimmer.com/articles/index.php?subaction=showfull&id=1432918816&archive=&start_from=&ucat=18&

    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/thoughtomics/animal-vision-evolved-700-million-years-ago/

    Yes and you are so gullible that you thin k they support unguided evolution. Too bad not one of those links can demonstrate such a thing.

    Tell us the predictions and testable hypotheses with respect to UNGUIDED evolution

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