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.
…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 …
…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…