Many Christians use their faith when they think about the causes of what is observed in the natural world.  Many accept that there are natural processes which govern the natural world but that God is ultimately behind these processes [God “worketh all things in all”] and that all the natural processes of the world operate under the Divine plan.  Others, however feel that they must choose between natural processes and Divine action.  Some have argued that a knowledge of natural mechanisms is not sufficient to understand the natural world—there is “something else” that is involved in causation that science cannot study.  This “something else” meant that no scientist will ever truly understand the causes of things without invoking religion.  There was a force, a “vital force” which was required for the natural world to function that went beyond physics and chemistry and did not operate according to the laws of chance.  Some of those who held this view identified themselves as vitalists.


Would it not be proper, in the first place, to lay down those Laws of Nature, by which the Material World is governed, and which, when we come to consider, we have in the rank of Second Causes, no further to go?  All Mechanical Accounts are at an end; we step into the Glorious God immediately: The very next thing we have to do, is to acknowledge Him who is the First Cause of all: and the CHRISTIAN PHILOSOPHER will on all invitations make the acknowledgements.

Cotton Mather, The Christian Philosopher, 1721, p. 8


In the above quote, Mather joins his science with his religion by viewing God as the First Cause which moves the Second Causes, i.e. the natural forces of the world.  Mather himself, and the Puritans in general, are remembered as being progressive when they did just that—when they accepted the new scientific ideas of Newton, Copernicus, and other scientists and incorporated them as second causes which did not disturb their faith.  Of all the beliefs of Mather and the Puritans, the ones which led most to their declining influence in America were those which refused secondary, natural causes for natural phenomena and leapt straight to supernatural ones as occurred in the New England witchcraft trials or in Mather’s explanations of fossils.



Are there natural mechanisms which cause of natural events?  Conservative theologians have always resisted efforts to describe the natural world in terms other than those promoting religion.  When Descartes proposed that natural mechanisms can determine natural phenomena, many opposed him on religious grounds. Many theologians did not want a God who set up the universe to run on its own—they wanted a universe that couldn’t run on its own and a God who was therefore required to manage every “natural” phenomenon.  In their view, science should not be separate from religion because there was no aspect of nature which did not continually function through direct miraculous intervention.

…Following a host of authorities both Christian and pagan, the Conimbricenses emphasize that God must yet actively perform a constant deed of conservation ever since He first created the world.  God’s conservation is in fact the major function of His omnipresence.  Far from being superfluous, the presupposition of God conserving the world is necessary for making the comparison of God as the ultimate artisan or architect. 

“…God immediately conserves all objects of creation.  For albeit that He has first brought things about in conjunction to what is required for their preservation, He nevertheless conserves them in tehir being by Himself by way of an intimate influence.”

Conimbriscenses, from Ruler, p.  266-7


St. Paul preached on the Areopagus in Athens that in God “we live, and move, and have our being.”  God in fact directs and conserves not only us, but all parts of His Creation.  By an “occult potency”, He moves the Universe, “and while it is kept moving by this motion, while the angels accomplish their tasks, the stars revolve, the winds turn, while the abyss of the waters is engaged in a steady motion, while green places sprout and their seeds grow, while animals are begotten …He authorized when things were first established, although they would not develop their course if He Who established them would hold off administering them by a provident motion.”

Conimbriscenses, from Ruler, p. 270




Vitalism allowed for a supernatural “vital force” in nature, especially in living things.  As long as there were aspects of nature which could not be explained, conservative believers could point and exclaim, “That’s what God does!”  Vitalism represented an attempt to introduce the tenets of religious belief into the natural world.  The titles of the following series of books indicates how vitalism fit into systems of belief.

Windle, Bertram.  What is Life?  A study of Vitalism and Neo-vitalism.  Expository Essays in Christian Philosophy.  B. Herder., St. Louis, 1908.

 --part of a 4-part series Expository Essays in Christian Philosophy whose other titles include The Principles of Christianity, The God of Philosophy, and Messianic Philosophy. 

“The series will consist of volumes upon the rational groundwork of the Christian Religion: God, the Soul, Revelation, the Christian System, (the Person and ) Resurrection of Christ, Miracles and Spiritualism, etc.


--Science displeases literature when it dehumanizes nature and shows us irrefragable laws when we had looked for humanistic divinities.

Burroughs, p. 243

    The above quote sums up the problem with the approach of the vitalists themselves.  Rather than basing their conclusions on data and testable hypotheses, they had already decided what conclusion they were “looking for” before the experiments were performed.

     For some, it seemed appropriate to discuss “vital forces” even though they could not be defined precisely or studied scientifically.  The author of the following quote defended this position by claiming that vitalism is just as real as the ether which fills space and allows the passage of light.  Unfortunately for the author, this “ether” was subsequently shown to be a fantasy; space is a void and light travels through this vacuum without any aid from ever-present ether.

Or again take the question of the ether, the existence of which no scientific man doubts….If then the vitalistic explanation is verbal only so also is the theory of gravitation and so the existence of the ether.

Windle, 1908, p. 122-3


The following vitalist also compared the characteristics of ether to those of God.  Unfortunately, ether was a mythical substance which did not exist.

The ether of space, which science is coming more and more to look upon as the mother-stuff of all things, has many attributes of Deity….Tremors of vibrations in it reach the eye and make an impression that we call light; electrical oscillations in it are the source of all other phenomena.  It is the fountain-head of all potential energy.

Burroughs, p. 61-2


The inorganic seems dreaming of the organic.  Behold its dreams in the fern and tree forms upon the window pane and upon the stone flagging of a winter morning!  In the Brownian movement of matter in solution, in crystallization, in chemical affinity, in polarity, in osmosis, in the growth of flint or chert nodules, in limestone formations—like seeking like—in these and in other activities, inert matter seems dreaming of life.

Burroughs, p. 167


Many unexplained chemical phenomena were attributed to the vital forces of molecules.


A mechanical energy is latent in coal, and in all combustible bodies, is vital energy latent in carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and so forth, needing only the right conditions to bring it out.

Burroughs, p. 160


Venel developed themes that were to remain constants of vitalist discourse: the ineradicable distinction between the “living” and the nonliving as between the “organic” and the “inert”; the essential role played in chemical phenomena by inherent by undefinable “forces”…

Williams, p. 163


As soon as the four principal elements, carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen, that make up the living body, have entered the world of living matter, their activities and possible combinations enormously increase; they enter into new relations with one another and form compounds of great variety and complexity, characterized by the instability which life requires.  The organic compounds are vastly more sensitive to light and heat and air that are the same elements in the inorganic world.  What has happened to them?  Chemistry cannot tell  us.

Burroughs, p. 77-8


As chemistry, physics, and astronomy became better understood, it seemed that biology might be the last refuge for those who claimed that God worked directly and miraculously in the natural world.

Mechanism is the theory which regards the organism as a highly complex machine, controlled exclusively by physico-chemical laws, without any sort of action or guidance by any force or power foreign to the conceptions of physcis and chemistry.  Vitalism, on the contrary, asserts that living organisms possess within them some directive power or force of non-material nature, and therefore unknown to science.  This force, called the vital force, is supposed to control some or all of the activities of the organism….On the assumption of vitalism, the living organism is something more than an incident in the universal redistribution of matter and motion; its activities are in part the product of totally new forces, which may be manifestations of a soul, a mind, or other spiritual entity….In the region of physiology, therefore, it is necessary to show that the activities supposed to be due to these entities are in reality due to physico-chemical factors.

Elliot, 1919, p. 106


Natural philosophy may explain a rainbow but not a rabbit.

Burroughs, p. 174


The domain of spiritualistic methods formerly included every branch of nature.  By degrees the inorganic realm became emancipated, until now, by universal consent, all events of inorganic character are interpreted by mechanical methods.  For a long time the rise of materialism scarcely touched the organic realm.  Then gradually organic processes fell under the materialistic law of interpretation.  Spallanzani disproved the spiritual theory of the process of reproduction.  Lavoisier showed that bodily heat was due to oxidation.  Up until that time spiritual theories of life had remained almost unquestioned; after that time the opposite schools of vitalism and mechanism came into sharper conflict.

….There remained the nervous system, which long seemed too complex for experimental investigation, and which was thereupon proclaimed as the true sphere of spiritual activities..  But after a time, experiment began to invade even this sanctified and difficult region.  Reflex action was the first to be investigated; and it was soon found that reflex action was wholly and completely mechanical in nature.

Elliot, 1919, p. 116



     Biochemistry dealt a serious blow to vitalism.  Even after chemists had begun to understand chemical reactions and molecules, this understanding was limited to inorganic molecules.  The organic molecules which functioned inside living things were poorly understood.   Vitalists believed that the molecules of living things were somehow different than those of the nonliving world—they were endowed by God by some “vital force” which allowed them to perform functions inside living things which were not observed in the nonliving world.  After the first organic molecule was synthesized in a lab from inorganic molecules (urea), it became more and more obvious that living things were not composed of any special agent which was not part of the non-living world and that all the components of living things followed the same chemical and physical laws observed described apart from life.  The belief that life could never be fully understood stifled research.  In contrast, the belief that life was completely knowable stimulated great experimental efforts which have contributed most of our understanding of the biological world.

Fr. Maher tells us that “the principle of life in the lower animals was held by schoolmen to be an example of a simple principle which is nevertheless not spiritual since it is altogether dependent upon the organism, or, as they said, completely immersed in the body.  St. Thomas accordingly speaks of the corporeal souls of brutes.”  In fact the scholastic assigned what it called “souls”, sensitive and vegetative souls, to vegetables as well as to the lower animals, and by that term “soul” signified that principle of life which, as vitalists hold, is the factor—the elusive but none the less certainly existent factor—which distinguishes living from non-living matter, which places the meanest drop of living protoplasm, the microscopic Amoeba, in a position separated by a gulf of immeasurable width from the most complicated product or substance of the inorganic world.

Windle, 1908, p. 4-5


Vitalism was doomed to fail, just as had all prior attempts to identify the direct action of God in the natural world.  The reason is concisely summed up in the following observation:

…the belief in vitalism is least where the knowledge of the facts are greatest.

Elliot, 1919, p. 118


Vitalism needed ignorance.  As long as there were unanswered questions, vitalists could claim that the answers to certain questions would never be known.

It is the chemistry in the leaf of the plant that diverts or draws the solar energy into the stream of life, and how it does it is a mystery.

Burroughs, p. 78


All proofs of Vitalism, i.e. all reasonings by which it is shown that not even the machine-theory covers the field of biological phenomena, can only be indirect proofs: they can only make it clear that mechanical or singular causality is not sufficient for an explanation of what happens.

Driesh, 1914, p. 208


Very nearly all the arguments adduced against mechanism at the present day are based on the statement that “it is impossible to understand” how such and such an event could be produced by mechanical means.

Elliot, 1919, p. 115


The vitalists have been apt to proceed upon the assumption that the burden of proof lies upon mechanism, and that until mechanism shall be definitely established by experimental methods, vitalism holds the field.

Elliot, 1919, p. 115


The following author mistakes the regions into which “mind can take no further step” with the regions where his mind refused to take a further step.

So in life, what is it that sets up this slow gentle explosion that makes the machinery of our vital economies go—that draws new matter into the vortex and casts the used-up material out—in short, that creates and keeps up the unstable condition, the seesaw upon which life depends?  To enable the mind to grasp it we have to invent or posit some principle, call it the vital force, as so many have and still do, or call it molecular force, as Tyndall does, or the power of God, as our orthodox brethren do, it matters not.  We are on the border-land between the knowable and the unknowable, where mind can take no further step. 

Burroughs, p. 42



     The entire science of physiology has been a battleground between those who attempted to describe the natural processes which govern the function of the natural organs of the body and those who felt that no function of life could occur without direct supernatural involvement.  In fact, the first physiology textbook ever written went unpublished for fear of those who only accepted supernatural explanations for the natural world.

L’Homme (pub. 1662) was the “first textbook on physiology”; it was written because “it was part of his philosophy to show that man consisted of an earthly machine inhabited and governed by a rational soul.”…Descartes did not publish it while alive for fear of conflict with the Church, which had lately condemned Galileo’s teaching. 

Wheeler, 1939, p. 18


Even once experiments into the phenomena of the body began, vitalists argued that they should stop since the “vital principle” of the body could not be studied scientifically.


The vital and the mechanical cooperate in all our bodily functions.  Swallowing our food is a mechanical process, the digestion of it as a chemical process and the assimilation and elimination of it a vital process.  Inhaling and exhaling the air is a mechanical process, the oxidation of the blood is a chemical process, and the renewal of the corpuscles is a vital process.  Growth, assimilation, elimination, reproduction, metabolism, and secretion are all vital processes which cannot be described in terms of physics and chemistry.  All our bodily movements—lifting, striking, walking, running—are mechanical but seeing, hearing, and tasting, are of another order.  And that which controls, directs, coordinates, and inhibits our activities belongs to a still higher order, the psychic.  The world of thoughts and emotions within us, while dependent upon and interacting with the physical world without us, cannot be accounted for in terms of the physical world.

Burroughs, p. 213-4


Why a muscle contracts, or why a gland secretes, or “why the oxidation of starch in the living machine gives rise to motion, growth, and reproduction, while if the oxidation occurs in the chemist’s laboratory…it simply gives rise to heat,” are questions he cannot answer. 

Burroughs, p. 93-4


In every machine, properly so called, all the factors are known; but do we know all the factors in a living body?  Professor Conn applies his searching analysis to most of the functions of the human body, to digestion, to assimilation, to circulation, to respiration, to metabolism, and so on, and he finds in every function something that does not fall within his category—some force not mechanical nor chemical, which he names vital.

Burroughs, p. 91


Some argued that all of physiological processes required this “vital principle”.

…the vitalist would add to this the statement that all the processes which take place in the body are not explicable in these [mechanistic] terms, and moreover that none of them find their full explanation in any such way.

Windle, 1908, p. 7




     We now know that the brain is a biological organ where sensations are detected, motor commands are generated, memories are stored, and where our emotions are determined.  In the past, many argued that a material organ could never be capable of determining what they viewed to be supernatural attributes of the soul.  Cotton Mather not only felt that thoughts arose in the soul rather than the brain, but that this was “a law given to the soul by the glorious God.”


The Union between the soul and the body is altogether inexplicable, the soul not having any surface to touch the body, and the body not having any sentiment as the soul  The union of the soul and body does consist, as Monsieur Tauvry expresses it, in the conformity of our thoughts to our corporeal actions; but says he, for the explanation of this conformity, we must have recourse to a superior power.  Truly sirs, do what you can, you mist quickly come to that!

     Our nervous parts are very sensible.  Objects do affect our senses, and make impressions on them; the senses receiving such impressions, the modification of the organs produced by them terminate in the brain; if they do not so, the soul is unconcerned in them; but there is a law given to the soul by the glorious God, who forms the spirit of man within him, that in their doing so there shall be such and such thoughts produced in the soul.

Cotton Mather, The Christian Philosopher, 1721, p. 291


The functioning of the brain was one of the last refuges for vitalists.

Science can only deal with life as a physical phenomenon; as a psychic phenomenon it is beyond its scope, except so far as the psychic is manifested through the physical.

Burroughs, p. 161


The notion that the brain could not be responsible for thoughts and emotions was a major premise of Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science.   If the brain could think, she argued, God was a liar.

Question.Does brain think, and do nerves feel, and is there intelligence in matter?

Answer.—No, not if God is true and mortal man a liar.

Mary Baker Eddy, 1890, p. 478


Remember, brain is not mind.

Mary Baker Eddy, 1890, p. 372


When the involvement of the brain in thought began to be understood, vitalists claimed that the natural aspects of the brain were not sufficient to determine thought without consideration of a non-natural “vital principle”.

When the mechanical and chemical concepts are applied to the phenomena of the nervous system, they work very well till we come to mental phenomena.  When we try to correlate physical energy with thought or consciousness, we are at the end of our tether.  Here is a gulf we cannot span.  The theory of the machine breaks down.  Some other force than material force is demanded here, namely, psychical, --a force or principle quite beyond the sphere of the analytic method.

Burroughs, p. 93


One of the amazing facts, however, which mechanism does not and cannot explain is the fact of consciousness and reason.  If consciousness and reason were not in the original fire mist, how could they come into existence?  I hear you say that in reality consciousness and reason are identical with chemical-physical changes.  I stoutly deny it.

Neal, p. 23


I think you are wrong in assuming that Mind is a quality of Matter…This is why Mind has to be ignored in the mechanistic scheme.

Neal, p. 36


Hardly any have ever recognized the close relation between the problem of mind and body and real Vitalism. 

Driesh, 1914, p. 162


     Vitalists once tried to explain all physiology in terms of non-natural forces.  As the body’s systems were better understood, they were left with the brain as the only remaining organ where a “vital principle” might be found.

..the only branch of physiology requiring attention is the physiology of the nervous system, for it is only in this branch that any remnants of vitalism survive.

Elliot, 1919, p. 105



Some believed that the heart functioned through supernatural forces.

According to Voetius, the heart “is moved by the soul or informing form through the mediation of qualities [operating] as principles and other instruments which are necessary for animal motion.”

Ruler, p. 170



The Bible states that life is located in the blood.  This belief persisted.


Diastole…occcurs through the blood, which is swelling in virtue of its inner spiritus….

Harvey, from Fuchs, p. 71


Even the first drop of blood shows reactions; it “lives, moves itself and senses like an animal”…”through the spirit pulses the life blood”

Harvey, from Fuchs, p. 74




The reproductive system and development were often identified as examples of the supernatural “vital principle” in action.



We know that embryological becoming is “vitalistic,” that it is impossible to comprehend it by the laws of physics and chemistry. 

Driesh, 1914, p. 226


 The facts of development and the observations which are due to the labours of the experimental embryologists present us with a picture wholly different from that afforded by a contemplation of the processes of inanimate bodies and it is the contemplation of this wide and unbridgeable difference which seems to be leading those or many of those whose work is chiefly of an embryological character to the conclusion that some kind of force other than that recognized by chemists and physicists must have its existence in the living cell, a force which is able to direct it to the appointed term of development…

Windle, 1908, p. 69-70


In other words the indications point to the fact that the remarkable happenings which have been described as taking place in the cell prior to and during division are vital manifestations, since they cannot be explained by any of the known forces of physical science.

Windle, 1908, p. 60


While Mendel’s work suggested that there was a natural mechanism which determined inheritance, many vitalists insisted that inheritance was governed by the supernatural.  Not only did vitalists de-emphasize the importance of Mendelian genetics, but also of the function of DNA once its function was revealed.


Staggering creative powers are now ascribed, without qualm, to the mutability of the DNA molecule.  These powers are, to a large extent, inferred powers…A giant inferential leap is taken, to the assertion that the inexhaustible richness of life is the product of the innate mutability of this supermolecule, aided by selection.  Never was so much owed to so little.  In thus elevating one molecule above all others, Biochemistry has, as it were, reached the monotheistic stage of its development.  This molecule is endowed, like God, with potential creative powers…At this point it ought to have become clear that DNA has become invested with transcendental powers.

…Personally, I find it inconceivable that a molecule, through its innate mutability, aided by selection, could have invented such a being as man, in his versatile innate potentialities.  Far more conceivable is it that man should have “invented” such a molecule—i.e., endowed it with creative powers that are, in part at least, imaginary…

Spilsbury, p. 120-1


The following vitalist arguments could arguably be called persuasive before the function of DNA was well understood.  Vitalism did not address unanswerable questions, simply questions which had not been answered yet.


The chemico-physical explanation of the universe goes but a little way.  These are the tools of the creative processes, but they are not that process, nor its prime cause.  Start the flame of life going, and the rest may be explained in terms of chemistry; start the human body developing, and physiological processes explain its growth; but why it becomes a man and not a monkey—what explains that?

Burroughs, p. 23



Some vitalists entered medicine and brought vitalism with them.

The principal subject of our research in the science of man must be knowledge of the determinations or laws of the vital principle by which it is animated.  I regard this principle of life as the most general experimental cause, [the one working] at the most elevated order, presented to us by the phenomena of health and illness.

Barthez, from Williams, p. 263


 Because of their belief in the supernatural causation of natural events, vitalistic physicians opposed the germ theory of disease and were reluctant to practice inoculation.

Chicoyneau has been the object of historians’ ridicule for embracing an anti-contagionist doctrine of plague.

Williams, p. 71


…[Cusson] traced the history of inoculation in Montpelleir, observing that his city had been among the slowest to accept this practice…

Williams, p. 303


Rather than germs, these vitalist physicians attempted to treat the “spiritual and moral causes of disease.”


This was Fouquet’s first entry into a field—the promotion of dramatic physical therapies to treat “moral” disorders—that became one of his specialities.

Williams, p. 226


Menuret’s entry asserted strong claims about the competence of physicians in matters of sex, marriage, and family and, more generally, about the entanglement of physical and moral causes in health and disease.  Menuret attributed satyriasis [the “malady which puts men…in the state of salaciousness that, according to mythology, characterized satyrs] to “a disorder of the semen and genital parts” that was itself traceable to seminal plethora or “excessive tension or sensibility”.  These in turn were caused by bad habits and activities including “debauchery…masturbation, lascivious reading, obscene pictures, [and] libertine conversations,” any or all of which could result in a “habitual state of erection.”  Proposing remedies for “satyriasis,” morevover, Menuet counseled that this condition could be cured only by marriage, “the sole means authorized by religion, law, and morality for the legitmate excretion of semen.”  Such medical moralizing was not easily distinguishable from the inventories of sexual sins and remedial steps found to be found in catechisms.

Williams, p. 227-8


In describing “moral diseases”, some vitalists focused on those maladies which women suffered.

Unmarried girls, in whom desire is more precocious and more pressing [than in young men], are much more troubled by the overlong retention of semen…They not only desire the evacuation of their own semen by the womb avidly desires the semen of the man.  When these…desires are not fulfilled, girls fall into a choleric delirium…They become feeble, languishing, melancholic.  Sometimes the effects of the semen on the organs of the body and on the mind are so strong…that they overwhelm the reason.  Reaching this degree of violence the venereal appetite…produces the raging delirium known as uterine fury.  Carried beyond themselves, these young women lose sight entirely of the laws of modesty and self-comportment, and seek by all means to assuage the violence of their passion.  They do not hesitate to attack men or to attract them by the most indecent postures and lascivious seductions.  All practitioners agree that the different symptoms of the vapors or hysterical affectations that attack unmarried women and widows are a consequence of the privation of sexual intercourse.

Menuret from Williams, p. 229


Most important, pregnancy itself was a disease…As Sauvages himself stated, this representation of pregnancy-as-disease rested on religious authority: pregnancy was “a true malady which, according to Genesis, was inflicted on women as punishment.”

Williams, p. 233


These vitalist physicians, in studying the mystical vital principle of individuals, arrived at explanations for the differences between races.  This “science” helped to reinforce the racism of the day. The vitalist physicians also reinforced stereotypes of women based on their “scientific” study of the vital principle in women. The following author argued against a woman’s right to vote because it would oppose the position designed for women by God and because women were inferior to men in their vital force.

The Family is the proper nursery of the race in morality and religion.  For this it was designed by the Creator…The Family was instituted as a school for heaven, whose perfect symbol is the Family gathered in their father’s house.  The study of Woman’s primeval relation to Man and the Family would aid in the solution of some questions concerning her sphere in modern society…

But though woman is thus inferior to Man in native vital force, a kindly Nature has imparted to her a more subtile vivacity and grace…and it is this prerogative of Womanhood that she would sacrifice by attempting the unequal strife and burden of the “working-day world”.  Only at the cost of this same prerogative—the prerogative of ruling in society through the homage of valor to grace, of strength to refinement, of muscle to heart—only by sacrificing this cold Woman enter into the arena of political strife…Since suffrage carries not simply the act of voting but the function of ruling as well—not only declaring one’s preference in political affairs, but actually governing the whole community—this can not be the natural right of any individual, but is a privilege to be accorded by society—by the Body Politic finding itself in power…

But while Woman shall continue to fulfill for society that most serviceable, most honorable, and most sacred office of Maternity, which is hers by divine right, her very nature must forbid her employment in the public service of the state.

--Thompson, 1870, p. 141-2


As will be discussed elsewhere, religious conservatives of the eighteenth through twentieth centuries blamed “onania” (a term for masturbation derived from the figure Onan in the Bible) for just about everything from disease to old age.  The author of the book Onania which started this craze referred to vital principles.

And another very late author (a physician also) having spoke of the imbecilities and weaknesses incident to the fair sex [women] and their cure , says, “There is one calumny amongst many others, ignorance and partiality have very unjustly thrown on them, viz., that the barrenness, unfruitfulness, and want of posterity, so frequent in England (especially among the better sort) is commonly cast on them; whereas it is very great odds, if the fault lies not on the other side.  If the account of generation is now established, and confirmed by undeniable experiences and observations, be true and just…that the female furnishes out only a proper habitation, fit nourishment, due warmth, and such like outward conveniences for the little beings; but that the vital principles, the living particles proceed altogether from the male, then it will follow, that the concurrence of a great many more circumstances, and their precise degrees is necessary for fecundity in the male, than the female.

Onania (anonymous, early 18th century), p. 169




     What ever happened to the vitalists?  In the strictest sense, they are no more.  However, the “vital energy” that they proposed to be required for all aspects of nature to function normally was simply another name for what they thought was the direct action of God in nature.   There are many today which still argue that natural processes will never be able to fully explain phenomena, especially in living things, without reference to this direct influence of the divine.  The vitalists who held this philosophy disappeared in the early 1900s, just as the new fundamentalist movement was giving rise to creationists.  Vitalists applied this idea of a “vital principle” to evolution—they argued that no natural processes would be sufficient to explain the evolution of species.  They shared the feelings of modern creationists in that they felt that only when divine, supernatural action is considered could the development of life be understood.

  Vitalism had opposed natural explanations of chemical and physical phenomena, the entire science of physiology (especially neurophysiology and cardiophysiology), and the germ theory of disease.  As these sciences advanced, vitalism fell into disrepute.   In the early 1900s, the vitalist opposition to natural processes involved in development, differentiation, and life itself were doomed by the rapidly developing understanding of inheritance and of the function of DNA.  By the early 1900s, vitalism itself was dying in all of its attempts to replace natural processes for supernatural ones, with one exception.  The tenets of vitalism still inspired opposition to evolution.

…we may say here once and for all that all who during the ascendancy of materialism preserved the vitalistic tradition, were at the same time opponents of orthodox, i.e. materialistic Darwinism.  Indeed, it was in its opposition to the theory founded on chance that the tradition maintained its strength.

Driesh, 1914, p. 151


The vitalist opposition to evolution was perhaps understandable since an evolutionary understanding of the world was one of the factors in the decline of vitalism.





     Throughout history, conservative believers who have claimed that God was directly responsible for any phenomenon of the natural world which was not explicable in their day have felt threatened by new discoveries.  They have often tried to de-emphasize the significance of the new discovery and its ability to explain the natural processes which had previously been a mystery.  Creationists reacted similarly as the study of genetics unveiled cellular processes which they had previously attributed to miraculous divine intervention.

With so many expositors of science making a sort of “god” out of DNA, it is time to show that, with all of its complexity, DNA still is but the “servant” of the cell or organism as a whole, not the “master” (Lammerts, 1967c)

Rather than being the master chemical, DNA is the servant of the cell (Gish, 1967).

What of DNA?  Is it the “master chemical”, the “secret of life”?...It seems inescapable to me that DNA, rather than being the master of the cell, is the servant of the cell (Gish, 1967).

Williams stated in his review of Juke’s book, mentioned above, that in this book we have witnessed “the deification of a molecule” (Gish, 1967).


There have even been cases of creationists in the 1990s who have openly advocated vitalism even though the movement is usually associated with the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.  According to the editor’s note following the first quote, there are a number of vitalistic creationists.

Mechanism in the philosophical sense means that all operations of living organisms are explained by the interrelationship of physicochemical forces.  The opposite view, vitalism, means that programmed operations of living organisms are performed by some life principle distinct from physicochemical forces….Vander and others make some interesting comments on these doctrines…They claim that the mechanistic view predominates in this century, because the evidence has agreed with this view, and that vitalism still exists in various forms.  They are willing to concede creationism has some rights to exist as a possible option. (Kaufman, 1995). [Editor’s note:  There is considerable difference of opinion among creationists on the historic vitalism-mechanism debate.  Some…would agree with David Kaufmann that historic vitalism should be resurrected as an appropriate stance for creationists. (Kaufman, 1995).]

     McCann offers evidence which strongly supports the view that in development form the fertilized egg cell the embryonic cells appear possessed of “skill” to “govern” and “exercise control” and that this is suggestive of “a cellular level of intelligence.”  McCann uses modest, careful language.  I think that we can be bolder. ..the quantitative estimates given above for the insufficiency of the genome accord with the view that the intelligence required for development has to come from an external, immaterial source…
The information for the designs and construction of biological structures and in particular for those characters which define and maintain the originally created “kinds” (baramin) is imposed on the natural world by special divine providential power….
Since the basic design information for biodesigns cannot be carried in the genome, mutations of the genome and natural selection are incapable of producing the evolutionary novelties which would be absolutely necessary to make macroevolution a reality…The first part of the above proposal is not a scientific hypothesis, for it incorporates the empirically untestable principal of supernatural influence on nature.  It is actually a metaphysical concept which is an element in a Chrisitan conceptual framework for research in genetics…Biology still needs God the Creator who is also the sovereign Lord and Sustainer of all His creatures..  Vitalism of a supernatural kind as taught in the Bible is not an inviable concept in biology.  It has its proper place in the conceptual framework of Christian research scientists.  Let there be more research by Christians who have this fundamental spiritual and philosophical commitment (Kofahl, 1992).