Creationism and Vitalism

Today, dear reader, we shall consider the discredited and useless pseudo-scientific concept of Vitalism, about which Wikipedia says:

Vitalism is the doctrine, often advocated in the past but now rejected by mainstream science, that “living organisms are fundamentally different from non-living entities because they contain some non-physical element or are governed by different principles than are inanimate things”. Where vitalism explicitly invokes a vital principle, that element is often referred to as the “vital spark”, “energy” or “élan vital”, which some equate with the “soul”.

It also says this:

The vitalists strongly rejected Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Because of their teleological leanings, they strongly rejected his selectionism. As Darwin’s theory of evolution denied the existence of any cosmic teleology, the vitalists saw Darwin’s theories as too materialistic to explain the complexity of life.

[...]

Alfred Russel Wallace believed qualitative novelties could arise through the process of evolution, in particular the phenomena of life and mind; like the vitalists Wallace attributed these novelties to a supernatural agency. Later in his life, Wallace was an advocate of spiritualism and believed in a non-material origin for the higher mental faculties of humans.

[...]

On discussing the history of vitalism in biology Ernst Mayr wrote in 1988: “Vitalism has become so disreputable a belief in the last fifty years that no biologist alive today would want to be classified as a vitalist.”

[...]

Vitalism has sometimes been criticized as begging the question by inventing a name. … Thomas Henry Huxley compared vitalism to stating that water is the way it is because of its “aquosity”.

[...]

In 1967, Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, stated “And so to those of you who may be vitalists I would make this prophecy: what everyone believed yesterday, and you believe today, only cranks will believe tomorrow.”

That’s enough background. You’ve got the general idea — vitalism has as much scientific credibility as the phlogiston theory. Wikipedia also has a related article on Élan vital. Okay, so where are we going with all of this? You know. What we’re getting at is that the creationists are vitalists, but they don’t use that term.

At the website of Answers in Genesis (AIG), described in the Cast of Characters section of our Intro page, they just posted this article: What Is Life? The Informational View. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us:

Matter and energy are necessary aspects of living forms, but they do not fundamentally distinguish between living and inanimate systems. “Information” is, however, a basic characteristic of all sentient beings.

It’s no mystery what they’re saying. It’s good old vitalism, but with a new name. “Information” sounds so … so scientific. That’s why creation scientists like to use it. And so do the Discoveroids. But don’t be confused by their ever-changing terminology. Whenever they mention “information” as an unexplained component of life, they’re really talking about vitalism.

AIG’s article continues, and now they give us what they call a “formula”:

Life = material part (physical and chemical aspects) + + non-material part (information having an intellectual source)

Looks good, huh? Then they talk about three different kinds of “information”: structural, operational, and communicative. Yes, we know, it just keeps getting crazier. But don’t be discouraged. Click over there and slog through the whole article. See if you can make any sense of it. Anyway, here’s how it ends:

All these information systems require an intellectual source according to the information theorems mentioned above. The endeavors of evolutionists to explain life as a purely mechanistic phenomenon gloss over these facts and ignore these verifiable theorems.

What does that mean — Information requires an Informer? Yeah, probably. Oh, we don’t know what “verifiable theorems” they’re talking about. Presumably those “theorems” are discussed in earlier articles. Go ahead and hunt for them if you like. For us, it’s sufficient to realize that all the creationists’ jargon-filled blather about “information” is nothing more than old-fashioned vitalism. And it’s just as nonsensical.

See also: Creationism and Vitalism, Part 2.

Copyright © 2012. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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16 responses to “Creationism and Vitalism

  1. Gabriel Hanna

    DI talks this way too. When they describe methodological naturalism as requiring that everything be reduced to “matter in motion”, they are endorsing vitalism.

  2. Gabriel Hanna says: “DI talks this way too.”

    Oh yeah. Big time.

  3. “All these information systems require an intellectual source according to the information theorems mentioned above.”

    Theorem. I have my own theorem – that they’re using the looser dictionary definition of that term, and not the NAS or AAAS definition.

  4. I misread that as loser term.

  5. Jim Thomerson

    I prefer, when I can remember, to speak of living things, rather than use life as a noun. What do you think of the idea that being alive is an emergent property of a properly organized, adequately complex system? An emergent property is the result of organization rather than composition.

  6. Matter and energy are necessary aspects of living forms, but they do not fundamentally distinguish between living and inanimate systems. “Information” is, however, a basic characteristic of all sentient beings.

    Life = material part (physical and chemical aspects) + + non-material part (information having an intellectual source)

    Please someone correct me if my example is wrong, but if I have a piece of paper, it conveys no information by itself, but if that paper contains an image of George Washington, the number one, and other information (the non-material part), then it is an animate objecd according to the creationist’s definition?

  7. (Matter and energy are necessary aspects of living forms, but they do not fundamentally distinguish between living and inanimate systems. “Information” is, however, a basic characteristic of all sentient beings.)

    Perhaps they can enlighten us as to what “information” suddenly go missing when some poor creature up and dies. Their definition seams to require on this phenomenon. Sounds like a good DI research project; Find it, measure it, publish it, collect Nobel Prize.

  8. ***Matter and energy are necessary aspects of living forms, but they do not fundamentally distinguish between living and inanimate systems. “Information” is, however, a basic characteristic of all sentient beings.***

    Information is however also a basic characteristic of all non-sentient beings, and all inanimate, non-living things as well. Show me something that doesn’t have information as a basic characteristic! Talk about an explanation that doesn’t explain anything!

    G.B. Shaw was also a vitalist, which shows you don’t have to be religious to think this way. I once read an essay by Shaw where he explains his view, in a roundabout way, of this matter. He mentioned a scientist who cut off the tails of mice (or some other small animal) for many generations and none of the mice “inherited” taillessness. Shaw said this proved nothing since, if I understood him, he believed that in order to evolve the change to taillessness, the animal had to “will” said condition in itself and its descendants. Apparently some vitalists thought that you are what you think! Consciousness uber alles.

  9. The Evolution Industry

    Like the title huh? I’m not a scientist (Dad was), but trawling through this missive made my eyes water. So many paragraphs to quote and fanatics downunder are at it again. They must be taking too many vitalist pills.

  10. Curmy, this is a very important observation, one I hope will be further explored on your admirable blog!

    Vitalism is indeed the fallacy at the heart of creationism, the source of their incredulity at what they call the “molecules-to-man” version of ‘Evilution.’ And what, when it comes down to it, is their essential objection? Nothing more than a belief that there must be more to a living thing than ‘mere’ molecules — there just has to be a ghost in the machine, somewhere.

    Ambrose Bierce, in his splendid (and curmudgeonly) Devil’s Dictionary, offers this fine definition:

    life, n., A spiritual pickle preserving the body from decay

  11. @Megalonyx Nice one re Ambrose quote. I have a lot to catch up with, and as you said, this is a great forum and all the best from Oz to those affected by Sandy.

  12. Megalonyx says: “Curmy, this is a very important observation”

    I think so too, and it seems so obvious now that I certainly can’t be the first to notice it — but I really don’t remember coming across it before. I must have, however. It’s absurd to think that it’s original with me.

  13. Ceteris Paribus

    @Meglonyx and Curmy: In the conflict thesis between science an religion there is an interesting 19th century temporal conjunction of Darwin, the rise of science in Victorian Britain, and the early foundations of Ellen White’s evangelical literal creationism that eventually gave us the ICR and DI.

    The 19th century roots might be explored as a context for the present connection between ID and vitalism. In the latter 19th century the Victorian physicist George Gabriel Stokes developed a concept he named “Directionism” as an adjunct to “Vitalism,” by which he envisioned that physical laws could be used to motivate a non-Darwinian, i.e. non-materialist, basis for the observed reality of biological evolution.

    According to an essay by David B. Wilson, in the later part of the 19th century Stokes and other contemporary religious scientists such as Kelvin and Joule represented the views of the older, Newtonian, clergy-gentry scientists in the tradition of Newton or Paley, against the growing challenge of middle-class, professional, and increasingly non-materialist views of biologists such as T.H. Huxley.

    Stoke’s idea of directionalism appeared in Britiain even earlier, 1862, in an article by physicist P.G. Tait in Robert Chambers “Encyclopedia“. Chambers is the one who anonymously published “Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation” in 1844 and caused sufficient public reaction in Britain to cause Darwin to delay publishing his own work.

    Anyway, if you are poking into the roots of vitalism in ID, look also for “directionism” which doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry. The Wilson essay to which I referred is “A Physicist’s Alternative to Materialism: The Religious Thought of George Gabriel Stokes” by David B. Wilson. It was published in the Journal “Victorian Studies” (Indiana University) Autumn, 1984 and also appears in the collection “Energy & Entropy: Science and Culture in Victorian Britain” (Indiana University Press: Patrick Brantlinger, 1989). A broader context is in Wilson’s “Kelvin and Stokes: A comparative Study in Victorian Physics” (Bristol: Adam Hilger, 1987)

    I have misplaced my copy of Ron Number’s “The Creationists” which may have some info on the topic. There is a 2010 book edited by Numbers and Denis Alexander “Biology and Ideology from Descartes to Dawkins” which a word search shows 23 references to vitalism, but none specifically to directionism.

  14. That’s good background material, Ceteris Paribus. But it all goes back to the Sumerian brother-sister gods, Oogity and Boogity. Boogity gave birth to the cosmos, and Oogity then fertilized it with his vital essence. (That’s from the Curmudgeon’s library of hidden lore.)

  15. @ Ceteris Paribus: huge thanks for that, it’s a topic of growing interest to me. I have some substantial reading to do now — I am beholden to you for some very useful steers!

  16. Our Curmudgeon lets slip a reference to

    the Curmudgeon’s library of hidden lore

    No doubt the restricted shelves therein include a volume of the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Darwin with its notorious “Trowel Strategy for Total World Domination.”