Virchow's Caution

Here, as also in regard to "Darwinism," which was advanced about the same

time, the typical advocate of "caution" was Rudolf Virchow. His doubts and

reservations found utterance very soon after the theory itself had been

promulgated. In his "Cellular Pathologie,"(76) and in an essay on "The Old

Vitalism and the New,"(77) he puts in a word for a vis vitalis. The old

vitalism, he declared, had been false because it assumed, not a vis

a spiritus vitalis. The substances in animate and in inanimate bodies

have undoubtedly absolutely the same properties. Nevertheless, "we must at

once rid ourselves of the scientific prudery of regarding the processes of

life solely as the mechanical result of the molecular forces inherent in

their constituent bodily parts." The essential feature of life is a

derived and communicated force additional to the molecular forces.

Whence it comes we are not told. He glided all round the problem with

platitudinarian expressions, which were intended to show his own adherence

as a matter of course to the new biological school, and which revealed at

the same time his striking incapacity for defining a problem with any

precision. At a "certain period in the evolution of the earth" this force

arose, as the ordinary mechanical movements "swung over" into the vital.

But it is thus a special form of movement, which detaches itself from the

great constants of general movement, and runs its course alongside of, and

in constant relation to, these. (Did ever vitalist assert more?) After

thus preparing the way for a return of the veering process at a particular

stage of evolution, and giving the necessary assurances against the

"diametrically opposed dualistic position," Virchow employs almost all the

arguments against the mechanical theory which vitalists have ever brought

forward. Even the catalytic properties of ferments are above the

"ordinary" physical and chemical forces. The movement of crystallisation,

too, cannot be compared with the vital movement. For vital force is not

immanent in matter, but is always the product of previous life.(78) In the

simplest processes of growth and nutrition the vis vitalis plays its

vital role. This is true in a much greater degree of the processes of

development and morphogenesis. In the phenomena of irritability life

reveals its spontaneity through "responses," and so on. "Peu d'anatomie

pathologique eloigne du vitalisme, beaucoup d'anatomie pathologique y


It is impossible to make much of this position. It leaves the theory with

one of the opposing parties, the practice with the other, and the problem

just where it was before.