This article first appeared in the December 2019 issue of Lifelines, the Life West student magazine.
We have all heard the idiom, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it,” a saying attributed to writer and philosopher George Santayana. This is true in the rocky waters of vitalism vs. mechanism. Throughout time, the foundation of many health systems has been a combination of both vitalism and mechanism. Pakistan and India gave us Ayurvedic medicine, a practice that balances three elements inside us through the use of spices, herbs and surgery. Persia was the first to develop a hospital system that stood on the pillars of surgery, herbs, and divine words. Hellenistic medicine was used by the ancient Greeks to balance the four humors they believed determined the health of a person. This was done through drugs, amulets and sacrifice. And yet in our modern times, we are unable to allow vitalism and mechanism to work in harmony.
To be considered a vitalistic medicine there must be a belief in an internal imbalance as the root of all disease. For many, it is an unseen force that lends itself to organic material. In chiropractic, we call it innate intelligence. The word “innate” is a common enough word in the English language and we are not repurposing it. We use it with its original definition meaning “inborn” and yet as I type this, autocorrect repeatedly tries to change it for me. It is such a foreign concept to this mechanistic world we now live in.
However, our mechanistic society has forgotten its roots. The study of biology was once termed a “natural philosophy” and was one of the last pre-industrial philosophies to become a science. In order to be termed a science, the field of study must be recognized to follow the principles that we know to explain the natural world. In other words, it must be constrained by the laws of chemistry and physics. This is the idea behind mechanism and as such it is the foundation of western medicine.
Like many systems in America, medicine as we know it ultimately stems from the ancient Greeks. The Greeks believed that illness came from an internal source, this being an imbalance in one of four humors of the body. These humors are blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. But along with this view of the humors was the practice of dissection. Dissection was illegal in ancient Greece and so was practiced under taboo by the philosophers of the time such as Galen, for which so many anatomical structures are named. That’s right, medicine was studied by philosophers. The legality of dissection fluctuated throughout the ages. It was dependent on public opinion, superstitions and religious leaders of the time. It wasn’t until 1745 that the first anatomy course was offered in America at the University of Pennsylvania prior to the permanent legalization of dissection in this country.
The 1700s in America was the age of the body snatchers. The demand for bodies was so great that medical students and professors routinely robbed graves under the cover of darkness for the purpose of studying anatomy. It was no mystery who had dug up and stolen the body of a loved one, and public outcry was fierce. This resulted in multitudes of riots throughout the country, tThe most famous of which was the New York Resurrection Riot of 1788. A riot of 5,000 people resulted in the death of three rioters and three militiamen. Following that, dissection for the purpose of anatomical knowledge was legalized in America in 1789 when judges were allowed to sentence executed criminals to dissection after death.
This was only 106 years before the founding of chiropractic. And we as a profession owe a tremendous amount to these body-snatching medical professionals and the anatomical discoveries they made. However, the medical world has forgotten their less-than-desirable beginnings. The historical consequences of mechanism have been so much greater than that of chiropractic, and still we struggle to legitimize the vitalism chiropractic is founded on.
The arguments against vitalism target the lack of evidence to support the existence of a non-material force that resides in organic matter and is absent in non-organic matter. It is much easier to prove the existence of something immaterial than it is to prove its non-existence. So for Western medicine, theirs is a losing battle. In the thousands of years that humans have been trying to cure ourselves of ills, we have yet to disprove the existence of a vitalistic energy. However, we can not ignore the fact that with the advancement of technology, many vitalistic beliefs fall out of favor or are disproven completely. But this does not disprove vitalism as a whole. It only means that we have yet to prove the existence of an internal force that follows the laws of physics and chemistry.
Neither vitalists nor mechanists still believe that the basis for disease is an imbalance in the four humors. But this belief is the root that ties us together. We are still trying to pin down that essential, or should I say “vital” connection between the body and the mind. So we follow the path of those that came before. As Sir Issac Newton so famously said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” Do not forgo the study of history, and you too shall see further and do more to elevate this field in the eyes of the mechanistic world.