Posts Tagged ‘Argument from Design’

‘Anatomia Theologica’: Dissection as Display of the Superb Divine Design of the Human Body

May 28, 2013

Another myth about the supposed religious opposition to Scientific advance is the belief that the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages placed a ban on human dissection. In fact human bodies were dissected at Bologna University in 1275 by the surgeon William of Saliceto. His Chirurgia was the first topographical anatomy. It relied heavily on classical sources, but nevertheless also included Saliceto’s own observations. These included the damage to sustained by the internal organs of a man wounded in the chest. The University also carried out post-mortems to ascertain the cause of death. Mondino of Luzzi introduced regular public dissections at the university for teaching purposes when he became a professor there.

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries the argument from design for the existence of God also stimulated interest in human anatomy. For scholars such as Friedrich Hoffman, professor of medicine and physics at Halle, Georg Albrecht Hamberger of Jena, and the physicist and Lutheran theologian Johann Friedrich Wucherer, the intricate mechanism of the human body clearly pointed to the existence of a superbly brilliant Designer. This was clearly expressed in their works, which were written to show God’s amazing skill in shaping the human body, and the Almighty as a suitable subject for awe and worship. This argument from the immense intricacy of the human form was known as Anatomia Theologica. Although human dissection was permitted, there was nevertheless much opposition to it. It was believed that dissection of a person’s corpse would lead to that person being incomplete in the next world. As a result, such dissections were performed on criminals as a form of final humiliation. The elevated view of the human body as a demonstration of the Lord’s existence and superb skill in Anatomia Theologica challenged this hostility to dissection. For anatomists such as Lorenz Heister of Helmstedt and Albrecht von Haller believed that dissection could not be wrong if it served to reveal more fully God’s intricate craftsmanship. They therefore held public dissections to display God’s handiwork in the human form.

Thus Christian attitudes could lead to a hostility to human dissection, but this did not prevent academics using it to investigate and teach anatomy. It also served in Germany to promote anatomical science as further evidence of God’s superb design shown in humanity’s very fabric.


Natural Theology the Motive for Biological Research between 1650 and 1850

May 28, 2013

In their book on the relationship between Christian faith and the history of science, The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy, Nancy R. Pearcey and Charles B. Thaxton point out that Christian apologetics provided much of the motive for biological research from the Renaissance to the late eighteenth century. Following Aristotle, Christians saw the features of animals and plants as deliberately formed by the Creator to provide for them. Because it was believed that mere chance alone could not create them, they provided superb evidence for the existence and creative power of the Almighty. They quote evolutionary biologist, Ernst Mayr, stating

‘The study of natural history in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century was almost completely in the nads of amateurs, particularly country parsons’. They, and Meyr, also note that the secular bias of most textbooks obscure just how far Christian belief permeated and shaped all the sciences, including biology, in this period. Meyr states that ‘It is difficult for the modern person to appreciate the unity of science and Christian religion that existed from the Renaissance and far into the eighteenth century. The Christian dogma of creationism and the argument from design coming from natural theology dominated biological thinking for centuries’.

Pearcey and Thaxton make the point that the argument from design was not a ‘god-of-the-gaps’ argument. It instead drew its information from the increasing knowledge of the complexity of living creatures. As a result, the theory became increasingly stronger with the advancement of biological knowledge. They note that natural theology was popular with both orthodox Christians and Deists, and inspired most of the biological field work between 1650 and 1850.

My point here is not that the argument from design is correct, but simply that the Christian view that nature itself demonstrated the existence of an almighty God acted as a stimulus to scientific research, and that criticism of it as a ‘god-of-the-gaps’ argument is unfounded.


Nancy R. Pearson and Charles B. Thaxton, The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway 1994).