Writing in 2002, the co-founder of modern evolutionary synthesis, Ernst Mayr, acclaimed, 'When one reads the writing of one of the leading vitalists like Driesch, one is forced to agree with him'. Mayr pointed out that Hans Driesch, biologist, philosopher, theologian, was one of the central figures who helped end the belief in organisms as machines. Vitalism, the views of which Driesch articulated, understood that nuclear division and embryo development cannot solely be accounted for by physiochemical processes. There must be a self-determining force, a vital spark. Eventually, the search would lead to genetics.
One can speculate that Bad Kreuznach in the Rhineland, where Driesch was born in 1867, played a role in his interest in biology and vitalism. The town was a spa with radioactive salt baths that the Romans had visited. Driesch began his studies in 1886 at the Universität Freiburg in subjects such as zoology and botany under Friedrich Weismann, one of the most renowned evolution theorists after Darwin.
As early as 1892, Driesch began to refer to what he called Lebenskraft, some force of life. In the 1890s he worked at the marine zoology station at Naples. Called a master experimenter, Driesch began working with two-celled sea urchins’ eggs and, in separating the cells, found the isolated cells developed normally. He wrote a book, The Localization of Morphogenitic Process, which was published in 1894, and The History and Theory of Vitalism in 1905.
Perhaps confronted by what he was observing and not finding answers, Driesch turned towards contemplating other possibilities. In any event, already in Naples, he began to read classical modern philosophers. In what can be characterized as an age offering more professional fluidity than today, Driesch took up the post of professor of natural theology in Aberdeen in 1907. There he developed his philosophy; his Gifford Lectures, ‘Science and Philosophy of the Organism’, a comprehensive development of his ideas, were published in 1907 and 1908. Ending his experimental career in 1909, Driesch returned to Germany in 1909, where he taught at the University in Heidelberg before moving to the Universität Köln in 1911, where he remained.
Driesch’s life cannot be termed sedate or sedentary. In 1910 he received an honorary doctorate from the dean of the law faculty in Aberdeen. Three books were published: Theory of Order (1912), Logic as a Task (1913) and Theory of Reality (1917). He travelled widely: to the Far East, the United States, and South America (he was a visiting professor at a number of Chinese universities). In 1926, he became the president of the Society for Psychical Research, a position held by other Gifford lecturers, including Arthur Balfour and William James. As with his original research on embryos, Driesch’s ideas had far-reaching contributions. His paper on memory and its relation to psychical research (Proceedings 43, 1935) opened up a field explored nearly fifty years later. What later became Gestalt psychology can be traced back in part to Driesch.
Driesch opposed Nazi ideology and refused to retract his support for embattled colleagues, one of whom was the Jewish philosopher Theodore Lessing. In 1933 he was forcibly retired.
Hans Driesch was said to have formidable lists of languages mastered and ‘to have a strong mind driven by a brilliant intellect and trained at the best institutions’ (Scott Gilbert, Developmental Biology). In his Festschrift in 1927, Hans Spemann defined Driesch as a ‘philosophically inclined biologist out of whom the biologically educated philosopher developed'. Hans Driesch died in 1941.