Osteopathy and Evolution

“Nothing makes sense in biology except in the light of evolution.” Theodosius  Dobzhansky.


I suppose in the Classical Greek way of philosophy I should start with a few questions.  Why is an understanding of evolution important to osteopaths? How can this influence the osteopath? How can this influence diagnosis and treatment? One word, motion.  “Ah!” I hear you say.  But, this is not the motion I think you’re thinking of.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century the osteopathic profession has inferred a reductionist axio-coordinate based system of flexion, extension, rotation and compression concept as motion.  This is not the motion I’m talking about.


As if this wasn’t enough the profession moved towards a more ‘scientific’ based osteopathy resulting in fragmentation, numeration, and objectification of principles and practice.  The result is a complex of techniques based on physical therapy rather than an anatomical surgical approach, as Dr. Still originally intended.

The motion I’m talking about is form and morphology as a primal movement (Urphänomen) in this case the motion of evolution or metamorphology.   This motion can only be perceived once the osteopath understands the meaning of coming-into-seeing and coming-into-palpating.  As a consequence the stating point is not the human organism but the osteopath.  How does the osteopath perceive and understand rather than what the osteopath perceives and essentially overstands?


Only one tissue gestures the true metamorphosis of metamorphological movement; bone.  “Seeing” this movement is metamorphology (evolution) presencing in the present. This movement is an ongoing expression that all other classes of tissue have to follow as bone is the slowest and deepest form of movement in itself as a polarity and expressing three-foldness.

A. T. Still named his philosophy on the basis of evolution.  And if Trowbridge is right, and I have no reason to think she isn’t, then Dr. Still’s preferred evolutionists were Alfred Russell Wallace and Herbert Spencer.  This is interesting as in 1913 Carl P. McConnell, DO, a student of Still’s, wrote Osteopathy in the Light of Evolution championing the work of Charles Darwin!  Wallace’s evolution theory had spiritual elements probably one reason why McConnell didn’t want to go near it.  Spiritual had and has a misunderstood meaning.  It’s a word that has been taken to mean something quasi-religious.  In fact it’s roots go back to “personal meaningfulness.”  And since Western philosophy had a deep seated distrust of anything personal the meaning has been relegated to non-science.  This would explain why Charles Still, A. T. Still’s son, burnt Dr. Still’s spiritual work for fear it may be thought of as unscientific.


“The only revolutionary scientific principle, “the grand theory,” was that of evolution.  His incorporating the concepts of evolution into a single system of healing was the foundation of the new science, for which he now searched for an adequate name.  As the theory of evolution and bonesetting techniques originated in the discipline of anatomy, it was fitting that Still was partial to a name suggesting bone structure of man.”  Carol Trowbridge, Andrew Taylor Still.

During Dr Still’s time there were many “scientists’ (natural philosophers) involved in evolution these included Jean Baptiste Lamarck, Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Louis Agassiz, Richard Owen (the founder of the Natural History Museum,London), Thomas Huxley, to name a few, all made their contributions.  Fortunately, many were aware of the contribution made by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.  Unfortunately, they all misunderstood Goethe.  All to a man imposed a theory of evolution based on the linear succession approach i.e. one species succeeds another.


Rather than a theory of evolution the osteopathic approach is evolution as theory.  By theory I refer to it’s original meaning “to see” or “behold.”  There is a formative (forming) process in all organisms that Darwin did not give any credit to the organism.  Seeing and palpating this formative process by catching it in-the-act is the key to “withness” thinking.  Aboutness’ thinking dominates today but ‘withness’ thinking as metamorphology (evolution) as a perceptive (imaginative) activity rather than a theory built on observation empirically (by the senses).  An activity attentive imagination as an activity, is a natural activity, as a facet of nature; the highest activity.

“The evolutionary changes which we observe in the earth and in man are in fact a single process, working through a variety of manifested forms.”  Ernst Lehrs, Man or Matter.

“No one can dispute the oft-repeated statement that “nothing is constant but change.”   Our special concern here is the biological aspect of the morphological and physiological characteristics acquired by all living organisms… This principle of everlasting change or evolution is of the utmost value to the physician.  he knows that, back of all, the life principle is absolutely dependable, that growth and development and repair and recuperation is certain and self-sufficient, provided structure is intact and function exercised: these are fundamental.”  Carl P. McConnell, Osteopathy in the Light of Evolution.


How does this relate to clinical diagnosis and practice as a way of ‘seeing’ the patient’s problem as a disturbance of the most fundamental disturbance of morphology; bones?  Not as parts but as a movement of form, a meaning, a Vorstellung or Bildung.  It’s with meaning that we palpate and come to a diagnosis; not a theory.  A way of ‘seeing’ evolution as One activity where imagination becomes an organ of perception (Bortoft).  This is not an intellectual-verbal activity rather a sensuous-intuitive activity (after Still and Goethe).

References and Reading:

Bortoft, H. (1996) The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way of Science. Floris Books, Edinburgh.

Bortoft, H. (1971) The Whole: Counterfeit and Authentic.  Systematics, Vol, 9, No. 2, Sept.

Bortoft, H. (2012) Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought.  Floris Books, Edinburgh.

Brady, R. H. (1984) The Causal Dimension of Goethe’s Morphology. Journal of Social and Biological Structures, Vol. 7, Pt. 4, p. 325 – 344.

Burtt, E. A. (1954) The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science. Dover Publications, Inc., New York.

Darwin, C. (1985) The Origin of Species. Penguin Classics, London.

Kranch, E-M. (1999) Thinking Beyond Darwin: The Idea of Living Form as a Key to Vertebrate Evolution. Lindisfarne Books, New York

Lehrs, E. (1958)  Man or Matter.  Rudolf Steiner Press, London.

McConnell, C. P. (1913) Osteopathy in the Light of Evolution. The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, May, Vol. 12, No. 9, p. 499 – 532.

Opitz, J. M. (2004) Goethe’s Bone and the Beginnings of Morphology. American Journal of Medical Genetics. 126A: 1 – 8.

Schad, W. (1977) Man and Mammals: Toward a Biology of Form. Waldorf Press, New York.

Seamon, D. and Zajonc, A. (1998) Goethe’s Way of Science: A Phenomenology of Nature. State University of New York Press, New York.

Trowbridge, C. (1991) Andrew Taylor Still. The Thomas Jefferson University Press.

Steiner, R. (2000) Nature’s Open Secret: Introduction to Goeth’s Scientific Writing. Anthrophosophic Press.

Walls, L. D. (1995) Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Natural Science. The University of Wisconsin Press, Wisconsin.

Wellmon, C. (2010) Goethe’s Morphology of Knowledge or the Overgrowth of Nomenclature. Goethe’s Yearbook, Vol. 17, p. 153-177.

Presentation and Workshop in four main areas: Osteopathy and Evolution

  1. A Brief History of Science.
  2. History of Evolution and Evolutionists: Theories and Politics.
  3. Still and Goethe’s Theory of Knowledge: Experience, metamorphology etc.
  4. Clinical Application in Diagnosis and Palpation.