Thursday, February 16, 2023

Barend Vlaardingerbroek: The NZ science curriculum welcomes back the ‘vital force’

The Vital Force is a paranormal concept that was abandoned by science in the 19th century. It remains prominent in various systems of metaphysics which is where it belongs, not in the science lab!

Vitalism – The philosophical doctrine that the phenomena of life cannot be explained in purely mechanical terms because there is something immaterial which distinguishes living from inanimate matter. - Collins online dictionary

Vitalism has become so disreputable a belief in the last fifty years that no biologist alive today would want to be classified as a vitalist. – Ernst Mayr 1988

It’s official – the doctrine of vitalism, the belief that there is a paranormal force present in living things that makes them living, is back in science. At least that is what the NCEA Chem & Bio Glossary appears to be asserting in relation to the Maori concept of mauri which it defines as, “The vital essence, life force of everything”.

People have long believed that living things are qualitatively different from non-living ones in that they possess a form of ‘energy’, a ‘life force’, that animates them. This mysterious force, subsequently referred to as the ‘vital force’, leaves a living body at death.

Electricity was a candidate for the ‘life force’; Galvani’s famous experiment in which he made dead frogs’ legs twitch using an electric spark was taken by many to reveal that the search for the life force was over. The idea of applying the newly found ‘force’ through using electricity to bring non-living bodies to life underlies Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein yarn. To some contemporary readers at least, the story contained a measure of credibility which it does not have today.

By the early 19th century, the distinction between ‘organic’ and ‘inorganic’ substances in chemistry was made on the basis of the assumption that the two were innately different. It was widely held that the ‘vital force’ was present in the former and was essential to their production: organic compounds can be produced only by reacting organic precursors, or so the theory formally propounded by the Swedish chemist Berzelius in 1815 went. Unlike most ‘philosophical doctrines’, this assertion could be empirically tested. It was, and was found wanting: in 1828, a German chemist called Wöhler produced urea (an organic compound) by reacting ammonium sulphate and potassium cyanate (both inorganic). This was the beginning of the end of vitalism in science, which was pretty well dead and buried by the turn of the 20th century.

The question ‘What is the difference between a living and a non-living thing?’ is a loaded one because of the singular ‘the’. In reality, the difference between a living and a non-living object is one of quantity and not quality; the modern tendency is to focus on what living things do as opposed to what they are in the ontological sense. But this isn’t easy either; if we choose as a criterion of ‘living’ the ability to absorb substances from the environment and build them into an organised molecular structure, a copper sulphate crystal in a school crystal-growing experiment becomes ‘living’. A couple of writers called Cleland and Chyba in 2002 alluded to the definition of life as “no more than a matter of linguistic choice”. The issue remains a live one in relation to the origin of life from non-living matter (abiogenesis) and the appearance of life outside Earth (exobiology).

Not that any of this would have crossed the minds of the architects of the new NZ curriculum. I cannot help but wonder how scientifically literate most of them are, certainly in relation to the epistemological aspects of modern science. NZ science education, once one of the best around, looks set to become a very sick joke.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek is a retired academic who spent many years at universities in PNG, Botswana and Lebanon. He has published papers in academic journals on the issues touched on in this brief article including the application of the Sorites Paradox to life and the history of abiogenesis theory. Feedback welcome at


Doug Longmire said...

So, now we can welcome back the return of homeopathy.

This is the so called medical treatment that claims to cure when the active ingredient has ben diluted out of existence.
The rationale is that the water doing the dilution "carries the memory" of the medicine - i.e. carries the "active force".

Spare me !!

Barend Vlaardingerbroek said...

That's right, Doug.
And let's not forget astrology. Surely an 'inclusive' curriculum would have to include that too.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely Barend. And we all know that the stars have more gravitational and influential forces on you at birth than the table beneath you, or the nearby doctors and midwives that catch you. And let's throw in a few incantations to complete the picture. Just as well they repealed that Tohunga Suppression Act.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek said...

I reckon we three ought to put in a submission for a consultancy in relation to this matter. What's the going rate for consultants - is that $70K between us or each?

GERRY said...

I am a great believer in ALCHEMY so teaching our kids how to make the 'elixir vitae ' and to transform lead into gold will both be very worthwhile additions to this science based curriculum. The latter will be a great cure also for those struggling to pay their super market bills !

Anonymous said...

While I hold no brief for homeopathy, I can't help feeling that it may be safer than many of the products of the pharmaceutical industry!

Anonymous said...

Gerry, if someone came up with a way of turning base metals into gold, the price for gold would sink faster than the Lebanese Lira.
Anonymous, I have long had a theory that the main reason for homeopathy's success back in the late 18thC lies in the observation that it did not kill its patients as did orthodox medicine which made liberal use of mercury, arsenic and lead salts. It might have done no good, but at least it did no harm.

Ross said...

There is a good reason why we separate out feelings from logical analysis. We are emotional spiritual beings as well as logical physical beings. We live as much in our heads as in the world.
Science, engineering, technology and mathematics all work without the need to refer to vital principles. Therefore in the name of parsimony we leave them out.
They can tell us how things work. They can even give us theories about why.
What they cannot do is give us reasons as to whether we should do this or that.
Once we enter the realm of possibility, values and desires we are in a different place that works by different definitions and rules.
I find no conflict between a scientist who works with logic in the laboratory during the week and prays in a chapel on Sunday.
Nor is there conflict between an artist using his materials emotionally following his vital inspiration in the studio, and subjecting them to rigorous research and analysis when selecting and evaluating them online before purchasing.

Doug Longmire said...

Anony - Modern medicine does not use Mercury, Arsenic and Lead etc like the 17th and 18th century.
Nowadays we have scientific evaluation and double blind clinical trials of medicines.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek said...

That was my comment, Doug - I must have pressed the 'Anonymous' button by mistake.
Once homeopathy was established and widely accepted by the general public (in some countries at least), it continued to be prevailed upon by people including royalty - several European royal houses still have 'royal homeopaths' (on paper at least).
Over the past few decades, homeopathy has benefited from the rise of 'alternative' medicine.