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 firstname.lastname@example.org