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A History of Life’s Vital Essence (Part 3): The Twilight of Vitalism

Posted on Jul. 01, 2015 by | Comments (9)
This post concludes a three-part series exploring the history of vitalism. Read Part 1 and Part 2.
Image by Daniel Loxton and Jim W. W. Smith.

Image by Daniel Loxton and Jim W. W. Smith.

Vitalism died a death of a thousand cuts. There was no single experiment, no one find that falsified the idea. Rather it was a shadow that shrank as the light of discovery grew.

One such event has become legendary in most modern science classrooms. In the late 18th century Italian physician Luigi Galvani was said to have brushed the sciatic nerve a frog he was dissecting with his metal instruments in such a way to cause the legs to twitch. This observation, it’s said, led to his research into connections between the emerging field of electrochemistry and physiology.

Galvani’s ‘electrical fluid’ theory paved the way for understanding how nervous impulses stimulate muscle movement, removing the need for some vague impetus or desire for movement.

Perhaps there’s some serendipity in the fact that a discovery made by Herman Boerhaave—who opposed Stahl’s metaphysical theories while building on his mechanistic contributions to physiology—eventually led to an event that shook the foundations of vitalism. In 1727 the Dutch physician purified urea from urine. A century later, in 1828, this humble human chemical became the first biological material to be produced synthetically. In his effort to make ammonium cyanate, the German chemist Friedrich Wohler earned the title of ‘father of organic chemistry’ by being the first person to create a chemical previously thought to be produced solely through organic processes.

“I must tell you that I can make urea without the use of kidneys, either man or dog. Ammonium cyanate is urea,” Wohler wrote enthusiastically to the chemist Baron Jöns Jacob Berzelius.

Decades later the French chemist and pioneer in microbiology, Louis Pasteur, settled the question on whether there was a force which could spontaneously cause basic, non-living materials to generate simple life forms. His experiment involved sterilising meat broth in a flask with a long, curving neck that permitted the contents to access fresh air, without permitting contaminants to inoculate the broth. While the typically vitalist theory of spontaneous generation was gaining fewer advocates, his simple experiment seemed to close the door on it for good.

Yet in the late 19th century one tiny bastion of vitalism held tight. If life was truly governed by the forces of physic and chemistry at even the most microscopic level, how could replicating units fracture and grow without reducing in complexity? How could all of the tissues and organs in an animal arise from something as simple as an egg, if that egg was fundamentally machine-like?

This was the question facing Wilhelm Roux (with whom we began Part 1). Although he had no answer, he set about investigating the embryonic development of a frog by using a heated needle to pop one of two cells in a newly divided zygote. On seeing the remaining cell grow into an incomplete ‘half embryo,’ Roux figured the eventual structure of an adult was already being established when the embryo was barely two cells in size. This inspired his mosaic theory, where the cells in a growing embryo come to act like tiles in a mosaic.

Several years later in 1891, a contemporary of Roux’s named Hans Driesch had his eye on the dividing cells of a newly fertilised sea urchin. He noticed teasing apart the cells allowed them to continue into normal larvae—far from the demi-sea-urchins Roux would have anticipated.

This wasn’t some amazing talent particular to sea urchins. Two decades later, American zoologist Jesse Francis McClendon showed pulling apart frogs’ cells would do the same thing. In hindsight, Roux would have done better to have separated than to have stabbed the replicating cells, which was more than likely responsible for stunting the development of the remaining embryo.

Hans Driesch showed that every cell in a growing embryo contained something that could produce a fully functioning adult. His conclusion? In his book The History and Theory of Vitalism, he cites a force which he describes as a passive form of teleology. He borrows Aristotle’s term for a tendency towards an outcome—”entelechy.”

Aristotle used the term energeia to describe a tendency for things to work or change, which is related to our modern term energy. Entelecheia relates to this concept, being a tendency to reach a particular end point. As such, vitalism was not dissimilar to energy, only it had a goal in mind—the differentiation of cells to produce a living thing.

Driesch’s theory was the last heroic stand of vitalism. It would take half a century for it to be once again superseded; this time thanks to a man better known for his dead-but-alive cats than his role in one of the greatest discoveries in the history of biology.

What is life?

Erwin Schrödinger was one of the 21st century’s greatest physicists. Yet in a series of lectures he delivered to the public in 1943, biology was his focus. Specifically, how can chemistry and physics account for the amazing processes that turn a single cell into something as complex as a human being?

His idea was insightful—an aperiodic crystal of the right size could not only contain enough information within its covalent bonds to create a wealth of complexity, it could be contained within the cramped space of a tiny cell.

DNA had been discovered nearly a century earlier. In the same year Schrödinger was giving his lectures, this molecule was shown to be responsible for transferring genetic information in bacteria. The two researchers who would later be credited with creating a model of the famous DNA helix structure—James Watson and Francis Crick—cited the book based on Schrödinger’s “What Is Life?” lectures as an inspiration behind their pursuit.

Schrödinger’s aperiodic crystal left vitalism nowhere scientific to hide. However, the second half of the century would see a significant resurgence in vitalist traditions such as homeopathy and chiropractic within various counter-cultures, not to mention the rise of creationism and Intelligent Design. Fringe beliefs in vitalism will perpetuate for much the same reason the theory existed in the first place: it serves as a counter to reductionist philosophies; it compliments other supernatural beliefs; and, it eases the discomfort of lacking a more convincing hypothesis. Yet as far as the scientific community was concerned, life’s mysteries simply were no longer mysterious enough to leave room for a ghostly force.

Mike McRae

Mike McRae is an Australian science writer and teacher. He has worked for the CSIRO’s education group and developed resources for the Australian government, promoting critical thinking and science education through educational publications. His 2011 book Tribal Science: Brains, Beliefs and Bad Ideas explored humanity’s development to think scientifically—and pseudoscientifically—about the universe. Read Mike’s other posts on this blog.

9 Comments

  1. Loren Petrich says:

    Some people credit Friedrich Wöhler’s urea synthesis with discrediting vitalism, and some people even claim that he was looking for counterevidence against vitalism. The Real Death of Vitalism : Implications of the Wöhler Myth by Anthony Cheng:

    The Wöhler Myth, as historian of science Peter J. Ramberg calls it, originates from one account by Bernard Jaffe, the author of a popular history of chemistry in 1931 that is still in print today. “Ignoring all pretense of historical accuracy, Jaffe turned Wöhler into a crusader who made attempt after attempt to synthesize a natural product that would refute vitalism and lift the veil of ignorance, until ‘one afternoon the miracle happened’”

    But it was barely a pinprick, though I’ve found an unsourced claim that Jöns Jakob Berzelius only reluctantly accepted it.

  2. Loren Petrich says:

    Wöhler’s synthesis would have been a curiosity if it had not been followed by others. But it was. In 1845, Adolph Kolbe succeeded in making acetic acid from inorganic precursors, and in the 1850’s, Marcellin Berthelot did likewise with numerous organic compounds. He and his colleagues also tackled large molecules, showing that they were made out of smaller ones.

    I think that the problem with Drieschian vitalism is that Driesch had an oversimple notion of cell fate, that cells start getting committed as they start dividing. We now know that cells in embryos don’t start specializing until after the first few divisions. We’ve even learned how to make some kinds of cell specialization with growth factors and the like — something thoroughly mechanistic.

  3. Loren Petrich says:

    I think that the discovery of DNA’s function was far from enough, important that it was. Also important was the discovery of RNA-to-protein translation and gene regulation and metabolic pathways (biosynthesis, breakdown, energy metabolism, etc.) and membrane pumps and signaling mechanisms and the like — all mechanistic. Organisms have a lot of nanotechnology in them.

    Genes to shapes is still poorly understood, so vitalists can take refuge there. But it would be a “vital force of the gaps” hypothesis.

    But all these mechanisms were unknown until a century or so ago, and often much more recently. So it’s not surprising that vitalism seemed viable before then.

    Despite vitalist hypotheses continuing to be popular among woowoomeisters, most present-day vitalists don’t have the self-consciousness of (say) creationists, let alone a desire to lobby for inclusion of vitalism in biology curriculums. Also, mainstream biologists don’t try very hard to debunk vitalist hypotheses.

  4. Mike McRae says:

    Thanks so much for your comments, Loren. Given the size the topic and the nuances of vitalism’s progress, the subject really needs more than a few blog posts to do justice.

    You’re absolutely right in the persistence of the belief on the fringe, and how the discovery of urea was not itself significant but rather a referential turning point followed by a number of other discoveries. Many events affected confidence in the vitalist belief. I debated on whether to mention Lavousier and respiration, for example.

    In any case, many thanks for adding your perspective and extra points.

  5. Loren Petrich says:

    Thanx for the appreciation. I find it annoying to find simplistic myths about the fall of vitalism endlessly repeated. Friedrich Wöhler’s famous experiment obviously did not stop Hans Driesch some decades later.

    Someone ought to research and write some detailed “Decline and Fall of Vitalism”, complete with respect for the vitalist hypotheses of past centuries.

    It’s something like the epigeneticists vs. the preformationists. That was a dispute over rival theories of embryology. Preformationism seems silly to many of us, but it at least had a mechanism for the emergence of organisms’ form. The epigeneticists had no mechanism, and it must still be conceded that going from genes to shapes is still largely an unsolved problem. We’ve found some patterning mechanisms and the like, but nothing like the detail of (say) metabolic pathways.

  6. Kailasam Iyer says:

    Imagine the chances of a presidential candidate who declares his freedom from religion and God in today’s America! Not possible. That was the state of the world until a whole socio-economic-political system of religious irrelevance came into being which produced somebody called Oparin to boldly suggest that, yes, “Life” could happen simply by the proper assembly of atoms and molecules. This was the real breakthrough in the History of Ideas. We don’t have an answer yet; but, the question had to be framed correctly.

  7. alex ferdman says:

    I had been reading Skeptic for number of years without giving it much thought. But one day I realized its regular mainstream status quo propaganda. And? Discussion is useless if it not connected to reality and your endless talking don’t impress me.

  8. Tzindaro says:

    Having seen small fish in a temporary pool of water high up on a mountainside, where there was no water until rain the previous day, I refuse to accept that organisms cannot originate where conditions are right for them. Life is not supernatural in origin and does not require divine intervention to get started as most modern scientists seem to think. It is a perfectly natural phenomenon and wherever conditions are right, life will occur. The conditions required include a sufficient amount of the biological energy which is usually only enough to create new single-celled organisms, but in higher than usual concentrations can create new large, multi-celled life-forms as well.

    Newly-created large organisms are relatively rare today because the charge of life energy of the earth has declined in the last several thousand years, but in ancient times, new species were created rather often. Contrary to the Darwinist notion of all species descending from ancestors which somehow got started at some single point in time a long time ago, each species was first formed directly under specific conditions, and if those specific conditions are duplicated again, the same species will form again. No ancestors required.

    I have read several books by Henry Carlton Bastian, and spoken to several qualified biologists who have replicated his observations. One of them, the late Bernard Grad, a biologist at McGill University in Canada, showed me blown-up photos of alge he had made from scratch, from non-living materials, with many hours of time-lapse motion picture photography to prove how they developed and from what. He told me these photos had been identified by other biologists at his university as being of known species. And he showed me a thick stack of papers he had written that he said he had not dared to publish because he wanted to keep his job.

    And that consideration, not objective scientific evidence, but stark financial need, is why so many other scientists keep silent whenever they happen across evidence that is contrary to the beliefs of their employers and grant-givers.

    Searching Google for “bions”, I found numerous U-tube videos of micro-organisms forming de novo from inorganic materials. A recent book, Wilhelm Reich: Biologist, by James Strick, has been published by Harvard University Press, describing the discovery of “bions” by Reich in the 1930s. Reich’s findings have been confirmed by many other scientists.

    Spontaneous generation of living organisms from non-living matter under the influence of a Life Energy is a fact. No amount of denial by ignorant mainstream scientists matters in the long run. A century from now, the understanding of how living organisms constantly form in nature will be the mainstream and the mechanistic theories of today, which irrationally deny the existence of a vital force that underlies living functioning, will be considered a dead end that should be forgotten.

  9. Victor Corgo says:

    When Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein, she had Victor Frankenstein fly kites from the roof of his castle in a thunderstorm to bring down lightning to animate the creature he had stitched together from dead bodies. That was cutting-edge science at the time. It was only a few years since Galvani had demonstrated that electricity was the life-force, capable of animating dead bodies. If science had continued along that track, investigating the life-force, by now we would have two hundred years of progress in working with the life-force and understanding it. Instead, science went down a blind alley and abandoned the scientific study of life-force and took up biochemistry instead. There has been almost no progress since then in understanding the energetics of living systems.

    The reasons for the re-orientation of biology from energetics to chemistry were economic and political, not scientific and the chemical industry today still agressively markets chemicals as a form of medical treatment, while there is almost no funding for research on energy medicine, which is far more promising.

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