|PBJ vol1.iss1 The
Brain and Beyond...
The Real Death of Vitalism:
Implications of the Wöhler Myth
There is a tendency for extraneous issues
to unnecessarily complicate bioethical debate. Vitalism is one of
these topics. The implications of the Wöhler Myth, a popular
account of science's victory over vitalism, are examined descriptively
and normatively: I reflect on how the Myth's prevalence shaped the
attitudes of science and religion and evaluate those attitudes.
According to a popular anecdote often told to introduce
chemistry courses at universities, the birth of chemistry was the
death of vitalism, a theory of life which posits the existence of
two classes of metaphysically disparate matter. According to the
theory, the matter which makes up living organisms is endowed with
a vital force that is absent from the matter which makes up non-living
objects. The two classes of matter can be referred to as “organic”
and “inorganic.” Another facet of the theory is that
organic matter can only be created by organic matter, since inorganic
matter lacks the vital force needed for life. Vitalism, as told
by the legend, was overthrown by Friedrich Wöhler’s use
of inorganic salts to synthesize urea, an “organic”
compound. Since Wöhler started with inorganic materials, did
not add a vital force, and yet was able to make an organic compound,
it was reasoned that vitalism was false. This so-called death of
vitalism is believed to have cleared the way for modern science.
In fact, contemporary accounts do not support the claim that vitalism
died when Wöhler made urea.
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’” (Ramberg, 2000, p. 170-195). Though today’s
chemistry texts present variations of the story, including those
that temper its claims that chemists have disproved vitalism, the
story appears in one form or another in most texts. Ramberg proposes
compelling reasons for the prevalence of the story, but instead
of discussing why the story is prevalent in the pedagogical tradition
of chemistry, I will discuss the implications of the Myth’s
prevalence. I propose that widespread belief in some form of the
Wöhler Myth, or in the beliefs that surround it, contributes
to an unnecessary opposition between science and vitalism which
also puts science and religion in opposition.
A Brief History of Vitalism
Humans have been grappling with the questions of
vitalism since the beginning of civilization. What is the nature
of that which is “living”? Is the material that makes
up living beings inherently different from the material that makes
up non-living things? Do we have souls?
At least as early as the Greek philosopher, physician
and poet Empodocles (504 to 443 BC), there have been coherent philosophies
to answer these questions. Empodocles proposed that the essence
of life is from ether, “a subtle fire existing from all eternity
and present in air and all matter” (Haller, 1986, p. 81-88).
Vitalism was first challenged by the emergence of philosophies like
Descartes’, which extend a mechanistic explanation of natural
phenomena to organisms. Descartes’ philosophy included a mind-body
dualism, however, and a metaphysical soul is an important element.
A more extreme mechanistic view in the form of radical materialism
has been posited since then which utterly excludes the soul from
existence. Even with the emergence of a new materialist paradigm
and the emergence of modern science in the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries, however, vitalism continues to have its constituents.
Nineteenth century vitalists include Henri Bergson and the famous
embryologist Hans Driesch.
The philosophical dialogue continues today, but some
scientists, perhaps raised on the Wöhler Myth and encouraged
by the fact that vitalism has fallen out of favor among modern philosophers,
are confident that scientific knowledge is outmoding vitalism (Bechtel
& Richardson, November 15, 2004, n.p.). Francis Crick addressed
the vitalist with supreme confidence: “And so to those of
you who may be vitalists I would make this prophecy: what everyone
believed yesterday, and you believe today, only cranks will believe
tomorrow” (Crick, 1967, p. 99).
Some such scientists argue that a metaphysical belief
such as vitalism can be overturned by scientific experimentation,
just as it was in the Wöhler Myth, and they are on something
of a crusade against vitalism. Crick believed that “[…]
the motivation of many of the people who have entered molecular
biology from physics and chemistry has been the desire to disprove
vitalism” (p. 24).
Is Vitalism Really Dead?
Vitalistic beliefs persist for reasons that do not
appear to be subject to changes in scientific knowledge, as is proposed
in the Wöhler Myth. Studies show that children hold vitalistic
beliefs. When asked to explain how we get energy in one study, 85%
of the children responded using a vitalistic explanation (Kayoko
& Hatano, 2004, p. 356-362). It seems that such early beliefs
must influence future learning and it is possible that even scientific
knowledge gained in future learning is absorbed in the framework
Historically, even scientists have not universally
accepted the death of vitalism. Since the beginning of modern biology,
there have been those who see in the increasing complexity of our
understanding of life a multiplication of ways for vitalism to fit
into our beliefs. Lord Kelvin, who penned one of the first versions
of the second law of thermodynamics, wrote that, “The influence
of animal or vegetable life [vital energy] on matter is infinitely
beyond the range of any scientific enquiry hitherto entered upon”
(MacFie, 1912, p. 228).
The layman has given credit to such views. In fact,
the public has embraced one scientist’s work to prove the
existence of a soul and consequentially to prove the validity of
vitalism. The conclusion of a 1907 study by Dr. Duncan MacDougall
has gained the cultural prominence of an urban legend, stated in
the tagline of a 2003 movie 21 Grams: “They say we all lose
21 grams at the exact moment of our death” (Focus Features,
November 16, 2004, n.p.). MacDougal measured the weight of patients
when they were dying and reported a sudden decrease in the weight
of patients at the moment of death. From his data, he concluded
that there is, in fact, a soul substance essential to the body in
life and in the form of “gravitative matter” (Haller,
1986, p. 81). That is, there is a soul of determinate weight that
departs at the moment of death. Numerous criticisms can be (and
have been) made against his methods and his conclusions, but it
is significant, nonetheless, because it demonstrates that vitalism
is not a dead system of belief among scientists or by lay people.
Scientists may want to seriously consider Kelvin’s
warning and ask if vitalism is even a scientific question. Even
in a hypothetical future when we have an immaculately detailed knowledge
of the functioning of our bodies, there may still be no way to absolutely
prove or disprove vitalism. What experiment could be devised to
prove that a rock, which is ostensibly inorganic, has no poetic
spirit which would manifest lyrical words if given a set of vocal
cords or a way to write?
Religion Engaging the Myth
For those religions in which there is life after
death, there must be something of the body which is not bound by
the natural laws of science. Vitalism is a theory which allows for
the existence of a soul, so concepts of Western theism are often
inherently vitalistic. On the other hand, biological science involves
the mechanization of natural processes. Scientists observe, quantify,
and theorize explicitly within the confines of natural law. If there
is allowance for phenomena outside those confines, one might believe
that the scientist’s pursuit is undermined. Vitalism and science
may be incompatible. Thus, science and religion can position themselves
in direct opposition. The Wöhler Myth encourages this opposition,
which has manifested itself in a struggle over intellectual authority
in society. Religion and Science are now in opposition over
how people understand life.
Religious groups have engaged in this debate. The
Catholic Church explicitly invokes science to support vitalism:
The Instruction, a church decree, states that ‘“Certainly
no experimental datum can be in itself sufficient to bring us to
the recognition of a spiritual soul’, […] but science
gives us ‘a valuable indication’” (Coughlan, 1990,
p. 67). The Church uses this vitalism as the basis for important
doctrines regarding issues such as abortion.
The Church’s acceptance of the scientist’s
belief that vitalism can be proven or disproved is dangerous and
unnecessary: Dangerous because beliefs of faith should be independent
of proof or scientific validation; unnecessary because theistic
beliefs are concerned not with the material nature of the universe
but with the spirit “behind and beyond” the universe
(p. 169). That is, even a mechanistic universe could have been
created by a godly mind. Essentially, the question of vitalism is
a metaphysical debate outside the realm of and unanswerable by science,
contrary to the Wöhler Myth. Religion need not oppose science
on this question.
Likewise, science need not engage in the debate.
Science gains its authority from its coherent explanations of observable
phenomena. Vitalism deals with unobservable phenomena and so the
fields of science and vitalism do not intersect. Further, science
provides tangible benefits in the form of improvements in health
treatments, which gain the trust and acceptance of society. This
is empirically verifiable since biomedicine’s paradigm of
health and body is so pervasive.
If vitalism has no philosophical implications for
religion or science, does it have implications for society’s
conduct? One might think that the tension between materialism and
vitalism could have importance due to its relationship to free will:
If we are purely mechanistic beings, are we really not free to make
choices? If not, what are the consequences? In fact, there are no
practical implications in the framework of free will that hinge
on vitalism. If we accept materialism and we accept that we have
no soul, nothing changes. Our lives will still be marked by
“[…] thoughts, feelings, hopes, confusions, moral dilemmas,
aesthetic experiences, and episodes of dark doubt and deep faith”
(Eccles, 1984, p. 48).
Common sense might also suggest that beliefs about
vitalism would have importance regarding controversial bioethical
questions. One might think that, for example, if someone believes
an embryo has a soul, they might also be likely to be against abortion.
This claim can be evaluated empirically. A possible approach is
to use the research methodology of Robert A. Embree who attempted
to correlate “mind-body” beliefs with stances on elective
abortion (Embree, 1998, p. 1267-1281). Using a modified version
of his method, a possible correlation could be investigated between
a subject’s beliefs about vitalism, attitude toward abortion
(prochoice or antichoice) and beliefs about the meaning of abortion
(murder or not murder).
A possible correlation between vitalistic belief
and an individual’s stance on bioethical issues does not mean
that vitalism ought to have implications in the modern debate in
bioethics, however. Take the American abortion debate, for example.
One would be making an unsound judgment if he or she thought that
abortion could be decided by a proof or belief in vitalism. Validation
of vitalism might separate living and nonliving matter onto separate
moral planes, justified by the presence or absence of a vital force,
but whether or not the embryo is living is not a question in debate.
The embryo is undeniably living, as is a hair follicle. Opposition
arises here when the relative moral worth of the embryo in the context
of the mother’s rights and responsibilities is questioned.
This salient question would not be resolved by an answer concerning
the vitalism debate.
The debate about embryonic stem cell research is
another case. Perhaps scientists believe that a materialistic world-view
would lead to societal acceptance of the sacrifice of embryos for
the sake of research. If there is no vital force, all matter is
the same in essence. The sacrifice of embryos for research, then,
would not be a violation of morality since “killing”
the embryo is merely the disassembly of atoms and molecules. Research
could then proceed. This would be an untenable conclusion. Would
murder then be on the same moral plane as smashing a rock? In a
society, it could not be so. We assign moral worth to things regardless
of their metaphysical status. Even in the absence of a vital force,
we would be left struggling with the same task of deciding the morality
of sacrificing embryos.
The Real Death of Vitalism
Logically, vitalism is ultimately not a question
of great consequence, and yet there are vehement beliefs on both
sides. This can be explained in part by the opposition between science
and religion fostered by the Wöhler Myth. Since vitalism and
religion are so closely tied, the Wöhler Myth arranged science
and religion antagonistically. This antagonistic relationship, perpetuated
by the Wöhler Myth’s distortion of the importance of
the vitalism debate, has resulted in a great deal of unproductive
debate. Vitalism ought not to have practical implications in religion
or in societal conduct. Care should be exercised to ensure that
vitalism is not used as a surrogate to address questions of bioethics
or intellectual authority. Its debate belongs in the realm of the
philosopher of metaphysics and outside the realm of common discourse.
This, perhaps, should be the real “death of vitalism.”
Cheng is a Sophomore at the University
of Pennsylvania and is majoring in Molecular Biology.
Paul Root Wolpe, Ph.D
is the faculty sponsor for this submission. He is
the Senior Fellow at the Center of Bioethics and
an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University
ADDRESS 3401 Market
St, Suite 320; Philadelphia, PA 19104
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