Vitalism is the belief that there is a metaphysical, supernatural, nonmaterial, idealist elan vital, a life force that distinguishes living from nonliving matter. Vitalism has its roots in the German idealist philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), F.W.A. Schelling (1775-1854), and L. Oken (1779-1851) in the nineteenth century, members of a romantic philosophic movement, Naturphilosophie, who believed all creation was a manifestation of a World Spirit. They believed all matter possessed this Spirit and organized bodies had it to an intense degree. In the nineteenth century, it was quite possible to be a vitalist, believing in a vital force or elan vital, without thinking of the vital force being supernatural. At the time it was as valid to attribute the laws and effects of vitality to a nonmaterial vital force as it was to attribute the laws and effects of gravity to a nonmaterial gravitational force.
According to Troland (1914):
The difficulties that the neo-vitalists urge against the mechanistic theory of heredity may perhaps be summarized as follows. In the first place the germ-cell, which must be regarded as of prime importance in any mechanistic view of heredity, is said to be too small to contain a physical machine that can be capable of determining with accuracy all of the intricacies of structure and function which are exhibited in higher organism; in the second place no definite conception has been advanced to show how such a hypothetical determining influence can exist.
(We know now that DNA, a mechanistic source of heredity, can indeed determine with accuracy a message that determines much of the intricacies of structure and function of all life.)
Friedrich Wohler (1800-82) produced urea, a biochemical substance that comes only from organisms, from ammonium cyanate, an inorganic chemical compound (Wohler, 1828). As Wohler wrote in his letter to his teacher, Berzelius (1901): "... and I must tell you that I can prepare urea without requiring the kidneys of an animal, either man or dog; the ammonium salt of cyanic acid is urea." Some denied that urea was an organic compound but was, rather, merely a waste product, such as water. It is now known that urea and ammonium cyanate are an example of isomerism; they share the same empirical formula.
Although today we see Wohler's work as a stake in the heart of vitalism, it persisted into the first half of the twentieth century. It was kept alive by the chemist-philosopher Hans Driesch (1914) and the philosopher Bergson (1859-1941) who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1927. Bergson (1944) believed that vitalism was required to understand the apparent violation of the second law of thermodynamics by the increase of complexity in evolution.
Vitalism no longer plays a role in biology (Mayr, 1982), but it left a legacy of "organic chemistry" contrasted with "inorganic chemistry" and the need to be specific about "biochemistry." Thus, urea is a biochemical and an organic chemical. Its isomer, ammonium cyanate, is inorganic.
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