"Lifeless Vitalism"

BTG Issue: 
May/June 1993 | Vol 27 No. 3
"What it boils down to is this: Most scientists see boundary conditions as part of physics and chemistry, and they see life as fully physical."

"According to the old, traditional belief, living beings are animated by some kind of vital principle we can't fully understand in physical terms. Modern biology textbooks firmly reject that belief, called vitalism. Most modern biologists would say we can fully understand life through physics and chemistry. Today a scientist who goes in for vitalism puts his credibility on the line. Yet [the distinguished British scientist Michael] Polanyi says life can't be explained through physics and chemistry. Is he breaking ranks with mainstream science and going heretic? No. It turns out that Polanyi's position fits snugly with the established principles of the physical and biological sciences. ... Polanyi has created a compromiser between vitalism and physical science by redefining vitalism as a subdivision of the existing physical theories. But that won't work. The old ideas of vitalism posited laws and energies of life that simply have no part in contemporary physics and chemistry."

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