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  Vitalism, in the life sciences, is the doctrine that life cannot be explained purely by the application of the principles of chemistry and physics.

The concept of a vital force has ancient roots in religion and began to impinge upon scientific thought with Aristotle (384 - 322 BCE) who, with other ancient Greek philosophers, considered that the heat produced from an animal was associated with its life force. They suggested that this ‘vital heat’ had its source at the centre of the body, often in the heart, from whence it spread around the body before being expelled by the lungs. Although such ideas seem far removed from the today\'s scientific study of life, they do represent an attempt to separate the living from the non-living. Aristotle\'s ideas of a vital force were set in the context of the existence of a continuous chain or series in which supposedly similar organisms could be arranged adjacent to one another; the definition of ‘organism’ was rather different from our modern understanding and stones were thus placed at one end of the chain.

The nature of the vital force was debated by numerous philosophers, who fall into two main groups according to whether or not they felt that the force was an internal property of living organisms or an external. The Swiss chemist Paracelsus (1493-1541) used the term Archeus to describe his ideas of an externally derived power which confers life upon all things, including animals, plant, stones and spirits. Others, epitomized by the French anatomist François-Xavier Bichat (1771 - 1802), believed that life was a spontaneous event.

Vitalism, in one form or other, was the philosophy of most, scientists or otherwise, until the late 19th century when reductionist ideas began in Germany with the development of cell theory and the idea that the mechanism behind life itself could be explained. In retrospect, it seems that vitalism received its death blow with the synthesis of urea in 1828 by Friedrich Wöhler—this was the first time that such an organic compound had been produced by inorganic means and was a process which most vitalists considered impossible. As the new science of biochemistry developed, more such evidence accrued and new theories ceased to draw on vitalist precepts. However, the teleological aspects of vitalism held on, and even flourished, outside reductionist scientific thought. , Hans Driesch (1867 - 1941) proposed the existence of a soul-like force, to which he applied the Aristotelian term entelechy (movement from potentiality to actuality: originally a philosophical concept, and an abstraction), which guides the development of an embryo. The French philosopher , Henri Bergson (1859 - 1941) argued for the existence of a single, unique vital impulse which is continually developing; he thus implied that evolution was creative rather than mechanistic.

In the context of modern science the concept of vitalism is defunct, if for no other reason than it appears to be of no use in providing an explanation for the processes of life. Research throughout the 20th century has shown that biological systems, when studied in a controlled way, are entirely predictable from physical and chemical principles. This is the doctrine of mechanism and applicable at all levels of biological organization, though Quantum mechanics suggests that the chemical processes which underpin life may not themselves be truly predictable. RB

See also biopoiesis; life; organicism.Further reading Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution (1907).



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