Vitalism is the belief that "living organisms are fundamentally different from non-living entities because they contain some non-physical element or are governed by different principles than are inanimate things".[1]a Where vitalism explicitly invokes a vital principle, that element is often referred to as the "vital spark", "energy" or "élan vital", which some equate with the soul. In the 18th and 19th centuries vitalism was discussed among biologists, between those who felt that the known mechanics of physics would eventually explain the difference between life and non-life and vitalists who argued that the processes of life could not be reduced to a mechanistic process. Some vitalist biologists proposed testable hypotheses meant to show inadequacies with mechanistic explanations, but these experiments failed to provide support for vitalism. Biologists now consider vitalism in this sense to have been refuted by empirical evidence, and hence regard it as a superseded scientific theory.[2]

Vitalism has a long history in medical philosophies: many traditional healing practices posited that disease results from some imbalance in vital forces.

Sample of Urea
The synthesis of urea in the early 19th century from inorganic compounds was counterevidence for the vitalist hypothesis that only organisms could make the components of living things.


Ancient times

The notion that bodily functions are due to a vitalistic principle existing in all living creatures has roots going back at least to ancient Egypt.[3] In Greek philosophy, the Milesian school proposed natural explanations deduced from materialism and mechanism. However, by the time of Lucretius, this account was supplemented, (for example, by the unpredictable clinamen of Epicurus), and in Stoic physics, the pneuma assumed the role of logos. Galen believed the lungs draw pneuma from the air, which the blood communicates throughout the body.[4]


In Europe, medieval physics was influenced by the idea of pneuma, helping to shape later aether theories.

Early modern

Vitalists included English anatomist Francis Glisson (1597–1677) and the Italian doctor Marcello Malpighi (1628–1694).[5] Caspar Friedrich Wolff (1733–1794) is considered to be the father of epigenesis in embryology, that is, he marks the point when embryonic development began to be described in terms of the proliferation of cells rather than the incarnation of a preformed soul. However, this degree of empirical observation was not matched by a mechanistic philosophy: in his Theoria Generationis (1759), he tried to explain the emergence of the organism by the actions of a vis essentialis (an organizing, formative force), stating "All believers in epigenesis are vitalists." Carl Reichenbach (1788–1869) later developed the theory of Odic force, a form of life-energy that permeates living things.

In the 17th century, modern science responded to Newton's action at a distance and the mechanism of Cartesian dualism with vitalist theories: that whereas the chemical transformations undergone by non-living substances are reversible, so-called "organic" matter is permanently altered by chemical transformations (such as cooking).[6]

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach was influential in establishing epigenesis in the life sciences in 1781 with his publication of Über den Bildungstrieb und das Zeugungsgeschäfte. Blumenbach cut up freshwater Hydra and established that the removed parts would regenerate. He inferred the presence of a "formative drive" (Bildungstrieb) in living matter. But he pointed out that this name, "like names applied to every other kind of vital power, of itself, explains nothing: it serves merely to designate a peculiar power formed by the combination of the mechanical principle with that which is susceptible of modification". In the early 18th century, the physicians Marie François Xavier Bichat and John Hunter recognized a "living principle" in addition to mechanics.[5]

19th century

Albert Edelfelt - Louis Pasteur - 1885
Louis Pasteur argued that only life could catalyse fermentation. Painting by Albert Edelfelt, 1885

Jöns Jakob Berzelius, one of the early 19th century fathers of modern chemistry, argued that a regulative force must exist within living matter to maintain its functions.[6] Vitalist chemists predicted that organic materials could not be synthesized from inorganic components, but Friedrich Wöhler synthesised urea from inorganic components in 1828.[7] However, contemporary accounts do not support the common belief that vitalism died when Wöhler made urea. This Wöhler Myth, as historian Peter Ramberg called it, originated from a popular history of chemistry published in 1931, which, "ignoring all pretense of historical accuracy, 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'".[8][9][10]

Between 1833 and 1844, Johannes Peter Müller wrote a book on physiology called Handbuch der Physiologie, which became the leading textbook in the field for much of the nineteenth century. The book showed Müller's commitments to vitalism; he questioned why organic matter differs from inorganic, then proceeded to chemical analyses of the blood and lymph. He describes in detail the circulatory, lymphatic, respiratory, digestive, endocrine, nervous, and sensory systems in a wide variety of animals but explains that the presence of a soul makes each organism an indivisible whole. He also claimed the behavior of light and sound waves showed that living organisms possessed a life-energy for which physical laws could never fully account.[11]

Louis Pasteur (1822–1895) after his famous rebuttal of spontaneous generation, performed several experiments that he felt supported vitalism. According to Bechtel, Pasteur "fitted fermentation into a more general programme describing special reactions that only occur in living organisms. These are irreducibly vital phenomena." Rejecting the claims of Berzelius, Liebig, Traube and others that fermentation resulted from chemical agents or catalysts within cells, Pasteur concluded that fermentation was a "vital action".[1]

20th century

Hans Driesch (1867–1941) interpreted his experiments as showing that life is not run by physicochemical laws.[12] His main argument was that when one cuts up an embryo after its first division or two, each part grows into a complete adult. Driesch's reputation as an experimental biologist deteriorated as a result of his vitalistic theories, which scientists have seen since his time as pseudoscience.[12][13] Vitalism is a superseded scientific hypothesis, and the term is sometimes used as a pejorative epithet.[14] Ernst Mayr (1904–2005) wrote:

It would be ahistorical to ridicule vitalists. When one reads the writings of one of the leading vitalists like Driesch one is forced to agree with him that many of the basic problems of biology simply cannot be solved by a philosophy as that of Descartes, in which the organism is simply considered a machine... The logic of the critique of the vitalists was impeccable.[15]

Vitalism has become so disreputable a belief in the last fifty years that no biologist alive today would want to be classified as a vitalist. Still, the remnants of vitalist thinking can be found in the work of Alistair Hardy, Sewall Wright, and Charles Birch, who seem to believe in some sort of nonmaterial principle in organisms.[16]

Other vitalists included Johannes Reinke and Oscar Hertwig. Reinke used the word neovitalism to describe his work, claiming that it would eventually be verified through experimentation, and that it was an improvement over the other vitalistic theories. The work of Reinke influenced Carl Jung.[17]

John Scott Haldane adopted an anti-mechanist approach to biology and an idealist philosophy early on in his career. Haldane saw his work as a vindication of his belief that teleology was an essential concept in biology. His views became widely known with his first book Mechanism, life and personality in 1913.[18] Haldane borrowed arguments from the vitalists to use against mechanism; however, he was not a vitalist. Haldane treated the organism as fundamental to biology: "we perceive the organism as a self-regulating entity", "every effort to analyze it into components that can be reduced to a mechanical explanation violates this central experience".[18] The work of Haldane was an influence on organicism.

Haldane also stated that a purely mechanist interpretation can not account for the characteristics of life. Haldane wrote a number of books in which he attempted to show the invalidity of both vitalism and mechanist approaches to science. Haldane explained:

We must find a different theoretical basis of biology, based on the observation that all the phenomena concerned tend towards being so coordinated that they express what is normal for an adult organism.

— [19]

By 1931, biologists had "almost unanimously abandoned vitalism as an acknowledged belief."[19]


Some aspects of contemporary science make reference to emergent processes; those in which the properties of a system cannot be fully described in terms of the properties of the constituents.[20][21] This may be because the properties of the constituents are not fully understood, or because the interactions between the individual constituents are also important for the behavior of the system.

Whether emergence should be grouped with traditional vitalist concepts is a matter of semantic controversy.[22] According to Emmeche et al. (1997):

On the one hand, many scientists and philosophers regard emergence as having only a pseudo-scientific status. On the other hand, new developments in physics, biology, psychology, and cross-disciplinary fields such as cognitive science, artificial life, and the study of non-linear dynamical systems have focused strongly on the high level 'collective behaviour' of complex systems, which is often said to be truly emergent, and the term is increasingly used to characterize such systems.

— [23]

Emmeche et al. (1998) state that "there is a very important difference between the vitalists and the emergentists: the vitalist's creative forces were relevant only in organic substances, not in inorganic matter. Emergence hence is creation of new properties regardless of the substance involved." "The assumption of an extra-physical vitalis (vital force, entelechy, élan vital, etc.), as formulated in most forms (old or new) of vitalism, is usually without any genuine explanatory power. It has served altogether too often as an intellectual tranquilizer or verbal sedative—stifling scientific inquiry rather than encouraging it to proceed in new directions."[24]


Franz Anton Mesmer
Franz Mesmer proposed the vitalist force of magnétisme animal in animals with breath.

A popular vitalist theory of the 18th century was "animal magnetism", in the theories of Franz Mesmer (1734–1815). However, the use of the (conventional) English term animal magnetism to translate Mesmer's magnétisme animal can be misleading for three reasons:

  • Mesmer chose his term to clearly distinguish his variant of magnetic force from those referred to, at that time, as mineral magnetism, cosmic magnetism and planetary magnetism.
  • Mesmer felt that this particular force/power only resided in the bodies of humans and animals.
  • Mesmer chose the word "animal," for its root meaning (from Latin animus="breath") specifically to identify his force as a quality that belonged to all creatures with breath; viz., the animate beings: humans and animals.

Mesmer's ideas became so influential that King Louis XVI of France appointed two commissions to investigate mesmerism; one was led by Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, the other, led by Benjamin Franklin, included Bailly and Lavoisier. The commissioners learned about Mesmeric theory, and saw its patients fall into fits and trances. In Franklin's garden, a patient was led to each of five trees, one of which had been "mesmerized"; he hugged each in turn to receive the "vital fluid," but fainted at the foot of a 'wrong' one. At Lavoisier's house, four normal cups of water were held before a "sensitive" woman; the fourth produced convulsions, but she calmly swallowed the mesmerized contents of a fifth, believing it to be plain water. The commissioners concluded that "the fluid without imagination is powerless, whereas imagination without the fluid can produce the effects of the fluid."[25]

Medical philosophies

Vitalism has a long history in medical philosophies: many traditional healing practices posited that disease results from some imbalance in vital forces. In the Western tradition founded by Hippocrates, these vital forces were associated with the four temperaments and humours; Eastern traditions posited an imbalance or blocking of qi or prana. One example of a similar notion in Africa is the Yoruba concept of ase. Today forms of vitalism continue to exist as philosophical positions or as tenets in some religious traditions.

Complementary and alternative medicine therapies include energy therapies,[26] associated with vitalism, especially biofield therapies such as therapeutic touch, Reiki, external qi, chakra healing and SHEN therapy.[27] In these therapies, the "subtle energy" field of a patient is manipulated by a practitioner. The subtle energy is held to exist beyond the electromagnetic energy produced by the heart and brain. Beverly Rubik describes the biofield as a "complex, dynamic, extremely weak EM field within and around the human body...."[27]

The founder of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann, promoted an immaterial, vitalistic view of disease: "...they are solely spirit-like (dynamic) derangements of the spirit-like power (the vital principle) that animates the human body." The view of disease as a dynamic disturbance of the immaterial and dynamic vital force is taught in many homeopathic colleges and constitutes a fundamental principle for many contemporary practising homeopaths.


Pierre Mignard - Portrait de Jean-Baptiste Poquelin dit Molière (1622-1673) - Google Art Project (cropped)
The 17th century French playwright Molière mocked vitalism in his 1673 play Le Malade imaginaire.

Vitalism has sometimes been criticized as begging the question by inventing a name. Molière had famously parodied this fallacy in Le Malade imaginaire, where a quack "answers" the question of "Why does opium cause sleep?" with "Because of its dormitive virtue (i.e., soporific power)."[28] Thomas Henry Huxley compared vitalism to stating that water is the way it is because of its "aquosity".[29] His grandson Julian Huxley in 1926 compared "vital force" or élan vital to explaining a railroad locomotive's operation by its élan locomotif ("locomotive force").

Another criticism is that vitalists have failed to rule out mechanistic explanations. This is rather obvious in retrospect for organic chemistry and developmental biology, but the criticism goes back at least a century. In 1912, Jacques Loeb published The Mechanistic Conception of Life, in which he described experiments on how a sea urchin could have a pin for its father, as Bertrand Russell put it (Religion and Science). He offered this challenge:

"... we must either succeed in producing living matter artificially, or we must find the reasons why this is impossible." (pp. 5–6)

Loeb addressed vitalism more explicitly:

"It is, therefore, unwarranted to continue the statement that in addition to the acceleration of oxidations the beginning of individual life is determined by the entrance of a metaphysical "life principle" into the egg; and that death is determined, aside from the cessation of oxidations, by the departure of this "principle" from the body. In the case of the evaporation of water we are satisfied with the explanation given by the kinetic theory of gases and do not demand that to repeat a well-known jest of Huxley the disappearance of the "aquosity" be also taken into consideration." (pp. 14–15)

Bechtel states that vitalism "is often viewed as unfalsifiable, and therefore a pernicious metaphysical doctrine."[1] For many scientists, "vitalist" theories were unsatisfactory "holding positions" on the pathway to mechanistic understanding. In 1967, Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, stated "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."[30]

While many vitalistic theories have in fact been falsified, notably Mesmerism, the pseudoscientific retention of untested and untestable theories continues to this day. Alan Sokal published an analysis of the wide acceptance among professional nurses of "scientific theories" of spiritual healing. (Pseudoscience and Postmodernism: Antagonists or Fellow-Travelers?).[31] Use of a technique called therapeutic touch was especially reviewed by Sokal, who concluded, "nearly all the pseudoscientific systems to be examined in this essay are based philosophically on vitalism" and added that "Mainstream science has rejected vitalism since at least the 1930s, for a plethora of good reasons that have only become stronger with time."[31]

Joseph C. Keating, Jr.[32] discusses vitalism's past and present roles in chiropractic and calls vitalism "a form of bio-theology." He further explains that:

"Vitalism is that rejected tradition in biology which proposes that life is sustained and explained by an unmeasurable, intelligent force or energy. The supposed effects of vitalism are the manifestations of life itself, which in turn are the basis for inferring the concept in the first place. This circular reasoning offers pseudo-explanation, and may deceive us into believing we have explained some aspect of biology when in fact we have only labeled our ignorance. 'Explaining an unknown (life) with an unknowable (Innate),' suggests chiropractor Joseph Donahue, 'is absurd'."[33]

Keating views vitalism as incompatible with scientific thinking:

"Chiropractors are not unique in recognizing a tendency and capacity for self-repair and auto-regulation of human physiology. But we surely stick out like a sore thumb among professions which claim to be scientifically based by our unrelenting commitment to vitalism. So long as we propound the 'One cause, one cure' rhetoric of Innate, we should expect to be met by ridicule from the wider health science community. Chiropractors can't have it both ways. Our theories cannot be both dogmatically held vitalistic constructs and be scientific at the same time. The purposiveness, consciousness and rigidity of the Palmers' Innate should be rejected."[33]

Keating also mentions Skinner's viewpoint:

"Vitalism has many faces and has sprung up in many areas of scientific inquiry. Psychologist B.F. Skinner, for example, pointed out the irrationality of attributing behavior to mental states and traits. Such 'mental way stations,' he argued, amount to excess theoretical baggage which fails to advance cause-and-effect explanations by substituting an unfathomable psychology of 'mind'."[33]

According to Williams, "[t]oday, vitalism is one of the ideas that form the basis for many pseudoscientific health systems that claim that illnesses are caused by a disturbance or imbalance of the body's vital force."[34] "Vitalists claim to be scientific, but in fact they reject the scientific method with its basic postulates of cause and effect and of provability. They often regard subjective experience to be more valid than objective material reality."[34]

Victor Stenger[35] states that the term "bioenergetics" "is applied in biochemistry to refer to the readily measurable exchanges of energy within organisms, and between organisms and the environment, which occur by normal physical and chemical processes. This is not, however, what the new vitalists have in mind. They imagine the bioenergetic field as a holistic living force that goes beyond reductionist physics and chemistry."[36]

Such a field is sometimes explained as electromagnetic, though some advocates also make confused appeals to quantum physics.[27] Joanne Stefanatos states that "The principles of energy medicine originate in quantum physics."[37] Stenger[36] offers several explanations as to why this line of reasoning may be misplaced. He explains that energy exists in discrete packets called quanta. Energy fields are composed of their component parts and so only exist when quanta are present. Therefore, energy fields are not holistic, but are rather a system of discrete parts that must obey the laws of physics. This also means that energy fields are not instantaneous. These facts of quantum physics place limitations on the infinite, continuous field that is used by some theorists to describe so-called "human energy fields".[38] Stenger continues, explaining that the effects of EM forces have been measured by physicists as accurately as one part in a billion and there is yet to be any evidence that living organisms emit a unique field.[36]

Vitalistic thinking has also been identified in the naive biological theories of children: "Recent experimental results show that a majority of preschoolers tend to choose vitalistic explanations as most plausible. Vitalism, together with other forms of intermediate causality, constitute unique causal devices for naive biology as a core domain of thought."[39]

See also


  • ^a Stéphane Leduc and D'Arcy Thompson (On Growth and Form) published a series of works that in Evelyn Fox Keller's view took on the task of uprooting the remaining vestiges of vitalism, essentially by showing that the principles of physics and chemistry were enough, by themselves, to account for the growth and development of biological form.[40] On the other hand, Michael Ruse notes that D'Arcy Thompson's avoidance of natural selection had an "odor of spirit forces" about it.[41]


  1. ^ a b c Bechtel, William; Williamson, Robert C. (1998). E. Craig (ed.). Vitalism. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Routledge.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  2. ^ Williams, Elizabeth Ann (2003). A Cultural History of Medical Vitalism in Enlightenment Montpellier. Ashgate. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-7546-0881-3.
  3. ^ Jidenu, Paulin (1996) African Philosophy, 2nd Ed. Indiana University Press, ISBN 0-253-21096-8, p.16.
  4. ^ Birch, Charles; Cobb, John B. The Liberation of Life: From the Cell to the Community, 1985, p. 75
  5. ^ a b Birch, Charles; Cobb, John B. The Liberation of Life: From the Cell to the Community, 1985, pp. 76–78
  6. ^ a b Ede, Andrew. (2007) The Rise and Decline of Colloid Science in North America, 1900–1935: The Neglected Dimension, p. 23
  7. ^ Vitalism and Synthesis of Urea
  8. ^ The Real Death of Vitalism: Implications of the Wöhler Myth
  9. ^ Schummer, J., 2003
  10. ^ In 1845, Adolph Kolbe succeeded in making acetic acid from inorganic compounds, and in the 1850s, Marcellin Berthelot repeated this feat for numerous organic compounds. In retrospect, Wöhler's work was the beginning of the end of Berzelius's vitalist hypothesis, but only in retrospect, as Ramberg had shown.
  11. ^
  12. ^ a b Developmental Biology 8e Online: A Selective History of Induction Archived 2006-10-31 at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ Sebastian Normandin; Charles T. Wolfe (2013). Introduction. Vitalism and the Scientific Image in Post-Enlightenment Life Science, 1800–2010. Springer. p. 104. ISBN 978-94-007-2445-7. In medicine and biology, vitalism has been seen as a philosophically-charged term, a pseudoscientific gloss that corrupted scientific practice …
  14. ^ "Other writers (eg, Peterfreund, 1971) simply use the term vitalism as a pejorative label." in Galatzer-Levy, RM (1976) Psychic Energy, A Historical Perspective Ann Psychoanal 4:41–61 [1]
  15. ^ Mayr E (2002) The Walter Arndt Lecture: The Autonomy of Biology, adapted for the internet, on "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2006-09-26. Retrieved 2006-09-24.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  16. ^ Ernst Mayr Toward a new philosophy of biology: observations of an evolutionist 1988, p. 13
  17. ^ Noll, Richard. "Jung's Concept of Die Dominanten (The Dominants)".
  18. ^ a b Bowler, Peter J. Reconciling science and religion: the debate in early-twentieth-century Britain, 2001, pp. 168–169
  19. ^ a b Mayr, Ernst (2010). "The Decline of Vitalism". In Bedau, Mark A.; Cleland, Carol E. (eds.). The Nature of Life: Classical and Contemporary Perspectives from Philosophy and Science. Cambridge University Press. pp. 93–95. ISBN 9781139488655. Yet considering how dominant vitalism was in biology and for how long a period it prevailed, it is surprising how rapidly and completely it collapsed. The last support of vitalism as a viable concept in biology disappeared about 1930." (p. 94)

    From p. 95: "Vitalism survived even longer in the writings of philosophers than it did in the writings of physicists. But so far as I know, there are no vitalists among the philosophers of biology who started publishing after 1965. Nor do I know of a single reputable living biologist who still supports straightforward vitalism. The few late twentieth-century biologists with vitalist leanings (A. Hardy, S. Wright, A. Portmann) are no longer alive.

  20. ^ Schultz, S.G. (1998). "A century of (epithelial) transport physiology: from vitalism to molecular cloning". The American Journal of Physiology. 274 (1 Pt 1): C13–23. doi:10.1152/ajpcell.1998.274.1.C13. PMID 9458708.
  21. ^ Gilbert, S.F.; Sarkar, S. (2000). "Embracing complexity: organicism for the 21st century". Developmental Dynamics. 219 (1): 1–9. doi:10.1002/1097-0177(2000)9999:9999<::AID-DVDY1036>3.0.CO;2-A. PMID 10974666.
  22. ^ see "Emergent Properties" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. online at Stanford University for explicit discussion; briefly, some philosophers see emergentism as midway between traditional spiritual vitalism and mechanistic reductionism; others argue that, structurally, emergentism is equivalent to vitalism. See also Emmeche C (2001) Does a robot have an Umwelt? Semiotica 134: 653–693 [2]
  23. ^ Emmeche C (1997) Explaining Emergence: towards an ontology of levels. Journal for General Philosophy of Science available online Archived 2006-10-06 at the Wayback Machine
  24. ^ Dictionary of the History of Ideas Archived 2011-05-11 at the Wayback Machine
  25. ^ Best, M.; Neuhauser, D.; Slavin, L. (2003). "Evaluating Mesmerism, Paris, 1784: the controversy over the blinded placebo controlled trials has not stopped". Quality & Safety in Health Care. 12 (3): 232–3. doi:10.1136/qhc.12.3.232. PMC 1743715. PMID 12792017.
  26. ^ "Complementary and Alternative Medicine – U.S. National Library of Medicine Collection Development Manual". Retrieved 2008-03-31.
  27. ^ a b c Rubik, Bioenergetic Medicines, American Medical Student Association Foundation, viewed 28 November 2006, "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2006-02-14. Retrieved 2006-12-02.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  28. ^ Mihi a docto doctore / Demandatur causam et rationem quare / Opium facit dormire. / A quoi respondeo, / Quia est in eo / Vertus dormitiva, / Cujus est natura / Sensus assoupire. Le Malade imaginaire, (French Wikisource)
  29. ^ The Physical Basis of Life, Pall Mall Gazette, 1869
  30. ^ Crick, Francis (1967) Of Molecules and Men; Great Minds Series Prometheus Books 2004, reviewed here. Crick's remark is cited and discussed in: Hein H (2004) Molecular biology vs. organicism: The enduring dispute between mechanism and vitalism. Synthese 20:238–253, who describes Crick's remark as "raising spectral red herrings".
  31. ^ a b Pseudoscience and Postmodernism: Antagonists or Fellow-Travelers?
  32. ^ Joseph C. Keating, Jr., PhD: Biographical sketch Archived 2006-05-25 at the Wayback Machine
  33. ^ a b c Keating, Joseph C. (2002), "The Meanings of Innate", The Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association, 46 (1): 4–10, PMC 2505097
  34. ^ a b Williams, William F., ed. (2013). "Vitalism". Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience: From Alien Abductions to Zone Therapy (revised ed.). p. 367. ISBN 9781135955229. VITALISM &NDASH; The concept that bodily functions are due to a 'vital principle' or 'life force' that is distinct from the physical forces explainable by the laws of chemistry and physics. Many alternative approaches to modern medicine are rooted in vitalism. ...

    The exact nature of the vital force was debated by early philosophers, but vitalism in one form or another remained the preferred thinking behind most science and medicine until 1828. That year, German scientist Friedrich Wöhler (1800–82) synthesized an organic compound from an inorganic substance, a process that vitalists considered to be impossible. ...

    Vitalists claim to be scientific, but in fact they reject the scientific method with its basic postulates of cause and effect and of provability. They often regard subjective experience to be more valid than objective material reality.

    Today, vitalism is one of the ideas that form the basis for many pseudoscientific health systems that claim that illnesses are caused by a disturbance or imbalance of the body's vital force.

  35. ^ Victor J. Stenger's site Archived 2016-03-03 at the Wayback Machine
  36. ^ a b c Stenger, Victor J. (Spring–Summer 1999). "The Physics of 'Alternative Medicine': Bioenergetic Fields". The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine. 3 (1). Archived from the original on 2006-12-18. Retrieved 2006-12-03.
  37. ^ Stefanatos, J. 1997, Introduction to Bioenergetic Medicine, Shoen, A.M. and S.G. Wynn, Complementary and Alternative Veterinary Medicine: Principles and Practices, Mosby-Yearbook, Chicago.
  38. ^ Biley, Francis C. 2005, Unitary Health Care: Martha Rogers' Science of Unitary Human Beings, University of Wales College of Medicine, viewed 30 November 2006, "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2006-12-05. Retrieved 2006-12-02.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  39. ^ Inagaki, K.; Hatano, G. (2004). "'Vitalistic causality in young children's naive biology.'". Trends Cogn Sci. 8 (8): 356–62. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2004.06.004. PMID 15335462.
  40. ^ Evelyn Fox Keller, Making Sense of Life Explaining Biological Development with Models, Metaphors, and Machines. Harvard University Press, 2002.
  41. ^ Ruse, Michael (2013). "17. From Organicism to Mechanism-and Halfway Back?". In Henning, Brian G.; Scarfe, Adam (eds.). Beyond Mechanism: Putting Life Back Into Biology. Lexington Books. p. 419.

External links

Alternatives to evolution by natural selection

Alternatives to evolution by natural selection, also described as non-Darwinian mechanisms of evolution, have been proposed by scholars investigating biology since classical times to explain signs of evolution and the relatedness of different groups of living things.

The alternatives in question do not deny that evolutionary changes over time are the origin of the diversity of life, nor deny that the organisms alive today share a common ancestor from the distant past (or ancestors, in some proposals); rather, they propose alternative mechanisms of evolutionary change over time, arguing against mutations acted on by natural selection as the most important driver of evolutionary change. (In most cases, they do not deny that mutations or natural selection occur, or that they play a role in evolutionary change, but instead deny that they are fully sufficient primary causes for the evidence of evolutionary change that is observed in the natural world.)

This distinguishes them from certain other kinds of arguments that deny that large scale evolution of any sort has taken place, as in some forms of creationism, which do not propose alternative mechanisms of evolutionary change but instead deny that evolutionary change has taken place at all. Not all forms of creationism deny that evolutionary change takes places; notably, proponents of theistic evolution, such as the biologist Asa Gray, assert that evolutionary change does occur and is responsible for the history of life on Earth, with the proviso that this process has been influenced by a god or gods in some meaningful sense.

Where the fact of evolutionary change was accepted but the mechanism proposed by Charles Darwin, natural selection, was denied, explanations of evolution such as Lamarckism, catastrophism, orthogenesis, vitalism, structuralism and mutationism (called saltationism before 1900) were entertained. Different factors motivated people to propose non-Darwinian mechanisms of evolution. Natural selection, with its emphasis on death and competition, did not appeal to some naturalists because they felt it immoral, leaving little room for teleology or the concept of progress in the development of life. Some who came to accept evolution, but disliked natural selection, raised religious objections. Others felt that evolution was an inherently progressive process that natural selection alone was insufficient to explain. Still others felt that nature, including the development of life, followed orderly patterns that natural selection could not explain.

By the start of the 20th century, evolution was generally accepted by biologists but natural selection was in eclipse. Many alternative theories were proposed, but biologists were quick to discount theories such as orthogenesis, vitalism and Lamarckism which offered no mechanism for evolution. Mutationism did propose a mechanism, but it was not generally accepted. The modern synthesis a generation later claimed to sweep away all the alternatives to Darwinian evolution, though some have been revived as molecular mechanisms for them have been discovered.

Aura (paranormal)

An aura or human energy field is, according to New Age beliefs, a colored emanation said to enclose a human body or any animal or object. In some esoteric positions, the aura is described as a subtle body. Psychics and holistic medicine practitioners often claim to have the ability to see the size, color and type of vibration of an aura.In New Age alternative medicine, the human aura is seen as a hidden anatomy that affect the health of a client, and is often understood to comprise centers of vital force called chakra. Such claims are not supported by scientific evidence and are pseudoscience. When tested under controlled experiments, the ability to see auras has not been shown to exist.

Eclectic medicine

Eclectic medicine was a branch of American medicine which made use of botanical remedies along with other substances and physical therapy practices, popular in the latter half of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries.

The term was coined by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1784–1841), a botanist and Transylvania University professor who had studied Native American use of medicinal plants, wrote and lectured extensively on herbal medicine, and advised patients and sold remedies by mail. Rafinesque used the word eclectic to refer to those physicians who employed whatever was found to be beneficial to their patients (eclectic being derived from the Greek word eklego, meaning "to choose from").


In philosophy, emergentism is the belief in emergence, particularly as it involves consciousness and the philosophy of mind, and as it contrasts (or not) with reductionism. A property of a system is said to be emergent if it is a new outcome of some other properties of the system and their interaction, while it is itself different from them. Emergent properties are not identical with, reducible to, or deducible from the other properties. The different ways in which this independence requirement can be satisfied lead to variant types of emergence.

Energy (esotericism)

The term "energy" is used by writers and practitioners of various esoteric forms of spirituality and alternative medicine to refer to a variety of claimed experiences and phenomena that defy measurement and thus can be distinguished from the scientific form of energy. There is no scientific evidence for the existence of such energy.Therapies that purport to use, modify, or manipulate unknown energies are thus among the most contentious of all complementary and alternative medicines. Claims related to energy therapies are most often anecdotal (from single stories), rather than being based on repeatable empirical evidence.


In Greek mythology, ichor ( or ; Ancient Greek: ἰχώρ) is the ethereal fluid that is the blood of the gods and/or immortals.


In Inuit mythology, an inua (ᐃᓄᐊ; plural inuat ᐃᓄᐊᑦ, literally "possessor" or "master") is a spirit or soul that exists in all people, animals, lakes, mountains, and plants. They were sometimes personified in mythology. The concept is similar to mana. For Arctic people, human and animals are equal - All life has the same kind of soul or "life essence" (inua). This creates a predicament that, in order to survive people must kill other creatures that are like them. Recognition of this dilemma lies at the centre of hunting practice, which is based upon respect and reciprocity. The hunter will only succeed if the animal chooses to give its life as a gift in return for moral and respectful behaviour on the part of the whole community. For example, after a seal has been killed fresh water is poured into its mouth so that its soul will not be thirsty and it will tell the other seals of the respect shown to it.

Among the Yup'ik near Kuskokwim Bay of Coastal Alaska, the word yua (absolutive case form of the word yuk "human; human-like spirit") has similar connotations as that of the Iñupiaq of Northern Alaska, who similar to the Inuit call it iñua or inua. For both the Yup'iak and Iñupiaq, the meaning is closest to an understanding of a world in which "Most Arctic peoples believe all the world is animate, and that animals have souls or spirits", (Berlo and Phillips 161) a foundational belief of the continuum and inter-connectivity of all life and spirit of all that which is, that which has been, and that which is yet to be.


Manitou (), akin to the Iroquois orenda, is the spiritual and fundamental life force among Algonquian groups in the Native American mythology. It is omnipresent and manifests everywhere: organisms, the environment, events, etc. Aashaa monetoo means "good spirit", while otshee monetoo means "bad spirit." When the world was created, the Great Spirit, Aasha Monetoo, gave the land to the indigenous peoples, the Shawnee in particular.

Meridian (Chinese medicine)

The meridian system (simplified Chinese: 经络; traditional Chinese: 經絡; pinyin: jīngluò, also called channel network) is a concept in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) about a path through which the life-energy known as "qi" flows.Despite ongoing research into the existence of meridians, no convincing scientific evidence has been put forward for their existence. Major proponents of their existence have also not come to any consensus as to how they might work or be tested in a scientific context.


Naturopathy or naturopathic medicine is a form of alternative medicine that employs an array of pseudoscientific practices branded as "natural", "non-invasive", and as promoting "self-healing". The ideology and methods of naturopathy are based on vitalism and folk medicine, rather than evidence-based medicine. Naturopathic practitioners generally recommend against following modern medical practices, including but not limited to medical testing, drugs, vaccinations, and surgery. Instead, naturopathic study and practice rely on unscientific notions, often leading naturopaths to diagnoses and treatments that have no factual merit.Naturopathy is considered by the medical profession to be ineffective and possibly harmful, raising ethical issues about its practice. In addition to accusations from the medical community, such as the American Cancer Society, naturopaths have repeatedly been accused of being charlatans and practicing quackery. Over the years, many practitioners of naturopathy have been found criminally liable in the courts of law around the world. In some countries, it is a criminal offense for naturopaths to label themselves as medical professionals.

Naturopaths are campaigning for more recognition in the United States.

Odic force

The Odic force (also called Od [õd], Odyle, Önd, Odes, Odylic, Odyllic, or Odems) is the name given in the mid-19th century to a hypothetical vital energy or life force by Baron Carl von Reichenbach. Von Reichenbach coined the name from that of the Norse god Odin in 1845. The study of Odic force is called odology.

Organic compound

In chemistry, an organic compound is generally any chemical compound that contains carbon. Due to carbon's ability to catenate (form chains with other carbon atoms), millions of organic compounds are known. Study of the properties and synthesis of organic compounds is the discipline known as organic chemistry. For historical reasons, a few classes of carbon-containing compounds (e.g., carbonates and cyanides), along with a handful of other exceptions (e.g., carbon dioxide), are not classified as organic compounds and are considered inorganic. No consensus exists among chemists on precisely which carbon-containing compounds are excluded, making the definition of an organic compound elusive.Although organic compounds make up only a small percentage of the Earth's crust, they are of central importance because all known life is based on organic compounds. Living things incorporate inorganic carbon into organic compounds through a network of processes (the carbon cycle) that begins with the conversion of carbon dioxide and a hydrogen source like water into simple sugars and other organic molecules by autotrophic organisms using light (photosynthesis) or other sources of energy. Most synthetically produced organic compounds are ultimately derived from petrochemicals consisting mainly of hydrocarbons, which are themselves formed from the high pressure and temperature degradation of organic matter underground over geological timescales. This ultimate derivation notwithstanding, organic compounds are no longer defined as compounds originating in living things, as they were historically.

In chemical nomenclature, an organyl group, frequently represented by the letter R, refers to any monovalent substituent whose open valence is on a carbon atom.


Pneuma (πνεῦμα) is an ancient Greek word for "breath", and in a religious context for "spirit" or "soul". It has various technical meanings for medical writers and philosophers of classical antiquity, particularly in regard to physiology, and is also used in Greek translations of ruach רוח in the Hebrew Bible, and in the Greek New Testament.

In classical philosophy, it is distinguishable from psyche (ψυχή), which originally meant "breath of life", but is regularly translated as "spirit" or most often "soul".


In Hindu philosophy including yoga, Indian medicine and Indian martial arts, prana (प्राण, prāṇa; the Sanskrit word for breath, "life force", or "vital principle") permeates reality on all levels including inanimate objects. In Hindu literature, prana is sometimes described as originating from the Sun and connecting the elements.

Five types of prana, collectively known as the five vāyus, are described in Hindu texts. Ayurveda, tantra and Tibetan medicine all describe praṇā vāyu as the basic vāyu from which the other vāyus arise.

Psychic vampire

A psychic vampire (or energy vampire) is a fictional and religious creature said to feed off the "life force" of other living creatures. Psychic vampires are represented in the occult beliefs of various cultures and in fiction.


Shakti (Devanagari: शक्ति, IAST: Śakti; lit. "power, ability, strength, effort, energy, capability") is the primordial cosmic energy and represents the dynamic forces that are thought to move through the entire universe in Hinduism and Shaktism.

Shakti is the concept or personification of divine feminine creative power, sometimes referred to as "The Great Divine Mother" in Hinduism. As a mother, she is known as "Adi Shakti" or "Adi Parashakti". On the earthly plane, Shakti most actively manifests herself through female embodiment and creativity/fertility, though it is also present in males in its potential, unmanifest form. Hindus believe that Shakti is both responsible for creation and the agent of all change. Shakti is cosmic existence as well as liberation, its most significant form being the Kundalini Shakti, a mysterious psychospiritual force.In Shaktism, Shakti is worshipped as the Supreme Being. Shakti embodies the active feminine energy of Shiva and is synonymously identified with Tripura Sundari or Parvati.

Silap Inua

In Inuit mythology, Silap Inua ('possessor of spirit', ᓯᓚᑉ ᐃᓄᐊ) or Silla ('breath, spirit', ᓯᓪᓚ) is similar to mana or ether, the primary component of everything that exists; it is also the breath of life and the method of locomotion for any movement or change. Silla was believed to control everything that goes on in one's life.


A spirit is a supernatural being, often, but not exclusively, a non-physical entity; such as a ghost, fairy, or angel. In English Bibles, "the Spirit" (with a capital "S"), specifically denotes the Holy Spirit.

The concepts of spirit and soul often overlap, and both are believed to survive bodily death in some religions, and "spirit" can also have the sense of ghost, i.e. a manifestation of the spirit of a deceased person. Spirit is also often used to refer to the consciousness or personality.

Historically, it was also used to refer to a "subtle" as opposed to "gross" material substance, as in the famous last paragraph of Sir Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica.

Élan vital

Élan vital (French pronunciation: ​[elɑ̃.vital]) is a term coined by French philosopher Henri Bergson in his 1907 book Creative Evolution, in which he addresses the question of self-organisation and spontaneous morphogenesis of things in an increasingly complex manner. Elan vital was translated in the English edition as "vital impetus", but is usually translated by his detractors as "vital force". It is a hypothetical explanation for evolution and development of organisms, which Bergson linked closely with consciousness – with the intuitive perception of experience and the flow of inner time.

Population genetics
Of taxa
Of organs
Of processes
Tempo and modes
Philosophers of biology

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