Science and Technology

Biological Vitalism, or What Is Life?

Teleology, Animal Behaviour & Neovitalism

Aug 18, 2023

This article was first published in the IM776 magazine and can be found here.

A spectre has long haunted the field of biology, the spectre of vitalism. In our nominally rational age we are used to describing life as an epiphenomena, one which can be best explained in the language of the machine. Parts, components, software, circuits – these metaphors are a surface deep attempt to ensure biology remains wedded to the Cartesian principles that life, and everything else, can be reduced to its fundamental constituent elements. But this view, more scientism than scientific, has long been contested historically and creaks under the mounting weight of recent evidence. What remains, lurking in the background, is a philosophy of life that seeks to understand the forces, the drives, the will which organises and directs organic matter towards an end. This irreducible, teleological conception of biology can be called vitalism, and I shall attempt to outline the main problems and principles in this brief overview.

The Problem of Biology

Aristotle knows through various observations that the embryonic parts are not all simultaneously present, but come successively into being; and thus, to use a modern term, we may call his theory “epigenetic”. How then do these parts come into being: does the one form the other or do they simply arise one after the other?

The History & Theory of Vitalism, Hans Driesch, 1914.

The ancient problem of biology is how to explain the difference between animate and inanimate matter? Whilst a simple explanation posits that life is simply stuff which is organised and directed by an external spirit or divine will, observation shows that living organisms ‘unfold’ or develop, from acorn to tree, with some kind of invisible will or direction. Something internal and indivisible. The Presocratic search for the ‘arche’, the underlying principle or substance, led to Thales and Anaximander positing water or fire as the governing element. Onto this Aristotle stamped his theory of hylomorphism – that living beings are composed of both matter and form. To illustrate, a human body after many decades contains none of the same molecules from its infancy, the body is constantly replacing itself. Yet it remains identifiably the same person. The form, the organising directive of the body, stays the same. Aristotle labels this the soul, that force which binds matter and points it towards an end.


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