Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Vitalism and the C-H Bond

Organic matter is defined by some, described by others, as matter in which carbon-hydrogen bonds are found. We don’t find such bonds in the inorganic realm, only in what lives right now or once did live. In my private lexicon, the astonishing difference between the living and non-living realms is that life seems almost compulsively (though lustily might be the better word) determined to maintain the same complex form in perpetuity, if possible, and this by countering the death of individuals by reproduction. By form, here, obviously, I don’t mean shape but something like what Aristotle had in mind. Bees will be bees. These forms are not rigidly fixed; they can change over time by various mechanisms; but the changes so made will also then be reproduced.

The fact that C-H bonds are universally present in living entities (or their residues like oil and coal) is also fascinating but not on the same level of incommensurability which life and inorganic reality manifest. Yet it is this difference in kind, rather than in degree, that first generated the notion that some kind of independent life-force must be present in organic matter in addition to the big six (hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur) or the more numerous thirty-three (link) before form preservation by means of reproduction can come about.

I gather that his notion is traceable back to alchemy where, evidently, it arose from the study of combustion. Minerals don’t burn. Clearly the alchemists mustn’t have known about coal—which at least appears to be a mineral. But they observed that things that do burn (wood, straw, etc.) once lived. Therefore that which formed these substances must have added something special to them so that combustion could later work. This idea later evolved into the notion that organic matter had to have carbon. Living matter therefore stood witness to the missing ingredient, the life-force. Chemists therefore held that organic compounds could not be synthesized from the inorganic. The Swedish chemist Jöns Berzelius (1779-1848) formalized this definition; it is to him that we owe the organic-inorganic distinction. He also originated several other new terms, not least catalysis and polymer.

It was one of Berzelius’ students, Friedrich Wöhler (1800-1882), who, later in his career, managed, although unintentionally, to synthesize urea. Wöhler was trying to make ammonium cyanate from silver cyanide and ammonium chloride. Urea, found in urine, was then viewed as an organic compound—it came from a body, after all. Alas it does not contain a C-H bond, but never mind. As this brief biography of him states, his action “shattered the vitalism theory.” But did it? Really?

The modern view is something like this: If it can be shown that a process might have happened accidentally it must have happened accidentally the first time it ever did. But, restricting ourselves strictly to urea, the question arises: Under what circumstances would “nature” be playing accidentally with nice pure forms of silver cyanide and ammonium chloride? The interesting feature of the claim that vitalism has been shattered is that that claim is firmly grounded on a particular kind of metaphysics—namely that life is just a pure continuity of the inorganic, different from the latter by degree, not different in kind.

Now I’ll be generous and stipulate that a thousand monkeys playing on a thousand keyboards might if set the task produce:

Mary had a little lamb,
Little lamb, little lamb,
Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow…

...but that would not necessarily prove at all that that ditty had originally also come about by accident. Therefore, in seems to me, vitalism is by no means shattered by the Wöhler synthesis. Here I might add that the synthesis of urea in bodies takes place with casual frequency all the time as the consequence of extraordinarily complex processes of the same sort that cause entities to reproduce. And that showing how one or another chemical can be synthesized does not explain, above all, the very odd phenomenon, reproduction, thus the compulsion, as it were, to preserve a certain kind of form against all odds.

The teleological tendency in life, which reproduction at minimum hints at, is not removed by showing that humans (themselves a form of life), with a good many fancy instruments, can laboriously synthesize what the cells in the body do with ease. Vitalism will be shattered (or transcended) when the teleological tendency is finally explained away (or explained more fully). And a more generous explanation of it would be mildly underlined by the brute fact that inorganic chemistry lacks—but biochemistry majorly, vitally uses—the carbon-hydrogen bond.


  1. The words that are used to describe the history of science are always interesting. People will say that Wöhler shattered vitalism, but they don't say (for instance) that Pasteur (who was a vitalist, although a very cautious one) shattered materialism, even though every single one of the long list of Pasteur's scientific successes was a blow against the materialism of the time. And modern biology owes as much to nineteenth century vitalists like Pasteur as it does to their non-vitalist contemporaries. In cases like these it seems one can keep all the facts of history yet get a different interpretation just by redescribing the successes and failures.

  2. Concerning “interpretations,” Brandon, it strikes that in the nineteenth century, roughly, when philosophia naturalis morphed into science, a crucial ingredient, reason, got transmuted into ideology—else I can’t explain to myself how the unique characteristics of life could have come to be treated as if they did not exist. Once ideology is present, slant replaces logic, hence competing descriptions…