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Is Vitalism Making a Comeback?

Photo credit: Giles Laurent, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Vitalism is the age-old idea that living things possess a vital force — some fundamental element that generally does not exist in non-life. As a Darwinian paradigm took hold of the natural sciences in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, vitalism fell out of favor. But as writer and teacher Daniel Witt reports, a willingness to flirt with vitalism seems to be growing in certain scientific circles.

First, Witt explains what vitalism is and why it fell out of favor. Then he discusses recent attempts from evolutionary scientists to appeal to naturalistic processes to explain the vital force found in organisms. The new trend, says Daniel, is a tacit admission that the vitalists were on to something, an acknowledgement that Darwinian processes are not powerful enough to adequately account for living things. 

Daniel and I, as host, also note the eerie similarity between the arguments used to discredit vitalism and those used to sideline the theory of intelligent design. Unscientific? Check. Argument from ignorance? Check. Unfalsifiable? Check. Science stopper disproven long ago? Check. And yet, vitalism is making a comeback, and this time, in the work of those committed to a Darwinian framework. It turns out that no idea can simply be shamed out of existence, no matter how hard people try. Find the podcast and listen to it here.

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