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Vitalism: Its History and Validity

Nature volume 145, pages 67 (06 January 1940) | Download Citation



MANY readers of Radl's "History of Biological Theories" and Woodger's "Biological Principles" must have been left with the feeling that biological theories are quite incoherent and biological principles non-existent. Dr. Wheeler has set himself to correct the impression left by such excessively impartial discussions. His book is a history of vitalistic theories and a defence of this point of view. It is a praiseworthy but incomplete attempt to do something extremely difficult. To complete the task satisfactorily would mean a complete history and criticism of the development of scientific thought and its varying background. As vitalism has been an attempt to supplement or set aside the traditional categories of physical science, these have to be examined first. The task is not made easier by the way that vitalists and mechanists in their age-long contest have repeatedly shifted their ground and changed their weapons. If there is a clear and permanent difference between the antagonists, it may be one of temperament as much as anything else. The mechanist is the kind of person who feels that everything important is known already, in principle at least, and that only minor details remain to be discovered. The vitalist feels that existing knowledge is only of minor details, and everything of importance is undiscovered.

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