lunes, 31 de mayo de 2010

The end of vitalism

The end of vitalism

Arthur Caplan

Professor of bioethics, University of Pennsylvania

Venter and his colleagues have shown that the material world can be manipulated to produce what we recognize as life. In doing so they bring to an end a debate about the nature of life that has lasted thousands of years. Their
achievement undermines a fundamental belief about the nature of life that is likely to prove as momentous to our view of ourselves and our place in the Universe as the discoveries of Galileo, Copernicus, Darwin and Einstein.

More than 100 years ago, the French philosopher Henri-Louis Bergson claimed that
life could never be explained simply mechanistically. Nor could it be artificially created by synthesizing molecules. There was, he argued, an “élan vital” — a vital force that was the ineffable current distinguishing the living from the inorganic. No manipulations of the inorganic would permit the creation of any living thing.

This ‘vitalist’ view has come in many forms over the centuries. Galen wrote of the ‘vital spirit’ in the second century; Louis Pasteur in 1862 looked to ‘vital action’ to explain how life exists; and the biologist Hans Driesch posited an ‘entelechy’ or essential force as a requisite for life as recently as 1894. The molecular-biology
revolution notwithstanding, science has continued to struggle with the reducibility of life to the material.

Meanwhile, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, among other religions, have maintained that a soul constitutes the explanatory essence of at least human life. All of these deeply entrenched metaphysical views are cast into doubt by the demonstration
that life can be created from non-living parts,albeit those harvested from a cell. Venter’s achievement would seem to extinguish the argument that life requires a special force or power to exist. In my view, this makes it one of the most important scientific achievements in the history of mankind.

source: NATURE|Vol 465|27 May 2010

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