Vital Force Theory: Definition & Principles

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  • 0:04 Vital Force Theory
  • 1:06 Principles of Vital Force
  • 1:45 Disputing Vital Force Theory
  • 2:31 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Laura Foist

Laura has a Masters of Science in Food Science and Human Nutrition and has taught college Science.

There have been several scientific theories throughout the centuries, many of which were proven false. One of these theories was the vital force theory, which we will learn about in this lesson.

Vital Force Theory

What separates living organisms from non-living organisms? Scientists have been exploring this question for millennia, and the definitions have changed throughout the years.

At one point, living organisms were also used to define organic and non-organic compounds. In what's called the vital force theory, it was believed that living organisms could create organic compounds from non-organic ones, and this was the only way for organic compounds to be created.

J.J. Berzelius came up with the vital force theory

The vital force theory stalled out further research on organic compounds because scientists believed that they could not synthesize them, and that they were only made through the power of God. Jöns Jacob Berzelius created the vital force theory, saying the following:

''In living nature the elements seem to obey entirely different laws than they do in the dead… The essence of the living body consequently is not founded in its inorganic elements, but in some other thing, which disposes the inorganic element… This something which we call vital force is situated fully outside the inorganic elements and is not one of their original properties.''

Principles of Vital Force

Berzelius defined this theory in 1815, setting down three principles with it:

  1. Organic compounds cannot be made in the laboratory from inorganic compounds.
  2. Synthesis of organic compounds requires a vital force.
  3. Only living organisms (God-given) contain this vital force.

In other words, this theory postulated that it takes great power - a God-given one - to create organic compounds. They called this great power vital force. Since it could only be created with this great power, it wasn't worthwhile to study these compounds in the laboratory, because they could never be created there.

Disputing Vital Force Theory

There were several experiments that ended up disproving the vital force theory. The first big one was Friedrich Wohler's synthesis of urea in the late 1820s.

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