Before turning to the organicist paradigm which replaced both vitalism and physicalism, we might note in passing a rather peculiar twentieth-century phenomenon-the development of vitalistic beliefs among physicists. Niels Bohr was apparently the first to suggest that special laws not found in inanimate nature might operate in organisms. He thought of these laws as analogous to the laws of physics except for their being restricted to organisms. Erwin Schrodinger and other physicists supported similar ideas. Francis Crick (1966) devoted a whole book to refuting the vitalistic ideas of the physicists Walter Elsasser and Eugene Wigner. It is curious that a form of vitalism survived in the minds of some reputable physicists long after it had become extinct in the minds of reputable biologists.
A further irony, however, is that many biologists in the post-1925 period believed that the newly discovered principles of physics, such as the relativity theory, Bohr's complementarity principle, quantum mechanics, and Heisenberg's indeterminacy principle, would offer new ￼insight into biological processes. In fact, so far as I can judge, none of these principles of physics applies to biology. In spite of Bohr's searching in biology for evidence of complementarity, and some desperate analogies to establish this, there really is no such thing in biology as that principle. The indeterminacy of Heisenberg is something quite different from any kind of indeterminacy encountered in biology.Bohr's speculative foray into biology was not isolated. He made many highly speculative statements about the implications of quantum theory to other disciplines (including politics and religion) that were accepted uncritically and used inappropriately by some postmodernists. Mara Beller, has chronicled these excesses in a provocative Physics Today article "The Sokal Hoax: At Whom Are We Laughing?", and a book, Quantum Dialogue: the making of a revolution.
The hubris of physicists does not diminish with time. Earlier I posted about how (not) to break into a new field.