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Sunday, June 14, 2009

Scientist Appreciation: Friedrich Wöhler

One thing that confuses me about Charles Darwin is just how greatly he is demonized by anti-science groups (primarily the fanatically religious). After all, while Darwin did make profound contributions to the field of biology, he is not the only scientist to help expand our knowledge of the natural world into an area that was formerly staunchly under the purview of theology. One other such scientist was Friedrich Wöhler, a German chemist from the nineteenth century.

Though he spent much of his younger days working in various institutions throughout Germany (and even briefly in Stockholm), he spent the final portion of his professional life working in Göttingen (which is why his statue now graces one of the town's squares). Among a copious output of work that included the isolation of aluminium, titanium, and several other elements, Wöhler also began the field of organic chemistry through the synthesis of urea without the aid of a living cell. This turned the idea of a 'vital force' required for generating organic compounds on its head, and brought the exploration of biological organisms within the sights of the physical sciences. In modern terms, he helped spark the development of organic chemistry and thus the related fields of biochemistry, molecular biology, molecular biophysics, and bioengineering.

Of course, Wöhler's singular demonstration of the synthesis of an organic compound did not fully discredit vitalism, but it got things started. Now, the idea of a vital force unique to living beings has been virtually abandoned (outside of a few caveats which I will soon be discussing). What I find strange is that the acceptance of the physical and chemical basis for our bodies has been, for the most part, complete. The previously widespread set of beliefs in various life forces has retreated entirely into the form of an incorporeal and undetectable soul or New Age woo of some indefinable energy that can be somehow helped (expensively) by interior decorating consultations or dubious and mildly unpleasant physical interventions. This retreat, too, has been performed without reference to the historical shift in our perception of life and its constituent parts. There is no demonizing of Wöhler, or false stories of recanting on his deathbed. In actuality, Wöhler is pretty much a ghost in the public mind. Outside of those who study chemistry or have an interest in the history of science, his name barely registers. While part of that may be that chemical synthesis is slightly more direct to demonstrate, as we have seen with the shifting goal-posts of the many incarnations of creationism, scientific demonstration is not actually the point.

I don't really have an answer for this difference in the way history has treated the two scientists, but I do have an appreciation for Friedrich Wöhler's contributions to science. His initial synthesis of urea may have been an accident, but it was no less ground-breaking.

3 comments:

Andrew said...

One more scientist you should add to the list of those not being targeted by biblical literalists is James Sutton. You've probably never heard of him, but he was the first to derive a cohesive theory of geological processes, and found several sites around Scotland to confirm his ideas. Much of his early work was refined and expanded upon by Charles Lyell, whose book Darwin read on his voyage on HMS Beagle.

The result of this new theory was that the Earth could not be 6000 years old, as everyone at the time assumed. Anyway, there's a whole book on him called "The Man Who Found Time." I highly recommend it if you can find it.

Mozglubov said...

I have not heard of James Sutton, but it does sound like an interesting book. After all, geology is one of the branches of science that creationists of some branches vehemently argue against. For some reason, though, it is never embodied within the works of a specific man like it is for Charles Darwin (or, for extra crazy, I have seen the idea for an old Earth also ascribed to Darwin...).

Regan said...

The biggest reason that Darwin is such a huge target is because the work he did and inspired totally invalidates the story of genesis.

Wohler's challenge to vitalism is different in the sense that there is nothing in the bible that says "And lo god created vitalism, and it was pretty neat", so it was easier to rationalize that concept into the theological worldview. The work that Darwin did and inspired can't be crammed into the bible no matter how hard you try. The bible says X happened, and the study of the processes of natural selection and evolution says Y happened. There is no possible way to reconcile the two.

I think the stranger scientist to be demonized by religion is Galileo. The bible doesn't even explicitly say the sun travels around the earth, and they still put him under house arrest until he died.

-regan