If you try to describe the living processes of the cell in a rather more living language than is typically found in the literature of molecular biology — if you resort to a language reflecting the artfulness and grace, the well-coordinated rhythms, and the striking choreography of phenomena such as gene expression, signaling cascades, and mitotic cell division — you will almost certainly hear mutterings about your flirtation with “spooky, mysterious, nonphysical forces.” You can expect to hear yourself labeled a “mystic” or — there is hardly any viler epithet within biology today — a “vitalist.” This charge reflects a certain longstanding sensitivity among biologists — one that deserves to be taken seriously. It was recently given very thoughtful and respectful expression by a first-rank molecular biologist in response to a draft book chapter I had sent him. After describing my views as “very interesting, provocative, and necessary,” and before offering his support for much of what I had to say, he voiced this concern: “You very explicitly dispense with vitalism. Nevertheless, your piece is permeated by an atmosphere that says ‘There is something special about living things.’” So I believe there is. Animals and plants are a long way from rocks and clouds, and also from automobiles and computers. The need to point this out today is one of the startling aspects of the current scientific landscape. It is true that the concept of “vitalism” has been problematic in the history of biology, but no less so than “mechanism.”

more from Steve Talbott at The New Atlantis here.