Essential Oils


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The Quantum Leap Organicism

As outlined in chapter 1, for most of the twentieth century, the physiological effects of an essential oil were explained by making reference to the molecular structure of an active ingredient. This language reflects the core belief that everything including living organisms, can be can be explained by the laws of chemistry and physics.

The corresponding philosophical positions was called physicalism in the early twentieth century. Physicalism is the thesis that the nature of the universe and everything in it conforms to the condition of being physical. Physicalists don't deny that the world might contain phenomena that at first glance don't seem physical-phenomena of a biological, psychological, moral, or social nature. But they insist nevertheless that ultimately such items are either physical or caused by the physical.

Vitalism, on the other hand, held the living organisms are fundamentally different from non living entities because they contain some nonphysical element or are governed by different principles than are inanimate things. Its proponents believed that there was something akin to a life force, which was not accessible with the laws of physics or chemistry. The scientific battle between the two camps could not be settled by even more physics. Instead they were resolved by modern biology and the emergence of a new concept organicism.

Organicism holds that within the organizational hierarchy of living organisms (emergent) properties arise at each level of organization. These properties cannot be predicted by even the most detailed knowledge (i.e., physical and molecular) of a lower level of organization. This has direct consequences for the study of aromatherapy, for essential oils are produced by the whole plant organism and, in their constantly varying composition, reflect the interaction of the plant with its environment. They are thus the vehicle for much of the plant's communication with and relation to the outside world.

Even the slightest grasp of the utter complexity of life makes it obvious that the plant organism has vested certain properties in essential oils, which arise at that very refined level of interaction between plants and other plants as well as between plants and mammals. A semi-humorous and semi-serious example may illustrate this: looking at the molecule methyl chavicol, the main component of basil oil, does not explain why pesto is made with basil and not with tarragon, which has the same main component. It also does not explain why peso is a staple of the Mediterranean cuisine and not Dutch cooking.

Grasping that properties can in fact emerge at the level of a whole organism unmasks the mantra-like recitation of chemical components as a wildly over rated exercise when it comes to explaining the full range of essential oil properties. While scientists were aware that secondary plant metabolites play many interesting roles, such as signalling from plant to insects, the full scope of their activities and interactions with life in general was missed. A fundamental change is paradigm is only happening now.

Scientific Context


E.O. Wilson has influenced public consciousness in the United States and globally in ways hard to overestimate. In the Diversity of Life he has advocated an understanding of the value of diversity and the risks humanity runs if diversity is destroyed. In Consilience Wilson argues for a confluence of all science on the basis of physics and Chemistry.

Wendell Berry
Wendell Berry responded to Wilson's Consilience with an essay against modern superstition. For berry the idea that life could be explained only through molecules and physics is plain laughable. The argument between Wilson and Berry is a most captivating modern version of the physicalist/vitalist debate, where both protagonists are most convincing an eloquent.

Reference: The Healing Intelligence of Essential Oils: Kurt Schnaubelt, Ph.D.


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