Inorganic versus Organic Substances

Inorganic substances are made from the elements listed in the periodic table and they can be in solid, fluid or gaseous condition. These physical substances also permeate other kingdoms of nature – plant, animal, and human – where they provide physical frameworks for living tissues and organs. Organic substances are therefore a combination of complex inorganic structures and etheric substances. The interworking of etheric and physical forces is an essential characteristic of all organic substances in comparison with inorganic ones where physical forces are only active by means of chemical elements.

When we observe the natural world we can distinguish the existence of mineral, plant and animal kingdoms which are further classified into specific subgroups – phylum, class, order, family, genus, species – because they exhibit different characteristics. [1] But there is one very striking borderline between that which we regard as non-living and living: on one side is the inorganic realm of the mineral kingdom and on the other the organic realm of plants and animals, including human beings. But when we try to comprehend the difference between inorganic and organic substances, we encounter some difficulties. With the aim to understand the essential difference between these two kinds of substances we will deal with this issue first from the perspective of natural science and then from the perspective of spiritual science.


When one tries to figure out what is the scientific distinction between organic and inorganic substances, then one can encounter confusing and obscuring classifications, with the end result of a blurred borderline between living and non-living forms of existence. For example, even in the case of minerals – where one would expect logic and clarity – one can encounter the following definition of mineral:

“A mineral is an element or chemical compound that is normally crystalline and that has been formed as a result of geological processes.” To this group do not belong “chemical compounds produced entirely by biological processes without a geological component (e.g. urinary calculi, oxalate crystals in plant tissues, shells of marine molluscs, etc). However, if geological processes were involved in the genesis of the compound, then the product can be accepted as a mineral.” [2] This means that according to this definition the shell found on the beach is not mineral; in the case that we find a fossil containing a shell, then it is counted as mineral.

In another classification of minerals based upon their chemical composition we can find beside inorganic compounds also the class of organic compounds, including the subclass of organic minerals – that is, minerals of biological origin such as amber and urea. [3] The naming itself is contradictory; more suitable naming would be ‘minerals of organic origins ‘. Nevertheless, the existence of this subclass proves that minerals can originate from the living organisms.

In another branch of science, in organic chemistry, we encounter the following definition: “Organic chemistry is the scientific study of the structure, properties, composition, reactions, and preparation (by synthesis or by other means) of carbon-based compounds, hydrocarbons, and their derivatives.” [4] According to this approach all substances which are based on carbon frameworks are organic, including petrochemicals, such as drugs, adhesives, plastic, paints, agrochemicals, etc. The original meaning of the word ‘organic ‘ is “of, pertaining to, or derived from living organism” or “having properties associated with living organisms.” [5] This means that modern scientists have managed to change coal and plastic into something which belongs to the realm of life – not by some magic, but by the means of arbitrary definition!

In the list of organic compounds we can also find urea. Now, if you compare urea with table salt in the picture you will notice that the only difference between the salt, which is classified as an inorganic substance, and the urea, which is classified as an organic substance, is in their outer shape of crystals. Otherwise both are white mineral substances! The argument for distinction is that urea is produced by living organisms. Yes, it is true, but urea is mineral by all other characteristics; this is confirmed also by the classification of urea among ‘organic minerals ‘. It is without dispute that inside living organisms there are also inorganic mineral substances, but this fact does not change them into organic ones.

The closest to the real meaning of the word ‘organic ‘ is the definition of organic matter as “matter composed of organic compounds that has come from the remains of once-living organisms such as plants and animals and their waste products in the environment. All living organisms are composed of organic compounds. In life they secrete or excrete organic materials such as faeces into soils, shed body parts such as leaves and roots and after the organism dies, its body begins to decompose, broken down by bacterial and fungal action.” [6]

The other example where the scientific classification comes close to the facts of life is the group of biomolecules (or biological molecules). Investigation of these molecules is a major field of organic chemistry. Their main characteristic is that they are large and complex. Here we find true organic molecules: proteins, carbohydrates and fats. [7] But even here a person without a scientific background can easily be confused because of the complicated and contradictory ways they are classified and named in different resources.

The main characteristic of the above presented short overview of various classifications of substances in the diverse branches of natural science is the lack of consistency based upon arbitrary definitions. Such a situation is causing an unclear and blurred distinction between what is living and what not. For example, in a popular book for medical students six levels of structural organisation are described: the human being, system level (e.g. nervous system, etc), organ level, tissue level, cellular level, and chemical level. [8] Chemical level is further divided into molecules and atoms.

What is the most striking about this classification is that there is no clear border between the inorganic and organic realm of existence. Of course, the upper structural layers, from body to cells, are evidently organic. And atoms or chemical elements are evidently inorganic. But in the molecules group – which is in between – there is no differentiation between simple inorganic molecules such as water, carbon dioxide, calcium carbonate, etc., and complex biological molecules, such as starches, fats, and proteins. This approach obscures the borderline between living organic and lifeless inorganic substances which can be found on the level of molecules.


According to spiritual science there is a crucial difference between the mineral kingdom and the kingdoms of plants and animals. In the mineral kingdom we have dead mineral substances. Of course, they are not completely ‘dead ‘, for they react chemically between themselves when they are in specific conditions. [9] But the basic building elements of “life are cells, arrangements of cells, many-celled organisms, communities of organisms, and ecosystems of communities” [10] and not inorganic matter ruled by physical and chemical laws.

There is an evident difference between minerals and living organisms: organisms grow, reproduce and die. What is the reason for this difference? Stone as a sample of the inorganic realm consists of the physical body alone. But the living organisms consist of physical body and life body (etheric body) combined. These two bodies interpenetrate each other. While the physical body is perceptible to us directly, we can perceive the life body only indirectly through its effects on the organism. For example, the ability of a plant or an animal to grow and reproduce itself is due to the existence of the etheric body. Furthermore, if we compare a stone with a piece of flesh we can observe that after some time that flesh will start to decay, while stone – if not worked upon by outer influences – can keep its shape for millennia. Flesh as an example of organic substance decays because the life body of animal has departed from it after an animal has been killed. In a piece of flesh we still have some etheric forces due to the presence of organic substances, such as proteins and fats, but even these start to decay if meat is not stored or preserved properly. Thus the presence of the life body preserves and maintains the living organisms.

Another characteristic of the life body is evident if we observe the plant kingdom. Plants take in inorganic substances such as carbon dioxide, water, and minerals, and – in the process of photosynthesis and further processes of plant chemistry – create carbohydrates, fats and proteins. We can see that the simplest plant is capable of something which all the scientists of the world with all their technology cannot make [11]: the creation of living organic substances out of the inorganic elements with the help of sunlight and warmth. Plants are no doubt organic chemists par excellence! [12] And that capacity of plants is the result of the presence of the etheric body.

Some processes which mineral substances undergo inside living organisms resemble the processes that can be enacted in chemical laboratories. Because of this natural scientists have arrived at the rather hasty conclusion that life originated from dead inorganic substances somewhere in the distant past of earthly evolution. [13] But when we take into account the existence of the life body, then everything become clearer. Then we can grasp that what is happening outside the living organism has a pure mineral character, while activities inside any living organism are influenced also by the etheric or life body.

On the basis of this we can characterize an organic substance as:

With the help of this ‘definition ‘ the following conclusions are evident:

The above explanations will be more obvious when we put them in the context of the FOURFOLD HUMAN BEING. One of the four members of the human being is the life or etheric body. This body “is not merely a product of the materials and forces of the physical body, but a real independent entity which first calls forth these physical materials and forces into life. It is in accordance with spiritual science to say: a purely physical body, a crystal for example, has its form through the action of the physical formative forces innate in that which is lifeless. A living body has its form not through the action of these forces, because the moment life has departed from it and it is given to physical forces only, it falls to pieces. The etheric body is an organism which preserves the physical body every moment during life from dissolution. [16]

Thus we have arrived to the essential difference between inorganic and organic substances. While inorganic substance has its structure and function due to the impact of physical formative forces, the structure and function of organic substance is primarily due to the impact of the etheric formative forces. In short, the difference is due to the presence and influence of the life body.


  1. In natural science living organisms are classified into additional kingdoms such as bacteria, protoctista, fungi, etc. (the classifications vary with different authors) which are not taken into account here because they do not change anything in regard to the main focus of this text – that is, the comparison of substances of the mineral kingdom with substances which can be found in living organisms.
  2. The formal definition of a mineral approved by the International Mineralogical Association in 1995. Source: Wikipedia/Mineral, March 2012
  3. Wikipedia/Nickel–Strunz classification, March 2012
  4. Wikipedia/Outline of Organic Chemistry, March 2012
  5. Reader ‘s Digest Universal Dictionary, London, 1987
  6. Wikipedia/Organic matter, March 2012
  7. Wikipedia/Organic Chemistry, Biomolecules, March 2012
  8. A. Waugh, A. Grant, Ross and Wilson: Anatomy and Physiology in Health and Illness, Elsevier Limited, 2004
  9. Although water or fluid is the chief medium which enables the majority of chemical reactions, we also have chemical reactions, such as combustion, which happen in the medium of air.
  10. Lynn Margulis & Dorian Sagan, What Is Life?, University of California Press, 2000
  11. Science can manipulate life, but not create it. In spite of the fact that they have discovered the structural composition of many living substances, they have not produced a single living thing from inorganic components. All they can do is to take parts of living organisms (such as DNA of microorganisms or cells) and manipulate them with the aim of changing one of their characteristics. This method of manipulation of the living organisms is also used in the genetic engineering.
  12. For a description of this characteristic of plants see chapter Plants Are All Chemists in The Lost Language of Plants, Stephen Harrod Buhner, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2002
  13. There are scientists who do not agree with such simplifications of the origin of life. One example of such ‘heretics ‘ is Rupert Sheldrake with his book A New Science of Life, The Hypothesis of Formative Causation (Icon Books, 2009). In it the author suggests an explanation in which the forms of living organism are guided by so-called ‘morphic fields ‘ through which the memory of what has happened before is active. In this way “what happens depends on what has happened before” because “memory is inherent in nature.” These ‘morphic-fields ‘ can be seen as a manifestation of etheric forces.
  14. One example of such a big molecule is glycogen which is also called animal starch. On the main picture inside the leaf is drawn the structure of glycogen where each dot represent one unit of glucose; that means that glycogen contains a few hundreds or thousands of each element.
  15. These examples demonstrate that in nature we also encounter metamorphosis of substances from organic into inorganic and back to organic. But this is possible only with the cooperation of living organisms, including numerous microorganisms and fungi which enable the breaking-down of wood and similar mineralised substances.
  16. Rudolf Steiner, Theosophy, Rudolf Steiner Press, 2005

Inorganic versus Organic Substances
By Brane Žilavec