maria thun obituary in the telegraph

Today, in The Telegraph there’s an obituary on Maria Thun, a very prominent person in biodynamic farming.

The principles of biodynamic agriculture were first proposed by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in 1924. He spoke of life forces not detectable by the physical senses, yet linking together the universe and all living things. He believed that the energy of plants can be affected not only by human actions and the weather but also by the energy of the moon, stars and planets. Decisions about when to sow and prune, he suggested, should be made according to patterns of lunar and cosmic rhythms.

Beginning in the 1950s Maria Thun decided to subject his principles to controlled trials on her farm on the outskirts of Darmstadt in Germany, beginning with radishes. Planting the vegetables when the moon was in different constellations, she discovered, resulted in their growing into different forms and sizes.

Continue to read!

(One wonders — perhaps someone even knows the answer, I don’t, but I suspect what it might be — if her trials have been replicated by any other researchers, even better by any researchers independent of the anthroposophical movement!

18 thoughts on “maria thun obituary in the telegraph

  1. Māori have been making decisions about planting according to the lunar calender (their own) for thousands of years. Rongo mā Tāne is our God of all things that grow in the ground. Just thought I’d mention that. It’s as viable as Rudi’s opinion.

  2. My vegetables also grow in different forms and sizes, I must have grown them biodynamically without realising.

    It was good of the Telegraph highlight that Maria didn’t know what root crops were. Typical of Steinerites to dabble in a subject they really know very little about, and the obituary helpfully points this out.

  3. Shane — I love these gods. And, yes, they are as viable. There were lots of old gods and beings here too that made a whole lot more sense for practical reasons as compared to the monotheistic christian god. But then I find Steiner’s universe, too, less boring compared to that.

    Helen — yes yes, but just because materialistic science says these vegetables are this and not that doesn’t tell us what they are *spiritually*!! ;-)

  4. ” just because materialistic science says these vegetables are this and not that doesn’t tell us what they are *spiritually*!! ;-)”

    Oh I see!

    Last night I was talking to someone who left her job at local cafe after being instructed to make meringues on a certain day each month according to the moon. She said it was the last straw, and her mental health has improved since leaving.

  5. I can see how these places are not always fun to work in… if almost everybody shares the same worldview (except yourself), and that worldview is a part of the business, it can be a bit overbearing. I suppose one could put up with some oddities, like meringues according to the moon, but when that is added to a psychologically malfunctioning environment, it’s not fun.

  6. Not unlike waldorf actually, in my experience. There are lots of things in there that you can accept or put up with. But with the environment being what it is (was, in my case), that’s just too much.

  7. Thank you for your blogging efforts Alicia, it’s been an interesting read so far. I was wondering about biodynamic farming’s claims, evidence and lack thereof. I have a hard time figuring out what the biodynamic movement today is actually suggesting. I see three possibilities:

    1) That biodynamic farming provides an increased quality or quantity of crop as compared to other organic farming? From my understanding of “Lantbrukskursen” the main difference of biodynamic vs. organic is A) the use of the special compounds in “homeopathic” dosages, and B) the idea that the farm must ideally be a closed loop so that for instance, manure from the farm’s cows will produce better results than from cows next door. AFAIK, the quantity aspect of this has been scientifically disproven. That leaves “quality” which I suppose could be measured by panels of tasters or chemical analysis of nutrients etc. I’m not really sure what research has been done in this department, but perhaps you can provide a reading tip.

    2) Even if taste or nutrient content wouldn’t differ significantly, biodynamic farmers could still argue that their produce is better for the consumer, for example for health reasons (just like they argue that GMO crops are worse for you, even if it in theory was chemically identical). Such claims could of course also be investigated, but comparative food studies are generally long term and difficult to pull off (especially since there are so few eating a dedicated biodynamic diet). Nevertheless, if you are aware of any such studies, I’d be much obliged.

    3) The final corner to retreat to if all evidence pointed against the claims would be to say that the effects of biodynamic crops can’t be evaluated on a physical level in a meaningful way, but would still provide benefits for the spiritual part of man. For instance, claims such as “strengthening the I” or “balancing the etheric body”, or even advantages in another life time, could be made. If persons reported such effects from eating biodynamic crops but not other organic crops of similar composition, it would be easy to do a blind study to rule out a placebo effect (ie, belief that you are eating something more beneficial also makes it more beneficial). In fact, this might be the simplest experiment of all, but I haven’t found any such study.

    (Actually there’s a 4th “argument”, or “Endlösung” if you will, that’s rarely used in biodynamics but it could be used in any anthro/new age vs. scientific testing context, and that is of course that the spirits or angels are messing with your experiment and won’t let unrefutable proof of the hierarchies’ influece on tomatoes, for instance, be released on humanity since it clearly isn’t ready for such spiritual insights on a large scale. Hence, much like the Paper Spirit in Wolgang Weirauch’s book who had to erase all traces of hard proof on the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth, thereby conveniently explaining why there is none, the spirit world might again be acting much like a “benevolent government” keeping the citizens from information that could be too much for them. I list it here for completeness, but it’s not a defensive strategy I’ve encountered much).

    From what I’ve gathered, all three of these arguments have seen direct or implicit use in the marketing or “in house” discussion of biodynamic farming. I was mostly wondering if you, who seem to be keeping good tabs on the anthro community, had found a tendency to withdraw from or emphasize certain claims over time. Has the Goetheanum’s research adapted to or considered studies/reports from main stream science on biodynamic agriculture?

    Also finally, I’ve found almost no comparitative studies at all regarding animals or animal products on biodynamic farms vs. organic farms in general. For example, if Demeter farms (how many are there in Sweden with cows? 1-3?) have less cow mastitis than regular KRAV-farms (KRAV is a prerequisite to Demeter in Sweden). My guess is that even on an international scale, Demeter animal husbandry is so small scale and of such limited interest outside of the anthro community, that no main stream scientist can be bothered to investigate its claims, even if it was possible to define what they really are. Thus we are left with Goetheanum’s, hopefully unbiased and honest, research.

  8. Speaking of research protocols, as we were in another thread, claims such as “benefits in another lifetime” or “spirit beings messed with the results because humanity isn’t ready to know the truth” are notoriously difficult to test … think how hard it would be to maintain a double-blind when you have both researchers and subjects coming back as different people in consecutive lifetimes. :)

  9. This will be a very quick comment from me (sorry, must rush)…

    Diana pointed out some obvious problems. They make some aspects of BD farming difficult to investigate scientifically. The spiritual claims aren’t really possible to research in a conventional way.

    ‘That leaves “quality” which I suppose could be measured by panels of tasters or chemical analysis of nutrients etc. I’m not really sure what research has been done in this department, but perhaps you can provide a reading tip.’

    Not easily… I would suggest looking at the websites of Demeter (you might need to go to the german or international websites, if you find nothing on the Swedish). There’s also the Agricultural section at the Goetheanum (http://www.sektion-landwirtschaft.org/4701.html). I think they list some stuff that could be interesting. I can’t say anything about the scientific value of these studies ;-) There’s a Biodynamiska Forskningsinstitutet in Sweden.

    One funny thing they do to test the quality of the produce is crystallisation tests. Try google crystallisation + biodynamics. The pictures they then end up with are pretty nice. They’re supposed to show life forces…

    Re your suggestion in 3) — no I don’t think there are any such studies!

    ‘if Demeter farms (how many are there in Sweden with cows? 1-3?)’

    I imagine many more than that. They’re all supposed to have their own cows, although nearby farms can co-operate on this. I don’t know how many BD farms there are — but more than 1-3 at least!

    ‘Thus we are left with Goetheanum’s, hopefully unbiased and honest, research.’

    Ah, well, yes…

    It’s true that BD agriculture is of little interest to non-anthroposophist agricultural scientists. A big part of it is, after all, the spiritual aspect. Eating BD food without being committed to the worldview is one thing, but to research it? Not likely to happen.

  10. (I’ll continue in English – lemme know if you prefer to switch to Swedish. Have you switched the blog to English or just choose post language based on daily preference?)

    First off, let me say that I make a sharp distinction between outlandish hypothesis and predictions. For instance, if somebody suggested that fermenting minute amounts of manure in a cow’s horn would improve crops (hypothesis) and specified that the improvement would increase yield (prediction), I think there’s more merit to simply test the prediction than to speculate on the hypothesis. Only if the predictions hold true should we bother with trying to explain them. Similarly, there’s no point in explaining the “etheric mechanics”, if you will, of how a certain homeopathic remedy achieves its beneficial effects, unless we’re sure it outperforms placebo (otherwise, there’s no beneficial effect to explain). Nevertheless, this works both ways. No scientific work is done by trying to dismiss, whether by ridicule or reason, a prediction simply on the basis of its outlandish hypothesis. To me, it is therefore quite sufficient to conclude that a hypothesis doesn’t yield testable predictions (as in the case of beneficial effects in another life time) to safely sort it in the “not science”-category as a completely non-normative matter of form. In short, I don’t care to challenge such a hypothesis any more than I care to challenge a man who says he has the most beautiful wife in the world. That doesn’t mean I accept it as scientific fact though.

    The JBV broshure had some interesting references in it, most importantly a large, long term study published 2002 in the highly esteemed and peer reviewed journal Science. Thankfully, a kind soul has posted it on-line for those of us who don’t subscribe to the journal:
    http://www.mindfully.org/Farm/Organic-Farming-Fertility-Biodiversity31may02.htm

    The study shows quite unambigously that biodynamic farming slightly outperforms organic farming when it comes to factors such as soil volume, biodiversity and resource use. The difference is much smaller than when comparing these two systems to the two conventional systems (using organic and inorganic fertilizer, respectively), but it surely is there. The details on the actual differences between the biodynamic and organic systems thus become of great interest. Unfortunately, the article only provides a brief summary on this (at the bottom). However I was able to google myself to this pdf (sorry for the long link) :
    http://bit.ly/GHGznd [Link shortened. /a]

    As can be seen on slide 3, there’s nothing to comment on the actual plots – it seems randomized enough and all of them have roughly equivalent sunlight etc. However, turning to page 4 and 5, we notice that not only the “Biodynamishe Präparate” differ between the two, but also the addition of copper sulfate to the organic plots and rather different inputs of NPK and organic material! Of course, these factors could very well affect the biodiversity etc. and there’s no reason to suggest its attributable to the biodynamic preparations (not even that Steiner says so – probably because biodiversity wasn’t that much of a buzz word in the 1920s). I almost slapped myself in frustration – here was an excellent opportunity to once and for all prove or disprove an effect of the “biodynaic variable”, however since the other variable weren’t kept constant it’s impossible to draw any conclusions. To be fair though, the Science article doesn’t. It more or less completely lumps the two organic systems and the two conventional systems together and comments on their combined differences.

    However, your linked JBV-broshure isn’t as honest. Turning to page 14 we see the headline “Markbiologisk aktivitet – inverkan av biodynamiska preparat”, lumping together the DOK-study of Science fame with other older studies (the DOK-study has the most impressive results) and claiming how they all point toward the same direction. Be that as it may, we can’t attribute the effect to the biodynamic preparations for reasons already explained. To be fair, I haven’t checked the older studies referenced, but I doubt that they would superseed the one published in Science in terms of preciseness (and even that I found lacking). As for the rest of the broshure, the other cited data seems to indicate that the biodynamic preparations (if indeed that’s what they’ve tested at all – we have reason to doubt this based on the misrepresentation of the DOK study) sometimes increase yields and sometimes don’t – however since there’s no testing of statistical significant, we might as well assume that this is part of the natural variation of crops and that the preparations have no effect.

    In short, from what I can gather, any effects of the biodynamic preparations (at all) are as of yet, not scientifically proven. OTOH, they aren’t disproven either. As for the copper chloride crystallisation technique, I’ve done some research into that in the past. The Goetheanum wouldn’t reply to my e-mail enquiries on it and Vidarkliniken didn’t make use of it and suggested I should contact the Goetheanum, so… My own internet findings only revealed references to the old original study by Ehrenfried Pfeiffer who came up with the method. Nothing indicated it was scientifically more valid or useful than telling fortunes through tea leaves (though anthroposophy would of course argue that the very same etheric forces are at work even there, even though they are interpreted by the fortune teller on an atavistic basis rather than through the privileged perspective of spiritual science).

  11. ‘(I’ll continue in English – lemme know if you prefer to switch to Swedish. Have you switched the blog to English or just choose post language based on daily preference?)’

    Please continue in English — I was in such a rush I just wanted to post that document and since it was in Swedish I figured nobody would be interested except someone who knew how to read it… I write some posts in Swedish and some in English — I haven’t made a decision either way re the blog as a whole, it depends on the topic. I usually respond in the language commenters comment in, no matter the language of the post.

    I’ve shortened the long link in your comment. (It make line breaks and thus ran all over the page — but I think that differs between browsers.)

    Interesting analysis — I couldn’t read these studies and make much of them, unfortunately. I pretty much rely on conclusions drawn by people who would know how to read those studies. My hunch is that many of the BD ideas are so incredible that they’re not a matter for science — they claim benefits that simply can’t be measured. And the benefits that could potentially be measured are, well, unclear, as you seem to have discovered (if I understand it). The differences could be down to other variables.

    I wouldn’t expect Vidarkliniken to use the crystallisation method, except perhaps evaluate etheric forces in some thing or another (and if they did, they wouldn’t admit to it to somebody they don’t kniw) — but the Biodynamiska Forskningsinstitutet does, although whether they’re willing to answer questions, I don’t know.

    Of course, nothing indicates it’s scientifically valid, I’m only saying it’s a method they use. The result, as far as I can tell, is pretty pictures. You could hang them on the wall, but they don’t seem to be good for much else.

  12. “I pretty much rely on conclusions drawn by people who would know how to read those studies.”

    OK, feeling a little bit of pressure here :D

    “My hunch is that many of the BD ideas are so incredible that they’re not a matter for science — they claim benefits that simply can’t be measured. And the benefits that could potentially be measured are, well, unclear, as you seem to have discovered (if I understand it). The differences could be down to other variables.”

    Yes, but IMO, ideas as such (whether they appear reasonable or incredible) are not a matter for science – testable predictions are. Ideas are a matter for philosophy. In Platonic terms, the domain of science does not extend to the realm of ideas. To put it in another way, science is useless except as a method for testing testable predictions.

    However, the studies I commented on are NOT dedicated to scientifically testing a predicted result of the biodynamic preparations. Rather, the goal of the experiment is something else entirely, and then as a by product, a few differences are noted between organic and biodynamic fields. Granstedt then proceeds to suggest that it’s due to the biodynamic preparations, but that is not science at all, but “ex post facto” philosophical speculation. It cannot possibly be judged scientifically (unless one were to do another experiment specifically testing Granstedt’s prediction), but can only be judged philosophically – that is, based on such things as logic, sound arguments, plausibility etc. I hope I make this distinction clear! To me, it’s instrumental not only as a general theory of science, but also in grasping anthroposophy.

    “Of course, nothing indicates it’s scientifically valid, I’m only saying it’s a method they use. The result, as far as I can tell, is pretty pictures. You could hang them on the wall, but they don’t seem to be good for much else.”

    Yes, what I’m saying is that we need to know what ‘scientifically valid’ would even mean. For instance, can we use it to predict cancer? The reason we can test this is because we can establish through other methods if someone has cancer or not. And no, it doesn’t work unfortunately. But what if we use biocrystallisation to gauge if a plant has the right etheric qualities? Well, it’s not necessary to accept the existence of etheric qualities to do such an experiment – we just need some reference to test against, that we know differentiate the right etheric qualities from the worse ones. For instance, our basic axiom can be that biodynamic farming generates plants with the right qualities, and now we wish to use biocrystallisation to see if we can differentiate biodynamic apples from normal organic apples in a blinded trial.

    However, this is NOT how biocrystallisation is used today. Rather, it is itself a basic axiom – the à priori defined physical photocopy of etheric forces if you will. So whatever the outcome of the biocrystallisation, it becomes a way for the interpreter to describe the etheric nature of the fruit, much like one could (within the anthroposophical world view) describe its astral nature by virtue of its color (if there’s a link between color and astral nature, or indeed an astral nature to begin with, isn’t a matter of enquiry but a fundamental axiom). It’s simply a more poetic way of characterizing the fruit, much like how a professional wine taster would characterize a complex wine. This doesn’t, however, mean that even such professional wine tasters can differentiate even between red and white grapes in a blind test (http://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2012/02/experts-fail-champagne-taste-test/)

    To me, anthroposophy is very useful in this manner, as a philosophy, and I think important though often hard-to-articulate insights can be gained about the world and man through its judicious application. It seems quite useless at making scientific predictions about the physical world (indeed, the only world you *can* make scientific predictions about), but quite good at contextualizing and making sense of both scientifically generated data and personal experiences or even historical events for those willing to take the plunge into the fascinating world of Steiner.

    It’s not only a theoretical philosophical system either, but has practical applications too that can be just as useful despite having no direct link to the rather narrowly defined scope of science. It’s quite similar to Feng Shui in this respect (also based on a vast and complex philosophy spanning everything from architechture and interior design to diet and how to do business). I assume that even the biodynamic element of biodynamic farming can be hugely enjoyable and satisfying, just like dancing around the christmas tree with friends, despite neither producing testable scientific hypothesis. Questioning why biodynamic farmers use or even make the preparations is like questioning why Swedes drink glögg. However, if someone were to drink glögg based on assumptions of purported health benefits, it becomes a matter for scientific testing.

    Sorry if I went out on a tangent there, but I felt the need to elaborate on my position :)

  13. ‘Yes, but IMO, ideas as such (whether they appear reasonable or incredible) are not a matter for science – testable predictions are.’

    Sure, I agree with that. I just think that what BD is, is about ideas, many of them about the supersensible (which is not the domain of science anyway). Ideas are what motivates it and justifies it, not scientific knowledge.

    It’s a perfectly good idea to test the predictions that are testable but in the end… BD farming will be about belief not science.

    As you say:

    ‘To put it in another way, science is useless except as a method for testing testable predictions.’

    Then:

    ‘Granstedt then proceeds to suggest that it’s due to the biodynamic preparations, but that is not science at all, but “ex post facto” philosophical speculation.’

    This is quite typical. Ie, to impose an interpretation of a result that fits the anthroposophical worldview.

    ‘It cannot possibly be judged scientifically (unless one were to do another experiment specifically testing Granstedt’s prediction), but can only be judged philosophically – that is, based on such things as logic, sound arguments, plausibility etc. I hope I make this distinction clear!’

    Very. This is obviously so.

    ‘It seems quite useless at making scientific predictions about the physical world (indeed, the only world you *can* make scientific predictions about), but quite good at contextualizing and making sense of both scientifically generated data and personal experiences or even historical events for those willing to take the plunge into the fascinating world of Steiner.’

    Yes, possibly (although I doubt its potential to make sense of things in a way that is valid outside the worldview itself, however, it’s certainly fascinating). And it’s worth keeping in mind that anthroposophically speaking, the first kind of activity — i e, the ‘dry’, ‘materialistic’ methods of science — is not considered enough. Which leads to confusion in a world where science is taken to have a certain meaning. Have you read anything on anthroposophy and the so called Goethean science?

    In actual science, meditating over biocrystallisation pictures and subjectively interpreting them (you described some of the problems well in your comment), is of course completely backwards. Even if anthroposophists call this science, for it to be science in the generally accepted way, one would have to proceed with the biocrystallisation experiments in a totally different manner. (A manner that would not satisfy ‘spiritual science’ and would most likely not lead to anything interesting from the perspective of ordinary science either. Although, of course, it’s impossible to know the latter until it’s investigated.)

    ‘I assume that even the biodynamic element of biodynamic farming can be hugely enjoyable and satisfying, just like dancing around the christmas tree with friends, despite neither producing testable scientific hypothesis. Questioning why biodynamic farmers use or even make the preparations is like questioning why Swedes drink glögg. However, if someone were to drink glögg based on assumptions of purported health benefits, it becomes a matter for scientific testing.’

    Exactly! There is certainly room for making testable scientific hypotheses from some of the concrete ‘this-worldly’ claims that BD farmers make today. I wonder if it is that neither anthroposophist nor non-anthroposophist researchers have any interest in doing so?

  14. “I wonder if it is that neither anthroposophist nor non-anthroposophist researchers have any interest in doing so?”

    An acute observation! Indeed, this seems very much to be the case. I feel quite satisfied with BD for now and move on to the broader questions you touch upon:

    “I just think that what BD is, is about ideas, many of them about the supersensible (which is not the domain of science anyway).”

    Not as such no, but the problem is that the supersensible is not viewed as completely seperate from the sensible. ‘Etheric phenomena’ for instance flirt with science by virtue of the general mind-over-matter paradigm stating they will eventually have physical consequences. Hence, if there are no physical effects, there are no etheric causes. In the example of BD, this should mean that if the biodynamic preperations are unable to produce tangible effects, an anthroposophical argument could hardly be made for their etheric qualities either – unless we go against the very principle of the subtle ruling the dense (common to any occult tradition).

    “Yes, possibly (although I doubt its potential to make sense of things in a way that is valid outside the worldview itself, however, it’s certainly fascinating).”

    That’s hardly unique to anthro though. I’m not sure it’s possible to make any statement that’s valid outside of its own perspective. For example, a sentence in French is meaningless outside of the French language. In fact, I think it may be helpful to view anthroposophy as something of a language (as this post hints at: http://blogg.ljungquist.org/archives/4517). Once you learn useful concepts as the three types or levels of the soul in anthroposophy, you’ll wonder how you ever managed without them. And after a while, these concepts and what they point to may seem even more self-evident and real than your original use of the simple word “soul” – as if you see something now that you didn’t see before. As Steiner might have said, one cannot seperate the world of man from her concepts anymore than from her percepts.

    “And it’s worth keeping in mind that anthroposophically speaking, the first kind of activity — i e, the ‘dry’, ‘materialistic’ methods of science — is not considered enough. Which leads to confusion in a world where science is taken to have a certain meaning.”

    I would agree, but of course it depends on what one means with “enough”. Enough for dignified human life? Of course not. Science is no more enough for that than are carrots or a screwdriver. And why would one settle for enough? Is there a scareceness of interesting things beyond science to fill one’s life with, so that we must take care not to run out? I do however think that science is quite sufficient to test predictions – indeed, that is what I mean by it – the concepts are identical (just like it is sufficient to be unmarried to qualify as a bachelor).

    In fact, I don’t even think science is *necessary* to lead a dignified human life – however, I’m convinced technology is (technologies such as farming, architecture, waste management, medical care etc). But scientific testing or even updating yourself on the latest (or even most basic) findings as a prerequisite to a dignified life? Hardly.

    “Have you read anything on anthroposophy and the so called Goethean science? ”

    I’ve read Steiner and I’ve read Goethe and I’m somewhat familiar with the link between them, but not anything specific on ‘Goethean science’. Any specific titles you had in mind?

  15. “Questioning why biodynamic farmers use or even make the preparations is like questioning why Swedes drink glögg.”

    This one made me holler out loud. And in fact, I’d say there is some proto-scientific value to Swedes drinking Glögg as well as to BD farmers using BD preparations. I think there is a potentially valid, ahum, substance, to vital traditions as such. What this substance really is, however, is a matter of occult research, where percepts and concepts merge, reverse and fool around like Quantum Physics would only dream of. (Alluding to Hamlet’s famous line to Horatio.)

    I love your conversation, btw!

    P

  16. Sorry, I’m behind…

    ‘Not as such no, but the problem is that the supersensible is not viewed as completely seperate from the sensible.’

    No, which easily causes a bit of confusion, because what you wrote (the example) is implicit for the anthroposophist (scientist), perhaps almost self-evident. To lots of other people, not so… And then there’s that somewhat paradoxical idea that the supersensible (supposedly) has material effects. As a side note, it often strikes me as funny how ‘materialist’ many spiritual experiences are, after all, or rather, how they rely on things material.

    ‘That’s hardly unique to anthro though.’

    Absolutely not. It’s just like saying that ‘christ was the son of god’ has an entirely different value to the christian than the atheist. To use an extreme example.

    ‘And after a while, these concepts and what they point to may seem even more self-evident and real than your original use of the simple word “soul” – as if you see something now that you didn’t see before.’

    Ha! Yes. Even to me.

    ‘I would agree, but of course it depends on what one means with “enough”.’

    Well, there are better ways to put it, I guess. Another way to put it is to say that materialistic science needed a spiritual element, and without it, it was not complete. It was insufficent, even if Steiner too acknowledged it produced results. Which, to him, only seemed like half the truth.

    ‘Any specific titles you had in mind?’

    No, just the general stuff you run into online. There’s quite a lot out there…

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