A Brief History of the Theory of Spontaneous Generation
Dr Jerry Bergman
(Investigator Magazine #37, 1994 July)
belief in spontaneous generation was traced from the early Greeks to
the present day. It was found that spontaneous generation has been
almost universally accepted as true in the west, at least for so-called
lower forms of life, until very recently. The work of Pasteur, Redi and
others was highly influential in demonstrating that spontaneous
generation does not normally take place today. Nonetheless,
evolutionists often assume that some form of spontaneous generation
occurred in the far distant past, even though they believe that it is
unlikely that it could occur today.
review of this history is important in helping present day researchers
understand the importance of values and belief structures, even in
areas of science, in influencing what a person accepts as 'scientific'
or true. It was concluded that the debate still continues in a
different form today, even though there exists no direct empirical
evidence that spontaneous generation can take place today, or ever
could have taken place.
a specific challenge to the acceptance of 'pure creationism' which has
also been one of the major obstacles in its acceptance was the theory
of spontaneous generation. This belief held that life could and
regularly did spring from non-living matter. Because the ancients did
not realize the enormous chemical and biological complexity of life,
they did not believe that spontaneous generation was a particularly
unusual or amazing event.1 It was accepted by Miletus (600
BC), Anaxagorus (510-428 BC), Epicurus (341-270 BC), Aristotle (348-322
BC), Basilius (AD 315-379) and even Augustine (AD 354-430), Paracelsus
(AD 1493-1541), Van Helmont (AD 1578-1657), Descartes (AD 1596-1650),
Harvey (AD 1578-1657), Needham (AD 1713-1781) and Buffon (AD 1707-I
in spontaneous generation was widespread up until as late as the 1850s
and created a major roadblock to the full acceptance of a need for
outside design and intervention for life to exist.3 As Gardner noted,
theory of spontaneous generation was commonly accepted from the
earliest periods of biological history until the middle of the last
century [around 1850].'4
In a classic study of cosmology, Collier went even further, concluding that the
in the spontaneous generation of plants and of small animals from
inanimate matter, not only at creation but also ever since, was almost
universal to the end of the seventeenth century.'5
are not here concerned with the means or mechanism of the origin of
life, only with the historical belief that life can spontaneously
generate and the conflict of this belief with the basic concept of
creationism. A problem with the creation concept is, as Bube notes,
that it has a variety of meanings. Our use of the phrase here will be
limited to the belief in an instantaneous and totally supernatural fiat
act of God as opposed to, or as an alternative to, the belief in a
process which expresses the creative activity of God as operating
indirectly, such as setting up the conditions which allow life to come
forth on its own from non-living matter by purely naturalistic means.6
A scientist who observed what appeared to be a genuine event of flat
divine creation would have to conclude scientifically that an event of
spontaneous generation had occurred, and to conclude that it was a
divine creation event would require ruling out natural causes. This is
what Pasteur and others did. The phrase spontaneous generation
specifically refers to an event caused by known natural forces of the
universe which under certain 'natural' conditions will always produce
life if the necessary conditions are present.
certain conditions were held for centuries to be both sufficient and
common, regularly causing 'life' to spontaneously form from non-living
matter. A creationist believes that 'natural' processes are not capable
of creating or developing life on their own, and that some outside
living intelligence is necessary to produce life. In other words,
regardless of the amount of time, natural non-living conditions and
laws are not capable of spontaneously producing life without outside
EARLY BELIEFS IN SPONTANEOUS GENERATION
of the oldest recorded explanations for the non-supernatural origin of
living things was the theory of spontaneous generation. Many persons
once held that
and animals ... [arose] ... from mud in the bottom of a pool or from
various other materials, rather than through reproductive processes of
parent organisms or direct creation by a creator.'7
philosophers such as Anaxitnander (611-547 BC) taught that spontaneous
generation took place in the residue of mud and mist on the earth while
the water in the mud was being evaporated by the sun. Anaximander's
theory was similar to the modern theory of evolutionary abiogenesis,
the belief that life can develop from non-life without intelligent
direction. He taught that after fish were spontaneously generated,
'their descendants left the water and reached dry land' to later evolve
into reptiles and mammals.8, 9
That spontaneous generation was commonly accepted during most of history is evident from the following quote from Vallery-Radot:
is regrettable that Biot — whose passion for reading was so
indefatigable that he complained of not finding enough books in the
library at the Institute — should not have thought of writing the
history of this question of spontaneous generation. He could have gone
back to Aristotle, quoted Lucretius, Virgil, Ovid, Pliny. Philosophers,
poets, naturalists, all believed in spontaneous generation.... In the
sixteenth century Van Helmont — who should not be judged by that one
instance — gave a celebrated recipe to create mice: any one could work
that prodigy by putting some dirty linen in a receptacle, together with
a few grains of wheat or apiece of cheese. Some time later an Italian,
Buonanni, announced a fact no less fantastic: certain timberwood he
said, after rotting in the sea, produced worms which engendered
butterflies, and those butterflies became birds.'10
the spontaneous generation of life was accepted as valid, it was not
difficult for Anaxirnander to hypothesize a series of developments
which would account for the origin of higher forms of life. He
concluded that the first animals were generated in water surrounded by
a protective husk or shell. These animals later migrated to dry land,
developed their shells and adapted themselves to their new
circumstances. Sartan noted that Anaximander taught that 'man must
derive from other animals, because his own period of immaturity is too
long and too frail.'11
Other aspects of his theory which were remarkably similar to modem evolution theory include the teaching that
the world's integument burst and conditions changed, these descendants
modified their mode of living and became adapted to the new
environmental situation... different kinds of living things came into
being by transmutation. Man was supposed to have come from lower
species of animals, probably aquatic.'12
early Greek writers explained the existence of the living world in
similar terms. Lucretius believed that the earth was 'mortal' and both
existed and operated without a need for any divine intervention. It was
therefore necessary to explain what caused all natural phenomena — the
night-day cycle, the movements of the sun, moon and stars, and the
existence of plant and animal life — solely in naturalistic
terms.13 To account for the existence of the living world, Lucretius,
as did many ancient scholars, accepted the spontaneous generation
to the middle 1800s, the public and most scientists still believed that
some organisms could spontaneously generate themselves. As late as 1852
'the manner in which our earth was originally stocked with its organic
[life] was still hotly debated among researchers.'14 It was held by
many scientists that spontaneous generation was the only explanation
for the existence of organisms in the air, the cold parts of the earth,
and deep within the water. Martin states,
of the recent works of Ehrenburgh — a name that carries with it an
authority second to none in that field — advocates the doctrine of
spontaneous generation of the microscopic animalcules of the
atmosphere by means of atmospheric agencies alone.'15
argued that spontaneous generation was also held by most scientists
then to be the total explanation for the lower organisms both in the
animal and plant kingdoms:
occurrence of the Alpine plants of Europe at the remotest point of the
Andes, and the wide diffusion of the most humbly organized plants in
similar localities throughout the globe, are regarded by this school as
fact incapable of explanation by any other hypothesis than that which
affirms their spontaneous generation there'16
Martin also claimed that by the middle 1800s this viewpoint had been confirmed by 'recent tendencies of investigation.'17
religious and scientific authorities, many up to the 1850s, also
supported the spontaneous generation doctrine. Maayen states,
exact observations which have been made, prove that nature is still
able to create imperfect animals, as well as the lower plants, without
seeds or eggs [in other words, by spontaneous generation]. Only organic
matter, water, and air, the essential conditions of living beings, are
necessary, with sufficient heat, to produce animal forms.'18
comments that mould which forms on bread is 'a decisive instance of
spontaneous generation.' The question that Martin is concerned
with is 'not whether or not animals can spontaneously regenerate, but
up to what grade of animals and plants this creative energy of nature
reaches.'19 Martin then spends the rest of his treatise trying to
reconcile the then highly accepted theory of spontaneous generation
with creationism, concluding that the 'power of an almighty Creator,
through whatever the agencies of work the creation may accomplish [is
evident even though the creator may use several methods of creation]
since it is difficult to believe that the method of creation has not
always been the same.' In other words, God created certain kinds of
animals as related in Genesis, but set in operation laws which enable
organisms to be created naturally at later periods of time. Martin and
others were in this way able to reconcile the prevailing scientific
theory of spontaneous generation with the doctrine of creationism. A
difficulty is that, once one allows the spontaneous generation of what
they then wrongly believed were simple forms of animals, including
moulds, yeasts, flies, insects and so-called simple plants, this
doctrine can easily be extended to all living plants and animals, which
is what many scientists did. Notable examples include Erasmus Darwin
(1731-1802) in his book Zoonomia and later Jean Baptiste Lamarck
(1744-1829) and of course Charles Darwin (1809-1882). If living things
can generate themselves automatically when only water, air, heat and
certain unknown but natural factors are present, higher forms of life
could also be accounted for by natural explanations, laying the ground
work for Oparin‘s theory of spontaneous generation of all original life
historical note are the views that Charles Darwin had on spontaneous
generation for much of his career. Probably the most succinct passage
as to his opinion was in a letter to D. Mackintosh dated February 28,
1882, in which he stated,
though no evidence worth anything has as yet, in my opinion, been
advanced in favour of a living being being developed from inorganic
matter, yet I cannot avoid believing the possibility that this will be
proved someday in accordance with the Law of continuity.
...If it is ever found that life can originate on
this world, the vital phenomena will come under some general law of
of Darwin's writings on evolution concerned the origin of species, not
the origin of life. In one of his few statements relative to this
topic, he stated that he
that all animals descended from at most only four or five progenitors,
and plants from about the same number. He even speculated that all
animals and plants have descended from only one prototype.'21
Darwin also wrote a letter to Hooker in 1870, in which he stated,
generation seems almost as great a puzzle as preordination. I cannot
persuade myself that such a multiplicity of organisms can have been
produced, like crystals, in solutions of the same kind.'22
concludes that Darwin was actually somewhat skeptical about spontaneous
generation for much of his career, and allowed for an original
creation, which he discussed on pages 188, 189, 484 and 490 of the
first edition (1859) of his Origin of Species and all other editions.23
As Darwin's other views changed, so too did his conclusions in this
area. As Davidheiser noted:
the last letter he is known to have written, three weeks before he
died, Charles Darwin expressed the view that the origin of life would
be found to be a consequence of some "natural law" and hence not by
creation. Present-day evolutionists assume that Darwin's view of this
is correct, and they are striving to explain how life came about.' 24
THE ACCUMULATION OF THE EVIDENCE
of the first scientists to seriously question the spontaneous origin of
living things was the Italian physician and naturalist Francesco Redi
(1626-1697). After studying medicine at the University of Pisa, he
later became the court physician to Ferdinand Medici, the Grand Duke of
Tuscany. Redi had read the writings of William Harvey (1578-1657) which
speculated that spontaneous appearance of life may actually arise
from seeds or eggs that were too small to be seen with the naked eye.
Redi soon set out to answer by experimentation the question whether
flies could reproduce spontaneously from mud, decaying organic matter
or air. His early research involved placing freshly killed snakes in an
open box where they were allowed to become putrid. Redi observed that
adult flies, while hovering over the decaying meat, dropped 'tiny
particles' on it while other flies remained on the decaying meat and
deposited small egg-like material. He noticed that ‘maggots' appeared
on the decaying flesh soon afterward. During the process, Redi observed
that the maggots thrived on the meat and grew rapidly. He also noted
that after a period of rapid and continuous growth, the maggots became
dormant. Then, after a few days, flies emerged from the pods which
varied according to shape, colour and other factors.
then repeated the above experiment with different kinds of animal
flesh, both raw and cooked. He soon completed tests on the meat of
rabbit, chicken, goose, swallow, buffalo, lion, ox, deer, tiger, duck,
lamb and kid.25 lie reasoned that the flies might be dropping eggs, and
so then conducted an experiment to test this hypothesis. First,
portions of eel flesh were placed in flasks, then the openings of some
flasks were completely sealed and comparable flasks were prepared in
the same manner except that they were left uncovered to serve as
controls. He then observed the meat through the glass as it underwent
Redi had observed before, be saw flies fly into the open flask and drop
small objects on the meat. In a few days, maggots came from the small
objects that they had previously dropped. The flies wiggled on the
surface of the sealed flask, evidently trying to get through the glass
to the meat. As Redi expected, the meat in the sealed container never
produced maggots. Redi concluded from this observation that flies came
only from other flies and were not spontaneously generated on the
decaying meat as theorized by most scientists up to this date.
he expected, his conclusions came under strong attack from those who
believed in spontaneous generation. One of the main claims was that
sealing the containers prevented entry of some unknown ‘vital force'
that was necessary for the spontaneous generation of life. Therefore
life was not generated in the sealed flasks because this necessary
‘natural' element was lacking, and not because life was necessary to
produce life as Redi proposed. To meet these objections, Redi covered
glass containers with a fine cotton veil that would let air through,
but would stop all of the flies from reaching the decaying meat. He
again found that the meat did not produce maggots. By these and other
ingenious experiments, Redi laid the groundwork for refuting the long
standing beliefs in spontaneous generation. In his book,
Experiments on the Generation of Insects first published in 1668, Redi
recorded the results of his experiments which finally largely disproved
the spontaneous generation theory and validated the fact that life
can come only from life.
the advent of the discovery of microbes, the whole controversy flared
up again, and more critical experiments were needed to solve this
aspect of the problem. Those who still believed in spontaneous
generation felt that, although flies or other animals may not
spontaneously generate, microorganisms must come into existence this
way. Theories with names like eobiogenesis or biopoiesis and
neobiogenesis soon were proposed, all in contrast to biogenesis,
meaning life comes only from life. The work of Louis Joblot (1645-1723)
brought new popularity to the doctrine of spontaneous generation. He
observed in 1710 that when common farm hay was infused in water and
allowed to stand, it gave rise to large numbers of microorganisms
which were for this reason at that time called infusoria. According to
AGAINST SPONTANEOUS GENERATION
contemporaries, and many who followed, considered the presence of
microorganisms in hay infusion to be conclusive evidence for
1745, the English-Catholic priest, John T. Needham (1713-1781)
completed a study that many of his contemporaries concluded
supported the spontaneous generation view and refuted Redi's results.
Needham heated his cultures and found that infusoria still appeared.
Because his 'scientific evidence' again bolstered the spontaneous
generation view, the Royal Society of London elected Needham a member,
and he later became one of only eight foreign associates of the French
Academy of Science. This act by the Royal Society and French Academy
illustrates the degree of importance attached to the belief that life
can spontaneously generate. Scientists then, as now, are persistently
looking for natural, non-supernatural explanations for the origin
and development of life. Today we know that the infusoria appeared
because Needbam did not heat the hay to a high enough temperature
necessary to kill the microscopic bacteria spores. It is now known that
hay carries spores that are extremely resistant to heat, and must be
heated to extremely high temperatures in order to kill them.
Louis Buffon (1707-1788) accepted the spontaneous generation view
through 'minute life units' which he felt were scattered throughout the
universe.27 Because Buffon's views were supported by Needham's
experiments, he used considerable space in his own publications to
describe Needham‘s work in detail. Buffon even invited Needham to
collaborate with him on the second volume of his Encyclopedia of
all scientists at this time accepted the spontaneous generation view —
the famous early pioneer of the use of the microscope, the Dutch lens
grinder Anton Van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), first observed many
microscopic organisms which he called 'wretched beasties'.
Although he was 'against the idea of their spontaneous generation', he
never developed a theory as to where microscopic animals might come
from.28 Others viewed his discovery of microorganisms as clear ‘proof'
of spontaneous generation: Needham's contemporaries believed that
bacteria were very ‘simple' life units, and partly for this reason they
did not find it unreasonable to conclude that the bacteria
spontaneously assembled themselves. Obviously, they at this time did
not understand the tremendous complexity that exists even in the least
complex organisms such as bacteria, or any other living cell. Even the
fly was thought to be a relatively ‘simple' animal until some time
after the invention of the microscope. We are only now beginning to
understand the incredible complexity of bacteria and all other life.
The fly eye alone has been the subject of scores of scholarly articles,
symposiums and a tremendous amount of scientific research. Realization
of the complexity of even the so-called simple animals has rendered the
idea of spontaneous generation untenable.
scientist who entered the controversy against spontaneous generation
was Italian biologist Lazaro Spallanzani (1729-1799). Spallanzani's
experiments, although similar to those of Needham‘s, were
conducted with much greater care so as to ensure complete
sterilization. Spallanzani boiled the growth medium for a full hour and
hermetically sealed the container before the medium containing the meat
had time to cool. He concluded that this had completely killed all
living organisms and prevented later contamination. Under these
conditions, no life appeared on the decaying meat. When Spallanzani
published his paper in 1765, be considered the matter settled.
major objection to the above line of research was that it kept out the
mysterious forces which were believed to exist that were not unlike the
‘forces' commonly evoked by some evolution theories today.29
Spallanzani's results and conclusions were attacked by Reverend Needham
who reasoned that heating meat for prolonged periods of time would
destroy the mysterious 'vegetative force' that was necessary for life
to develop.30 Needham accused Spallazani of 'torturing' the 'vegetative
infusions' to the point where 'all the vital material was weakened or
even argued that the air which remained in the empty part of the
vessels was 'completely spoiled by the heat treatment.' The conditions
which Needham felt would not kill the 'vegetative force' Spallanzani
did not consider sufficient to destroy all of the living organisms
present in the flask. Evolutionists today use similar reasoning such as
the argument of syntropy, an invisible force that pushes evolution
to new heights, as discussed by Albert Szent Gyorgy.32
experiment which reinforced Spallanzani's view was conducted by German
physiologist Theodore Schwann (1810-1882). In 1837, Schwann used a
system of tubes to pump air which was heated before it entered a flask
that contained sterilized meat. This apparatus seemed to provide
both the conditions that Needham argued were necessary to allow
the 'vegetative force' to exist, and also that which Spallanzani
concluded were necessary to destroy living organisms.
by German anatomist Max Johann Schultze (1825-1874) also supported
Schwann's work. Instead of heating the air, he passed it through
solutions of potassium hydroxide and sulfuric acid. As with Schwann's
research, no obvious living organisms appeared in the meat. Of course,
some still objected, arguing that the sulfuric acid destroyed some
'vegetative force‘ in the air. It was not until 1854 when Heinnch
Schroeder (1810-1885) and Theordor Von Dusch (1824-1890) devised a
method of filtering air through sterilized cotton wool that
Spallanzani‘s results were clearly confirmed.33 Filtering did nothing
to the air that could be construed as destroying any invisible
'vegetative force' that it may have contained, nor did it alter
its fundamental properties. As primarily dust particles were filtered
from the air, it was hard to argue that a supposed 'vegetative force'
work of Irish physicist John Tyndall (1820-1893) also was important in
disproving spontaneous generation. Tyndall devised a method of
identifying dust free air by optical lenses, which insured that the air
was germ free without altering it by heating, chemicals or other ways.
He purified air simply by allowing the suspended particles in it to
settle in closed boxes. Following the settling, he introduced a light
which would be reflected from any suspended particles. This test was
used to evaluate the air primarily as to dust content, which is the
major means that airborne bacteria are transferred. When this germ-free
air was introduced into a medium capable of supporting living
organisms, no organisms resulted. This supported the contention that
the source of the contamination was bacteria that were transported
on dust particles in the air. It also provided evidence against the
view that a mysterious 'life substance' existed in the air.34
ingenious innovation of Pasteur's was to carry twenty sterilized sealed
flasks high up the Swiss Alps, and then open them there. Another set of
flasks was prepared in the same way, but these were opened in the dusty
streets of downtown Paris, all of which soon 'produced life'.
grew in only one of the twenty on the Swiss Alps, producing convincing
proof of Pasteur's position. Pasteur concluded that his
conviction was that:
my experiments all stand forth to prove that spontaneous generation is
a chimera.... Have I not a hundred times placed organic matter in
contact with pure air in the best conditions for it to produce life
spontaneously? Have I not practiced on those organic materials which
are most favourable, according to all accounts, to the genesis of
spontaneity, such as blood, urine, and grape juice? How is it that you
do not see the essential difference between my opponents and myself?
Not only have I contradicted proof in hand, every one of their
assertions, while they have never dared to seriously contradict one of
mine, but, for them, every cause of error benefits their opinion. For
me, affirming as I do that there are no spontaneous fermentations, I am
bound to eliminate every cause of error, every perturbing influence, I
can maintain my results on the contrary, profit by every insufficient
experiment and that is where they find their support.'36
stressed that, if all living germs are destroyed and further access to
them is prevented, even though air is allowed free access to the meat
or organic matter, fermentation or putrefaction cannot take place. His
discovery that a piece of cotton, or even a mere bending of the neck of
the flask, was sufficient to keep most germs from entering and organic
solutions could be kept quite sterile after sterilization, were all
close to the last nails in the coffin of the spontaneous generation
myth which dominated science for generations?37, 38
spite of the excellent extensive experimental work discussed above,
'the controversy concerning spontaneous generation had not been
resolved to the satisfaction of everyone.'39 Many scientists, reasoning
that the only alternative was special creation, still believed in
spontaneous generation. To further resolve the question, the
French Academy of Science offered a prize to the best dissertation on
the subject. The main competitors for the prize were the French
naturalists Felix Pouchet and Louis Pasteur. Pasteur was able to show
that different results were obtained when air was introduced from
various sources, and some scientists soon concluded from this that it
was not air alone, but something that was in the air (or carried by the
air) which was responsible for the microorganisms which later grew
inside of the flask.40 The main problem at this time was the incredible
degree of resistance to heat that some spores possess, especially those
that lie dormant in hay, and the fact that many kinds of bacteria, the
anaerobics family, did not need free oxygen for metabolism. Yet, in
spite of these problems which Pasteur did not fully recognize until
much later, Pouchet withdrew and Pasteur was awarded the prize.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THIS WORK
work is recognized today as crucial in large scale effective control of
disease. If organisms spontane¬ously generated in decaying organic
matter or other places, it would be very difficult to stop their
natural formation unless one of the necessary ingredients, which were
only hypothesized and never confirmed, were removed. This was felt to
be impossible without killing the host organisms themselves. On the
other hand, if only life begets life, it is only a matter of preventing
life from reaching the organism which one wants to prevent from
becoming contaminated. This is the purpose of sealing food in air tight
containers such as glass jars, or for destroying the organisms which
spread disease by methods that are strong enough to destroy most
microorganisms, but not their host, such as is achieved by cooking.
This technique is the ordinary and primary method used today to control
germs, and thus disease.41
practical applications of the 'only life produces life' conclusion
emerged primarily in the area of food preservation and disease control.
Indeed, the modern science of food preservation and disease control is
a direct result of disproving the theory of spontaneous generation at
the microbe level. Even Lister's important work in controlling disease
resulted from the controversy surrounding spontaneous generation.
the spontaneous generation controversy continued for several years
after the work of Redi, Tyndall, Pasteur and that of other
experimenters, a reading of the accounts today reveals that the
scientists who advocated it were grasping at every possible straw to
save it. They used dozens of new arguments, some plausible but many
others were blatantly fanciful, to support their view. Some scientists
invented mysterious 'humors' and 'forces' such as electricity,
magnetism or other forces which were supposed lobe the missing
ingredient and, if supplied, would cause life to spontaneously
generate. Some argued that the process of heating and sealing the
container off from the air, or even putting gauze on the beaker,
prevented these mysterious unknown forces from entering the beaker and
adding the ‘necessary missing ingredient' for life to
with the related controversies today, much emotion was mustered by
eminent scientists on both sides. But the creationist view eventually
won out — even though spontaneous generation once had the support
of virtually all of the 'scientifically educated.'42 The theory
received support primarily from those who
spontaneous generation as a "philosophical necessity" indispensable for
a natural-scientific explanation of the origin of life, which Pasteur,
faithful Catholic as he was, naturally felt himself compelled to
other words, spontaneous generation supported the view that some life
can originate from non-life without a creator, but Pasteur's beliefs
were such that he felt compelled to explain the origin of all life
according to creationism. One of the stronger criticisms of both
Pasteur's theory and his research was that he was at least partly
motivated to support his creation religious beliefs. Even though
Pasteur's main 'philosophical belief' was based on his religious belief
structure, he was able to empirically demonstrate his assumptions.
According to Walsh,44 Pasteur above all could not understand the
failure of scientists to recognize the unequivocal demonstration of the
evidence for design that he saw in the world around us:
could not understand certain givers of easy explanations who affirm
that matter has organized itself and who, considering as perfectly
simple the spectacle of the Universe of which earth is but an
infinitesimal part, are in no wize moved by the Infinite Power who
created the worlds.'45
AROUND WE GO AGAIN
spite of the above research, arguments for spontaneous generation, now
called abiogenesis to reduce the connection to the now disproven older
views, still periodically surface. A London physician, Henry Bastian
(1837-1915) published a two-volume work entitled The Beginning of Life
in which he cited difficulties with Pasteur's experiments. Bastian
concentrated on the discrepancies between Pasteur's and Pouchet's
research. It was in response to this and similar objections that
Pasteur developed his long tube flask that was bent in such a way
so that dust particles would settle in the tube without entering the
flask. Since bacterial growth did not occur, this experiment demolished
most of Bastian's major arguments against Pasteur's work.
work, plus that of Kock, Hansen and many other researchers, in the
words of Nordskaiold, resulted in a state of affairs where 'spontaneous
generation has entirely ceased to exist as a possibility to reckon with
in modern biology,' nor does it come into serious question when trying
to explain actual phenomena.46 Nevertheless, its theoretical
possibility 'still continues to be keenly discussed due to modern
natural-philosophical speculation', namely philosophical speculation
related to the theory of evolution.47 Many biologists today believe
that spontaneous generation has in fact occurred, but only once or a
few times, and far back in history where conditions are believed to
have been far different from today. The famous French biologist,
Pierre-P. Grasse states that evolution today teaches that
all respects, evolution is a long story. Spontaneous generation
occurred once and only once; life cannot be reinvented, it is
transmitted, it "is" continuity. Our cells are daughters (to the ninth
generation, but daughters nevertheless) of the first animal which
appeared on the surface of the earth some eight hundred million years
ago; this animal was itself partly reproducing the substance out of
which the first living being, floating in the salt waters of the
primeval ocean, was made.'48
scientists know that 'Spontaneous generation occurred once, and only
once'' and that 'life cannot be reinvented,‘ is not stated, and it
would seem that both of these statements are pure speculation. At any
rate, the new theory of spontaneous generation, abiogenesis, is by no
means dead, even today. As Gardner brings out:
generation is now being considered in another setting against a
different background. Modern naturalistic discussions concerning the
origin of life have centered around the possibility of life developing
once in the far distant past by a combination of inorganic materials
present in primordial "soup“. An energy source such as lightning has
been suggested for promoting the chemical synthesis. Simple amino acids
and nucleic acids have been produced in the laboratory by bringing
together materials known to have been present in the early stages of
the earth's history at a favorable temperature and introducing
electrical energy. To be sure, there is some distance between these
crude organic materials and the complex proteins and nucleic acids
that occur in the bodies of living organisms, but the experiments have
the current belief is that spontaneous generation either does not
regularly occur, or cannot occur today — but it did occur once at one
time in the past. The arguments for spontaneous generation, in the far
distant past, and claims as to the conditions which supposedly produced
spontaneous generation, are similar to those used throughout
history. One way to accept the evidence against spontaneous generation
and still accept it as possible, was presented by Gardner who stated
showed that living things as complex as bacteria could not arise
spontaneously in a short period of time under conditions of his
experiments. The possibility is not excluded that much more simple
organisms having the power of self-replication could have arisen by
natural means in the long periods of the distant past.'50
it is claimed that, although spontaneous generation of complex
organisms is not possible, spontaneous generation of less complex
organisms under conditions differing from today is possible.
Consequently, with only a few differences, the arguments used today are
very similar to those that raged from the 1600s to the 1800s. That the
theory of a form of spontaneous generation is still accepted today by
orthodox science is evident from the following quote: 'There are
certain substances which, if they come together in particular
combinations, will tend to generate life.'51 As scientists have not
currently been able to delineate the conditions under which spontaneous
generation could take place, various 'mysterious forces', or unknown
conditions are hypothesized, even though specifically what these are
cannot be delineated.
researchers believe that it is unlikely that spontaneous generation
could occur today because, it is hypothesized, a greater amount of
oxygen now exists in the atmosphere which would immediately oxidize an
unprotected protoplasmic mass, destroying the new organism. Gardner
concludes that if the organism did spontaneously generate, 'It would
surely be eaten or absorbed by some other form of life which is now so
abundant in any place suitable for life to originate spontaneously.'52
This, of course, is largely speculation, obviously formulated in an
effort to support the philosophical consideration that spontaneous
generation did occur in the past. An excellent recent summary of the
research on spontaneous generation which supposedly occurred eons ago
scientists think life began with a protein droplet, perhaps on a
volcano ... the droplets also divide like bacteria and metabolize, or
consume food to grow. Those whose proteins could metabolize best would
survive ... after these first vital steps toward life, which are still
in the realm of conjecture and debate, the process becomes easier to
explain. The first living things were probably single cells like
fermenting bacteria. They scavenged and metabolized other molecules and
reproduced accurately. When the cells developed photosynthesis to
produce food for themselves, they released oxygen into the atmosphere.
The oxygen destroyed the ancient gases that made the creation of life
possible. Life on Earth can never again spring from the nonliving.'53
though, while logical, is purely conjecture and much evidence argues
against it. Even if it is possible that this could have happened, it
does not prove that it did happen. Since major problems exist with the
aforementioned assumptions, biologist Norman Horowitz of the California
Institute of Technology stated,
will probably never know exactly how it happened, but putting
together an explanation coherent with science would be an intellectual
may be an intellectual triumph, but it would not demonstrate,
scientifically at least, that spontaneous generation in fact occurred
in the past.
research today attempting to answer the question of whether life could
have spontaneously generated eons ago may well take on the same
character as the debate which raged in the 1800s. An examination of the
events in the 1800s can help us to better understand the nature of the
origins controversy which is currently growing. The major reason for
belief in abiogenesis today is not the evidence, but because the only
alternative to spontaneous generation is
believe in a single, primary act of supernatural creation. There is no
third position. For this reason, many scientists a century ago chose to
regard the belief in spontaneous generation as a "philosophical
only alternative to some form of spontaneous generation is belief in
supernatural creation and [this]... view seems firmly implanted in the
Judeo Christian theology.'55
And WaId is not unaware of the irony of this:
for spontaneous generation, it continued to find acceptance until
finally disposed of by the work of Louis Pasteur — it is a curious
thing that until quite recently professors of biology habitually told
this story as part of their introductions of students to biology. They
would finish this account glowing with the conviction that they had
given a telling demonstration of the overthrow of a mystical notion by
clean, scientific experimentation. Their students were usually so
bemused as to forget to ask the professor how he accounted for the
origin of life. This would have been an embarrassing question, because
there are only two possibilities: either life arose by spontaneous
generation, which the professor had just refuted; or it arose by
supernatural creation, which he probably regarded as anti-scientific.'56
most scientists in the field now favour the assumption that life did
once spontaneously generate eons ago because the only other explanation
is theism. Wald concludes that the evidence proves the only tenable
scientific view is that 'life originally did arise by spontaneous
generatio', adding that the 'naturalistic view' is held by 'the more
rational elements of society' and the theistic view by less rational
persons.57 The problem that atheistic scientists now face is that:
the failure of these many efforts science was left in the somewhat
embarrassing position of having to postulate theories of living origins
which it could not demonstrate. After having chided the theologian for
his reliance on myth and miracle, science found itself in the
unenviable position of having to create a mythology of its own: namely,
the assumption that what, after a long effort, could not be proved to
take place today had, in truth, taken place in the primeval past.'58
Farley, J., 1979. The Spontaneous Generation Controversy Front
Descartes to Oparin, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore,
Thompson, B., 1980. The Mythology of Science — Spontaneous Generation,
Apologetics Press, Montgomery, Alabama.
3. Martin, B., 1852. Science and Scripture, Phi Beta Kappa Society. New York.
Gardner, E., 1972. History of Biology, 3rd edition. Burgess Publishing
Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota, p. 333.
5. Collier, K., 1934. Cosmogonies of Our Fathers. Columbia University Press, New York, p. 429.
6. Bube, R., Stanford University, personal letter to the author dated 29 October, 1979.
7. Gardner, Ref. 4, p. 2.
8. Gardner, Ref. 4, p. 22.
9. Osburn, H.F., 1929. Front The Greeks to Darwin, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.
10. Vallery Radot, R., 1937. The Life of Pasteur, The Sun Dial Press, New York, p. 89.
11. Sartan, G., 1959. A History of Science, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, p. 176.
12. Gardner, Ref. 4, p. 29.
13. Gardner, Ref. 4, p. 60.
14. Martin, Ref. 3, p. 8.
15. Martin. Ref. 3, p. 8.
16. Martin, Ref. 3, p. 8.
17. Martin, Ref. 3, p. 8.
18. Martin, Ref. 3, p.8.
19. Martin, Ref. 3, p. 8.
Darwin, C., 1925. More Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. II, Frances
Darwin (ed), Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York, p. 171.
Darwin, C., 1896. The Descent of Man and Selection In Relation to Sex;
The Works of Charles Darwin, Vol. 9, AMS Press, New York.
22. Darwin, Ref. 20, p. 158.
Aulie, R., 1975. The doctrine of special creation. Journal of the
American Scientific Affiliation, 27(4):165.
24. Davidheiser, B., 1970. Origin of life. News and Notes of Interest to Christians, 6(7):37.
25. Gardner, Ref. 4, p. 335.
26. Gardner, Ref. 4, p. 337.
27. Nordskaiold, E., 1935. The History of Biology, Tudor Publishing Company, New York, p. 430.
28. Gardner, Ref. 4, p. 173.
Bergman, J., 1977. Albert Szent-Gyorgyi's theory of syntropy and
creationism. ICR Impact Article No. 54, Institute for Creation
Research, San Diego,
30. Wald, G., 1954. The origin of life. Scientific American, 191(2):45-53.
31. Gardner, Ref. 4, pp. 339-340.
32. Bergman, Ref. 29.
33. Farley, Ref. 1.
Constant, J.B. (Ed.), 1953. Pasteur's and Tyndall's Study of
Spontaneous Generation, Harvard University Press, Cambridge,
35. Dolan, E.F., 1958. Pasteur and the Invisible Giants, Dodd, Mead and Company, New York.
36. Vallery-Radot, Ref. 10, pp. 242-243.
37. Wood, L.N., 1948. Louis Pasteur, Julian Messner, Inc., New York.
38. Holmes, S.J., 1924. Louis Pasteur, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York.
39. Gardner, Ref. 4, p. 342.
40. Dubos, R., 1976. Louis Pasteur; Free Lance of Science, Charles Scribners Sons, New York.
41. Dubos, R., 1960. Pasteur and Modern Science, Anchor Books, Garden City, New York.
42. Nordskaiold, Ref. 27, p. 434.
43. Nordskaiold, Ref. 27, p. 434.
Walsh, J.J., 1911. Louis Pasteur. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. II,
The Encyclopedia Press, New York, p. 537.
45. Vallery-Radot, Ref. 10, p. 244.
46. Nordskaiold, Ref. 27, pp. 434-435.
47. Grassé, P.P., 1977. Evolution of Living Organisms, Academic Press, New York, p. 88.
48. Grassé, Ref. 47, p. 88.
49. Gardner, Ref. 4, p. 347.
50. Gardner, Ref. 4, p. 347.
51. DeYoung, G., 1979. The Crucible, 1(1):1.
52. Gardner, Ref. 4, p. 348.
53. Begley, S.M.H. and Carey, J., 1979. How did life begin? Newsweek, August 8, pp. 77-78.
54. Wald, Ref. 30, p.46.
55. Wald, G., 1958. Innovation in biology. Scientific American, 199:100.
56. Wald, G., 1972. Frontiers of modern biology. In: Theories of Origin of Life, Houghton-Mifflin Company, New York, p. 187.
57. Wald, Ref. 56, pp. 187, 45.
58. Eisley, L., 1957. The Immense Journey, Random House. New York, p. 199.