By Robert Deyes
Just three centuries ago spontaneous generation was embraced as a reality that seemed to agree well with scientific observations (Ref 1). It was thought that organisms could appear in their fully mature form without any initial development from young to adult. As one review summarized:
"Many sensible biologists believed in spontaneous generation- the idea that new life could form from decaying matter. It explained the existence of internal parasites of the human body such as tapeworms, which had no free-living counterparts, and the numerous 'animalcules' and 'infusoria' (microbes) that were revealed by the microscope but which had no clear origin" (Ref 2, p.90)
The 17th century physician Jan Baptista van Helmont became a proponent of spontaneous generation when, by putting two leaves together in putrid conditions, he generated 'long eels' (later found to be hyphae of fungal growth; Ref 3, p.2). Subsequent claims of spontaneously generated frogs and rats from mud and garbage mounds were quick in coming (Ref 3, p.2; Ref 4, pp.96-97). For the burgeoning amateur scientist there was even a recipe for how to generate life- take a dirty garment, add some wheat, let it ferment for a few hours overnight and watch mice spontaneously form (Refs 1,5). Of course today we may humor such stories, relegating them to nothing more than interesting quirks in the history of scientific discovery.
In 1668, the Italian Jesuit-trained doctor Francesco Redi became one of the first to challenge the prevailing notions of his day. His scientifically-sound experiments with muslin-covered meat demonstrated that under such conditions flies were no longer able to land and maggots did not mysteriously appear (Ref 1). The inspiration behind Redi's experiments was simple- he strongly believed that all life had been brought forth by God during the earth's creation (Ref 3, pp.3-4). The Catholic Church at the time took on a similar view, criticizing spontaneous generation for, "failing to distinguish between Creator and creation, for merging God and the universe" (Ref 6, p.105). Louis Pasteur likewise felt that accepting spontaneous generation would mean that, "God as author of life would then no longer be needed" (Ref 6, p.105).
In 1859, which just happened to be the year Darwin published The Origin Of Species, Pasteur devised an ingenious set of experiments using long-necked flasks filled with boiled organic infusions (Ref 7). By opening these flasks at different altitudes, Pasteur found that dirty city air contaminated them much more readily than the air high above in the French Alps (Ref 7). In effect Pasteur had shown that microbial growth depended not on some miraculous instantiation of 'animalcules' and 'infusoria' but on the seeding of his infusions by something carried in the atmosphere (Ref 7).
Pasteur's results brought a decisive victory to a centuries-old debate although, much to his chagrin, there were still those who for a while maintained a staunch allegiance to their long-held theory (Ref 7). Nevertheless today the term Spontaneous Generation has taken on a broader meaning. The school biology text book Of Pandas And People, for example, uses the term to encompass the popular view that life originated billions of years ago from some yet-to-be-defined concoction of prebiotic compounds. As noted:
"One explanation for the origin of life is that the first living cell, or cells, developed from nonliving matter according to chemical laws that we can observe today. This explanation is called the theory of chemical evolution or prebiotic (before biological life) evolution. The 'chemical evolution' theory assumes that matter and energy somehow self-originated into complex forms without any outside intelligence directing the process. We call this process of self-organization without outside intelligence spontaneous generation. In most forms, the theory assumes that a very long time was needed to "test" millions of chemical combinations until the right combination for life was found" (Ref 8, p.41).
To summarize, organic matter is seen as "the stuff of which life is spontaneously generated by nature" (Ref 8, p.71). In effect evolutionists have today replaced 17th century incantations of life-generating garbage mounds with wild suppositions of how life might have originated naturally in the silts of our earth. As perhaps the most outspoken of the new crop of Spontaneous Generationists, zoologist Richard Dawkins had this to say on the matter:
"Before the coming of life on earth, some rudimentary evolution of molecules could have occurred by ordinary processes of physics and chemistry. There is no need to think of design or purpose or directedness. If a group of atoms in the presence of energy falls into a stable pattern it will tend to stay that way. The earliest form of natural selection was simply a selection of stable forms and a rejection of unstable ones. There is no mystery about this. It had to happen by definition" (Ref 9, p.13)
Dawkins has yet to clarify the factual details of a purely naturalistic prebiotic evolution. After all, prebiotic simulation experiments have repeatedly demonstrated the requirement for investigators to guide reactions to a desired end (Ref 8, p.56).
Steen Rasmussen from Los Alamos claimed that synthesizing simple life would soon be easier than making the atomic bomb or sending people to the moon- "a tidal wave in the distance" that is bound to happen (Ref 10). Nevertheless if such an goal is ever realized, it will only have been through a controlled orchestration by human beings who supply biological systems with the information they need to multiply and survive. Indeed the creation in early 2008 of the first artificial cell emphatically demonstrated the need for carefully-executed instructions and finely-tuned conditions through which essential life processes such as gene expression and protein synthesis could occur (Ref 11).
If we are to learn one lesson from the exploits of text book icons such as Redi and Pasteur, it is that the origin of life appears to be anything but spontaneous. It is a phenomenon that requires the exacting environment of a cellular milieu (Refs 12-13). The new Spontaneous Generationists could likewise learn a lesson or two from their historical brethren, critically examining the circumstantial evidence with which they have forged their naturalistic path.
1. Andre Brack (1998), The Molecular Origins of Life: Assembling Pieces of the Puzzle, pp.1-2, See http://assets.cambridge.org/97805215/64755/excerpt/9780521564755_excerpt.pdf
2. The Science Book, Ed Peter Tallack, Published in 2003 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, UK
3. Christopher Wills and Jeffrey Bada (2000), The Spark of Life- Darwin and The Primeval Soup, Perseus Publishing, Cambridge, Massachusetts
4. Cornelius Hunter (2001), Darwin's God, Evolution and the Problem of Evil, Brazos Press, A division of Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan
5. Neil de Grasse Tyson (2004), "Origins: Back To The Beginning" NOVA Documentary, Aired on PBS on 29th of September 2004
6. Nancy R. Pearcey and Charles B. Thaxton (1994), The Soul of Science- Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy, Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL
7. Louis Pasteur, See http://elane.stanford.edu/wilson/html/chap5/chap5-sect6.html
8. Percival Davis, Dean H Kenyon, Charles Thaxton (1993), Of Pandas And People: The Central Question Of Biological Origins, Haughton Publishing Company, Richardson, Texas
9. Richard Dawkins (1989), The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, Oxford UK
10. The Nova/Science Now documentary, reporting on the attempts of Dave Deamer and Steen Rasmussen to generate simple life, aired on PBS, Wisconsin Public Television on October 18th, 2005
11. Tamsin Osborne (2008), 'Artificial cell' can make its own genes, New Scientist, 1st April, 2008, See http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn13568
12. Fazale Rana (2008), The Cell's Design: How Chemistry Reveals The Creator's Artistry, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI
13. Robert Deyes (2008), The Disarming Cell: Taking The Wind Out Of The Sails Of Darwinism, http://www.arn.org/blogs/index.php/2/2008/09/11/the_disarming_cell_how_cellular_biology
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