Spontaneous Generation or Orcs from Muck

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An orc from the Lord of the Rings. The bad socerer pressed them out of mud.

Since I write science fiction about life on other worlds, I decided to increase my knowledge of biology, at least enough to make me dangerous, particularly related to the development of life on Earth or any other place. In the self-educational process, I discovered that much of what is now biological gospel was hotly debated until the mid-1800’s, a mere 160 years ago. Key among those issues was spontaneous generation.

So what is that, and why is it a big deal? For starters, it seems that the theory of spontaneous generation is a good basis for fiction, superstitions, and science—both medieval and modern. 

It’s easier to understand spontaneous generation if one goes back to before 1590 when Zacharias Janssen made the first microscope. Back those times people were just as smart as we are, maybe smarter since they didn’t coddle idiocy and therefore had a superior gene pool (Darwinism 101- survival of the fittest).

Being observant and intelligent, they were keenly aware of their environment. One thing they noticed was that grapes left on the counter became overripe and gnats began to buzz among them. They surmised that since there were no gnats in the house before the grapes came, and the grapes had no gnats on them when they came, the gnats must have generated out of the purifying grapes, i.e. life arises out of dead and dying organic matter. That describes spontaneous generation in a nutshell. The theory was validated through many observations—gnats, maggots, worms and other vermin rising out of muck, sewage, decaying flesh, fruit, and manure. It was clear in every case that life spontaneously arose from dead matter.

One can see how this mega-theory weaves itself through, even becomes the underlying principle of, several genre of fiction and superstition: Tolkien’s orcs created from muck, witches and hoodoo priest turning corpses into zombies, Doctor Frankenstein, even vampires and the list goes on through fantasy, horror, and sci-fi. Never have science and fiction been so firmly welded together.

Today, the theory seems rather childish. You would think our medieval and pre-industrial ancestors would have looked more closely, even without the microscope, and should have spotted those flies laying eggs in the meat, and they would have figured out that those gnat eggs were already imbedded in the grapes when they bought them at the market. They didn’t. It’s possible common folks knew, but they didn’t tell the scientists.

Surely, you say, they figured it out once they invented the microscope. No! Just the opposite, the microscope verified spontaneous generation! Here’s why: When they looked at fresh meat they saw a few of those little bacteria swimming around. When the meat was rotten they saw lots of those things swimming around—proof positive that rotting matter spurts out new life and the more rotten the more powerful its spurts—just like a politician.

This theory was challenged several times over the ages, then in 1859 the French Academy of Sciences set a prize of 2,500 francs to be given to the scientist who could definitively resolve the issue of spontaneous generation. The stage was set with Louis Pasteur standing against the proponents of spontaneous generation. In the competition that followed, Pasteur’s effort set the foundation for our understanding of the emergence of life on Earth, and it remains so today.

More about this next week in Part Two of Orcs from Muck.

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