#2 Spontaneous Generation?

Historically nobody was much troubled by the origin of life.  The origin of life – where life came from – did not in the past really formulate itself as a question.  Quite apart from believing that the world has always been the way it is, and that God made it that way, it was commonly held that small forms of life simply came into existence spontaneously under certain conditions.

Spontaneous Generation is the belief that some living creatures arise suddenly by chance from matter independently of any parents.  Spontaneous Generation was accepted without dissent since ancient times until the second half of the 19th century.  It was thought that rotten meat turned into maggots, household dirt took on the form of Silverfish, while mould and bacterial colonies arise from damp corners.  Life simply appeared everywhere, all the time.  Nobody thought that the origin of life was a problem; it was only its persistent manifestation that was a problem.

The man who changed this situation was Louis Pasteur (1822-1895), French scientist and devout Roman Catholic.  He discovered that disease is caused by unseen germs and that the fermentation of wine and beer is caused by yeast.  His discoveries had many practical applications for improved public health, but he also applied himself to the investigation of Spontaneous Generation.  During the 1860s his experiments showed that spores of living organisms are carried on dust in the air, thus the organisms found growing on broth do not come from nowhere and will not grow in the absence of dust.  The French Academy of Sciences awarded him a prize for this discovery in 1862.

During the course of the 20th century science has revealed to a greater and greater extent the complexity of even the simplest life, and the difficulty in explaining its origin.  The simplest living organism, a unicellular bacterium, is immensely complex.  As the resolving power of microscopes has advanced, the living cell has revealed itself as a microcosm replete with cell organelles performing the tasks of living with astonishing precision and orderliness.

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