Science in Christian Perspective
Letter to the Editor
Darwin and Spontaneous Generation
From: JASA 22 (March 1970): 31-33.
(Editor's Note: The following letter by Jones D. Boles was forwarded to the Editor by Dr. A. E. Wilder Smith.)
I noticed in the Journal ASA 20, 123 (1968) the statement that you (Dr. Wilder Smith) were wrong in saying Darwin believed in the spontaneous generation of life. Darwin believed the law of continuity committed one to this position, so the reviewer is wrong. See MORE LETTERS of Darwin, Vol. II, p. 171. His letter to D. Mackintosh, Feb. 28, 1882. (This is referred to in Clark and Bales, WHY SCIENTISTS ACCEPT EVOLUTION, 44-45). Huxley criticized Darwin for not taking a forthright stand on this in the Origin of Species. (See Leonard Huxley, Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, N.Y., The Macmillan Co., 1903, Vol. I, p. 352. See Huxley's position in Vol. II, pp. 15-16). This is referred to in Clark and Bales, pp. 80-81.
(A reply by Richard P. Asslie, author of the Journal ASA article referred to above, follows.)
Two questions present themselves in this letter, which concerns my earlier review of an article on "Darwinism and Contemporary Thought1,2. First, is it true that Charles Darwin (18091882) "believed in the spontaneous generation of life", or is it not? Second, what difference does it make? The first question we ought to settle by examining the passages from Darwin's writings in which he commented on spontaneous generation. I know of eight such passages, which are quoted below.
Before examining these passages, it is well to point out that in Darwin's day biologists were aware of two aspects, or "kinds", of spontaneous generation. That is, they asked whether the first form of life on earth may have arisen by some form of spontaneous generation, and, second, of more importance to them, whether living microorganisms form spontaneously before their eyes in formless nutrient solutions and infusions. In our day, the second question remains settled in the negative, but the first remains a subject of chemical speculation. The second question was settled in Darwin's clay by the classic work of Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) in France and by that of John Tyndall (1820-1893) in England. Tyndall understood the extent of bacterial çollutioo, which hitherto had obscured a solution of the problem.3
This issue is important to the readers of the Journal ASA since Smith, and Clark and Bales attempt to find in Darwin's writings, particularly his letters, an association with spontaneous generation as one of their arguments that his thought is inimical to theism. They do so because they feel that the idea of the spontaneous generation of the first form of life is somehow contrary to the Genesis account of creation4,5. Clark and Bales develop the view in their book that 19th century "evolutionists", including Darwin, "accepted evolution because of their anti-supernatural bias"6. In this context, they hold that Darwin's alleged sympathy for, or adherence to spontaneous generation reflected such an "antisupernatural bias". It is well therefore to be clear on what Darwin said on the subject, and also what he did not say.
What did Darwin say?
First. Dr. Bales writes above that "Darwin believed the law of continuity committed one to this
position" ("spontaneous generation"). He supports this conclusion with a reference to Darwin's letter, dated February 28th, 1882, to D. Mackintosh in which the following passage appears7:
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 of this will be proved some day in accordance with the law of continuity. I remember the time, above fifty years ago, when it was said that no substance found in a living plant or animal could be produced without the aid of vital forces. As far as external form is concerned, Eozoon shows how difficult it is to distinguish between organised and innrganised bodies. If it is ever found that life can originate on this world, the vital phenomena will come under some general law of nature. Whether the existence of a conscious God can be proved from the existence of the socalled laws of nature (i. e. fixed sequence of events) is a perplexing subject, on which I have often thought, but cannot see my way clearly...
I do not know what Darwin meant by "the law of continuity", nor what
Bales takes this phrase to mean. Within the context of Darwin's
lie probably meant only that all living phenomena are controlled by
which seems to me not unreasonable. But Bales asserts this
Darwin to the view of spontaneous generation. Now I frankly do not see, when we
examine Darwin's first sentence in the above passage, that when he asserted the
"possibility" of spontaneous generation, he was thereby
to this view, particularly when we take into account the phrase which
before: ". . . Though no evidence worth anything has as yet, in
been advanced in favour of a living being, being developed from
. . .". Darwin was 73 years old when he wrote this letter, in the year of
his death, and this passage is probably his last statement on the subject.
Second. The main passage in Darwin's Origin of Species, first published in 1859, that concerns the origin of life, as distinguished from the origin of species, is as follows8:
I believe that animals have descended from at most only four or five progenitors, and plants from an equal or lesser number.
Analogy would lead me one step further, namely, to the belief that all animals and plants have descended from some one prototype. But analogy may be a deceitful guide... probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from one primordial form, into which life was first breathed.
As far as I know, this is Darwin's only published
statement that may be characterized as a declaration on spontaneous generation.
We may note three points of interest in this cautious passage: first,
stopped by analogy with one prototype, and did not state where this prototype
came from; second, he admitted that arguing by analogy in this case
may be a weak
method; and third, he used the phrase, "into which life was
He dropped this phrase from the second and succeeding editions. But
a similar phrase in the last sentence of his hook, which appears in the first
edition as "having been originally breathed into a few forms or
In the second and succeeding editions, he added the words, "by
Now, if the first "life" were introduced from the outside, as Darwin
(I do say "asserted"), it could scarcely have arisen "spontaneously" in the sense in which Bales and Smith have used that adverb.
Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895) objected to this passage in a letter of May 22, 1863, which Bales cites above"9:
Against the doctrine of spontaneous generation in the abstract I have nothing to say. Indeed it is a necessary corollary from Darwin's views if legitimately carried out, and I think Owen smites him (Darwin) fairly for taking refuge in 'Pentatcuclsal' phraseology when he ought to have done one of two things -(a) give up the problem, (b) admit the necessity of spontaneous generation. It is the very passage in Darwin's book to which, as he knows right well, I have always strongly objected...
Third. In a letter to Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1910) dated March 29, 1863, Darwin did regret the wording of this passage from the Origin quoted above":
It will be some time before we see "slime, protoplasm, etc.," generating a new animal. But have lung regretted that I truckled to public opinion, and used the Pentateuchal term of creation, by which I really meant "appeared" by some wholly unknown process. It is mere rubbish, thinking at present of the origin of life; one might as well think of the origin of matter.
Darwin's son and biographer, Francis Darwin (18481925), has
identified the phrase,
"into which life was first breathed", in the passage from the Origin
quoted above, as the "Pentateuchal term" that bothered
Thus it is true from Huxley's own words, as Bales has observed, that "Huxley criticized Darwin" for not taking a stronger position in the Origin on the question of spontaneous generation. But I frankly do not see the point of this observation, since this passage from Huxley quoted above, together with Darwin's forceful use of the word "rubbish", do not support the argument of Bales and Smith that Darwin favored spontaneous generation 12.
Fourth. The following passage is from a letter by Darwin dated November 21st, 186613:
As for myself, I cannot believe in spontaneous generation, and though I expect that at some future time the principle of life will be rendered intelligible, at present it seems to me beyond the confines of science.
Fifth. In 1870, Darwin again wrote to Hooker on the possibility of organisms' appearing spontaneously in nutrient infusions and solutions14:
Spontaneous generation seems almost as great a puzzle as proordiisation. I cannot persuade myself that such a multiplicity of organisms can have been produced, like crystals, in Bastian's solutions of the same kind. I am astonished that, as yet, I have met with no allusion to Wyman's positive statement that if the solutions are boiled for five hours no organisms appear; yet, if my memory serves me, the solutions when opened to air immediately become stocked. Against all evidence, I cannot avoid suspecting that organic particles (my genosnles from the separate cells of the lower creatures! ) will keep alive and afterwards multiply under proper conditions.
Sixth. In 1871, when he was 62 years old, and twelve years after publication of the first edition of the Origin, Darwin wrote15:
It is often said that all the conditions for the first production of a living organism are now present,
which could ever have been present. But if (and oh! what a big if!) we could conceive in some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phospheric salts, light, heat, electricity, etc., present, that a prutcine compound was chemically formed ready to undergo still more complex changes, at the present day such matter would be instantly devoured or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed.
Again, this is a cautious statement by Darwin. But it is at the same time remarkable, written almost a century ago, in view of the present experiments on the artificial synthesis of amino acids.
Seventh. On August 28, 1872, Darwin again alluded to this problem at length in a letter to Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913) in which he gave his opinion of a book called The Beginnings of Life, by Henry Charlton Bastian (1837-1915)16,17
... His general argument in favour of Archebios (I. e., spontaneous generation, sir) is wonderfully strong, though I cannot think much of some few of his arguments. The result is that I am bewildered and astonished by his statements, but am not convinced, though, on the whole, it seems to me probable that Archebiosis is true. I am not convinced, partly I think owing to the deductive east of much of his reasoning; and I know not why, but I never feel convinced by deduction, even in the case of H. Spencer's writings. If Dr. Bastian's book had been turned upside down, and be had begun with the various eases of Hetemgenesis, and then gone on to organic, and afterwards to saline solutions, and had then given his general arguments, I should have been, I believe, much more influenced. I suspect, however, that my chief difficulty is the effect of old convictions being stereotyped on my brain...
As for Rotifers and Tardigrades being spontaneously generated, my mind can no more digest such statements, whether true or false, than my stomach can digest a lump of lead...
I wholly disagree with Dr. Bastian about many points in his latter chapters . . I should like to live to sec Arclsebiosis proved true, for it would be a discovery of transcendent importance; or, if false, I should like to see it disproved, and the facts otherwise explained; but I shall not live to see all this...
Eighth. A few days later on September 2nd, again in correspondence with Wallace, Darwin wrote18:
At present I should prefer any mad hypothesis, such as that every disintegrated molecule of the lowest forms can reproduce the parent-form; and that these molecules are universally distributed, and that they do not lose their vital power until heated to such a temperature that they decompose like dead organic particles.
What do these passages show? With the single
exception of the passage from the Origin of Species
(second above), all of them appeared first in private letters of Darwin to his friends and colleagues. In these seven passages, he commented on the biological problem then engaging the attention of certain biologists during the 1860s and 1870s, in particular, the controversial Bastian, who thought he found evidence for the spontaneous generation of microorganisms in nutrient infusions. Darwin also was very likely aware of Tyndall's definitive work, which largely settled the issue. The problem was whether there was some sort of "generative power"Tyndall's expression-in such infusions, or uniformly dispersed in the air19. Never in these passages does Darwin cite an experiment of his own from which he could draw an independent conclusion.
With Darwin's views on spontaneous generation before us, I think we may fairly agree that he was
entirely cautious on the subject of the origin of life, either in the beginning, or in the present day. If anything, his caution increased toward the end of his life, shown by the above passages, as the chemistry of the problem began to he explored. We can scarcely develop an argument against "evolution" on the basis of what Darwin did not say. This brings me to the second aspect of this issue.
What difference does it make?
Of course, it does not make a particle of difference what Darwin thought with regard to whether organisms are spontaneously generated, either in the beginning, or in the present day. Chemicals come together in such and such a way, or they do not, and Darwin's opinion could not change the question.
But it does make a difference if we try to advance Darwin's alleged adherence to spontaneous generation as an argument for the idea that his thought is inimical to theism, that he had some sort of "antisupernatural bias". Such a line of argument is then misleading to students and laymen who are not biologists and have no ready access to the literature. It is misleading because Darwin published no such argument.
It seems to me we should note a difference of intent between the published statements of Darwin, meant as a definitive declaration for posterity, and his hand-written letters to friends and colleagues, in which he commented informally on the scientific issues of the day. We may therefore note that in the single published statement, quoted above (second) from the Origin, he did not even use the term "spontaneous generation", he developed no theory, and he expressed himself cautiously. And in his letters, since they were not meant for the general public, we might expect to find less caution in his comments on the current speculations, yet this is not the case. His letters also reflect the caution of a competent biologist. If Darwin had an "antisupernatural bias", it is not indicated in his informal statements on spontaneous generation. Clark and Bales, and Smith, therefore attach undue emphasis to Darwin's informal comments on the "possibility" of the spontaneous generation of the first form of life. They do so without taking into account the historical context of the problem. It was not for Darwin a question of primary concern.
It is true, as Clark and Bales recognize, that we should examine the "letters, biographies and autobiographies" of the 19th century English scientists who supported the doctrine of evolution in order to form a clearer picture of (a) how it was received by them, and, more particularly, (b) the role of their religious assumptions as they became convinced20. But this study should be balanced with an examination of the scientific arguments per se that are developed in the Origin of Species, as distinguished from the religious views of the scientists who eventually supported these arguments. If Darwin's thought is indeed inimical to theism, then we ought to be able to identify for study particular, representative passages that are directly responsible for this dire result. It was Darwin's Origin of Species, not his letters, that became the focus of religious controversy over evolution. Yet Smith, and Clark and Bales do not have a single pagecitation from any of the six editions. Smith has only a passing reference to the Origin-the page citation not given which notes Darwin's reverence to the Creator 21. We have yet to hear what chapter, or paragraph, or sentence in the controversial book is actually inimical to theism22.
1. Darwin developed no theory about spontaneous generation. He was always skeptical about such speculations.
2. In the Origin of Species, he allowed the view that in the beginning the Creator introduced life into the first organism.
3. At the close of his life, he remained skeptical about the spontaneous generation of microorganisms in nutrient infusions.
4. His views on spontaneous generation could have had nothing to do with whether it actually occurred.
5. The validity of Darwin's scientific views on evolution cannot be assessed by an examination of his religious views.
6. Arguments against evolution should be supported by exact page-citations from particular editions of Darwin's Origin of Species.
1Smitli, A. E. Wilder, "Darwinism and Contemporary
Thought", Christianity Today, May 26, 1967, pp. 3-6.
2Aulie Richard P., "Darwinism and Contemporary Thought, a Review", Journal ASA, December, 1968, pp. 123-125.
3(a) Pasteur, Louis, "Memoire sur leo corpuscles organisces qui existent clans l'atmosphere". Assnales de Chisnie et de Physique, 3rd series. 1862, 64, 1-110. (b) Tyndall, John, "Spontaneous Generation". Popular
Science Monthly, 12, 1878, pp. 476-488, 591-604. Also in Tyndall's Fragments of Science. New York, Appleton, 1900. Vol. 2, pp. 290-334.
4Smith, A. F. Wilder, Man's Origin, Man's Destiny. Wheaton, Illinois, Harold Shaw, 1968. (320 p.) Pp. 33
5Clark, Robert T., and James D. Bales, Why Scientists Accept Evolution, Grand Rapids, Baker Book, 1967. (113 p.) Pp. 44, 45; 80, 81. I do not comment on whether spontaneous generation at the first form of life is contrary to Genesis, since this question is a matter of theological opinion.
6Ibid., p. 108. This is a tall order for a hook of 113 pages. Nevertheless, the authors have drawn from the letters and biographies of James Hutton (1726-1797), Sir Charles Lyell (17971875), Darwin, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), T. H. Huxley, and A. R. Wallace some interesting observations and comments that merit attention. But they have by no means cited all the relevant literature that is readily available in this category. This is a subject worthy of further study. However, their particular approach, it seems to use, implies certain questionable assumptions: (a) that scientists in the late 19th century were more given to an "anti-supernatural bias" than those of any other age, or more so than the bias of teachers, plumbers, or any other calling; (b) that the religious ideas of a scientist play a snore direct role in the formulation of his scientific arguments lie advances; ( c) that it is possible to delineate the religious and psychological motives of a scientist as he develops a theory, even though he has not so-identified them; and (d) that the doctrine of evolution is primarily in the category of the metaphysical and the religious, and therefore it is not in the category of such scientific abstractions as gravity, DNA, the atomic theory, ATP, and the like. Furthermore, the theoretical orientation of this approach, it seems to use, necessarily negates secondary causation in the organic realm; this approach to biology also has considerable in common with the idealistic zoology of the early decades of the 19th century, but that is another subject.
It would he a distinct contribution in this regard for someone to prepare a study of all the letters and essays of just one scientist from this period, for example, those of Thomas Henry Huxley, who wrote vigorously on science and religion. For a start, his writings are cited in: (a) Huxley, T. H., Collected Essays. London, Macmillan, 1894, 1908. 9 volumes. (b) Foster, Michael, and E. Ray Lankester, Editors. The Scientific Memoirs of Thomas Henry Huxley. London, Macmillan, 1898-1903. 5 volumes. and (c) Bihhy, Cyril, T. H. huxley, Scientist, Humanist and Educator. London, Watts, 1959. (xxii, 330 p.) John C. Greene has written well in this area: Darwin and the Modern World View. New York, Mentor, 1963. (viii, 126 p.) But there can be no substitute for a careful study of Darwin's Origin of Species for finding out just what Darwin meant by "evolution".
7Darwin, Francis, Editor, More Letters of Charles Darwin. New York, Appleton, 1903. (2 vols.) Vol. 2, p. 171.
8Darwin, Charles, On the Origin of Species. Harvard, University Press, 1964. (Facsimile of the First Edition of 1859, with introduction by Ernst Mayr.) (xxvii, ix. 502 p.) P. 484.
9 Huxley, Leonard, Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley. New York, Appleton, 1900. (2 vols.) Vol. 1, p. 263.
10Darwin, Francis, The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin. London, Murray, 1887. (3 vols.) Vol. 3, p. 18.
11Loc. cit., footnote.
12Reference 1, p. 3; references 4, 5.
13Reference 7, vol. 1, p. 273.
141bid., pp. 321, 322.
15Reference 10, vol. 3, p. 18, footnote.
16Ibid., vol. 3, pp. 168, 169.
17Bastian, H. Charlton, The Beginnings of Life (Being some Account of the Nature, Mode of Origin, and Transformation of Lower Organisms.) London, Macmillan, 1872. 2 vols.)
18Reference 7, vol. 1, p. 321, footnote.
l9Reference 3b, pp. 482, 486, 487.
20Reference 5. p. 108.
21(a) Reference 4, p. 15. Darwin referred to the Creator on pages 186, 189, 488, 490 of the first edition of the Origin. (b) Smith also refers to Darwin's "displeasure and sarcasm" in the Origin of Species as a kind of "stepwise" creation, or a series of special creations. Reference 4, p. 51. Smith does not indicate the page-source to support such a position, but it may be on page 483 of the first edition, in which Darwin seems to be asking special creationists to state exactly what they mean. I do not find this passage particularly inappropriate.
22The best, general discussion I know of on the relations between science and the Bible was written in the year 1615: Galileo, Galilei, "Letter to Madame Christina of Lorraine, Grand Duchess of Tuscany, Concerning the Use of Biblical Quotations in Matters of Science", Drake, Stillman, Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo. New York, Doubleday, Anchor. 1957. (viii, 302 p.) Pp. 172-216.
Richard P. Aulie Chicago State College 6800 S. Stewart Chicago, Illinois 60621