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        Origin of Life Studies

In Defence of Spontaneous Generation
     H. C. Bastian

Henry Charlton Bastian was a tireless proponent of spontaneous generation or panspermia. He was willing to take on Louis Pasteur and conducted an interminable polemic, denouncing the experiments with the famous sealed, swan-necked (their contents devoid of life to this day). Bastian was enraged at the verdict of the commission appointed to decide between Pasteur and his adversary, Felix Pouchet (who, feeling that the cards were stacked against him, thought the better about facing up to an interrogation and simply took to his heels). Here is the start of Bastian's first broadside in NATURE. John Tyndall, who in the next issue wrote an admiring report of Pasteur's work on the diseases of silkworms (p»brine and flícherie), remarked with obvious irritation about the spontaneous generation debate that "it is much to be desired that some really competent person in England should rescue the public mind from the confusion now prevalent regarding this question."

4 June 1870


H. C. Bastian

                               From Nature 2 (1870): 170.

In all ages it has been believed by many that Living things of various kinds could come into being de novo, and without ordinary parentage. Much difference of opinion has, however, always prevailed as to the kinds of organisms which might so arise. And although received as an article of faith by many biologists -- perhaps by most -- in the earlier ages, this doctrine or belief has, in more recent times, been rejected by a very large section of them. Definitely to prove or disprove the doctrine in some of its aspects is a matter of the utmost difficulty, and there are reasons enough to account for the wave of scepticism on this subject, which has been so powerful in its influence during the last century. The notions of the ancients were altogether crude, and founded upon insufficient proofs. It was not in their power to settle such a question; and when the inadequacy of the evidence on which they had relied became known, then much doubt was thrown also on the truth of the conclusion at which they had arrived. All this was natural enough. When, therefore, about a century ago, the rude microscopes of the time began to reveal a multitude of minute organisms whose existence had been hitherto unsuspected; when more facts became known concerning the various modes of reproduction amongst living things, and, above all, when the philosophical creeds of the day were supposed to be irreconcilable with such a doctrine, then a growing scepticism in the minds of many gradually developed into an utter disbelief in the possibility of the occurrence of what was called "spontaneous generation."

This was the state of things anterior to and during the time of the celebrated controversy between the Abb» Spallanzani and John Needham. Then it was that the former of these two champions, with the view of accounting for phenomena which would otherwise have necessitated his admission of the doctrine which he rejected, recklessly launched upon the world the hypothesis that multitudinous, minute, and almost metaphysical "germs" existed everywhere -- ready to burst into active Life and development whenever they came under the influence of suitable conditions. Armed with this all-powerful Panspermic hypothesis, Spallanzani argued against the conclusions of Needham. His views on this subject were supported by the still more extravagant theories of Bonnet. The doctrine of "L'Embo”tement des gernies" was the production of an unbridled fancy, and might, perhaps, never have been elaborated, had not Leibnitzian doctrine concerning "Monads," as centres of force and activity, been already in existence, and at the time all-powerful in the philosophical world.

The controversy which was initiated by these two pioneers in microscopical research they were unable to terminate -- the enigma which they sought to solve has, since their time, still pressed for solution, and still the tendency has been to solve it after one or other of the modes by which they attempted to account for the occurrence of the phenomena in question. It is and has been contended, on the one hand, that Living things can originate de novo, and without ordinary parentage; it is contended, on the other, that this is impossible-that every Living thing is the product or off-cast of a pre-existing Living thing, and that those which appear to arise de novo have, in reality, been produced by the development of some of the myriads of visible or invisible "germs" which pervade the atmosphere.

And here, further into Bastian's long article, is an example of his tone in debate.

Unfortunately for the cause of Truth, people have been so blinded by his skill and precision as a mere experimenter, that only too many have failed to discover his shortcomings as a reasoner.

But it will already have been preceived by the attentive reader, that it was not necessary for me -- in my endeavour to establish as a Truth the great doctrine which M. Pasteur has striven to repudiate -- to show the inconclusiveness of his reasonings on that branch of the subject to which I have just been alluding. I have striven rather to show in their true light the real nature of such modes of reasoning, which are I fear only too likely to be repeated by others. So long as people are unable readily to appreciate the worthlessness of arguments like these, they will never be likely to penetrate through the clouds of controversy which envelope this subject. Their mental vision will be blinded, and the truth will remain hidden from them.