SEARCHING FOR THE ORIGIN OF LIFE

Chapter 1

SPONTANEOUS GENERATION

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Early Observations on the Origin of Life

If you have a garden you may have observed that after it rains earthworms appear on the surface of the soil.  Prior to 1861 it was commonly believed that the right conditions of rain, soil, sun and enough time somehow generated worms.  Their idea can be summarised as a formula:

Soil + Rain + Sun + One Day  ® Worms

Some people have observed that if meat is left somewhere warm for a week, it became full of maggots which turned into flies.  Prior to 1861 they concluded that the flies arose from the meat.  This conclusion could be expressed as:

Meat + Heat + One Week  ® Flies

People who stored wheat noticed that mice seemed to appear spontaneously in the grain after a few weeks of warm weather, and prior to 1861 it was believed that the mice were generated from the wheat.  This belief could be summarised as:

Wheat + Warmth + Three Weeks  ® Mice

Such ideas had the common theme that the right starting materials, e.g soil and water, could turn into living things if energy, such as sunlight, was added, along with the right amount of time (one day to obtain worms from soil, to three weeks for mice to grow from wheat).  Because such mice or worms were thought to appear suddenly without obvious parents, this idea became known as Spontaneous Generation.

This idea can also be summarised as a formula:

Matter + Energy + Time  ® Life

This formula can then be abbreviated using the symbols:

M  +  E  +  T  ®   L

Looking back from the 21st century, it is easy to say that people who believed such ideas must have been a bit dim wittedBut "believers" included intellectual giants such as Isaac Newton who pioneered the maths of calculus and enabled us to understand many of the laws of physics.  Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and other scientists of the day were obviously not fools, so how could they believe in Spontaneous Generation?

Prior to the mid nineteenth century most scientists also believed the first living things were created by God as described in the Bible's account in Genesis.  Many who accepted Spontaneous Generation argued that Genesis Chapter 1 Verses11 and 24 states that God commanded the ground to bring forth plants and living creatures, therefore it was possible some of God's original instructions for creating living things may have been "left" in the dirt. Therefore they believed, when the right conditions of matter, energy and time occurred, the presence of original instructions, would spontaneously produce life.

Because the original instructions came from the Creator God, they were not a natural property of any created matter, energy or time.  Such Outside Information (OI) was supplied to the system by God.

For this reason, a more correct formula for their idea of the Spontaneous Generation of life would be:

Matter  + Energy  + Time  Outside Information®  Life

A shorthand version would now read

M + E + T  OI®  L

Pasteur's Problem

Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) was a French scientist whose name has become a household word. It is on every carton of milk which has undergone a process called "pasteurisation," which destroys micro-organisms in the milk so it does not cause us to get ill.  Pasteurisation is one side benefit from Pasteur's famous experiment to test whether life could be Spontaneously Generated.

In 1861 Pasteur showed that if you killed all living organisms in a nutrient rich soup no new life formed, i.e. Spontaneous Generation did not occur.  Louis Pasteur's famous experiments proved that if all you have are the Natural Properties of non living Matter plus Energy and Time, you will produce only non living things, no matter how much Energy and Time  are available.  This could be summarised as:

Matter + Energy + Time  Natural Properties®  Matter + Energy + Time

or

M + E + T NP® M + E +T

Louis Pasteur established beyond a shadow of a doubt that:

(a) Spontaneous Generation is impossible under present day conditions, and

(b) There are no Original Instructions or Outside Information left in the environment from the time of Creation.

Spontaneous Generation was dead, but ...

Around the time Pasteur was proving Spontaneous Generation could not occur in the present world, another man was proposing an idea which would eventually be shown to depend on Spontaneous Generation having occurred sometime in the past. In 1859, Englishman Charles Darwin (1809-1882) made popular the idea which would become known as Evolution.  It was not a new idea, but Darwin explained it in a way that was acceptable to many influential thinkers of his time.

Darwin was a gifted amateur naturalist whose formal education was in theology, but he never worked as a minister in a church.  He had a private income and was able to spend his life in a personal study of the living world.  He wrote many books detailing his observations of living things, ranging from barnacles to orchids.  His theory of evolution claimed all living things arose from a common ancestor and had slowly changed from one form into another due to Natural Processes alone.  Although Charles Darwin wrote much about Natural Processes changing one life form into another, he did not seriously address the problem of how life arose in the first place. 

In a personal letter to J.D Hooker Darwin speculated:

"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 phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity, &c., present, that a proteine [sic] 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."
Letter to J.D. Hooker, 1871, in Darwin F., ed., The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, [1898], Basic Books: New York NY, Vol. II, 1959, reprint, pp.202-203)

Other than this, Darwin left the origin of life open the possibility of Divine Creation.

Pasteur and Darwin

Pasteur was amongst the first to realise Darwin's theory would lead to a new version of Spontaneous Generation where life appeared as a result of only the Natural Properties of matter, energy and time. Because of this Pasteur became a public opponent of Charles Darwin.

Evolution prevails

Since the 1860's, Darwin's theory has been expanded and modified by many others, but all modern evolutionary thinking is based on Darwin's idea of simple organisms changing into more complex organisms as a result of natural processes alone.  In its current form, the General Evolutionary Theory can be summarised with the statement: present life forms arose by natural changes to previous life forms, which evolved from the first life form, which arose spontaneously from non living matter.

Question

How did Darwin's followers manage to get around Pasteur's findings? 

We will look at some experiments that claim to do this in Chapter 2.

SUMMARY OF CHAPTER 1

Before the 1860's people believed living organisms could arise from non-living matter by Spontaneous Generation, but Louis Pasteur showed Spontaneous Generation did not occur, and living things only arose from pre-existing life.

In 1859 Charles Darwin published his book "On the Origin of Species" and many people came to believe that new life forms came about by natural processes alone.  This meant that the first life form must have arisen from non-living matter by natural processes, i.e. a form of Spontaneous Generation.

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