Department of History
University of California, Irvine
 Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker


Lecture 17.  Controversy


You will find an excellent discussion of the controversy over spontaneous generation in the online text of the Dictionary of the History of Ideas.
John Needham's Eels

excerpt from
An Account of Some New Microscopical Discoveries.... (1745)
by John Turbeville Needham (1713-1781)

CHAP. VIII.  Of EELS in Blighted Wheat.

SMUT in Wheat is a Disease, by which the interior farinaceous Substance is destroyed, and a foreign Matter introduced, which discolours and blackens the Grain, at least on the Out-side.  This Mater [sic] is either a black Dust extreamly fine, but according no Uniformity in the Shape of its several Particles, when viewed in the Microscope; or it is a white Substance, consisting wholly of longitudinal Fibres bundled up together, without the least signs of Life or Motion, if exposed upon the Object-Glass of the Microscope, just as they are extracted out of the Grain, without applying Water.

When I first discovered them, I had no other Design in the Application of Water, than to develop the Bundle, that I might view the supposed Fibres, as they appeared to me to be, with more Advantage.  I was consequently much surprized to see them, as it were, instantly take Life, move regularly, not with a progressive, but twisting Motion at each End, and continue so to do till the next Morning.

This Observation has been repeated several Times with this difference only, that tho' at first, when the Grains were fresh-gathered and soft, nothing more was necessary, than to extract the Animalcules out of them, and apply Water; yet after they had been kept some time, it was requisite first to macerate the Grains in Water for some Hours, before the Contents were extracted, which upon the Application of Water, as above, would gradually come to Life, of which few or none give any Signs, unless they are so macerated before-hand.

How these Eels subsist (for so I call them upon account of their being an aquatick Animalcule not unlike the Fresh-Water Eel, with this Difference, that in them both Extremities are alike without any Appearance of Mouth or Head) whence they come, what they convert into, if they suffer any Change, or how they propagate I could never learn; all that I know is, that I have observed Numbers of them for seven or eight Weeks, which have continued alive only by suppplying them with fresh Water; others I have frequently left dry for some Days, after the Water had evaporated, and revived as often by allowing them a fresh Supply; and in general, which to me is a Matter of great Surprise, I have had by me now for these two Years, and more, Grains of this blighted Wheat preserved dry in a Box, which, tho' after they had been gathered in England had first passed a Summer there, and since that Time a second in the hot dry Climate of Portugal, yet afford the same Phænomena to this Day without any Manner of Variation.

The surprising Nature of this Animalcule, however inexplicable in itself, confirms and enables us to account for the Observation of several Farmers, which Mr. Bradley takes Notice of, that Blight in Wheat, among other Causes assigned by him, is frequently occasioned by the sowing of Seed intermixed with blighted Grains.  For if we suppose, that these Animals meet with in the Ground suffiicient Moisture to give them Life, if I may so term it, either they, or their Eggs may easily communicate, and rise with the young Corn.  Accordingly Mr. Bradley prescribes a strong Brine to be made with a Dissolution of Allum in it, which if the Seed be steeped in it for the Space of thirty Hours, after it has been washed in Fresh-Water, and the Grains that swim at the Top, as the blighted Corn will, carefully skimmed off, will effectually preserve the new Crop from any Infection of that kind:  Which Effect in all Probability may be owing to the saline Particles penetrating the Grains, and destroying the Animalcules, wherever they find the least Remains of them.  He asserts at the same time, that if ever this Maceration has proved ineffectual, it is to be attributed either to the want of Strength in the Brine, or an Allowance of competent Time for the Steeping of the Grains.  In effect I myself have macerated these blighted Grains in a strong Brine, as prescribed, and extracted the Animalcules alive, at the end of twelve or fifteen Hours, but after thirty or more could discover no signs of Life or Motion in them. 

The Area of the Microscope containing these Animalcules, as it appears through the third Magnifier of the common double reflecting Microscopes, and a single one as seen through the greatest Magnifier, you have represented Plate V. Fig. 6. [and] 7.

The Story of the Eels
by Voltaire
[pen name of François Marie Arouet, (1694-1778)]

About the year 1750 there was, in France, an English Jesuit called Needham, disguised as a secular, who was then serving as tutor to the nephew of M. Dillon, archbishop of Toulouse. This man made experiments in natural philosophy, and especially in chemistry.

Having put some rye meal into well-corked bottles, and some boiled mutton gravy into other bottles, he thought that his mutton gravy and his meal had given birth to eels, which again produced others; and that thus a race of eels was formed indifferently from the juice of meat, or from a grain of rye.

A natural philosopher, of some reputation, had no doubt that this Needham was a profound atheist.  He concluded that, since eels could be made of rye meal, men might be made of wheat flour; that nature and chemistry produce all; and that it was demonstrated that we may very well dispense with an all-forming God.

This property of meal very easily deceived one who, unfortunately, was already wandering amidst ideas that should make us tremble for the weakness of the human mind.  He wanted to dig a hole in the centre of the earth, to see the central fire; to dissect Patagonians, that he might know the nature of the soul; to cover the sick with pitch, to prevent them from perspiring; to exalt his soul, that he might foretell the future.  If to these things it were added, that he had the still greater unhappiness of seeking to oppress two of his brethren, it would do no honor to atheism; it would only serve to make us look into ourselves with confusion.

It is really strange that men, while denying a creator, should have attributed to themselves the power of creating eels.

But it is yet more deplorable that natural philosophers, of better information, adopted the Jesuit Needham's ridiculous system, and joined it to that of Maillet [French naturalist, Benoît de Maillet (1656-1738)], who asserted that the ocean had formed the Alps and Pyrenees, and that men were originally porpoises, whose forked tails changed in the course of time into thighs and legs.  Such fancies are worthy to be placed with the eels formed by meal.  We were assured, not long ago, that at Brussels a hen had brought forth half a dozen young rabbits.

This transmutation of meal and gravy into eels was demonstrated to be as false and ridiculous as it really is, by M. Spallanzani [Italian biologist, Lazzaro Spallanzani (1729-1799)], a rather better observer than Needham.  But the extravagance of so palpable an illusion was evident without his observations. Needham's eels soon followed the Brussels' hen.

Nevertheless, in 1768, the correct, elegant, and judicious translator of Lucretius [French playwright and translator, Nicolas La Grange (1707-1767)] was so far led away, that he not only, in his notes to book viii. p. 361, repeats Needham's pretended experiments, but he also does all he can to establish their validity.  Here, then, we have the new foundation of the "System of Nature."

The author, in the second chapter, thus expresses himself:  "After moistening meal with water, and shutting up the mixture, it is found after a little time, with the aid of the microscope, that it has produced organized beings, of whose production the water and meal were believed to be incapable.  Thus inanimate nature can pass into life, which is itself but an assemblage of motions."

Were this unparalleled blunder true, yet, in rigorous reasoning, I do not see how it would prove there is no God; I do not see why a supreme, intelligent, and mighty being, having formed the sun and the stars, might not also deign to form animalculæ without a germ.  Here is no contradiction in terms.  A demonstrative proof that God has no existence must be sought elsewhere; and most assuredly no person has ever found, or will ever find, one.

Our author treats final causes with contempt, because the argument is hackneyed; but this much-contemned argument is that of Cicero and of Newton.  This alone might somewhat lessen the confidence of atheists in themselves.  The number is not small of the sages who, observing the course of the stars, and the prodigious art that pervades the structure of animals and vegetables, have acknowledged a powerful hand working these continual wonders.

The author asserts that matter, blind and without choice, produces intelligent animals.  Produce, without intelligence, beings with intelligence!  Is this conceivable?  Is this system founded on the smallest verisimilitude?  An opinion so contradictory requires proofs no less astonishing than itself.  The author gives us none; he never proves anything; but he affirms all that he advances.  What chaos! what confusion! and what temerity!

Spinoza at least acknowledged an intelligence acting in this great whole, which constituted nature:  in this there was philosophy.  But in the new system, I am under the necessity of saying that there is none.

Matter has extent, solidity, gravity, divisibility.  I have all these as well as this stone: but was a stone ever known to feel and think?  If I am extended, solid, divisible, I owe it to matter.  But I have sensations and thoughts -- to what do I owe them?  Not to water, not to mire -- most likely to something more powerful than myself.  Solely to the combination of the elements, you will say.  Then prove it to me.  Show me plainly that my intelligence cannot have been given to me by an intelligent cause.  To this are you reduced.

Our author successively combats the God of the schoolmen -- a God composed of discordant qualities; a God to whom, as to those of Homer, is attributed the passions of men; a God capricious, fickle, unreasonable, absurd -- but he cannot combat the God of the wise.  The wise, contemplating nature, admit an intelligent and supreme power.  It is perhaps impossible for human reason, destitute of divine assistance, to go a step further.

Our author asks where this being resides; and, from the impossibility that anyone, without being infinite, should tell where He resides, he concludes that He does not exist.  This is not philosophical; for we are not, because we cannot tell where the cause of an effect is, to conclude that there is no cause.  If you had never seen a gunner, and you saw the effects of a battery of cannon, you would not say it acts entirely by itself.  Shall it, then, only be necessary for you to say there is no God, in order to be believed on your words?

Finally, his great objection is, the woes and crimes of mankind -- an objection alike ancient and philosophical; an objection common, but fatal and terrible, and to which we find no answer but in the hope of a better life.  Yet what is this hope?  We can have no certainty in it but from reason.  But I will venture to say, that when it is proved to us that a vast edifice, constructed with the greatest art, is built by an architect, whoever he may be, we ought to believe in that architect, even though the edifice should be stained with our blood, polluted by our crimes, and should crush us in its fall.  I inquire not whether the architect is a good one, whether I should be satisfied with his building, whether I should quit it rather than stay in it, nor whether those who are lodged in it for a few days, like myself, are content:  I only inquire if it be true that there is an architect, or if this house, containing so many fine apartments and so many wretched garrets, built itself.

Neither Charles Bonnet (1720-1793), nor Lazzaro Spallanzani (1729-1799) could duplicate Needham's experiment.  Unable to see the "organic" molecules Needham had described, they concluded that Needham's microscope must have been inadequate.  Preconceived notions, not objective observation, led him to see only what he expected, not what was actually there.

In fact, modern historians have discovered that Spallanzani's microscope was the less powerful instrument and could not resolve the tiny particles that were visible in Needham's microscope.

Chronology of Events Described in Strick's Sparks of Life
1828 Botanist Robert Brown (1773-1858) announced his discovery of "active molecules" -- microscopic particles that remained in constant motion as if they were alive [this phenomenon came to be called "Brownian" movement; its explanation was the subject of Albert Einstein's third great paper of 1905; to learn more about Robert Brown's discovery, see Brian J. Ford's great article "Brownian Movement in Clarkia Pollen..."]


Félix Archimède Pouchet (1800-1872) published Hétérogenie

  • observed microbes appear over time in boiled hay infusion
  • proposed that these microbes must have developed spontaneously out of the inanimate matter in the hay infusion

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published Origin of Species

  • did not speculate on origin of life on Earth, only on cause of existing life's great variety
  • claimed that natural processes account for gradual changes in life forms over geologic time
  • left open the suggestion that natural (rather than supernatural) processes responsible for transition from inanimate matter to living things
  • book sparked debate:  If all changes in the structure and function of living things occur by chance through the action of natural processes, doesn't the Principle of Continuity require the first appearance of living matter to have been the result of from non-living matter to transition of ?

Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) began a series of lectures opposing spontaneous generation

  • unable to reproduce Pouchet's experimental results
  • argued that it was impossible for living beings to form out of inanimate matter
  • any living thing found in Pouchet's boiled hay infusion must have come from the external environment
  • criticized Pouchet's experimental methods

Joseph Lister (1827-1877) introduced antiseptic surgery

  • claimed that microbes found in infected wounds did not appear spontaneously
  • argued that infecting microbes abound in the environment and are introduced into exposed wounds through contact (especially via physicians' hands which carry microbes from patient to patient)
  • suggested there are simple means by which these microbes can be prevented from entering the body (hand washing, irrigating wounds with microbe-killing chemical solutions, wrapping wounds with sterile bandages....)

Henry Charlton Bastian (1837-1915) published series of anonymous articles on the origin of life in the British Medical Journal

  • argued on the basis of Principle of Continuity for "biogenesis" -- a word he coined to describe the development of living things from inanimate matter

in January, physicist John Tyndall (1820-1893) delivered lecture on "Dust and Disease"

  • supported views of Pasteur and Lister
  • lay public saw Tyndall as a popular spokesman for scientific community, but some life scientists viewed him as an interloper

in September, Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895) delivered the Presidential Address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) meeting at Liverpool

  • established terms of the spontaneous generation debate as "biogenesis" vs. "abiogenesis"
    • biogenesis -- new life can only be produced by living things
    • abiogenesis -- new life can arise from inanimate matter
  • presented evidence against "abiogenesis"
    • canning techniques preserve organic matter for long periods
    • perhaps some microbes can survive high heat
  • pointed out that no one knows how life originated on Earth, but the conditions then are different from those today -- it is possible to imagine that living matter may have arisen out of non-living matter under those special conditions
  • criticized Bastian for his
    • faulty method
    • poor technique
    • improper interpretation

Bastian published The Mode of Origin of Lowest Organisms

  • introduced new word -- "archeobiosis" -- to refer to the production of living things from inanimate matter to counter Huxley's appropriation of the word "biogenesis" for his own purposes

William Thomson (1824-1906) [named Baron Kelvin of Largs in 1892] delivered the Presidential Address to the BAAS meeting at Edinburgh

  • suggested life on Earth originated from infalling meteorites
    • believed that physics was a superior science to the relatively new life and geological sciences
    • all new theories must pass the rigorous mathematical tests of physical laws
    • life on Earth, however it might have arisen, cannot have existed before conditions were right (cool enough for liquid water and organic molecules)
    • based on the rate at which bodies cool, Thomson had calculated (1862) the earth to be between 20-400 million years old, an insufficient time for modern animals to have evolved from simple microbes via natural selection
1872 Bastian published Beginnings of Life

Go to:
  • R.U.R. (1920) by Karel Capek (1890-1938)
  • Robots -- stories from The New York Times
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