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


Week 8.  Behavior

excerpts from
"Biogenesis and Abiogenesis" (1870)
by Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895)
from Nature vol. 2:  400-406


Presidential Address
delivered Wednesday evening, September 14, 1870
to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Liverpool
appeared in Nature September 15, 1870

It has long been the custom for the newly installed President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science to take advantage of the elevation of the position in which the suffrages of his colleagues had, for the time, placed him, and, casting his eyes around the horizon of the scientific world, to report to them what could be seen from his watch-tower; in what directions the multitudinous divisions of the noble army of the improvers of natural knowledge were marching; what important strongholds of the great enemy of us all, ignorance, had been recently captured; and, also, with due impartiality, to mark where the advanced posts of science had been driven in, or a long-continued siege had made no progress.

I propose to endeavour to follow this ancient precedent, in a manner suited to the limitations of my knowledge and of my capacity.  I shall not presume to attempt a panoramic survey of the world of science, nor even to give a sketch of what is doing in the one great province of biology, with some portions of which my ordinary occupations render me familiar.  But I shall endeavour to put before you the history of the rise and progress of a single biological doctrine; and I shall try to give some notion of the fruits, both intellectual and practical, which we owe, directly or indirectly, to the working out, by seven generations of patient and laborious investigators, of the thought which arose, more than two centuries ago, in the mind of a sagacious and observant Italian naturalist.

It is a matter of everyday experience that it is difficult to prevent many articles of food from becoming covered with mould; that fruit, sound enough to all appearance, often contains grubs at the core; that meat, left to itself in the air, is apt to putrefy and swarm with maggots.  Even ordinary water, if allowed to stand in an open vessel, sooner or later becomes turbid and full of living matter.

The philosophers of antiquity, interrogated as to the cause of these phenomena, were provided with a ready and a plausible answer.  It did not enter their minds even to doubt that these low forms of life were generated in the matters in which they made their appearance.  Lucretius, who had drunk deeper of the scientific spirit than any poet of ancient or modern times except Goethe, intends to speak as a philosopher, rather than as a poet, when he writes that "with good reason the earth has gotten the name of mother, since all things are produced out of the earth.  And many living creatures, even now, spring out of the earth, taking form by the rains and the heat of the sun."* 

[*Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, lib. v. 793-796.]

The axiom of ancient science, "that the corruption of one thing is the birth of another," had its popular embodiment in the notion that a seed dies before the young plant springs from it....

The proposition that life may, and does, proceed from that which has no life, then, was held alike by the philosophers, the poets, and the people, of the most enlightened nations, eighteen hundred years ago; and it remained the accepted doctrine of learned and unlearned Europe, through the Middle Ages, down even to the seventeenth century.

It is commonly counted among the many merits of our great countryman, Harvey [English physician, William Harvey (1578-1657)], that he was the first to declare the opposition of fact to venerable authority in this....  Harvey believed all animals and plants to spring from what he terms a "primordium vegetale," a phrase which may nowadays be rendered "a vegetative germ"; and this, he says, is "oviforme," or "egg-like"; not, he is careful to add, that it necessarily has the shape of an egg, but because it has the constitution and nature of one....

The first distinct enunciation of the hypothesis that all living matter has sprung from pre-existing living matter, came from a contemporary, though a junior, of Harvey....  It was in Italy, and from Italian teachers, that Harvey received the most important part of his scientific education.  And it was a student trained in the same schools, Francesco Redi [Italian physician (1621-1697)] -- a man of the widest knowledge and most versatile abilities, distinguished alike as scholar, poet, physician, and naturalist -- who, just two hundred and two years ago, published his "Esperienze intorno alla Generazione degl' Insetti," and gave to the world the idea, the growth of which it is my purpose to trace....

Redi did not trouble himself much with speculative considerations, but attacked particular cases of what was supposed to be "spontaneous generation" experimentally.  Here are dead animals, or pieces of meat, says he; I expose them to the air in hot weather, and in a few days they swarm with maggots.  You tell me that these are generated in the dead flesh; but if I put similar bodies, while quite fresh, into a jar, and tie some fine gauze over the top of the jar, not a maggot makes its appearance, while the dead substances, nevertheless, putrefy just in the same way as before.  It is obvious, therefore, that the maggots are not generated by the corruption of the meat; and that the cause of their formation must be a something which is kept away by gauze.  But gauze will not keep away aëriform bodies, or fluids.  This something must, therefore, exist in the form of solid particles too big to get through the gauze.  Nor is one long left in doubt what these solid particles are; for the blowflies, attracted by the odour of the meat, swarm round the vessel, and, urged by a powerful but in this case misleading instinct, lay eggs out of which maggots are immediately hatched, upon the gauze.  The conclusion, therefore, is unavoidable; the maggots are not generated by the meat, but the eggs which give rise to them are brought through the air by the flies.

These experiments seem almost childishly simple, and one wonders how it was that no one ever thought of them before.  Simple as they are, however, they are worthy of the most careful study, for every piece of experimental work since done, in regard to this subject, has been shaped upon the model furnished by the Italian philosopher....

And thus the hypothesis that living matter always arises by the agency of pre-existing living matter, took definite shape; and had, henceforward, a right to be considered and a claim to be refuted, in each particular case, before the production of living matter in any other way could be admitted by careful reasoners.  It will be necessary for me to refer to this hypothesis so frequently, that, to save circumlocution, I shall call it the hypothesis of Biogenesis; and I shall term the contrary doctrine -- that living matter may be produced by not living matter -- the hypothesis of Abiogenesis....

Against all odds, however, Redi, strong with the strength of demonstrable fact, did splendid battle for Biogenesis; but it is remarkable that he held the doctrine in a sense which, if he had lived in these times, would have infallibly caused him to be classed among the defenders of "spontaneous generation."  "Omne vivum ex vivo," "no life without antecedent life," aphoristically sums up Redi's doctrine; but he went no further.  It is most remarkable evidence of the philosophic caution and impartiality of his mind, that although he had speculatively anticipated the manner in which grubs really are deposited in fruits and in the galls of plants, he deliberately admits that the evidence is insufficient to bear him out; and he therefore prefers the supposition that they are generated by a modification of the living substance of the plants themselves.  Indeed, he regards these vegetable growths as organs, by means of which the plant gives rise to an animal, and looks upon this production of specific animals as the final cause of the galls and of, at any rate, some fruits.  And he proposes to explain the occurrence of parasites within the animal body in the same way....

The progress of the hypothesis of Biogenesis was triumphant and unchecked for nearly a century.  The application of the microscope to anatomy in the hands of [Nehemiah] Grew (1641-1712), [Antony van] Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), [Jan] Swammerdam (1637-1680), Pieter Lyonnet (1708-1789), [Antonio] Vallisnieri (1661-1730), [René Antoine Ferchault de] Réaumur (1683-1757), and other illustrious investigators of nature of that day, displayed such a complexity of organisation in the lowest and minutest forms, and everywhere revealed such a prodigality of provision for their multiplication by germs of one sort or another, that the hypothesis of Abiogenesis began to appear not only untrue, but absurd; and, in the middle of the eighteenth century, when Needham and Buffon took up the question, it was almost universally discredited....  But the skill of the microscope makers of the eighteenth century soon reached its limit....  It is only by bearing [this] in mind, that we can deal fairly with the remarkable statements and speculations put forward by Buffon and Needham in the middle of the eighteenth century.

When a portion of any animal or vegetable body is infused in water, it gradually softens and disintegrates; and, as it does so, the water is found to swarm with minute active creatures, the so-called Infusorial Animalcules, none of which can be seen, except by the aid of the microscope; while a large proportion belong to the category of smallest things of which I have spoken, and which must have looked like mere dots and lines under the ordinary microscopes of the eighteenth century.

Led by various theoretical considerations ... Buffon and Needham doubted the applicability of Redi's hypothesis to the infusorial animalcules, and Needham very properly endeavoured to put the question to an experimental test.  He said to himself, If these infusorial animalcules come from germs, their germs must exist either in the substance infused, or in the water with which the infusion is made, or in the superjacent air.  Now the vitality of all germs is destroyed by heat.  Therefore, if I boil the infusion, cork it up carefully, cementing the cork over with mastic, and then heat the whole vessel by heaping hot ashes over it, I must needs kill whatever germs are present.  Consequently, if Redi's hypothesis hold good, when the infusion is taken away and allowed to cool, no animalcules ought to be developed in it; whereas, if the animalcules are not dependent on pre-existing germs, but are generated from the infused substance, they ought, by and by, to make their appearance.  Needham found that, under the circumstances in which he made his experiments, animalcules always did arise in the infusions, when a sufficient time had elapsed to allow for their development.

In much of his work Needham was associated with Buffon, and the results of their experiments fitted in admirably with the great French naturalist's hypothesis of "organic molecules," according to which, life is the indefeasible property of certain indestructible molecules of matter, which exist in all living things, and have inherent activities by which they are distinguished from not living matter.  Each individual living organism is formed by their temporary combination.  They stand to it in the relation of the particles of water to a cascade, or a whirlpool; or to a mould, into which the water is poured.  The form of the organism is thus determined by the reaction between external conditions and the inherent activities of the organic molecules of which it is composed; and, as the stoppage of a whirlpool destroys nothing but a form, and leaves the molecules of the water, with all their inherent activities intact, so what we call the death and putrefaction of an animal, or of a plant, is merely the breaking up of the form, or manner of association, of its constituent organic molecules, which are then set free as infusorial animalcules.

It will be perceived that this doctrine is by no means identical with Abiogenesis, with which it is often confounded.  On this hypothesis, a piece of beef, or a handful of hay, is dead only in a limited sense.  The beef is dead ox, and the hay is dead grass; but the "organic molecules" of the beef or the hay are not dead, but are ready to manifest their vitality as soon as the bovine or herbaceous shrouds in which they are imprisoned are rent by the macerating action of water.... 

But the great tragedy of Science -- the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact -- which is so constantly being enacted under the eyes of philosophers, was played, almost immediately, for the benefit of Buffon and Needham.

Once more, an Italian, the Abbé [Lazzaro] Spallanzani (1729-1799), a worthy successor and representative of Redi in his acuteness, his ingenuity, and his learning, subjected the experiments and the conclusions of Needham to a searching criticism....  Was it not possible, in the first place, [Needham] had not completely excluded the air by his corks and mastic? And was it not possible, in the second place, that he had not sufficiently heated his infusions and the superjacent air?  Spallanzani ... showed that if, in the first place, the glass vessels in which the infusions were contained were hermetically sealed by fusing their necks, and if, in the second place, they were exposed to the temperature of boiling water for three-quarters of an hour, * no animalcules ever made their appearance within them.  It must be admitted that the experiments and arguments of Spallanzani furnish a complete and a crushing reply to those of Needham. 

[*Spallanzani, Operae vi. pp. 42 and 51.]

But we all too often forget that it is one thing to refute a proposition, and another to prove the truth of a doctrine which, implicitly or explicitly, contradicts that proposition; and the advance of science soon showed that though Needham might be quite wrong, it did not follow that Spallanzani was quite right.

Modern Chemistry, the birth of the latter half of the eighteenth century, grew apace, and soon found herself face to face with the great problems which biology had vainly tried to attack without her help.  The discovery of oxygen led to the laying of the foundations of a scientific theory of respiration, and to an examination of the marvellous interactions of organic substances with oxygen.  The presence of free oxygen appeared to be one of the conditions of the existence of life, and of those singular changes in organic matters which are known as fermentation and putrefaction.  The question of the generation of the infusory animalcules thus passed into a new phase.  For what might not have happened to the organic matter of the infusions, or to the oxygen of the air, in Spallanzani's experiments?  What security was there that the development of life which ought to have taken place had not been checked or prevented by these changes?

The battle had to be fought again.  It was needful to repeat the experiments under conditions which would make sure that neither the oxygen of the air, nor the composition of the organic matter, was altered in such a manner as to interfere with the existence of life.

[Max Johann Sigismund] Schulze (1825-1874) and [Theodor] Schwann (1810-1882) took up the question from this point of view in 1836 and 1837.  The passage of air through red-hot glass tubes, or through strong sulphuric acid, does not alter the proportion of its oxygen, while it must needs arrest, or destroy, any organic matter which may be contained in the air.  These experimenters, therefore, contrived arrangements by which the only air which should come into contact with a boiled infusion should be such as had either passed through red-hot tubes or through strong sulphuric acid.  The result which they obtained was that an infusion so treated developed no living things, while, if the same infusion was afterwards exposed to the air, such things appeared rapidly and abundantly.  The accuracy of these experiments has been alternately denied and affirmed.  Supposing them to be accepted, however, all that they really proved was that the treatment to which the air was subjected destroyed something that was essential to the development of life in the infusion.  This "something" might be gaseous, fluid, or solid; that it consisted of germs remained only an hypothesis of greater or less probability.

Contemporaneously with these investigations a remarkable discovery was made by [Charles] Cagniard de la Tour (1777-1859).  He found that common yeast is composed of a vast accumulation of minute plants.  The fermentation of must [unfermented juice of grapes used to make wine], or of wort [unfermented liquid made of hot water and malt used in brewing beer and ale or distilling whiskey], in the fabrication of wine and of beer, is always accompanied by the rapid growth and multiplication of these Torulæ.  Thus, fermentation, in so far as it was accompanied by the development of microscopical organisms in enormous numbers, became assimilated to the decomposition of an infusion of ordinary animal or vegetable matter; and it was an obvious suggestion that the organisms were, in some way or other, the causes both of fermentation and of putrefaction.  The chemists, with [Jöns Jakob] Berzelius (1779-1848) and [Justus von] Liebig (1803-1873) at their head, at first laughed this idea to scorn; but in 1843 ... the illustrious [Hermann] Helmholtz (1821-1894) ... separated a putrefying or a fermenting liquid from one which was simply putrescible or fermentable by a membrane which allowed the fluids to pass through and become intermixed, but stopped the passage of solids....  Helmholtz's experiments narrowed the issue to this: that which excites fermentation and putrefaction, and at the same time gives rise to living forms in a fermentable or putrescible fluid, is not a gas and is not a diffusible fluid; therefore it is either a colloid, or it is matter divided into very minute solid particles....

It has been a common objection of Abiogenists that, if the doctrine of Biogeny is true, the air must be thick with germs; and they regard this as the height of absurdity.  But nature occasionally is exceedingly unreasonable, and Professor [John] Tyndall (1820-1893) has proved [by experiment] that this particular absurdity may nevertheless be a reality.  He has demonstrated that ordinary air is no better than a sort of stirabout of excessively minute solid particles; that these particles are almost wholly destructible by heat; and that they are strained off, and the air rendered optically pure, by its being passed through cotton-wool.

It remains yet in the order of logic, though not of history, to show that among these solid destructible particles, there really do exist germs capable of giving rise to the development of living forms in suitable menstrua.  This piece of work was done by M. [Louis] Pasteur (1822-1895) in those beautiful researches which will ever render his name famous; and which, in spite of all attacks upon them, appear to me now, as they did seven years ago,* to be models of accurate experimentation and logical reasoning.  He strained air through cotton-wool, and found ... that it contained nothing competent to give rise to the development of life in fluids highly fitted for that purpose. 

[*Lectures to Working Men on the Causes of the Phenomena of Organic Nature, 1863.]

But the important further links in the chain of evidence added by Pasteur are three.  In the first place he subjected to microscopic examination the cotton-wool which had served as strainer, and found that sundry bodies clearly recognisable as germs, were among the solid particles strained off.  Secondly, he proved that these germs were competent to give rise to living forms by simply sowing them in a solution fitted for their development.  And, thirdly, he showed that the incapacity of air strained through cottonwool to give rise to life, was not due to any occult change effected in the constituents of the air by the wool, by proving that the cotton-wool might be dispensed with altogether, and perfectly free access left between the exterior air and that in the experimental flask.  If the neck of the flask is drawn out into a tube and bent downwards; and if, after the contained fluid has been carefully boiled, the tube is heated sufficiently to destroy any germs which may be present in the air which enters as the fluid cools, the apparatus may be left to itself for any time and no life will appear in the fluid.  The reason is plain.  Although there is free communication between the atmosphere laden with germs and the germless air in the flask, contact between the two takes place only in the tube; and as the germs cannot fall upwards, and there are no currents, they never reach the interior of the flask.  But if the tube be broken short off where it proceeds from the flask, and free access be thus given to germs falling vertically out of the air, the fluid, which has remained clear and desert for months, becomes, in a few days, turbid and full of life.

These experiments have been repeated over and over again by independent observers with entire success....

To sum up the effect of this long chain of evidence:--

It is demonstrable that a fluid eminently fit for the development of the lowest forms of life, but which contains neither germs, nor any protein compound, gives rise to living things in great abundance if it is exposed to ordinary air; while no such development takes place, if the air with which it is in contact is mechanically freed from the solid particles which ordinarily float in it, and which may be made visible by appropriate means.

It is demonstrable that the great majority of these particles are destructible by heat, and that some of them are germs, or living particles, capable of giving rise to the same forms of life as those which appear when the fluid is exposed to unpurified air.

It is demonstrable that inoculation of the experimental fluid with a drop of liquid known to contain living particles gives rise to the same phenomena as exposure to unpurified air.

And it is further certain that these living particles are so minute that the assumption of their suspension in ordinary air presents not the slightest difficulty.  On the contrary, considering their lightness and the wide diffusion of the organisms which produce them, it is impossible to conceive that they should not be suspended in the atmosphere in myriads.

Thus the evidence, direct and indirect, in favour of Biogenesis for all known forms of life must, I think, be admitted to be of great weight.

On the other side, the sole assertions worthy of attention are that hermetically sealed fluids, which have been exposed to great and long-continued heat, have sometimes exhibited living forms of low organisation when they have been opened.

The first reply that suggests itself is the probability that there must be some error about these experiments, because they are performed on an enormous scale every day with quite contrary results.  Meat, fruits, vegetables, the very materials of the most fermentable and putrescible infusions, are preserved to the extent, I suppose I may say, of thousands of tons every year, by a method which is a mere application of Spallanzani's experiment.  The matters to be preserved are well boiled in a tin case provided with a small hole, and this hole is soldered up when all the air in the case has been replaced by steam.  By this method they may be kept for years without putrefying, fermenting, or getting mouldy.  Now this is not because oxygen is excluded, inasmuch as it is now proved that free oxygen is not necessary for either fermentation or putrefaction.  It is not because the tins are exhausted of air, for Vibriones and Bacteria live, as Pasteur has shown, without air or free oxygen.  It is not because the boiled meats or vegetables are not putrescible or fermentable, as those who have had the misfortune to be in a ship supplied with unskilfully closed tins well know.  What is it, therefore, but the exclusion of germs? I think that Abiogenists are bound to answer this question before they ask us to consider new experiments of precisely the same order.

And in the next place, if the results of the experiments I refer to are really trustworthy, it by no means follows that Abiogenesis has taken place.  The resistance of living matter to heat is known to vary within considerable limits, and to depend, to some extent, upon the chemical and physical qualities of the surrounding medium.  But if, in the present state of science, the alternative is offered us, -- either germs can stand a greater heat than has been supposed, or the molecules of dead matter, for no valid or intelligible reason that is assigned, are able to re-arrange themselves into living bodies, exactly such as can be demonstrated to be frequently produced in another way, -- I cannot understand how choice can be, even for a moment, doubtful.

But though I cannot express this conviction of mine too strongly, I must carefully guard myself against the supposition that I intend to suggest that no such thing as Abiogenesis ever has taken place in the past, or ever will take place in the future.  With organic chemistry, molecular physics, and physiology yet in their infancy, and every day making prodigious strides, I think it would be the height of presumption for any man to say that the conditions under which matter assumes the properties we call "vital" may not, some day, be artificially brought together.  All I feel justified in affirming is, that I see no reason for believing that the feat has been performed yet.

And looking back through the prodigious vista of the past, I find no record of the commencement of life, and therefore I am devoid of any means of forming a definite conclusion as to the conditions of its appearance.  Belief, in the scientific sense of the word, is a serious matter, and needs strong foundations.  To say, therefore, in the admitted absence of evidence, that I have any belief as to the mode in which the existing forms of life have originated, would be using words in a wrong sense.  But expectation is permissible where belief is not; and if it were given me to look beyond the abyss of geologically recorded time to the still more remote period when the earth was passing through physical and chemical conditions, which it can no more see again than a man can recall his infancy, I should expect to be a witness of the evolution of living protoplasm from not living matter.  I should expect to see it appear under forms of great simplicity, endowed, like existing fungi, with the power of determining the formation of new protoplasm from such matters as ammonium carbonates, oxalates and tartrates, alkaline and earthy phosphates, and water, without the aid of light.  That is the expectation to which analogical reasoning leads me; but I beg you once more to recollect that I have no right to call my opinion anything but an act of philosophical faith.

So much for the history of the progress of Redi's great doctrine of Biogenesis, which appears to me, with the limitations I have expressed, to be victorious along the whole line at the present day....

It is, at present, a well-established fact that certain diseases, both of plants and of animals, which have all the characters of contagious and infectious epidemics, are caused by minute organisms ... produced from pre-existing germs, or by homogenesis; and there is no reason, that I know of, for believing that what happens in insects may not take place in the highest animals.  Indeed, there is already strong evidence that some diseases of an extremely malignant and fatal character to which man is subject, are as much the work of minute organisms....  I refer for this evidence to the very striking facts adduced by Professor [Joseph] Lister (1827-1912) in his various well-known publications on the antiseptic method of treatment.  It appears to me impossible to rise from the perusal of those publications without a strong conviction that the lamentable mortality which so frequently dogs the footsteps of the most skilful operator, and those deadly consequences of wounds and injuries which seem to haunt the very walls of great hospitals, and are, even now, destroying more men than die of bullet or bayonet, are due to the importation of minute organisms into wounds, and their increase and multiplication; and that the surgeon who saves most lives will be he who best works out the practical consequences of the hypothesis of Redi.

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