Thursday, July 24, 2008

Spontaneous Generation

Looking for something to do to prepare yourself for celebrating next year's 150th anniversary of Darwin's Origin of Species? I suggest sitting down with a copy of Giuseppe Sermonti's Why is a Fly Not a Horse? It was originally written in Italian, and its title, Dimenticare Darwin, means "Forget Darwin." A geneticist, Sermonti writes interestingly and persuasively about the need to dump Darwinism as completely out of touch with reality and with the latest findings of science. The rest of my post today comes from reading Chapter 1, "Achilles Inspires Redi."*

For many, modern biology had its start when Francesco Redi--in 1688--disproved the notion that the origin of maggots in meat was due to spontaneous generation. He showed experimentally that maggots came to be in meat only when flies were allowed to lay their eggs in it, and generalized his conclusions to all living things--"all life comes from the egg."

But the idea of spontaneous generation did not go away, and has had to be refuted over and over again. Louis Pasteur extended Redi's principle to include the very smallest microbes (which others of his day excluded from Redi's principle), demonstrating that adequate sterilization could prevent the origin of any life. According to Sermonti,
Biology has advanced in status with every new confutation of the spontaneous generation thesis.
Despite, however, the conclusive experimental evidence (of Redi with worms, of Lazzaro Spallanzani with protozoans, of Pasteur with bacteria), belief in spontaneous generation remains a necessary part of Darwinian (and neo-Darwinian) evolutionary theory. Sermonti again...
Darwin, though a great admirer of Pasteur, regretted that the Frenchman had denied spontaneous generation. "If it could be demonstrated," he was to write to Haeckel in 1873, "this would be very important to us."
This led, of course, to the field of origin-of-life studies, of efforts to produce living things in laboratory test tubes, of the zealous teaching of perceived successes (the Miller-Urey experiments) and relative silence about the overarching failures. To this day, however, the spontaneous generation of living things from non-living chemicals remains a necessary corollary of neo-Darwinian evolution, though all of the evidene would lead to an opposite conclusion. Sermonti:
There will be only one way to refute spontaneous generation. That is to take note of the astronomic complexity of the simplest organisms, and to show that the minimum conceivable life form calls for structures so elaborate that no fortuitous accident can bring them all together. But we had to wait until the second half of the twentieth century for the proof.

* The title of this chapter of Sermonti is interesting. What apparently inspired Redi to conduct his experiments was a passage from Homer's Iliad in which Achilles recognizes that maggots arise in a corpse only if flies are allowed access to that corpse. In other words, Homer understood what Greek philosophy, medieval science, and neo-Darwinism did not, that spontaneous generation is not an accurate understanding of the origin of living things.

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