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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 53

Spontaneous Generation

Spontaneous Generation.

It is scarcely worth while to pursue further the claims advanced on behalf of Spontaneous Generation, Professor Tyndall's crushing reply to Dr. Bastian ends emphatically the contention that there is, up to this moment, one tittle of reliable evidence in favour of inert matter evolving organic life. The fact that Professor Hæckel—so prolific in theories—has fallen back mainly upon an ingenious invention of his own, known as "carbon generation," shows how frail is the straw to which the believers in Spontaneous Generation frantically cling. Of course, if any man chooses to say with Hæckel, "Though you prove to demonstration that under no conceivable conditions can life be generated spontaneously now, yet I shall still maintain that fifty million years ago, before the loose carbon was deposited in the coal measures, spontaneous page 32 generation might have been possible," all argument must end, for science departs into a thing of wild beliefs, and it is idle to follow it. Up to the 17th century Spontaneous Generation was universally accepted. Men saw life springing up wherever conditions were favourable, and they never doubted that heat and moisture gave vitality to the dissolving atoms, But closer observation placed it beyond doubt that the life was the product of eggs or seeds, either deposited by insects or collected from myriads of germs floating in the air. Since then, it has been well said, Spontaneous Generation has retreated further and further with every enlargement of the power of the microscope. The smallest animalcule, it has been found, is possessed of a well-defined organism, and reproduces creatures after its kind by a simple form of self-propagation, Professor Hæckel, emboldened to move out of his safe retreat in the "carbon theory," has advanced a minute marine animalcule, the moneron, which he says possesses only one cell, and might, therefore, possibly exhibit an organism springing direct from matter. But he is obliged to admit that even this humble creature propagates by self-division, and he does not pretend to say that he ever saw any speck of matter transmute itself into one of those simple forms of life. The theory of Spontaneous Generation is one that may perhaps serve its turn in the speculative lecture-room for want of a better, but we should like to see the face of the lecturer if his gardener were to excuse himself for a slovenly seed-bed on the dogma of "spontaneity," and hear the retort upon any seeds man who should venture to try the lecturer's theory as an excuse for the mysterious choking of good turnip seed by a spontaneous evolution of noxious weeds. The scientific tests applied to Spontaneous Generation have been of the most extended and careful character. Professor Schulze (Berlin) records an experiment in which a vessel, prepared under conditions favourable for the production of life, was kept closed from the 28th of May till the beginning of August, and no animal or vegetable organism was produced, but within two days after the flask was opened, animalculæ appeared in abundance. Many experiments of the same character were made by Professor Tyndall, tending to prove that the very lowliest forms of life cannot be produced without the introduction of germs in air or water. The results of the latest of these of experiments were laid before the Royal Institution at this year's series of "before Easter" lectures. Within the last three months we have received from Professor Lionel Beale, F.R.S., President of the Microscopical Society (1881), the most emphatic testimony upon this subject, and there we may' safely leave's it. In an address delivered before the Victoria (Philosophical) Institute, London, on the 15th of May last, he said:—"I would draw attention to the declaration again and again repeated, and now taught even to children, that the living and the non-living differ only in degree, that the living has been evolved page 33 by degrees from the non-living, and that the latter passes by gradations towards the former state. No one has adduced any evidence in proof of these conclusions, which are, in fact, dictatorial assertions only, and no specimen, of any kind of matter which is actually passing from the non-living to the living state, or which can be shown to establish any connection between these absolutely different conditions of matter, has been, or can be at this time, brought forward. Between purely vital and purely physical actions not the faintest analogy has been shown to exist. The living world is absolutely distinct from the non-living world, and, instead of being a necessary outcome of it, is, compared with the antiquity of matter, probably a very recent addition to it,—not, of course, an addition of mere transformed or modified matter and energy, but of transcendent power conferred on matter, which controls, regulates, and manages both matter and its forces according, it may be, to laws, but not the law of inert matter."