The hypothesis of spontaneous generation

at David P. Woetzel – 09/07/2015


While our knowledge of the microscopic secrets of life is constantly advancing, it is instructive to reflect on the history of the spontaneous generation hypothesis to verify whether scientific discoveries are in fact progressing in the way predicted by an anti-creationist about twenty years ago:

If my thesis is proved, the next time you hear the creationists talking about’ “impossibility” to build a particular protein, … You will be able to smile mockingly and recognize how far they are from reality. … Given the rapid progress in our understanding of molecular biology, I have no doubt that satisfactory explanations will soon come to this problem. (Doolittle, 1983, p. 96).

The Concepts Of Spontaneous Generation[1]Aristotle (384-322 a.C.), Greek philosopher and scientist, expressed the hypothesis that decomposing matter could transform itself, through the’ “spontaneous action of Nature”, in living animals. Classical Scientists, up to only 200 Years ago, they believed in vitalism, the idea that non-living matter such as dirt and wet hay, or rotting meat, had an innate vitality, such as to spontaneously give rise to forms of life “simple”. Francisco Redi is remembered for his experiments, in the eighteenth century, with which he demonstrated that worms did not derive from meat, but from the flies that had deposited their eggs on it. In the 60s of the nineteenth century, Louis Pasteur conducted his famous scientific refutation of spontaneous generation, in which he sterilized and sealed containers of nutrients, proving that only life generates life – the law of biogenesis. Reflecting on this, Forest (a supporter of spontaneous generation) note:

We tell this story to beginning biology students, as if it represented a triumph of reason over mysticism. In fact, it is almost the opposite. The reasonable opinion was to believe in spontaneous generation; the only alternative, believe in a single, primary act of supernatural creation. There is no third position. For this reason, many scientists a century ago chose to consider the belief in spontaneous generation as a 'philosophical necessity'. It is a symptom of the philosophical poverty of our time that this need is no longer appreciated. Most modern biologists, having witnessed with satisfaction the collapse of the hypothesis of spontaneous generation, not wanting, however, to accept the alternative of special creation, they are left with nothing. (Forest, 1954, p. 46).

I darwinisti, looking for this “philosophical necessity”, naturalism, they have invested great efforts in trying to bridge the gap between what has no life and life itself, both in the field and in the laboratory. Between the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, the hope was to find those “intermediate” between crude chemistry and the cell. Luminaries of evolution such as Haeckel and Huxley offered unconditional support to the Bathybius, the muddy layer of the ocean floor that was once thought to be living. Me too’ Eozoon, a product of a metamorphic rock, it was once supposed to be organic. “Eozoon entered the fourth edition of the’ Origin of species with the blessing of Darwin's signature: 'It is impossible to have doubts about its organic nature’ (Gould, 1980, p. 239).

Evolutionists later shifted their effort to synthesizing life in the laboratory. The idea of ​​J. B. S. Haldane in the 1920s, inspired the expression “primordial soup” and the origins of life experiments were designed to recreate the primitive conditions of the earth. Even if the scientists were successful in this attempt, this would not have proved with certainty that life could have arisen without intelligent intervention in a hostile natural environment. To date, they have failed completely. “Furthermore, no geological evidence indicates that an organic broth, not even a tiny organic pond, ever existed on this planet.” (Thaxton, et al., 1992, p. 66). There was a short-lived euphoria thanks to Miller's prebiotic broth experiments in the 1950s. By boiling and electrically charging a methane mixture, ammonia, hydrogen and water, some amino acids were produced. But subsequent work only exposed new barriers between complex chemistry and the simplest possible life. Finding the building bricks does not solve the problem, how to find the stones cannot explain the naturalistic production of an ancient cathedral.

In the autumn of 1976, in spite of the grandiose predictions of astronomers such as Carl Sagan, the Viking mission to Mars failed to detect the slightest trace of life. Statistical difficulties finally began to be recognized. Wilson illustrates a small part of the probabilistic problem, focusing attention on 10 enzymes involved in glycolysis:
It is estimated that the random and non-direct polymerization of these enzymes from a mixture of the twenty amino acids, occurs with a probability of around 10-1000. Even with relatively fast cure rates and a billion-year time scale, it has been established that the probability that even a single copy of each of these enzymes occurs spontaneously, is infinitesimal. The total probability does not improve much even if only one of the ten enzymes is considered e, naturally, it becomes ridiculously negligible for the thousands of different enzymes in a typical bacterium. (Wilson, 1983, pp. 95-96).

The theory of intelligent design

As a result of such calculations, some scientists embraced the theory of Intelligent Design, asserting that complex biological systems would never arise naturally. Even very authoritative evolutionists, come Hoyle, determined that the probabilities of abiogenesis (the first life deriving from non-living matter) on this earth they are so phenomenologically low that they postulated life from outer space (panspermia):

I don't know how long it will be before astronomers generally recognize that from a combinatorial point of view not even one of the many thousands of biopolymers on which life depends., it could be achieved through a natural process here on earth. Astronomers will have some difficulty understanding this because they will have the assurance of biologists that things are not this way. The others’ they are a group of people who believe, quite openly, in mathematical miracles. They support the belief that, hidden in nature, outside the physics we know, there is a law that works miracles (as long as miracles are helpful to biology). This curious situation curiously resides on a profession that
it has long been devoted to finding logical explanations for biblical miracles. ... This is enough, however, for the performers of modern mathematical miracles, who always find themselves living at the extreme limits of thermodynamics. … The notion that it could come not only to biopolymers, but to the operational program of a living cell, by chance, in a primordial organic soup here on Earth it obviously makes no sense at all. Life must clearly be a cosmic phenomenon (Hoyle, 1981, pp. 526-527)

Yockey shows that Hoyle isn't alone:

Faith in the infallible and comprehensive doctrines of dialectical materialism, plays a crucial role in the scenarios of the origin of life, and especially in exobiology and its definitive consequence: the doctrine of advanced extraterrestrial civilization. That life must exist somewhere in the solar system on planets elsewhere suitable’ it is widely and tenaciously believed in spite of the lack of evidence or even abundant evidence to the contrary. (Yockey, 1981, pp. 27-28).

The most recent chemistry of the origin of life, dai “proteinoidi” which were thought to have formed on the edge of a volcano, to the world of RNA that precedes DNA, to new ideas about inorganic mineral clays, has been studied with great attention. The total failure of these theories is evidenced by the evolutionists followers of Gould, who believe in a kind of biochemical predestination, a vague reminiscence of vitalism. After noting the evidence that life on earth began much earlier than previously thought, Gould stated: “… I don't know what message to read in this time scale, if not the proposition that life, arose as soon as possible, it was chemically destined to be realized, and not the random result of accumulated improbabilities.” (Gould, 1990, pp. 16-17).

Given that known processes failed to rationalize a naturalistic origin of life, the proponents of naturalism were forced (through data and their philosophical predispositions) to retract unverifiable assertions, that unknown deterministic processes were sufficient. Nobel laureate DeDuve competes with Gould:

Another lesson from the Age of Chemistry is that life is the product of deterministic forces. Life was forced to arise rapidly under the pressure of the prevailing conditions, and will similarly arise wherever and whenever the same conditions are achieved ... Life and mind do not emerge as a result of bizarre randomness, but as a natural manifestation of matter, written in the factory of the universe. (DeDuve, 1996, pp. xv-xviii).

More recently Paul Davies imagined that:

A certain sort of autonomously organized physical processes could give rise to a physical system above a certain threshold of complexity, at which point this new edition of the “laws of complexity” would begin to manifest, giving the system an unexpected effect of self-organization and self-complexization… Under such laws, the system could quickly head towards life. (Davies, 1999, p. 259).

ReMine indicates that “This simply replaces the old ones, unknown physical forces with new, unknown 'naturalistic' forces. (ReMine, p. 95).

Hoyle's quote above refers to the laws of thermodynamics. These have been applied to biological complexity in the nascent field of computer theory. Much like complex instruction systems command computers, living systems are built using vast libraries of information stored in the genetic code. Computer theory predicts that just like computer-useful routines will not arise randomly, thus the increases in the information that DNA must encode for biological functions will not occur without intelligent intervention. Even evolutionists like Davies recognize the problem:

The theory of communication – or computer theory, as it is known today – claims that noise destroys information, and that the reverse process, the creation of information through noise, it would be a miracle. A message that spontaneously emerges from the airwaves would be as surprising as the tide making footprints on the beach. Let's go back to the same old problem: the second law of thermodynamics insists that information cannot flow more spontaneously than heat can flow from the coldest to the hottest body. (Davies, pp. 56-57).

Behe notes that intelligent design theory does not need to invoke the supernatural to present an argument explaining the creation of these biological systems.. After discussing the interview with 1992 of Sir Francis H. C. Crick in Scientific American, in which his beliefs set out in “Directed Panspermia”, Behe explains:

The primary reason why Crick accepts this orthodox point of view is that he considers the non-direct origin of life a virtually insurmountable obstacle, if you want a naturalistic explanation. For our present purposes, the interesting part of Crick's idea is the role of aliens, which he hypothesizes sent bacteria to earth. But he could just as clearly say that the aliens actually engineered those irreducibly complex biochemical systems of life that they sent here, and they also designed the irreducibly complex systems that later developed. The only difference is the shift to the postulate that aliens built life, while Crick originally speculated that they sent her here. It is not a very risky leap, however, to say that a civilization capable of sending spaceships to other planets is also capable of planning life – especially if such a civilization has never been observed. Draw life, one might observe, it does not necessarily require supernatural abilities; rather it requires a lot of intelligence. If a graduate student in a modern terrestrial laboratory can plan and create an artificial protein that fixes oxygen, then there is no logical barrier to thinking that an advanced civilization on another world can design artificial cells out of thin air. (Behe, 1998, pp. 248-249).


It now becomes clear that even for the busy naturalist, there are many more rational alternatives to spontaneous generation scenarios. But some might argue that this solution involving the intelligent design of life on earth still leaves the problem of early life unresolved.. Behe replies that time travel (which allows the engineers of the future to sow life) has been seriously proposed by some physicists; or that naturalists may postulate that alien life is so radically different from anything we have known that it would not exhibit the design features of empirical biology. For those whose philosophical predisposition does not preclude the consideration of supernatural intervention, the most reasonable conclusion to be drawn from the long-standing research on the hypothesis of spontaneous generation is that the phenomenon of life implies a Creator. Dembski notes that they are alone “two opinions: or the world derives its order from a source external to it (a 1st creation) or it has its own intrinsic order, that is, without imparting from the outside.” In presenting his “Information Conservation Law” conclude: “the only consistent information consideration is the project”. (Dembski, 1999, pp. 15, 99). After narrating the action
creative of God, the scriptures make it clear that “In him was life; and life was the light of men.” (Giovanni 1:4). Independently then from a person's metaphysical point of view, the time has come when the hypotheses involving the spontaneous generation of life as we know it die a natural death.


Thanks in particular to Walter ReMine for the illuminating comments on the drafts of this article. I am also indebted to the reviewers for their valuable suggestions
Behe, Michael J. 1998. Darwin’s black box. The Free Press, New York.
Davies, Paul. 1999. The fifth miracle: the search for the origins of life. The Penguin Group, New York.
DeDuve, Christian. 1996. Vital Dust. Basic Books, New York.
Dembski, William A. 1999. Intelligent design: the bridge between science and theology. InterVarsity Press, Downer’s Grove, THE.
Doolittle, Russel F. 1983. Probability and the origin of life. Scientists Confront Creationism, Laurie R. Godfrey (publisher). W. W. Norton, New York.
Gould, Stephen J. 1980. The panda’s thumb. W. W. Norton, New York.
Gould, Stephen J. 1990. Enigmas of the small shellies. Natural History. October: 16-17.
Hoyle, Sir Fred. 1981. The big bang in astronomy. New Scientist 92: 526-527.
ReMine, Walter. 1993. The biotic message. Saint Paul Science, St.Paul, MN.
Thaxton, Charles, Bradley, Walter; and Olsen, Roger. 1992. The mystery of life’s origin: reassessing current theories. Lewis and stanley, Dallas, TX.
Forest, George. 1954. The origin of life. Scientific American 191:46.
Wilson, John H. 1983. The origin of life. In Wilson, D. B., Did the devil make Darwin do it? Iowa State University Press, Ames, HE.
Yockey, Hubert P. 1981. Self-organization origin of life scenarios and information theory. Journal of Theoretical Biology 91:13-31.

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