Spontaneous Generation

I was looking up some information on Louis Pasteur today and discovered that he helped put to rest the theory of spontaneous generation (which can be mighty convincing if you don’t have microscopes). I thought it interesting, in light of the ongoing debate between science and religion, how the article on spontaneous generation in my World Book Encyclopedia ends.

Here is the article:

Spontaneous generation refers to the theory that certain forms of life, such as flies, worms, and mice, can develop directly from nonliving things, such as mud and decaying flesh. This theory dates to prehistoric times and was widely accepted for thousands of years. It was challenged by scientific experiments, such as those performed by the Italian biologist Francesco Redi in 1668. Redi demonstrated that maggots (the young of flies) did not appear in meat from which adult flies were excluded. Previously, many people had believed that flies developed from decaying meat.

The theory of spontaneous generation was largely abandoned in the mid-1800’s. By then, improvements in microscopes and other scientific instruments had enabled scientists to see the eggs and sperm of higher animals, the ovules (eggs) and pollen of plants, and bacteria and other microorganisms. For example, in the mid-1800’s, the French scientist Louis Pasteur observed reproduction and growth in microorganisms. He demonstrated that the microorganisms would grow in sterilized broth only if the broth was first exposed to air that contained their spores (reproductive cells). Pasteur’s discoveries led to the development of the cell theory of the origin of living matter. The cell theory states that all life originates from preexisting living material.

Today, most scientists believe that spontaneous generation took place at least once—when certain chemicals came together to form the first simple living organism more than 3 billion years ago. This process is not thought to be occurring in nature today because conditions on the earth no longer favor such chemical combinations. In addition, any simple organisms that did form in this way would almost certainly fail to compete successfully against more complex existing organisms. However, laboratory experiments since the mid-1900’s have showed that many molecules found in living organisms can be synthesized (produced artificially). Most biologists believe that it will eventually be possible to produce simple forms of life in the laboratory.

Contributor: Jerry A. Coyne, Ph.D., Professor of Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago.

PatrickIdeas06/09/03 3 comments


Patrick • 06/10/03 3:42 PM:

Are you allowed to comment on your own entry? Anyway, I was just thinking that “Spontaneous Generation” would be a good name, not for a band, but for a generation of youngsters. Like the “Me Generation” or “Generation X” or the “Baby Boom Generation.” This would allude to a certain lack of sticktoitiveness, dedication, discipline, but it would also call to mind maggots and rotting meat. Thus, it would be everything an older person would need to intelligently insult those younger than himself, which seems to be the way people choose generation names nowadays anyway. So how do we get this to catch on? And which generation do we apply it to? The 2000s people? (I think the Me Generation is the 80s, and Generation X is the 90s.)

Dan • 06/10/03 4:43 PM:

you missed a generation: the pepsi people=generation NEXT.

sometimes when i think of maggots (at least twice a week), i think of the time i was on a boy scout camping trip and i ate some noodles and they were terrible and i threw them out on the dirt/leaves. when people saw it they started freaking out, thinking the noodles were maggots. they were disgusted. i didn’t tell anyone that they were my noodles. i was young and scared.

you speak of spontaneous generation, i speak of spontaneous combustion. what is up with that? tell me you guys heard stories of people spontaneously combusting while sitting in living room chairs? i heard those stories, urban legends, if you will (i will!), while waiting for the memorial busses to come and take me home. i’m sure the stories (no way! serious? is that possible?!) continued while riding the back of the bus, trying to catch some serious air when busses went over pot holes.

i want to name a generation “generation stupid.”

Dad • 06/10/03 6:20 PM:

The only generation that really counts is the baby boomers, the first generation to get a nickname of its own. All other generations are either wannabees or being made victims by another generation (frequently the baby boomers making fun of them). Even the “greatest generation” didn’t have a name of their own until a baby boomer wrote a book about them. Of course, the greatest generation didn’t need a nickname and didn’t mess with such childish things as that. They just got the job done. That said, I like the “spontaneous generation,” which I think I’ve already heard referred to as “maggots.”

By the way, the me generation was the 70’s. I don’t know what the 80’s were. Finally, and most significantly, I am not technically a baby boomer, but a “pre-boomer” born during the war. So there.

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