Life Enters Stage Left
By Peter G.
• Ancient Greek mythology readily accepted
• “Spartan” means “sprouted men” and they
were originally generated by the planting of a
dragon’s teeth in the earth.
• Greek myth saw less distinction between
current concepts of animate and inanimate.
• Like so much of intellectual thought, Aristotle
dominated the concept of spontaneous
generation until the Enlightenment.
• His endorsement of spontaneous generation
lent much credit to the theory.
Follow the Leader
• Saints Aquinas and Augustine incorporated
Aristotle’s concept of “spirit” imprinting a
form and soul onto the subject-matter.
• Spontaneous Generation was Christianized, as
God was responsible for arranging all of the
necessary conditions and materials
Let’s Eat Before the Pope finds out!
• Clergymen in England, Ireland, and Scotland
argued that the “barnacle goose”
• As a result, they could eat the bird even
during Lent, as it did not come from the flesh
• Pope Innocent III issued a papal bull in 1215
prohibiting such a practice, arguing that the
geese functioned just like any other bird.
• Spontaneous generation was still accepted by
some prominent people as late as the
• The physician J.B. van Helmont claimed he had
spontaneously generated mice by leaving
sweaty underwear and some wheat in a
container for twenty-one days
• The days of an unchallenged theory of
spontaneous generation came to an end with the
• Francesco Redi, 17th century – meat will not
• Lazzaro Spallanzani – 18th century – broth will not
generate life – Not believed because others
repeated the experiment with opposite results –
problem of standardizing experiments.
Enter Pasteur, Exit SG
• Pasteur, in 1859 conducted similar
experiments to those of Spallanzani, however
under a different context: a competition.
• The French Académie des Sciences held a
contest, as such, Pasteur’s results were
verified by the Académie and this is widely
regarded as the death of spontaneous
Life Only From Life
• The very same year Pasteur attacked
spontaneous generation, Darwin published On
the Origin of Species.
• Evolution seemingly entails that spontaneous
generation had to have occurred at some
point in history, however Pasteur’s
experiments were accepted more immediately
than Darwin’s theory.
Life from...half life?
• The Russian scientist Aleksandr Oparin
suggested a gradual emergence of life from
simpler organic compounds.
• He theorized that these compounds could
much more easily have formed in an early-
• For Oparin, natural selection began with these
Honey, I Shrunk the Evidence
• A progression can be seen, from larger to
smaller, of the subjects of spontaneous
• Spartans (Greeks), Geese (clergymen),
maggots (Spallanzani), bacteria (Pasteur),
organic compounds (Oparin’s primordial soup)
• This requires the use of ever more
sophisticated technology (technoscience).
Spectre of SG
• Stanley Miller, in 1953, synthesize amino acids
in an artificially constructed old-Earth
atmosphere. Lends support to Oparin.
• Spontaneous generation revived, less than
one hundred years after Pasteur’s refutation.
• However, the question has changed...
Redefining the Problem
• Original question: How do living things
• Next step: What living things spontaneously
• New enquiry: What is Life? Oparin suggests SG
of organic compounds (eg. Watson and Crick’s
DNA molecule). Is DNA alive? The question
• Who decides “what is life?”
• The scientists are working on this problem
currently, is anyone else?
• Should the scientists be the only ones allowed
to input on this discussion, can they be
trusted (them with their numbers and
Enter Latour (Exit Simplicity and the Audience)
• This is precisely the question Latour is asking,
“Who will input to the discussion? Who
• Answer 1) the Scientists
• Answer 2) Everyone
• Science, which speaks for Nature, tends to
silence discussion, not permitting other
interested parties from speaking, like the
parties that have Society as their subject
matter, instead of Nature.
• Latour believes Nature and Society have
separated too extremely to deal with certain
(complex) issues: these are called ‘hybrids.’
Is SG a Hybrid?
• The spontaneous generation debate has
evolved to the larger question of the
definition of life – this seems to be a prime
candidate for a hybrid.
• If any question deserves democratic input
from all interested parties (i.e. all parties who
have a stake in the definition of life) it is this
one, “What is life?”