Although we think such antics have been discredited, the alchemists never really went away. Spontaneous generation is the old belief that life automatically arises from nonliving matter. It was a reasonable thing to assume in the pre-scientific era, since there were no microscopes to identify what caused the mud to come alive with every sort of critter popping up out of it. Now, in every introductory biology textbook, the disproof of spontaneous generation is featured as part of the proud history of the march of science. Experiments by Redi, Spallanzani, and Pasteur demonstrated that if the starting organic material was rendered lifeless by cooking it, no life appeared. Life arose only if there was preexisting life.
Little wonder spontaneous generation is never uttered by modern-day origin of life experimenters attempting to do in their laboratories what the old alchemists could not. They may have removed the "Alchemy" placards on the doors leading to their laboratories, and replaced them with "Abiogenesis ," and " Biopoiesis ," but the ambitious goal of proving spontaneous generation and transmutation is still alive and well.
One scientist's book detailing the prehistory of the cosmos and our planet confidently describes the saga as follows:
"In the beginning there was little besides the strong and the weak forces, gravitation, and electromagnetism... hydrogen and helium, with a little lithium here and there; but from the lights in the heavens, you might have guessed that these were enough... Life was inevitable... warm, wet zones... were trying to make life... From atoms and empty space... From the dust of stars... the phenomenon we call life is but the most likely outcome of some very common elements, if stirred together and kept warm enough and wet enough for long enough... We are the dust of the universe trying to understand itself... volcanically heated water... to act as primitive catalytic centers... nudging atoms of carbon forcefully and with statistical inevitability in the direction of biochemistry... life... would appear to have been pulled from a curiously simple bag of tricks... Life from nonlife. You could probably start the process in your own kitchen."1
Pelligrino goes on to discuss origin of life (abiogenesis/ biopoiesis) experiments by Miller, Urey, and Fox, some earning Nobel prizes for demonstrating how simple organic molecules and even little globules ( microspheres ) could be produced by recreating the presumed early Earth conditions. No life from nonlife, just organic materials from inorganic materials.
The above quote is from a book published in 2004, some 30 years after my book, The Creation-Evolution Controversy, was published. Way back then I discussed the origin of life experiments of Haldane, Oparin, and Oro, as well as the ones by Miller, Urey, and Fox mentioned above. These experiments were already many years old when I wrote my book. I showed back then how these experiments did not constitute proof of spontaneous generation. Nothing has changed. With all the intervening years, and in spite of a lot of sanguine faith, hope, and belief there has been no real advance in proving the origin of life can come from nonlife.
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1. Pellagrino, C. Ghosts of Vesuvius. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2004.
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