If we do not accept the hypothesis of spontaneous
generation [of life from non-living matter], then
at this one point of the history of development
[evolution] we must have recourse to the miracle
of a supernatural creation.
The idea that life on earth originated from a single-celled organism and then progressed onwards and upwards in ever-increasing complexity to culminate in man himself is what the theory of evolution is all about. The stages in progression from one life form to another are today depicted in what are known as phylogenetic diagrams, which tend to become minor works of art as they grow in detail and, necessarily, in physical size. They often finish as rather impressive additions to the wall of the biology classroom. Although these diagrams tend to differ in detail, they presuppose that all living things are related and represent the "family tree" of life; in fact, the first diagram of this sort published by Haeckel, in 1874, was drawn as an actual tree (Haeckel 1879, 2:189). Ernst Haeckel was Germany's imaginative popularizer of Darwin's theory in the nineteenth century, and by use of the family-tree analogy, he effectively riveted the idea of the relationship of all living things into the common mind.
The previous chapter mentioned Darwin's problem of the apparent absence
of creatures in the fossil record that were transitions between the major
groups of animals. The absence of creatures showing the evolution of the
backbone has been mentioned, but there are other major gaps within the
family tree, such as that between the fish and the amphibian or between
the amphibian and the reptiles. It would be expected that over the several
million years required by the theory of evolution for the transition from,
for example, the fish to the first amphibian, literally thousands of fossil
creatures at every stage showing the gradual progression from fin to leg
would be found. So far, not one has shown up.
Man's family tree according to Ernst Haeckel (1874).
A century later, Gould (1977b) and others are finally
beginning to admit there is not a shred of evidence
for the trunk or main branches. (Thomas Fisher
Rare Book Library, University of Toronto)
|According to the theory, flight evolved as four separate events: the winged reptiles such as the Pterosaur, all of which are now extinct; the winged mammals, such as the bat, the winged insects, and, of course, the birds. With the exception of the birds, not a single transition type of any of the other winged creatures has been found to prove that they evolved. The Archaeopteryx has for years held pride of place as the proof of transition from reptile to bird, but since Jensen's discovery in 1977 of a fossil of a true bird in the same geological stratum and, therefore, of the same age as the Archaeopteryx, its claim to be a transition is now in doubt (Jensen 1977). Interestingly, it has been entirely rejected as a transition by respected paleontologists Gould and Eldredge (1977, 3:147) of Harvard University. Eldredge also questions the familiar horse series and points out that there are no fossil forms between the different types of fossil horse. After more than a century of searching the fossil record, the actual evidence now in hand is seen to be discouragingly small and inconclusive, while there are a great many gaps for which not a single fossil has been found. In short, most of the "branches" and "twigs" of the family tree are missing. It begins to look as if the facts can be better explained by the idea of Special Creation. Perhaps of even greater importance are the two major gaps that have occupied the minds of scientists since Darwin's day. The first is at the root of the tree and concerns the transition from non-life to life in its first stages, and the second is at the top of the tree and of more popular interest, concerned as it is with the transitions between apes and man. This chapter is about the first transition -- the origin of life.|
Did Life Begin Spontaneously?
The French wines produced in the year 1864 have never been surpassed,
or so the connoisseurs claim, yet ironically the wine industry had been
plagued for several years prior to this with a mysterious "wine disease".
Wine production was and still is one of France's major industries, sanctioned
and protected by government, and the slightest threat to production quickly
reaches the attention of those in authority. In the 1860s the problem was
related to the fermentation process and came to the attention of the Emperor
Louis Napoleon III, grand-nephew to the first Napoleon, who immediately
ordered one of the most competent scientists of the day to find a solution;
the scientist's name was Louis Pasteur (Dubos 1976).
|In those days, just three or four generations ago, there was a running argument between men of science concerning the origin of life. Earlier chapters have shown that throughout history men have been divided in their views: some can accept the idea of supernatural creation whereas others prefer to stay with a naturalistic explanation. Creation of the stars and planets never seem to have been a great issue, but the creation of life and, ultimately our own origins, have always been a source of contention. Until comparatively recently in history, most people believed that life had begun by divine creation, and that since then every living thing had derived from a similar living thing before it. It was said that life begets life, and today we have a term for this, "biogenesis". In the other camp of belief, there were those who subscribed to the Aristotelian view, only half believing in a Creator but fully committed to the belief that life could be spontaneously generated from nonliving things without the necessity for divine intervention. This view is called "abiogenesis". The contention between the two views has blown hot then cold throughout the centuries and today appears to be growing once more into a hot issue.||
Louis Pasteur, 1822-95. Showed that life could only
arise from existing life and set a major hurdle for
Darwinian faith, which requires that life began
spontaneously. (Lithograph by Albert Rosenthal,
Academy of Medicine, Toronto)
There was rather an odd situation towards the end of the eighteenth century in which each side of the argument was represented by a Roman Catholic priest. Abbé Lazzaro Spallanzani, an Italian priest, was the champion of the Special Creation viewpoint (biogenesis) and the English Jesuit John Needham argued for spontaneous generation (abiogenesis). Needham's view rested on a severely strained interpretation of the biblical account and undoubtedly derived from his friend the Compte de Buffon. According to Needham there were two accounts of Creation in Genesis. In the first, God commanded the waters to produce the living things (Genesis 1:20-21), and in the second, God formed every beast out of the ground (Genesis 2:19). Needham and his followers took the position that having been ordered to bring forth life, the ground and the waters were forever after free to continue doing so. Spallanzi claimed that creation of life from non-life had occurred only once and that all life had since derived from it.
For those who wished to believe it, there seemed to be plenty of examples of abiogenesis; it was thought by a die-hard minority until just over a century ago that maggots were spontaneously created in rotting meat. However, the Italian physician, Francesco Redi (1626-79), had shown by some very simple experiments as early as 1668 that the maggots were the result of eggs laid by flies (Redi 1668). When the flies were kept away, there was no sign of the maggots. Nevertheless, Redi's observations were opposed by those who preferred to believe their own preconceptions. It was, after all, easier to believe what was really a poor observation than it was to believe in divine creation, which could not be observed at all.
Today, we never find a maggot in an apple, but before the days of chemical spraying, it was normal to find one in practically every apple - or worse, to find half of one! So it was perfectly natural to assume that the maggot had been spontaneously generated within the sealed fruit, and the apple with its maggot then became the armchair naturalist's example of spontaneous generation.
In addition to this conflict of ideas, in Pasteur's day there had sprung up the "germ theory", which maintained that the air we breathe contained small germs of life that could multiply and grow under favorable conditions. There was much opposition to this theory also, especially as it was not possible to see these "germs" even with the most powerful microscopes of the day; eventually when more powerful microscopes became available, the theory was confirmed, and the germs were called bacteria.
It took Pasteur about two years, in which he employed a series of elegantly
simple experiments, to solve the wine problem. Until this time it had generally
been thought that wine fermentation was simply a matter of the grape sugar
turning to alcohol and carbonic acid gas, and that these chemicals in turn
produced the microbes that were seen in the fermentation vessels; this
example implied abiogenesis. Pasteur showed that it was yeast, which is
a microbe and type of fungus; that caused the fermentation to take place
and was introduced to the fermentation vessels in an incidental manner
as a living organism on the skin of the grape (it is seen as the white
bloom on the skin). The microbes seen, therefore, originated from preexisting
microbes and not by abiogenesis or spontaneous generation. By the use of
glass flasks in which there was a sterile nutrient -- it had been thoroughly
boiled -- Pasteur showed that, in the presence of air from which airborne
bacteria had been excluded by filtration, no organic growth occurred in
the vessels, and the solutions remained sterile. In the presence of normal
unfiltered air, however, growth did take place as seen by a darkening of
the nutrient solution, indicating that air normally contains minute living
organisms. Pasteur examined the air filters microscopically and found the
bacteria as conclusive evidence of the "germ theory". It was almost incidental
to his main purpose, but Pasteur had dealt a severe blow to the idea of
spontaneous generation. The fact that this long-held notion was so effectively
shaken by Pasteur in 1861 (Pasteur 1861) and not by Redi a century earlier
was due to a number of factors, not the least of which was that the French
wine makers evidently enjoyed greater public esteem than the Italian butchers.
Pasteur, acknowledged as a truly great scientist,
gives away the fact that he was a devoted family man
in this formal Victorian pose with his granddaughter.
(Engraving by Johnson from the painting by Bonnat;
Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library Board)
| Pasteur was a devout Roman Catholic and had been opposed to the
idea of spontaneous generation ever since he had first learned of it. It
seemed to him that it was going beyond the biblical dictum that creation
of life was a divine operation that had been confined to and completed
in the first week of Creation. Then again, Pasteur lost no time in making
this clear in writing and in speeches. For example, he wrote in 1864:
To bring about spontaneous generation would be to create a germ. It would be creating life; it would be to solve the problem of its origin. It would mean to go from matter to life through conditions of environment and of matter [non-life]. God as author of life would then no longer be needed. Matter would replace Him. God would need to be invoked only as author of the motions of the universe (Dubos 1976, 395).Elegantly simple, Pasteur's work won him the coveted French Academy of Science's prize. He well recognized, however, that he had not proven that spontaneous generation did not occur by every imagined means, but he had grandly exposed the fallacy of all previous claims. Nevertheless, the fact that this work was published just two years after Darwin's Origin was particularly damaging to the fledgling theory of evolution for which the spontaneous generation of life from nonlife was crucial. Old diehards committed to spontaneous generation and new converts to Darwin did not appreciate Pasteur's remarks, and there is some evidence that someone tried to discredit his work with a deliberate hoax. The story is worth repeating because the basic idea behind it is still very current.
In 1864, only five weeks after Pasteur had delivered a particularly
spirited and widely reported defense of divine creation as the only possible
initiator of life, a meteorite fragment purportedly containing evidence
of life from outer space was reported to have fallen at Orgueil in southwestern
France. A French chemist analyzed the fragment within days of its having
fallen and showed that it contained "a complex mixture of high molecular
weight" (Mason 1963, 45), which suggested that it had derived from once-living
organisms. The story was given currency by the highest authorities. In
1871 Sir William Thomson, president of the British Association, told the
assembly that life had come to this planet from outer space, carried on
"countless seed-bearing meteoritic stones" (Ellegard 1958, 88). As recently
as 1964, the popular Life Science Library series in its book The Cell
that "cell-like fossils have been found in meteorites" and concluded that
this was a "startling indication that life might have been much more prolific
other worlds" (Pfeiffer 1964, 88).
| The Orgueil meteorite is technically referred to as a carbonaceous
chondrite and is kept at the American Museum of Natural History. In 1961
it was subjected to mass spectroscopy. The spectral characteristics of
the hydrocarbons detected very closely matched those of butter![5
Incredibly, however, the investigators then soberly concluded that because
of the quantity of hydrocarbons present, there could be no doubt that the
meteorite and its compounds were of extraterrestrial origin! (Mason 1963,
45). A more rational conclusion would surely have been to say that it was
a hoax, and there was much controversy in the scientific press; some believed
it to be genuine and others didn't.[6
The symptoms of commitment to an idea no matter what the facts seemed to
be manifesting themselves again.
Another chondrite fell in Australia in 1969, and this time the investigators were more cautious, reporting twenty-three aromatic hydrocarbons but concluding that they were of abiotic origin -- in other words, that they did not originate from anything living (Lawless et al. 1972). There the matter has rested. Yet, the life-on-other-worlds scenario is actually a vital part of evolution, cannot be abandoned and, as we shall see, is still very much with us.
A drawing similar to this and prepared from a
photomicrograph at x 3000 during the 1961
examination of the Orgeuil meteorite, was used
in the popular Life Science Library series to
illustrate the claim that "cell-like fossils ... 40
million to the cubic inch have been found in
meteorites." Unknown to the public was the
controversy among scientists; some said the
particles were merely hexagonal crystals of
troilite or ferrous sulphide.
Did Life Originate at the Bottom of the Sea?
Following our little inquiry into history, we find that notwithstanding Pasteur's blow to the followers of Darwin in the early 1860s, the idea of spontaneous generation again raised its head even before the closing of that decade, this time in Germany.
Professor Ernst Haeckel is largely unknown outside his own country, but in Germany he is a sort of national hero and regarded by many as one of the greatest scientists of the nineteenth century. That was not a universal opinion, however, and Rudolph Virchow, the father of pathology, was at least one who knew Haeckel from his graduate days and later branded him a fool (Ottaway 1973, 106). The least that can be said is that he was controversial -- he was known as "Der Ketzer von Jena" (the gadfly of Jena) -- and naturally he acquired enemies as well as admirers (Bölsche 1906; Klemm 1968).
Ernst Heinrich Philipp August Haeckel was born in 1834, in Potsdam,
into a Christian family whose head was a moderately successful lawyer.
He was interested in natural science, but medicine was about the closest
thing to natural science offered in the German universities of his day,
and after studying at Wurzburg and Berlin he graduated as a physician in
1857 at the age of twenty-three. With a passion for the poet Goethe and
a reasonable talent at painting, he spent the next few years traveling,
painting, and studying "all the grandeur of godless nature" (Werner 1930,
As he explained in a letter to his mistress, written in his waning years,
he began as a Christian but when he started to practice medicine and penetrate
the mysteries of life and its evolution, he became, after the most desperate
spiritual conflict, a free-thinker and pantheist (Haeckel 1911; Werner
1930, 28). It was
during this somewhat restless postgraduate period that he read Darwin's
of Species, which had been translated into the German language in 1860.
Impressed by Darwin, he began to study zoology and completed a dissertation
in 1861. An academic by inclination, he took a teaching position at Jena
University where the intellectual atmosphere was more receptive to Darwin
and remained there as professor of zoology for forty-four years, retiring
at seventy-five years of age in 1909. He died in 1919, having received
many international honors in an extremely active life.
Ernst Haeckel, 1834-1919. Photograph taken in
1880. His student days long behind him, his
reputation established, he had become
internationally known as the "gad-fly of Jena".
(Science and Medicine Library, University of Toronto)
|Haeckel was a man of boundless energy, talent, and imagination, hailed (by some) as reformer of zoology, master of biology, and evolutionary prophet. He became Darwin's chief European apostle proclaiming the gospel of evolution with evangelistic fervor, not only to the university intelligentsia but to the common man by popular books and to the working classes by lectures in rented halls. A photograph has survived showing the properties used for one of his popular lectures on the evolution of man, and one cannot but be impressed by the sheer magnitude of effort in producing what has been described as a sort of Darwinian passion play (Gasman 1971, 8). Thomas Huxley's similar efforts in England were gallant but never on this grand a scale, while the efforts by Dana and others in the United States by comparison pale into insignificance. In many ways Haeckel's personal life has more elements of human interest than other scientists, such as Darwin.|
|For example, beginning in his sixty-fourth year, when his wife, though younger than he, was an aging invalid and many of his friends had passed away (Thomas Huxley died three years previously), he had an ardent love affair, lasting five years with a woman thirty-four years his junior, while at the same time he was still teaching, writing, and giving public lectures. The intimate correspondence between himself and Frida von Uslar-Gleichen during this period has been published by Werner (1930), though regrettably in an expurgated edition. Two things come to mind when one reads these quite literary works. First, notable from the dates on the letters is the promptness with which the postal service of a century ago made delivery! Second, one wonders how the man, with all his other activities, possibly found time for almost daily liaison? However, lest this digression begin to appeal to the reader's more prurient interests, we must return to pursue the origin of life at the bottom of the sea.||
Photograph of a Berlin theater rented by Haeckel for a public
lecture on evolution about 1905. The enormous backdrop shows
embryos, skeletons, etc., relating man with the ape. (Reproduced
from Peter Klemm, Der Ketzer von Jena, Leipzig: Urania, 1968)
Haeckel was extremely systematic in his work. As has been mentioned,
he devised the concept of the family tree, or phylogenetic relationship,
between all living things. Having an orderly mind is usually an asset,
but in Haeckel's case his orderly system became an end in itself rather
than simply a means of explaining a supposed set of relationships. He imaginatively
made up the names of organisms that he thought should exist and was not
beyond cheating just a little if the facts of nature did not fit his theories.
Recognizing that there was a gap at the base of the family tree, a vital
transition missing between the inorganic non-living matter and the first
sign of organic life, Haeckel invented a series of minute organisms he
called the Monera to fill it (Haeckel 1866, 1:135). He published
details of the various kinds of Monera, with drawings of these shapeless
blobs of protoplasm without nuclei that he said reproduced by a process
of fission (Haeckel 1868).[11
At the time he was writing, in 1868, not even a hint of the Monera
been found, but, coincidentally, later that same year Thomas Huxley, working
in England, reported finding some microscopic organisms in mud samples
dredged up from the depths of the North Atlantic. These small organisms
appeared to be a very primitive form of organized life, although the samples
had been preserved in strong alcohol so that they were not alive. Huxley
recognized these organisms as Haeckel's Monera and proposed to call
the particular species he had discovered Bathybius haeckelii in
honour of the professor at the University of Jena (Huxley 1868, 210).
Bathybius haeckelii, 1868-76. Viewed under the
microscope the small discoids are the exoskeletons
of tiny sea creatures, while the jelly within which these
are suspended is the gelatinous gypsum precipitate.
|Nothing better could happen to a natural scientist than to have his name latinized and appended to some creature, no matter how lowly. His fame spread, aided perhaps by the prophetic qualities that were flatteringly ascribed to his many other talents. Throughout the 1870s HMS Challenger continued to dredge up samples of mud containing B. haeckelii, thus confirming Haeckel's prediction and Huxley's observation. Meanwhile, great publicity was made of this since it implied abiogenesis and was urgently needed to prop up Darwin's theory. Many, perhaps wavering in their faith in divine creation, at last capitulated to science when confronted with B. haeckelii (Haeckel 1876, 2:53). From the HMS Challenger work, Huxley confidently said that the Bathybius, this life in the making, "probably forms one continuous scum of living matter ... on the sea bed ... girding the whole surface of the earth" (Huxley 1871, 38).|
Frida von Ulsar-Gleichen, 1868-1903 Ernst Haeckel at sixty-two in 1896
Haeckel actually outlived his mistress by sixteen years; she died
of a heart condition at the age of thirty-five. (Reproduced from
Peter Klemm, Der Ketzer von Jena, Leipzig: Urania 1968)
|It was customary practice at that time for living samples to be preserved for later examination by dropping them into a specimen jar of strong alcohol. This was done in a routine manner to the mud samples on board the HMS Challenger, but a chemist on the expedition, who seems to have been more committed to his chemistry than to biology, pointed out that the protoplasmic matter recognized as B. haeckelii was nothing more than an amorphous precipitate of sulphate of lime (gypsum) which forms when seawater is added to alcohol! (Murray 1875, 24:530; Buchanan 1875, 24:604).[14-15] The date was 1875 and that should have been the end of B. haeckelii, then and there, but it was vitally important that science, and particularly those promoting the theory of evolution, not lose the public confidence by exposure of this fiasco. Scientists were defending their authority as the Roman Church leaders had their authority in the face of Galileo's discoveries. The matter was reported somewhat obscurely in the Quarterly Journal of the Microscopical Science and at the Royal Society of London the following year, but no public comment was made on the significance of this discovery (Thomson 1875, 390). The author is indebted to Rupke for scanning all the English and European journals of the day to find only one article, and that in French, which critically discusses the way the public had been misled over the question of the Monera (Rupke 1971, 178).||
HMS Challenger during her voyage of exploration 1873-76.
(Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto)
One may well wonder how such a grand cover-up was possible. It is not difficult to surmise how when something of the conspiratorial nature of nineteenth century British science, with T.H. Huxley as the grand master, is understood. It has been exposed by Irving (1955) and more recently by Bibby (1972). The latter describes how the X Club -- the members could never agree on a name -- was formed by Huxley in 1864 and consisted of nine members who, with one exception, were all presidents and secretaries of learned societies; the one exception was Herbert Spencer, whom we shall meet in the final chapter. These nine were men at the top of their profession, hand picked for their views, and holding personal influence on almost every famous scientist in the world, as well as on many distinguished radicals.
Neither Darwin nor Lyell were members, but their views were held in
the very highest esteem. The members met for dinner always immediately
before each meeting of the Royal Society, at which time strategy was plotted.
By this means, British science was literally "governed", from 1864 until
1884, by Huxley and his disciples, and, with their combined influence over
the scientific press it was little wonder that the 1876 report of the demise
of Huxley's B. haeckelii was never made public. Perhaps even worse
was the fact that the public continued to be duped for at least another
fifty years by the reprints of Haeckel's widely circulated and ever popular
of Creation -- all completely unabridged and unrevised.
So far as Haeckel (1877) was concerned, he refused to believe that the
nonexistent and went to his grave still convinced that a new Bathybius
out there on the seabed waiting to be discovered.
Did Life Originate Extraterrestrially?
With the collapse of the Monera affair, yet another blow had
been struck to the idea of abiogenesis, and therefore indirectly to Darwin's
theory. Haeckel had put his finger on the real need for spontaneous generation
when he said, "This hypothesis is indispensable for the consistent completion
of the non-miraculous history of creation" (Haeckel 1876, 1:348), and this
is as true today as it was in 1876. Sure enough, the very next year an
event occurred that turned the attention of science to the skies for the
source of life. The need to provide a non-miraculous explanation for life's
origin on earth had to be fulfilled. Relegating that origin to some cosmic
outpost gave a measure of intellectual satisfaction since no amount of
negative evidence could lessen the possibility of its being true; in other
words, it was for the foreseeable future beyond the reach of man's inquiry
and could neither be proved nor refuted. There was always hope, of course,
that there may be discovery of life, and better yet a living intelligence,
and in the decades bracketing the turn of the twentieth century, it was
widely believed that just such a discovery had been made.
Percival Lowell, 1855-1916. His faith in the idea
of intelligent life on Mars led him to dedicate the
last twenty years of his life to find proof by the
study of the "canals" The proof never came but
he died convinced and was buried next to his
telescope. (Lowell Observatory Photograph)
| Percival Lowell was born in Boston, in 1855, into two of America's
great and wealthy families. Educated in Europe and then at Harvard, he
was able to enjoy the privileged life of the financially independent intellectual,
traveling and keeping company with New England's affluent industrial aristocracy,
who were generally keen practitioners of social Darwinism. Later in life,
the psychologist William James and Ernst Haeckel in Germany became his
personal friends (Hoyt 1976, 338).
Darwin's influence reached into the very wellsprings of Lowell's thoughts,
and the latter applied the idea of evolution broadly in both science and
society, as may be seen throughout his many writings (Hoyt 1976, 25-6).
Several times a world traveler, he had a peculiar fascination with the
Far East and spent some time in Japan where he learned the language with
some proficiency. He penned his impressions of the Eastern peoples in one
of his early books, entitled
The Soul of the Far East. The influence
of Darwin can be seen to dominate the whole theme, in passages such as
Dissimilarity of Western and Eastern attitude of mind shows that individuality bears the same relation to the development of mind that the differentiation of species does to the evolution of organic life (Lowell 1911, 194).
As a young man he was not only brought up amid the intellectual swirl
of the Darwinian controversy, but his imagination was fired by a report,
in 1877, of the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli who said he had seen "canali"
on the planet Mars (Pickering 1896, 113; Serviss 1901, 93) [20-21]
Schiaparelli's observations were actually within months of the formal demise
of the Monera fallacy. It was a very cautious report, and the "canali"
were simply meant as straight lines. A later report from Schiaparelli indicated
that these were double lines, and in English "canali" became canals. Popular
imagination took this to mean a sign of intelligent life, and there followed
a public controversy almost as sharp as that which followed the publication
of Darwin's Origin. The objections came from the theologians who
saw the proposal of extraterrestrial life as threat to the doctrine of
Special Creation. Their argument held that God had created life only on
earth and nowhere else. Man, so the logic ran, was the only reasoning creature,
uniquely favored among all of God's creations and the center of his attention
(Hoyt 1976, 213).
|Lowell made his last trip to Japan in 1892 with fellow Boston scientist George Agassiz -- the son of the great naturalist Louis Agassiz -- with the purpose of investigating the mysteries of Shinto occultism (Lowell 1894), and it was during this visit that he learned Schiaparelli had been forced to abandon his work on the planets because of failing eyesight. Then and there, Lowell was impressed to pick up the Italian master's mantle and press on with the Martian investigation (Hoyt 1976, 26). Lowell returned to Boston in 1893, setting to work with incredible energy and at his own expense, to build, equip, and staff a major new astronomical observatory in the best possible location for the exclusive study of the planet Mars. Time was short, because Mars would be once more in a favorable viewing position in October 1894.||
Schiaparelli's drawings of the planet Mars in 1882 and 1888 from
Flammarion's French translation, where "canali" have become
"doublement des lignes". Unfortunately for believers in the intelligent
life notion, the double lines would form differing patterns from
year to year. (Planetarium, Royal Ontario Museum)
With amazing speed, a revolving dome observatory and eighteen-inch refractor telescope (later, he had a twenty-four-inch refractor) were built and installed on top of a hill overlooking the small town of Flagstaff, Arizona, where the air was particularly clear and viewing conditions exceptionally good. Lowell began on time in 1894 and continued unceasingly to observe and write about his Martian life theory for the next twenty-two years, until the day he died in 1916. He was buried next to his telescope, and there on his tomb is an epitaph extracted from his last book, The Evolution of the Worlds (1909).
Mars, as it appeared in Lowell's telescope under the best viewing conditions,
is quite a small disc, and observation of detail is just about at the limit
of resolution of the human eye. But over the years the number of canals
reported and named by Lowell rose to more than seven hundred (Hoyt 1976,
64). He mapped and measured, published and proclaimed, continually fanning
the flames of public interest. The life-on-Mars thesis caught the attention
of England's science fiction writer of the day H.G. Wells, who wrote War
of the Worlds in 1898, a classic to this day. Interest was revived
a generation later when a radio drama based on Wells' book was broadcast
in New York in 1938 and caused a minor panic among the listeners (Wells
Herbert G. Wells, 1866-1946. Photograph taken
in the 1890s at about the time he was inspired by
Lowell's ideas and wrote his successful
War of the Worlds. (Metropolitan
Toronto Reference Library Board)
| For the next sixty years after Lowell's death, no one could really
refute the idea that there was life on Mars. If it were true, it would
greatly support the theory of evolution, for it was argued that if life
could evolve from nonlife on earth, then it was also possible to have evolved
under similar circumstances anywhere else throughout the universe. More
important, however, was the possibility that life could have evolved on
a distant planet first and subsequently been brought to earth. Moreover,
each of the millions of stars in the visible universe was a potential sun
to a planetary system like our own, and by sheer weight of numbers it was
reasoned, principally by Lowell, that there must be many with conditions
suitable for life (Sagan et al. 1972).
Apart from all the media hype concerning the discovery of extraterrestrial
planets, their existence is only inferred and is not based upon direct
evidence. Even so, by the location of each one of those discoveries it
is admitted that they could not possibly support life as it is known. 
In July and September of 1976, the Viking space vehicles landed on Mars with equipment to carry out three life-test experiments. Even after they had completed reconnaissance of the planet four years beforehand, it was evident that there were no canals, no sign of intelligent life, and Lowell's theory promptly died -- and so, it seems, did public interest (Masursky et al. 1972). The life-test experiments were also somewhat inconclusive, and there was a sense of reluctance in having finally to report that Mars is barren and totally devoid of organic life (Horowitz 1977).
It is fair to ask, Why was Lowell so misguided? Certainly not because he was a crank. An astute businessman, proficient in a number of languages, a degree in mathematics from Harvard, socially accepted among both the scientific and business communities, he had credibility almost beyond measure. And yet he was so obviously wrong. There is little question but that he was committed to an idea. In turn his idea committed him to a fairly sizable financial investment for the observatory, which still functions to this day although not for the exclusive study of Mars. The idea and the investment then became master of his life and he spent his remaining twenty-two years totally given to the study of Mars. Interestingly, it seems that it was just this intensity of commitment that enabled him to see what he believed in even though the object of his belief did not actually exist. This is a psychophysiological phenomenon related to human vision and has itself been the object of study by psychologists for a number of years, although it seems that the results of these studies have not been applied very well to astronomers (Young 1971).
Scientific observations must always be confirmed by other observers. There was much discussion in the professional journals of the day, because some observers could see the canals and others could not. At the time this was ascribed to different viewing conditions in various geographic locations, but in retrospect it would seem that, once again, it was the individual commitment to the idea that was playing a significant part in prompting the perceptions. Photographic records at the turn of the century were not of much help for a number of technical reasons, not the least of which is that even with the largest telescope of today, the red planet is still not very big and has ephemeral features.
The lesson to be learned from Lowell's folly is that presuppositions
can not only make us see what does not exist but can also prevent us from
seeing what does. Although every effort is made by scientists to remove
the human element, there are still two vital areas in which human reason
must be involved. The first concerns setting up the experimental conditions,
and the second the interpretation of results; in either case, presupposition,
consciously or unconsciously, tends to produce bias, a problem that is
still very much with us today (Broad 1981; St. James-Roberts 1976; Wade
and Broad 1983). The American space exploration program contains within
it the presupposition that life of some kind may have evolved extraterrestrially,
and to this end the multi-million dollar lunar receiving laboratory was
built and the life-detection experiments carried out (Morrison et al. 1979).
In the absence of any positive results, there has, in recent years, been
a blending of real science with science fiction as, one by one, authorities
have proposed that our planet has been "seeded" by intelligent extraterrestrial
|Dr. Francis Crick, who received the Nobel prize for discovering the complex double-helix structure of DNA -- the life "blue-print" contained within each cell -- is probably more aware than any other man of the extraordinary complexity of the living cell. Crick and his associate, Leslie Orgel, at California's Salk Institute, are quite committed to the theory of evolution, yet they cannot accept the usual explanation that the first self-replicating cell came together spontaneously by chance. They concede that statistically it would just never happen. In 1973 Crick and Orgel seriously proposed that life initially appeared on earth as a direct act of "seeding" by intelligent life from another planet, and they call their theory directed panspermia. As far out as this may be, and it is distinctly Lowellian Darwinism, the proposal is based on two observations: First, life as we know it depends on traces of the rare element molybdenum, and it is argued that it would more likely have evolved on a planet in which that element is more abundant. Second, there is but a single genetic code to all life, and, if it had developed by chance in "some primordial ocean", then with multiple chance beginnings, more than one genetic code would be expected. The idea that life could have arrived by meteorite is rejected, because of the radiation damage during its long space journey. The field of possibility, therefore, has been narrowed to the choice between miraculous supernatural creation and life having been deliberately brought to earth by intelligent extraterrestrial beings in the remote past. Crick has placed his bet on the unprovable idea that somewhere in time and space there existed conditions on another planet more conducive to the spontaneous generation of life on our own planet under any possible conditions.||
Svente Arrhenius, 1859-1927. This Swedish
physicist proposed that life arrived on earth from
outer space in 1908 -- seventy years later the
idea was being promoted by every form of
the media. (Academy of Medicine, Toronto)
Back to the Sea
The excitement and speculation about intelligent life on Mars diminished significantly after Lowell died in 1916, although, of course, there was a world war that, in any case, moved all else to the newspaper back pages. The Monera notion for the beginning of life on earth had been effectively squelched in 1876, but Haeckel was still active with what eventually came to be seen as a rather crude and mechanistic model; he rejected completely the hypothesis of life from outer space. Haeckel died in 1919, and the Monera theory finally went with him, yet he had left a legacy in an idea that would be inherited just a year or so later by a Russian biochemist, A.I. Oparin (1953).
In the meantime, there seemed to be an impasse, for while the idea of life's origin being in outer space might have satisfied some, it was really removing the problem rather than providing a solution. It was almost taboo to speak of spontaneous generation occurring on earth, and yet philosophically it raised the awful specter that if life didn't arise spontaneously, then it must have been purposefully created. There was no third alternative. In the meantime, continuing research showed that elemental life was more and more complicated. Was there no way out of this dilemma? Gallant attempts were made, for instance, by invoking the radioactive powers of radium on mixtures of inorganic salts, and so on, but all to no avail (Oparin 1953, 57). Even the smallest particles of life known then, the viruses, could not be produced from nonliving molecules in the laboratory.
Haeckel had argued that although spontaneous generation is not observable under the present conditions on earth, it did take place in the earth's early history, when conditions were very different -- he thus preserved his beloved Monera theory by assigning to it a past event. The idea did not take root and grow in Haeckel's time, possibly because it seemed so contrary to Lyell's doctrine of uniformity. Like the later panspermia theory, it relegated the origin of life to the nonobservable, in this case the past, and, thus, seemingly beyond man's inquiry. Yet there was something attractive about the idea, and it appealed to A.I. Oparin in Russia and, almost simultaneously, to J.B.S. Haldane in England; the idea was known for many years as the Oparin-Haldane theory. Both men were committed to the theory of evolution and independently promoted their idea, Oparin through his Communist influence in Russia and Haldane as an active Marxist and regular contributor to London's Daily Worker (Clark 1968, 144, 283).
During the 1920s Oparin marshaled together a number of facts, among which were the advances then being made to produce organic compounds in the laboratory. The very name organic means that it is something derived from a living organism, such as sugar from grapes or carbon dioxide gas from burning wood, coal, or oil. At this time, however, chemists were becoming quite successful at synthesizing organic compounds in the laboratory from simple inorganic (from nonliving matter) chemicals. This suggested the possibility that what could happen in the laboratory could have happened by chance in the lifeless seas of the early earth; life was thus only a matter of chemistry, admittedly complicated, but nevertheless a Creator and his miracles were at last totally obviated. Earth's early atmosphere was believed likely to contain carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen as simple gases such as methane, ammonia, acetylene, and cyanogen, but Oparin carefully excluded oxygen from this otherwise lethal list. The absence of oxygen was a vital part of the theory (Oparin 1953, 96). Astronomers reported finding what they thought was methane and ammonia on the planet Jupiter, while volcanoes were known to spew out metallic carbides on occasion that react with the water in the air to produce acetylene gas. These observations seemed to confirm the theory. The early seas were thought to be not too salty, and while textbooks speak of "a primordial soup", it should be thought of in terms of consomme rather than French onion. With volcanoes discharging and lightning flashing, Oparin suggested that organic molecules could be formed in the waters and, given enough time, that chance would bring some of these together to form amino acids which, it was known, form one of the building blocks of life. With more time the sea would become a liquid medium for amino acids. Still thinking in terms of consomme, chance processes would bring twenty-five or more together to form the first units of protein molecule, most of which consists of hundreds and even thousands of such units in a long chain. The fact that there were no enzymes to facilitate these complex chemical building processes was explained away by there being enough time for it to happen by chance.
Time and chance again, in this view, would then allow protein molecules to join in the right combination to form the first primal organism. Oparin made an ingenious suggestion that Darwin's process of natural selection even begins to operate at the molecular level (Oparin 1953, 191). He undoubtedly based his thinking on the observation that, for example, sodium and chlorine ions in solution all fit themselves together neatly and in an orderly fashion in little cubes when they crystallize as common salt. Chemical reactions are always reversible, and in the synthesis of living organisms, there is unfortunately a greater tendency to dissolve than to grow.
To provide the chemical energy to drive the reaction towards growth, Oparin suggested fermentation by breakdown, that is, sacrifice of some of the first primal organisms in order to allow others to grow to form more complex organisms. Fortunately, Pasteur had earlier discovered bacteria that could live without oxygen. This appeared to confirm the possibility of fermentation under these conditions. The important point, however, was that the fermentation itself generated carbon dioxide gas, which was essential for the higher organisms millions of years in the future. Since carbon dioxide is known to be a product of decomposed life, such as rotting humus, for example, it could not be included in Oparin's primal lifeless atmosphere. Moreover, the exclusion of oxygen from this atmosphere was vital, since this allowed the first primitive organisms to survive rather than perish by oxidation and to concentrate, ready for the next stage of the process.
Fermentation could not continue indefinitely because the organisms were feeding on themselves, but now another more efficient process began. Some organisms developed the photosynthesis mechanism whereby the energy from the sun could be captured for the molecular building process. Oxygen is a product of photosynthesis and at this point was added to the earth's atmosphere for the first time. With accumulation of oxygen and depletion of the initial hydrocarbon gases, the more advanced organisms developed a more efficient process of acquiring their energy needs. The cellular respiratory mechanism evolved all by time and chance, and so it was that the first self-reproducing living cells came into being.
Oparin first published his ideas in 1923, but after garnering more information,
he finally published more widely in what became, in 1936, his well-known
book, The Origin of Life. The theory he proposed, given only in
outline here, is the explanation offered today in every biology textbook,
sometimes in more detail, though often in less, in which case the whole
scenario is dismissed in one or two paragraphs. For example, Bronowski's
(1973) popular book The Ascent of Man, based on the equally popular
BBC television series, introduces the subject of the origin of life with
the words, "To talk sensibly about the origin of life we have to be very
realistic" (Bronowski 1973, 314). Bronowski then describes Oparin's theory
in four paragraphs, not mentioning one difficulty and leaving the reader
with the impression that it is all ludicrously simple. This is by no means
a balanced presentation and places the admonition to be realistic in serious
The Stanley Miller experiment, 1953. Upon boiling, the
steam and gases passed through the electrical discharge
and then were immediately cooled in the condenser to
sweep any products away from the electric spark. The
trap at the bottom caught and isolated the lighter
products while the remaining solution passed back
into the boiling vessel for recirculation. (Author)
|Work carried out in 1953 by Stanley Miller, a graduate biochemistry student, is invariably given to be undeniable evidence in support of Oparin's theory of spontaneous generation of life in the past. Miller attempted to simulate early conditions on earth in the laboratory by boiling a mixture of water, methane, ammonia, and hydrogen gases together under the influence of an electric spark discharge representing lightning over the primeval sea. There was a trap in the apparatus specifically to prevent any soluble organic products from being broken down by the electrical discharge, and, after a week, some amino acids were observed in the trap. This was acknowledged to be very far from having produced life, but it was encouragement to the believers. Of course, under any early earth conditions imagined there could not possibly be a trap, so that the simulated conditions were somewhat contrived. Nevertheless, the appeal to time and chance were once again believed to offer the solution.|
The important point about this theory is that while it acknowledges that spontaneous generation does not occur today, it states that it did occur in the past under conditions that were assumed to be quite different. In fact, Oparin pointed out that life, having once started under these alien conditions, then changed the entire ecosphere so that such a spontaneous beginning could never occur again.
Since Oparin's time, great advances have been made in man's understanding of what was once thought to be the "simple" cell. It now turns out to be an extremely complex and efficient little assembly, constructed and operating at the molecular level, and although the theory is still taught and defended, the ranks of the faithful are being somewhat depleted by defectors of no mean caliber, such as the already mentioned Crick and Orgel.
The difficulties with the theory are acknowledged to be many, but perhaps the most serious are those organic units that are only effective when working in cooperation with one another. The process is called symbiosis, and examples can be found throughout nature from the molecular level, through the cells, to insects, plants, fishes, birds, and mammals, and perhaps we should even include man in a marriage partnership. Photosynthesis, in the Oparin theory, was said to have evolved, but there are three very complex components that must have arrived at the same point in time and space (within the primordial sea) in order for the process of photosynthesis to work. Chlorophyll, chloroplast, and cytoplasm are each very complex components containing thousands of atoms all in the correct order and arrangement and to have all three arriving at the same time diminishes the chances immensely. It has been discovered more recently, principally by Crick, that the DNA spiral-helix molecules found within the nucleus of every cell are the "blueprints" for cell building, but these molecules work in a symbiotic relationship with the RNA molecules, which transfer the information from within the nucleus to various parts of the cell. Only by this relationship can molecules derived from food be directed to where they are needed for cell building. In this case the theory requires that we believe that the two extremely complicated molecules, DNA and RNA, which must fit together perfectly, have each evolved separately and then appeared at the same time and in the same place in order to work together. Evidently, this was seen to be an appeal to the miraculous and went beyond Crick's credulity.
Throughout Oparin's theory for the spontaneous generation of life in the past, there is a repeated appeal for time, billions of years in fact, for chance processes to operate. Often, convincing arguments are put forward to show from probability theory that no matter how remote the chance may be, given a sufficient number of trials and time for these to occur, the expected event will have to take place. Mathematically, this is true, but somehow the false notion that figures, especially statistics, cannot lie has become sacrosanct, and the argument is accepted. Mathematics is only a tool which, when used intelligently, may tell us many things, but the results do not necessarily relate to reality. Take this example as an illustration of this point. Suppose a hare can run twice as fast as a tortoise, and the race begins with the tortoise one mile ahead. It can be shown that when the hare has run one mile to where the tortoise began, the tortoise has moved ahead half a mile and so on. At each increment of distance, the tortoise is always ahead and, according to this logic, the hare can never pass the tortoise. This is, of course, a paradox pointed out long ago by the Greek Zeno, and in reality the hare would certainly pass the tortoise. Something of a paradox also occurs with the law of probability when it is shown that, mathematically, a certain event is probable. As the chance for that event becomes more remote, however, reality takes over and extremely remote possibilities become impossibilities (Borel 1962, 28). At that point logic is taken beyond mathematical proof and into the realm of the unprovable, acceptable only by faith, and opinion is the expression of that faith. Where Oparin proposes that the impossible happened, many see this as clearly proposing a miracle, and they argue that there is no place for this kind of thing in science (Yockey 1977, 377). These opinions are being voiced today in no uncertain terms by some weighty authorities.
Beginning perhaps in this present generation with the mathematicians attending the Wistar Institute Symposium, held at Philadelphia in 1966, we note that Murray Eden, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pointed out that there must have been some restriction on the random variation for life to have begun spontaneously. Random variation is a basic pillar of Darwinism, essential to natural selection from the atomic level to the highest organisms, and his proposal to reduce randomness means to introduce order. Eden and others were convinced that randomness as a cause of evolution must be relegated "to a minor and non-crucial role" (Eden 1967, 110). They did not, of course, come out and say it, but the only alternative left is a design and a Designer (Eden 1967, 9).
Sir Bernard Lovell, the British astronomer, makes the following statement
in his book In the Centre of Immensities (1979):
The operation of pure chance would mean that within half a billion year period the organic molecules in the primeval seas might have to undergo 1050 (one followed by fifty zeroes) trial assemblies in order to hit upon the correct sequence. The possibility of such a chance occurrence leading to the formation of one of the smallest protein molecules is unimaginably small. Within the boundary conditions of time and space we are considering it is effectively zero. (Lovell 1979, 63; emphasis in original)
More recently, Sir Fred Hoyle (1981) has put the matter in more mundane terms:
Anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with the Rubik cube will concede the near impossibility of a solution being obtained by a blind person moving the cube faces at random. Now imagine 1050 blind persons (standing shoulder to shoulder, these would more than fill our entire planetary system) each with a scrambled Rubik cube and try to conceive of the chance of them all simultaneously arriving at the solved form. You then have the chance of arriving by random shuffling (random variation) of just one of the many biopolymers on which life depends. The notion that not only the biopolymers but the operating program of a living cell could be arrived at by chance in a primordial soup here on Earth is evidently nonsense of a high order. Life must plainly be a cosmic phenomenon (Hoyle 1981, 527).
Back to Extraterrestrial Origins
Although the idea of spontaneous generation may conjure up images of mice appearing from dirty clothes, it is of course visualized today to have happened at the molecular level. However, the entire scenario of life appearing from nonlife in some warm little pond is in serious question and we are witnessing at this time of writing a swing back to theories of a cosmic origin for life (Salisbury 1969). The meteorites as carriers of life have come under suspicion because of terrestrial contamination, both incidental and intentional, but one slim hope remains -- the comets. Halley's comet revisited our solar system in 1986 and there was great hope that a close fly-by of a space craft might detect organic matter or even obtain an uncontaminated sample (McNaughton and Pillinger 1980). However, had anything been found this would have been fanfared as conclusive evidence that life was "seeded" on Earth by comets; there has been no such news.
The stark reality of mathematical probability, however, dashes even
this slim hope, because it is, after all, the origin of life and not the
intergalactic carrier that is crucial. Two of England's leading scientists,
Hoyle and Wickramasinghe (1981), working independently of each other came
to the conclusion that the chance of life appearing spontaneously from
nonlife anywhere in the universe was effectively zero. Surprisingly, these
authors, respectively an agnostic and a Buddhist, concluded that the origin
of life demands the existence of God to have created it. The London Daily
Express (14 August 1981) headlined their conclusion: "Two skeptical
scientists put their heads together and reach an amazing conclusion: There
must be a God." As far as the dedicated humanist is concerned, this answer
to life's riddle is totally unacceptable, but eventually some alternative
explanation must be given to replace the long outdated Oparin theory. Only
time will tell, but it is just conceivable that in the near future, textbook
explanations for life on earth will appeal to that now-you-see-it, now-you-don't
phenomenon, the UFO.