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Jan Baptista Van Helmont's Bad Science
about Spontaneous Generation
The Background of Spontaneous Generation
Today, we take many things in science for granted. Many experiments have been performed and much knowledge has been accumulated that people did not always know. For centuries, people based their beliefs on their interpretations of what they saw going on in the world around them without testing their ideas to determine the validity of these theories so in other words, they did not use the scientific method to arrive at answers to their questions. Rather, their conclusions were based on untested observations.
Among these ideas, for centuries, since at least the time of Aristotle (4th Century BC), people (including scientists) believed that simple living organisms could come into being by spontaneous generation. This was the idea that non-living objects can give rise to living organisms. It was common knowledge that simple organisms like worms, beetles, frogs, and salamanders could come from dust, mud, etc., and food left out, quickly swarmed with life. For example:
- Observation: Every year in the spring, the Nile River flooded areas of Egypt along the river, leaving behind nutrient-rich mud that enabled the people to grow that year's crop of food. However, along with the muddy soil, large numbers of frogs appeared that were not around in drier times.
Conclusion: It was perfectly obvious to people back then that muddy soil gave rise to the frogs.
- Observation: In many parts of Europe, medieval farmers stored grain in barns with thatched roofs (like Shakespeare’s house). As a roof aged, it was not uncommon for it to start leaking. This could lead to spoiled or moldy grain, and of course there were lots of mice around.
Conclusion: It was obvious to them that the mice came from the moldy grain.
- Observation: In the cities, there were no sewers, no garbage trucks, no electricity, and no refrigeration. Sewage flowed in the gutters along the streets, and the sidewalks were raised above the streets to give people a place to walk. In the intersections, raised stepping stones were strategically placed to allow pedestrians to cross the intersection, yet were spaced such that carriage wheels could pass between them. In the morning, the contents of the chamber pots were tossed out the nearest window. Food was purchased and prepared on a daily basis, and when people were done eating a meal, the bones and left-overs were tossed out the window, too. A chivalrous gentleman always walked closest to the street when escorting a woman, so if a horse and carriage came by and splashed up the filth flowing in the gutters, it would land on him, and not the lady's expensive silk gown (many of these gowns were so ornately embroidered that they were not easily washable, and neither washing machines nor dry cleaners existed). Many cities also had major rat problems. People back then may or may not have not connected the presence of rats with the spread of Bubonic Plague (Black Death, a dreaded and fatal disease), but they were probably bothered by the rats chewing on things and by the rat fleas biting them (just as cat/dog owners, even now, are bitten by the offspring of their pet’s fleas). People may not have realized that the Plague was spread by the bites of those fleas, but I imagine they knew that if only they could get rid of the rats, the pesky fleas would soon disappear, hence the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Germany, leading all the rats out of town.
Conclusion: Obviously, all the sewage and garbage turned into the rats.
- Observation: Since there were no refrigerators, the mandatory, daily trip to the butcher shop, especially in summer, meant battling the flies around the carcasses. Typically, carcasses were hung by their heels, and customers selected which chunk the butcher would carve off for them.
Conclusion: Obviously, the rotting meat that had been hanging in the sun all day was the source of the flies.
From this came a number of interesting recipes, such as:
- Recipe for bees:
- Kill a young bull, and bury it in an upright position so that its horns protrude from the ground. After a month, a swarm of bees will fly out of the corpse.
- Jan Baptista van Helmont's recipe for mice:
Place a dirty shirt or some rags in an open pot or barrel containing a few grains of wheat or some wheat bran, and in 21 days, mice will appear. There will be adult males and females present, and they will be capable of mating and reproducing more mice.
In 1668, Francesco Redi, an Italian physician, did an experiment with flies and wide-mouth jars containing meat. This was a true scientific experiment many people say this was the first real experiment containing the following elements:
- Observation: There are flies around meat carcasses at the butcher shop.
- Question: Where do the flies come from? Does rotting meat turn into or produce the flies?
- Hypothesis: Rotten meat does not turn into flies. Only flies can make more flies.
- Prediction: If meat cannot turn into flies, rotting meat in a sealed (fly-proof) container should not produce flies or maggots.
- Testing: Wide-mouth jars each containing a piece of meat were subjected to several variations of ???? while all other variables were kept the same.
Control group - These jars of meat were set out without lids so the meat would be exposed to whatever it might be in the butcher shop.
Experimental group(s) - One group of jars were sealed with lids, and another group of jars had gauze placed over them.
Replication - Several jars were included in each group.
- Data: Presence or absence of flies and maggots observed in each jar was recorded. In the control group of jars, flies were seen entering the jars. Later, maggots, then more flies were seen on the meat. In the gauze-covered jars, no flies were seen in the jars, but were observed around and on the gauze, and later a few maggots were seen on the meat. In the sealed jars, no maggots or flies were ever seen on the meat.
- Conclusion(s): Only flies can make more flies. In the uncovered jars, flies entered and laid eggs on the meat. Maggots hatched from these eggs and grew into more adult flies. Adult flies laid eggs on the gauze on the gauze-covered jars. These eggs or the maggots from them dropped through the gauze onto the meat. In the sealed jars, no flies, maggots, nor eggs could enter, thus none were seen in those jars. Maggots arose only where flies were able to lay eggs. This experiment disproved the idea of spontaneous generation for larger organisms.
After this experiment, people were willing to acknowledge that larger organisms did not arise by spontaneous generation, but had to have parents. With the development and refinement of the microscope in the 1600s, people began seeing all sorts of new life forms such as yeast and other fungi, bacteria, and various protists. No one knew from where these organisms came, but people figured out they were associated with things like spoiled broth. This seemed to add new evidence to the idea of spontaneous generation — it seemed perfectly logical that these minute organisms should arise spontaneously. When Jean Baptiste Lamarck proposed his theory of evolution, to reconcile his ideas with Aristotle's Scala Naturae, he proposed that as creatures strive for greater perfection, thus move up the ladder, new organisms arise by spontaneous generation to fill the vacated places on the lower rungs.
The Greek notion that life arose from essentially nothing, or from simple matter, prevailed into the Middle Ages and was known as spontaneous generation. The Egyptians saw frogs, snails, toads and worms appear on the river bank after a high flood. The Chinese found tiny aphids suddenly appearing on leaves when there was no sign of aphids on the previous day. They assumed that these creatures "evolved" out of matter!
Jan Baptista van Helmont (1577-1644 A.D.) developed the scientific recipe for the generation of mice: one simply needed to wrap wheat kernels and cheese curds in a sweat-soaked shirt and leave the bundle in an open container for 20 days. Twenty days later, as a result of the combination of sweat and wheat, baby mice appeared! The idea of spontaneous generation became very popular and it was the popularity of the idea that kept many prominent scientists from seeing the error of their reasoning.
However, men were unwilling to give up the concept that life could arise from non-living things. The next step was the proposition that micro-organisms were the first living organisms that could arise spontaneously. Englishman John Needham (1713-1781) had heated gravy and sealed the flasks with corks. He later discovered putrification and thus proposed support for the spontaneous generation of micro-organisms.
Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) put the notion of spontaneous generation to rest once and for all. Pasteur boiled a broth in special long neck tubes and thus had created sterile conditions. Micro-organisms were prevented from entering the flasks even though they were still open to the air. His discoveries and research revolutionized the sanitation practices of man and introduced the vital techniques of sterilization and pasteurization.
Pasteur's experiments confirmed that life reproduces only after its own kind and that even micro-organisms, at that time unseen by the human eye, need micro-organisms as parents. For the first time, evolutionary reasoning was refuted by sound scientific inquiry that was not first influenced by philosophical thought. Pasteur, a devoted Christian, could have been approaching the problem from the biblical viewpoint of reproduction after kinds (Genesis 1), thereby understanding how to test the idea of spontaneous generation.