The idea that life spontaneously erupted from non-living material was believed by the ancient Greek philosophers like Pythagoras and the Hindu priests before them. This belief was maintained throughout the succeeding centuries to the scientist/philosophers of the 17th through the 19th centuries. Some scientists before Louis Pasteur challenged this belief, but were ridiculed by those convinced that spontaneous generation was a fact that needed no proof beyond observation.
In 1861 Louis Pasteur demonstrated after a series of experiments conducted over several years that if one began with sterile materials, organisms thought to arise spontaneously would not do so, and, in fact, could not because the origin of such lifeforms is from the outside. That is, microbes invade the experimental material from either the atmosphere or from contaminated laboratory material. If the experiment is conducted under sterile conditions, what is thought to be spontaneous generation cannot occur.
Pasteur’s earlier experiments literally astonished the opposing argument. Naturalists scrambled to reinforce their worldview by coming up with a reply to Pasteur’s work. They thought they found it in the work of Félix Archimède Pouchet (1859), the Director of the Natural History Museum in Rouen. In an effort to reestablish credibility in the theory of spontaneous generation, Pouchet showed that fungi consistently appeared in his experiments despite his having sterilized all experimental materials. When Pasteur was challenged to disprove him, Pasteur showed that, although Pouchet had meticulously sterilized the water and hay used in his experiment before introducing oxygen, he failed to consider air contaminating the mercury he used to cool the water.
Pasteur showed in 1861 that air itself has microbes that can infect one’s sterile experiments, if the scientist is not careful, which Pouchet was not. Although he never challenged Pasteur’s findings, Pouchet wouldn’t concede to Pasteur’s proposal that air carried the germs that contaminate otherwise sterile experiments.
In 1871 in a letter to a colleague, Charles Darwin addressed Pasteur’s conclusions by suggesting the origin of life might be traced to a “warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity, etc. present, so that a protein compound was chemically formed ready to undergo still more complex changes.”
Darwin’s hypothesis underwent further research in 1924 by Alexander Oparin, who postulated that life could have arose spontaneously from non-living material in a reduced atmosphere—one without oxygen. In his book The Origin of Life, Oparin argued that Pasteur’s work concerned life as it is today. However, in a primitive earth without oxygen, life could have originated in a primeval soup through the action of sunlight. The theory underwent further modifications, until in 1953 the Miller-Urey experiment was able to produce a few amino acids needed to produce microscopic lifeforms from just such a “soup”. Had Pasteur been proved wrong by this experiment? No he wasn’t, and I’ll speak about it in my next blog. At the end of the day, Pasteur’s work has stood tall for over a century and a half. Even with all the advances of modern science the origin of life (without a Creator) remains a mystery.