In order to understand how life arises, from the tiny unicellular beings to the complex multicellular organisms in which we have evolved, many hypotheses have tried to offer a sufficiently valid and contrasted explanation. In their day, the proponents of the theory of spontaneous generation were convinced that they believed they had found the answer, and for centuries it seemed that they were right .
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What is the Theory of Spontaneous Generation
If we want to understand the explanations that were once given about phenomena that today are well known and whose origin is known for sure, it is necessary to do an exercise of changing perspective, something not easy.
That is to say, we have to go back to a time when science was still “in diapers” , and when it was not well seen by a social majority that blamed everything on the divine will and was opposed to the fact that verifiable evidence threatened to overthrow their believes.
However, even many philosophers and scientists of the past who today are considered key in our advancement as a society, were in favor of the theory of spontaneous generation.
Origin of the Theory of Spontaneous Generation
In plain words, the theory of spontaneous generation held that life could originate from inanimate matter.
Abiogenesis, life through the inanimate
The first to speak of the ability of life to emerge from the most unexpected places were ancient Greek philosophers, such as Anaximander or Thales of Miletus.
These thinkers considered that from the interrelation of, for example, the heat coming from the sun’s rays, the action of the air or the humification left by the rain; With the accumulation of garbage, wet mud or rotting food , new life could be created.
In this way, this first version of the theory of spontaneous generation made it possible to explain the origin of creatures such as insects, worms or small vertebrates (lizards or frogs).
With Aristotle, after those named, the materialist paradigm changed for another of a different nature. According to him, a divine impulse, qualified as “entelechy”, manifested itself through energy and breathed life into lifeless matter.
Biogenesis, life after other living beings
Contrary to the ideas of Ancient Greece, another current emerged, more skeptical and directed towards the scientific method (although wrong in its development), that life cannot be created from what has never been. had , but it can arise from, for example, a decomposing body.
As we say, to a certain extent this approach is correct, but it stumbles when it tries to explain the reason.
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Scientists in favor of the Theory of Spontaneous Generation
As we commented at the beginning, it was not only the common people who supported this belief, but there were also renowned sages who supported it.
1. Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626)
To date, the Aristotelian doctrine had remained the only explanation for the phenomena that occurred in nature: everything came from an energy that was given to inert substances.
However, Bacon believed that this thought collided head-on with science, so his job was to try to show that the Greek philosopher was wrong and that he had to be banished as a source of real knowledge.
Although he denied that this “entelechy” existed, Bacon supported the theory of spontaneous generation , although for him the causes of it lay in the combination of certain factors that made it possible for life to flow and that it was possible to analyze and unravel following the method inductive.
2. Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650)
One of the greatest exponents of rationalism, Rene Descartes, fervently believed in the theory of spontaneous generation, but by divine intervention. Probably, his years of education in a Jesuit center influenced Descartes in developing his postulates of him, which gave an important role to God.
In this way, for the French mathematician, the infinite and perfect substance that is God, was the one who created all substance, thinking (the soul or the mind) and physical (the material world).
3. Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727)
Also the father of classical physics, he was throughout his life a dedicated man of faith , convinced that God the Father is the only giver of life on Earth, reminiscences taken from his passion for Ancient Egypt.
Despite being branded a heretic for his antitrinitarian faith, Newton was convinced that the work of God was the only thing that could explain the construction of the pyramids and the rest of the architecture of this civilization, a thought that he generalized to every phenomenon that occurred in nature.
4. John Needham (1713 – 1781)
The English biologist postulated, like Aristotle, that a vital impulse originating genuinely in inanimate matter was the cause of life.
To support his hypothesis, he conducted an experiment, which consisted of boiling meat and letting it rest in an ill-sealed container on purpose. For Needham, the agent that infused life was the air , so that if a certain time passed and organisms that were not present before appeared in the mixture, the theory of spontaneous generation would be demonstrated. Confirming his hypothesis, he decided that this experience was enough to validate it.
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