Creationist Drivel – Pasteur

Posts in this series.

In the time since my last related post, remnant has been stinking up the Fundamental Forums a treat. His (or more likely, her) tactic has been to copy articles from the Institute of Creation Research and paste them all over the place, such that more than half of all posts were taken up with this.

One thing, however, that remnant hasn’t done, is to complete the series of posts from the Vance Ferrell’s Evolution Handbook. So I’ll just have to go on without any further input from remnant.

Ferrell continues, in his own inimitable style:

It is a remarkable fact that the basis of evolutionary theory was destroyed by seven scientific research findings,—before *Charles Darwin first published the theory…

Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) was another genuine scientist. In the process of studying fermentation, he performed his famous 1861 experiment, in which he disproved the theory of spontaneous generation. Life cannot arise from non-living materials. This experiment was very important; for, up to that time, a majority of scientists believed in spontaneous generation. (They thought that if a pile of old clothes were left in a corner, it would breed mice! The proof was that, upon later returning to the clothes, mice would frequently be found there.) Pasteur concluded from his experiment that only God could create living creatures. But modern evolutionary theory continues to be based on that out-dated theory disproved by Pasteur: spontaneous generation (life arises from non-life). Why? Because it is the only basis on which evolution could occur. As *Adams notes, “With spontaneous generation discredited [by Pasteur], biologists were left with no theory of the origin of life at all” (*J. Edison Adams, Plants: An Introduction to Modern Biology, 1967, p. 585).

Ferrell makes the sloppy error of claiming that an experiment from 1861 disproved a theory published in 1859 prior to publication. While this is not a central point, it is again indicative of Ferrell’s rigour, or lack of it. Unsurprisingly, Ferrell also confuses evolutionary theory (the process(es) by which species, over time, change), with abiogenesis.

Darwin himself, while not having any definite view on abiogenesis, was not a supporter of spontaneous generation. As he wrote to a friend in 1871:

It is often said that all the conditions for the first production of a living organism are now present, which could ever have been present.— But if (& oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia & phosphoric salts,—light, heat, electricity &c present, that a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes, at the present day such matter wd be instantly devoured, or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed.

Obviously by that time Pasteur had performed his experiments and any remaining theories of spontaneous generation were discredited. However, there is no record, that I can see, that Darwin was ever a supporter.

But spontaneous generation did attract a lot of support elsewhere – philosophical, literary and scientific. Various theories had been propounded for over two thousand years. This is hardly surprising given the lack of modern knowledge of chemistry, and the notion from those times that “life” had, to coin a phrase, a life of its own. In other words, there was a disconnect between living things and non-living things that was unexplained. Even today, from my experience of dealing with fundamentalist Christians, there are many that still look at things in this way.

Obviously we can tell the essential difference between a human and a lump of granite -one is living, the other not. The philosophers of earlier times came up with many theories to explain this essential difference. Considering the times, some of them, although inaccurate in the details, were remarkably prescient to a degree. Anaximander, for example, thought of humans as a development of fish, and modern evolutionary theory accepts that man and fish have a common ancestor.

Aristotle claimed that life was defined by an animating force which he called “pneuma”. This was latinised as “anima”, the word for “soul”, and modern Christian thought is a development of this.

The ancients weren’t aware of modern biochemistry, of course, although they accepted that living organisms were made of elements like everything else, even notwithstanding that the idea of elements has greatly changed over time. The religious have found this mindset – that of a soul – to be particularly difficult to shake off, when there is absolutely no evidence to support its existence. Even today Catholic doctrine pronounces that man, unique among all living things, has that vital spark endowed on him by God.

There were many different views on the generation of life – some contended that only simple organisms could be generated spontaneously from non-life, others thought more complex creatures. It is correct, for example, that Johannes Baptista van Helmont constructed a recipe for mice using old rags and a warm, moist and dark environment. Ferrell is overstating the support for this, though, and van Helmont died over 200 years before Pasteur’s experiment. It’s also only fair to point out that van Helmont was a very pious religious person – something, we have seen, that Ferrell would have no problem letting us know if he had supported the message of the Evolution Handbook.

Until relatively recently, therefore, the idea of spontaneous generation of life from non-life has held sway. This is not surprising as far as Christianity is concerned because the Bible has several such examples. The best-known of these is, of course, Genesis 2:7

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

If that’s not spontaneous generation I don’t know what is. According to Genesis, God is the source of life, life being otherwise unrelated to the properties of the living.

There are other examples, arguably. Some of the plagues afflicting Egypt in Exodus, and the story in Judges where bees mysteriously appear from within a dead lion, for instance. Spontaneous generation was also presumed true by some of the early Church Fathers. For example, Augustine appears to distinguish two kinds of living things – the sexually generated and the spontaneously generated:

Then, when it is said male and female, no doubt reference is made to the repairing of the races, and consequently there was no need for those creatures being in the ark which are born without the union of the sexes from inanimate things, or from their corruption;

So the creationists, in principle, have no issue with spontaneous generation, although most (hopefully) accept that germ theory and cell theory have displaced earlier ideas. Indeed, Pasteur’s experiments as well as modern biology would undoubtedly contradict Augustine’s view. Their issue is that for some reason, given modern scientific discovery, that life is not an inherent property of the biochemical nature of living things. Given the Christian teaching of the existence of the soul as a immaterial entity, this is not surprising. Even Christianity’s favourite atheist, Nietzsche, thought of life as an immaterial vital force, albeit one that Christianity corrupted.

But the idea of life is also a problem for modern science in some ways. We can usually separate the living from the non-living, but some objects are difficult to place. Are viruses life-forms? Prions? Proteins? Whatever definition is accepted, these entities display some properties but not others. Most viruses do not contain DNA, and don’t metabolise, but they are genetic organisms in a sense. There is no unanimously accepted biological definition of life, as far as I’m aware.

But in another sense this is not a problem. The idea that life evolves is made more plausible when considering that there is no definite boundary where non-life ends and life begins. Life came from non-life very like life, it would seem. Indeed, like everything that exists, life came from existence.

It should be noted that divine creation is itself a hypothesis relating to abiogenesis, albeit not a plausible one. Also creationists typically misrepresent scientific views or models of abiogenesis: see TalkOrigins 

In the straw man creationist view above, life does spring directly from non-life. As usual, the so-called arguments in favour of creationism are nothing more than appeals to ignorance.

After nearly 1400 words I haven’t got round to mentioning Pasteur, apart from a few cursory references. I have to say that, although I had my fill of Biblical nonsense at primary school, we did have a good scientific education (apart from the obvious problem that evolution was never mentioned during my eleven years at school, though). By the age of eleven we had learned about Galileo and Newton, Boyle and the Curies, and about Louis Pasteur, among others.

There is no doubt that Pasteur was a giant of scientific history. The initial development of the germ theory of disease can largely be held to be the work of Pasteur, and he was responsible for several vaccines and methods of sterilisation, one of which still bears his name today. He was not the first to attempt to disprove spontaneous generation, but his experiments are the best-known. By Pasteur’s day, the main theory of spontaneous generation centred around fermentation and whether it was chemically-driven. The alternative was that micro-organisms took advantage of chemical processes and therefore fermentation was biologically-driven. Pasteur showed beyond any doubt – at least in his published work – that fermentation was a biological process, caused by pre-existing bacteria, and therefore that spontaneous generation, at least of contemporary organisms, was a false theory.

Pasteur, by all accounts, was a dedicated Catholic, though not much of churchgoer. He did, however, accept evolution albeit not Darwinism. But his work against spontaneous generation does not contradict Darwinian theory, for which even the simplest living organisms are far too complex for such a thing. I haven’t found, so far, any reference that Pasteur stated that only God could create life, although I wouldn’t deny it.

As Richard Dawkins says in The Ancestor’s Tale:

Happy accidents of such magnitude were anathema to Darwin, as they should have been to the Church for a different reason. The whole rationale of Darwin’s theory was, and is, that adaptive complexity comes about by slow and gradual degrees, step by step, no single step making too large a demand on blind chance as explanation. The Darwinian theory, by rationing chance to the small steps needed to supply variation for selection, provides only the realistic escape from sheer luck as the explanation of life. If rotifers could spring into existence just like that, Darwin’s life work was unnecessary.

Darwinian theory does not support spontaneous generation of life. To be sure, purely chemical processes alongside thermodynamics would in all likelihood be applicable at some stage of abiogenesis, but as we have seen, the boundary between life and non-life is not a discrete one. It’s also fairly certain that the origin of life on Earth has yet to be determined, exactly, although Miller and Urey succeeded in creating replicating cells as early as the 1950’s.

Dawkins goes on:

The details lie buried, perhaps beyond recovery, at our ancient Canterbury, but we can give the key ingredient a minimalist name to express the kind of thing it must have been. That name is heredity. We should be seeking not the origin of life, which is vague and undefined, but the origin of heredity – true heredity, and that means something very precise.

Once again, Ferrell has completely misrepresented evolutionary theory.


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