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Sir William Thomson on the Law of Biogenesis and The Law of Gravitation

Abstract

A PASSAGE in the address of the President of the British Association appears to me so remarkable, and so much at variance with the notions entertained by biologists of various shades of opinion, that I am surprised that no observations were made upon it during the sectional meetings, and beg now to draw attention to it. I may mention that in the discussion on spontaneous generation in Section D on the last day of the meeting, I did say substantially what I now write to you, but no one present defended Sir William Thomson's position. The passage in question is as follows: “But science brings a vast mass of inductive evidence against this hypothesis of spontaneous generation, as you have heard from my predecessor in the Presidential chair. Careful enough scrutiny has, in every case up to the present day, discovered life as antecedent to life. Dead matter cannot become living without coming under the influence of matter previously alive. This seems to me as sure a teaching of science as the law of gravitation. … I confess to being deeply impressed by the evidence put before us by Prof. Huxley, and I am ready to adopt as an article of scientific faith, true through all space and through all time, that life proceeds from life, and from nothing but life.” * In the first place it is to be remarked upon this passage, that the reference to his “predecessor in the Presidential chair,” and to “the evidence put before us by Prof. Huxley,” is made in such a way as would lead an uninformed person to suppose that not only was the speaker simply availing himself of that evidence, but also merely following or re-enunciating a belief previously expressed by Prof. Huxley. This I do not for a moment suppose was in any way the meaning of Sir W. Thomson, who unintentionally has made it appear that Prof. Huxley comes to the same conclusion from the consideration of certain facts, as he does. So far from this re-assuring concord having an existence, I doubt if any single biologist of name (of whatever philosophic tendencies) would venture to assert that it is as sure a teaching of science as the law of gravitation that dead matter cannot become living without coming under the influence of matter previously alive, and conclusions derived from a consideration of a vast series of facts prohibit an evolutionist from accepting such a doctrine without the most complete and widely-reaching evidence in its favour. Sir William Thomson's authority must be accepted as unquestionable as to the amount of sureness which may be attributed to the law of graviation; but with great deference to him, I should like to ask if he would definitely maintain that it is no greater than that which may be attributed to the dogma “no life except from life.” It is the fact that within human observation the law of gravitation is a true statement; it is also the fact that within human observation the dogma “no life except from life “ is a true statement; but how can it be for a moment supposed that this places the two statements in the same position of sureness? Does not all depend on that term “within human observation?“ Will not the sureness depend on the extent and thoroughness of the observation? And is it not the case that whilst human observation of bodies in relation to the law of gravitation is of the most vast character—embracing not only all varieties of terrestrial matter, but innumerable extra-terrestrial bodies—the human observation of the way in which living matter originates or grows, is a mere trifle so insignificant in extent that it is as a drop in the ocean? Sir William Thomson speaks of being “deeply impressed by the evidence put before us by Prof. Huxley,” and is thereupon ready to adopt an article of scientific faith “true through all space and time.” What was the evidence in question? The merest fragment, as Prof. Huxley would himself acknowledge (though associated with much more evidence upon allied matters)—simply this by no means astonishing though much controverted fact, that when out of the unspeakably many kinds of mineral matter which you might take, you take one or two and boil them and seal them up and submit them to a variety of processes, the object of which is not to produce favourable conditions for the evolution of life, but to prevent the access of already living matter—you don't get life produced. The whole of this kind of experiment, and of the evidence which so much impressed Sir William Thomson, cannot—attended as it is with negative results—have anything to do with the general question of the de novo origin of living matter. Such evidence merely relates to a particular supposedcase of such origin, one out of thousands conceivable. Yet this is what it seems to me—I write with diffidence—Sir William Thomson has taken as evidence of the same value as that on which rests the law of gravitation. Because it seems rather more probable than not that organisms do not arise de novo in boiled and sealed solutions of tartrate of ammonia, in hay-decoctions and turnip-luice, therefore it is true through all space and all time that dead matter never becomes living without the action of living matter; therefore nowhere to-day on the whole earth—in the sea charged with gases, open to sunlight and atmosphere, holding salts and complex semi-organic compounds, suspended and in solution—is this process going on; in no pond; under no moss; and not only to-day, but we are to conclude that never at any time did Nature in her great laboratory produce life from mineral matter, because in certain arbitrary, crude, and utterly artificial conditions of isolation she refuses to do so. Is it true that the law of gravitation is no surer a teaching of science than the dogma about the origin of life which rests on such logic?

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LANKESTER, E. Sir William Thomson on the Law of Biogenesis and The Law of Gravitation . Nature 4, 368–369 (1871). https://doi.org/10.1038/004368a0

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