Sooner or later, students of abiogenesis will encounter Darwin's 1871 letter to Joseph Hooker with his speculations on the spontaneous generation of life. He was returning some pamphlets which triggered the reaction: "I am always delighted to see a word in favour of Pangenesis, which some day, I believe, will have a resurrection." The next paragraph has his "big if" dream:
"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 (and oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia and 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."
Bon appetit Mr Darwin! (Source here)
When taken alongside other comments Darwin made on this theme, it is clear that his public stance was to be cautious. The science of his day was unable to say anything positive about spontaneous generation. He felt the power of Pasteur's experiments which brought to an end all the earlier speculations about life emerging from non-life. The authors of a paper reviewing Darwin's thinking summarises the "big if" in this way:
"In the absence of any real corroborative evidence, it is impossible to guess what Darwin thought about the nature of the first living beings. In any case, Darwin's remarks should not be read to imply that he was thinking in terms of prebiotic chemistry, but rather that he recognized that the chemical gap separating organisms from the non-living was not insurmountable."
Also to be considered is the reference to a "Creator" in the last sentence of all the editions of his magnum opus bar the first:
"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved." (Source on page 490 here)
Does this mean that Darwin was a Deist, invoking the Creator to explain the first cells that can be called living? What is this "breathing" he refers to? Is it a link with the biblical account of origins? Why was the "Creator" absent from the 1st edition but present thereafter? The authors draw attention to Darwin's own explanation, contained in an 1863 letter to Hooker and shortly afterwards another to the Athenaeum, based on the profound ignorance within science of any route for life to have emerged from non-life:
"[to Hooker] But I have long regretted that I truckled to public opinion & used Pentateuchal term of creation, by which I really meant "appeared" by some wholly unknown process. - It is mere rubbish thinking, at present, of origin of life; one might as well think of origin of matter."
[to the Athenaeum] "Now is there a fact, or a shadow of a fact, supporting the belief that these elements, without the presence of any organic compounds, and acted on only by known forces, could produce a living creature? At present it is to us a result absolutely inconceivable. Your reviewer sneers with justice at my use of the "Pentateuchal terms", "of one primordial form into which life was first breathed": in a purely scientific work I ought perhaps not to have used such terms; but they well serve to confess that our ignorance is as profound on the origin of life as on the origin of force or matter."
In the light of these comments, it is curious that Darwin did not drop the word "Creator" in subsequent editions. Whatever regrets he expressed in 1863, they were not deep enough to excise the injudicious word. The authors note the consistency in Darwin's view that science did not have any insights into spontaneous generation. They show from his comments to Haeckel, from the apochryphal account of Darwin's encounter with fossils in a meteorite, and from several other comments made in letters, that Darwin was publicly silent because he could find no basis in science for making any positive statements.
"As for myself I cannot believe in spontaneous generation & though I expect that at some future time the principle of life will be rendered intelligible, at present it seems to me beyond the confines of science." (Letter 5282, 1866)
"I have met with no evidence that seems in the least trustworthy, in favour of the so-called Spontaneous generation. I believe that I have somewhere said (but cannot find the passage) that the principle of continuity renders it probable that the principle of life will hereafter be shown to be a part, or consequence of some general law; but this is only conjecture and not science." (Letter to Wallich, 1882)
This being said, the authors are also at pains to point out that Darwin was consistently predisposed to the origin of life being a wholly natural phenomenon. "Although he insisted over and over again that there was no evidence of how the first organisms may have first appeared, he was firmly convinced it was the outcome of a natural process that had to be approached from a secular framework."
"The intimate relation of Life with laws of chemical combination, & the universality of latter render spontaneous generation not improbable." (2nd Notebook, 1837)
"Though no evidence worth anything has as yet, in my opinion, been advanced in favour of a living being, being developed from inorganic matter, yet I cannot avoid believing the possibility of this will be proved some day in accordance with the law of continuity. [. . .] If it is ever found that life can originate on this world, the vital phenomena will come under some general law of nature." (Letter 13711, 1882)
The "secular framework" of Darwin resulted from his adoption of philosophical materialism. He was a child of Enlightenment rationalism, along with Lyell, Huxley and Hooker. He knew that some others wanted to put his ideas into a theistic or a deistic framework, but Darwin always resisted this. His explanation of using the word "Creator" ("I truckled to public opinion") simply reinforces the conclusion that Darwin's science was wholly secularised. It is surprising, therefore, to read this comment of the authors about people who misread Darwin:
"Indeed, a careful examination and critical reading of his public and private writings shows that what appear to be contradictory opinions on the problem of the emergence of life are the result of texts read out of context, sometimes maliciously, as shown by some publications of creationist groups and advocates of the so-called intelligent design."
It is remarkable how often such comments appear in scholarly work, nearly always unsupported by references or quotes. On this occasion, as is generally the case, the charge is erroneous and entirely misplaced. By and large, creationist and ID scholars have exactly the same understanding of Darwin's secular framework as the authors of this paper. Where they differ is in thinking that this secular framework is profoundly wrong and is an inappropriate foundation for science. Here is an example of an ID advocate who gives the same interpretation of events as the authors:
"Nor should we be misled by a sop Darwin attached to later editions of his Origin of Species. The first edition ended with the famous flourish: "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one [. . .]" To smooth ruffled feathers, later editions read: "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one [. . .]" Some are fooled by this sop even to this day. But what did Darwin himself say about this little addition? "I have long regretted that I truckled to public opinion & used [a] Pentateuchal term of creation, by which I really meant 'appeared' by some wholly unknown process."" (Wiker, B. 2009)
Those who should be accused of taking Darwin out of context are the Theistic Evolutionists, who do not want to acknowledge Darwin's philosophical materialism. They generally refer positively to Darwin's reference to a Creator and try to suggest that Darwinism can be harmonised with Theism. Examples include Richard Aulie, Darwin and spontaneous generation, Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, 22, 1970, 31-33 (cited by the authors!), William Phipps, Darwin, the Scientific Creationist, Christian Century, 1983, 809-811, Denis Alexander, Creation or Evolution - do we have to choose? Monarch Books 2008, and Nick Spencer, Darwin and God, SPCK 2009. The latter two names are associated with the "Rescuing Darwin" project, funded by The Templeton Foundation, which seeks to find a harmony between Darwinism and God's creative process. For some Christian comment on the project, go here.
As a final thought, Darwin was intellectually honest enough to see the difference between his philosophical materialism (which demanded some form of spontaneous generation) and empirical science (which gave no support for it). My question is: when does it become reasonable to use the findings of abiogenesis research as evidence against spontaneous generation? We have a large body of evidence today and it is telling us something! Some of us have concluded that the materialist paradigm cannot succeed because it fails to recognise the importance of biological information. The question (When does it become reasonable?) is never asked by philosophical materialists because they cannot entertain the notion that causation may be intelligent.
Charles Darwin and the Origin of Life
Juli Pereto, Jeffrey L. Bada and Antonio Lazcano
Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres, 39(5), October, 2009, 395-406 | doi 10.1007/s11084-009-9172-7
Abstract: When Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species 150 years ago he consciously avoided discussing the origin of life. However, analysis of some other texts written by Darwin, and of the correspondence he exchanged with friends and colleagues demonstrates that he took for granted the possibility of a natural emergence of the first life forms. As shown by notes from the pages he excised from his private notebooks, as early as 1837 Darwin was convinced that "the intimate relation of Life with laws of chemical combination, & the universality of latter render spontaneous generation not improbable". Like many of his contemporaries, Darwin rejected the idea that putrefaction of preexisting organic compounds could lead to the appearance of organisms. Although he favored the possibility that life could appear by natural processes from simple inorganic compounds, his reluctance to discuss the issue resulted from his recognition that at the time it was [not] possible to undertake the experimental study of the emergence of life.
Dawkins, R. There is Grandeur in this View of Life, The Edge (30 September 2009)
Wiker, B., What were Darwin's Religious Views? Discovery Institute (1 May 2009)
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