It seems that the Governor General of Canada and some of my students at Jefferson Community & Technical College in Kentucky have a thing in common: They seem to be of the opinion—the bad opinion—the wrong opinion—that stuff just happens.
This past semester that bad opinion appeared in the essay tests of a number of my Astronomy 101 students, and it appeared frequently enough to trigger my “bothered scientist” reflex. The exam was on the Big Bang. I had asked the students to discuss, among other things, whether they thought the Big Bang appealed to most people more than older ideas about the formation of the universe, or less. A fair number of students said they thought most people would find the Big Bang theory more appealing, because (in their take on this) in the Big Bang theory the universe just happens: space and time emerge from essentially nothing, and the idea that stuff just happens makes sense. The universe just happened. These students liked that idea.
Then shortly after the exam, Br. Guy Consolmagno sent out a Twitter “Tweet” making reference to the Canadian Governor General Julie Payette and Canadian Archbishop Terrence Prendergast. It seems the archbishop was criticizing comments that the governor had made in a speech to scientists. The governor had remarked upon the idea that stuff just happens, saying:
Can you believe that still today in learned society, in houses of government, unfortunately... we are still debating and still questioning whether life was a divine intervention or whether it was coming out of a natural process let alone, oh my goodness, a random process.
This seems to have provoked a dust-up in Canada.
Apparently both my students and the governor have somehow been taught that randomness is just part of the universe, and is an acceptable explanation for things. Stuff just happens. As a scientist, that bothers me. And it brings to mind a book: The Seashell on the Mountaintop—A Story of Science, Sainthood, and the Humble Genius who Discovered a New History of the Earth.
I have mentioned in other posts how the Vatican Observatory is building an on-line resource of books, articles, and videos related to the subjects of Faith and Science (click here to explore). One of those books is The Seashell on the Mountaintop, which was written by Alan Cutler. This book is about Nicolaus Steno of Denmark, who is often characterized as the man who founded the science of geology (although he also did work in the field of anatomy). Steno also was a convert to Catholicism who was eventually made a bishop. He was beatified in 1988. The title of Seashell pertains to a question that puzzled people for millennia, a question that led to the development of the modern science of geology: how is it that sea shells—fossils—can be found far inland, sometimes high up on mountains?
A long-standing answer to this question had been “spontaneous generation”—in essence, “stuff just happens”. The idea that nature generated certain forms spontaneously, and that it even produced simple life forms spontaneously, dated back to at least Aristotle, and it was widely accepted. Thus sea shells can be found on mountains, it was thought, because they are just randomly generated by the Earth when the conditions are right. Cutler writes:
According to the old hypothesis of spontaneous generation, seashells could spread out on dry land as readily as in the sea. “Testaceans” (shellfish) and all other “non-copulatory” creatures, said Aristotle, always reproduced in this way. It was their nature to grow spontaneously whenever conditions were ripe. Why shouldn’t clams and oysters sprout in salty desert soils and limey mountain rocks after, perhaps, a good soaking by a rainstorm.
We can find thinkers after Aristotle who argued that spontaneous generation could even produce men. The Persian thinker Avicenna (or Ibn Sīnā, or ابن سینا) and the Italian Pietro Pompanazzi, who lived in the 11th and 16th centuries, respectively, both argued this. However, most people apparently thought that the spontaneous generation of men was taking the idea to the extreme. Lower forms were what were generally accepted to be generated spontaneously.
In Steno’s time, however, some thinkers were seriously questioning and testing this idea. Cutler discusses how Steno went to Florence, Italy in 1666, right when experiments to test spontaneous generation were being conducted:
[When Steno arrived] in Florence during the hot month of July, he was there just in time to witness one of the most famous experiments in the history of science. It cannot have been a pretty sight. The odor must have been abominable.
The scientists in Ferdinano d’Medici’s court proclaimed their devotion to the experimental method in their motto provando e riprovando, meaning “test and retest” or “prove and refute.” They probably had lifted it from Dante’s Paradiso:
Quel sol che pria d’amor mi scaldò il petto
di bella verità m’avea scoverto
provando e provando, il dolce aspetto.
That sun which first inflamed my breast with love
Uncovered for me, with proof and refutation,
The sweet-shining features of the lovely truth.
But the bright Tuscan sun that warmed Dante’s heart must have raised an unholy stench for Francesco Redi, the grand duke’s physician, when he set out lumps of ox dung and a smorgasbord of rotten meat to slowly [putrefy] in the heat. The idea was to test the ancient doctrine of spontaneous generation. According to this view, the process of decay could bring to life lowly creatures such as flies and “an infinite number of worms.”
True to the spirit of testing and retesting, Redi had spared no effort in his study, trying out the flesh of every creature he could lay hold of: fish, frogs, snakes, sparrows, pigeons, swallows, chickens, ducks, geese, goats, lambs, rabbits, deer, dogs, oxen, horses—even a tiger and a llama from the ducal menagerie. Some meat he cooked, some he left raw. Some he left to rot in the open air, some he covered with veils to keep out the ubiquitous summer flies.
Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit scholar in Rome, claimed to be able to generate butterflies, bees, scorpions, frogs, and snakes at will from various blends of excrement and [putrefied] flesh. He had even published recipes.
But Redi, no matter what he did, only got flies, the very same kinds of flies, in fact, that buzzed everywhere in the palace. What’s more, they only appeared when he left the meat or dung uncovered. This meant, he reasoned, that the flies came from eggs laid by earlier flies. Whatever the appearance, putrid matter was just a breeding site for vermin that swarmed over it; it did not produce them. Neither dung nor rotten meat had an intrinsic power to generate life.
It was a simple experiment, but it made its point. History remembers it as the first “controlled” experiment (because of the fly-proof veils), and the first real scientific attempt to refute the doctrine of spontaneous generation.
Cutler notes that Nicolaus Steno was no fan of spontaneous generation, because—
For fossil shells to grow inside rocks by whatever cause implied a randomness and purposeless in nature contrary to Steno’s scientific and religious beliefs. As an anatomist Steno believed that every biological structure was precisely designed for a particular function... and as a devout Christian he believed that God created nothing without a purpose.
Nevertheless, Redi’s experiments were not the last word. Supporters of spontaneous generation could always suppose that he was doing something in his experiments that squelched those right conditions. The idea of spontaneous generation lived on in one form or another. Cutler writes about English naturalist Martin Lister, a contemporary of Steno who argued that “Cockle-like stones” (that is, shells found in rock) were stones and had always been stones. They had never been part of a living thing. Experiments to generate fossil shells in a laboratory setting failed, but that was OK, Cutler writes, because, to supporters of spontaneous generation—
Nature herself offered abundant proof. Fossil shells of different sizes and in varying states of dissolution were interpreted to be at different stages of formation inside the rocks. Such things, wrote one Royal Society member to Robert Boyle, “which we have seene with our eyes halfe generated, and in transitu towards Generation,” seemed “an unanswerable argument for their never having been the spoils of Animals.”
A century later, Voltaire was a fan of spontaneous generation. Cutler writes:
The idea of spontaneous generation had never completely died among some of the more freethinking and iconoclastic members of the intelligentsia, who liked it for the same reason that conservative Christians had come to hate it: It suggested that Nature had its own potency, separate from God.
But to Voltaire, spontaneous generation appealed because it could put shells in the mountains without disturbing the rational order of the globe. There was no other conclusion a logical mind could draw. “It always astonishes me,” he said of the ammonites, “that some refuse to allow that the earth produces these stones.”... He said he knew of a château in Tours where the ground was so rich in fossil shells that one could almost watch them “vegetate” on the spot.
A few years after Voltaire’s death, Thomas Jefferson, who had a long-standing interest in seashells on mountain tops because of fossils he’d seen in the Blue Ridge Mountains, travelled to Tours in search of the same château. A local man swore it was true, but Jefferson left unconvinced. The “origin of shells in high places,” he concluded, might just be one of those questions “beyond the investigation of human sagacity.”
The idea of spontaneous generation hung on well into the nineteenth century. Consider the nineteenth-century German botanist Carl Nageli. In A History of the Sciences, Stephen F. Mason talks about the ideas of Nageli—ideas Mason describes as having been “of considerable influence”. Mason describes the ideas published by Nageli in an 1884 book entitled A Mechanical-physiological Theory of Evolution:
Nageli maintained that the plant or animal cell was not the fundamental unit of organic life, as the cell had a structure that was already differentiated. Cells are composed of smaller units, which he called micelles, that were similar to inorganic crystals. Thus there was no real difference between inorganic and organic matter. Micelles packed together through a physical attraction, and in the presence of water they formed living cells. In this way living creatures were being spontaneously generated all the time, and evolved into higher forms by virtue of an inner perfecting force of a mechanical character [“a physico-chemical force analogous to the force of inertia in mechanics”]. However, there was no real transition from one species to another.... Man started as a simple spontaneously-generated unicellular creature first of all, a long time ago. The apes started in the same way a little later, and the monkeys later still, whilst the present day protozoa have only just been spontaneously generated. The animals that are monkeys today will be men in the future, and man by that time will have progressed further still [p. 429].
Nageli was not alone with his idea that life spontaneously generated and then evolved upward. Jean Baptiste Lamarck, for example, had argued a century earlier for spontaneous generation and upward evolution.
But scientists today do not argue for spontaneous generation. The Francesco Redis of the world won the day with experiments that show that everything that lives has parents, so to speak. Today we never look at a living creature and suppose that it just happened, that it just arose from the unliving muck.* We always suppose that a living creature is some other creature’s offspring. Fossil shellfish are not spontaneous products of the Earth, but rather are the products of once-living shellfish. And the reason that shellfish fossils are found in mountains is because, as Nicolaus Steno theorized (or, as this is The Catholic Astronomer, as Bishop and Blessed Nicolaus Steno theorized), the material that now comprises those mountains was once the floors of oceans—that is, it was once shellfish habitat.
But the bottom line is this: “stuff just happens” is an idea that has been dumped into the trash bin of science history. Neither my students nor Canada’s Governor General should be casually making reference to this discarded idea. That they do is bothersome. It says that something is wrong in how we scientists talk about science, because I can’t imagine that anyone who thinks that stuff just happens would ever be motivated to try to study why anything happens. That study of why stuff happens is an important part of science. Thus stuff just happens is bad science, and bad for science.
*One might ask, “what if scientists ever figure out how to create a living organism from scratch—from inanimate matter?” (Here envision lots of electrodes zapping the muck while a scientist screams wildly, “Be alive! Be ALIVE!! BE ALIIIIIIIVE!!! Bwahahahahahaaaaa!!!!”) That would still not be spontaneous generation. It would show that an intelligence could create life from inanimate material, but it would not be a natural process generating life.