J.B.S Haldane on fermentation and Louis Pasteur (a polemic)

The following is an excerpt from J.B.S. Haldane The Origin of Life, first published 1929 in The Rationalist Annual.

Until about 150 years ago it was generally believed that living beings were constantly arising out of dead matter. Maggots were suposed to be generated spontaneously in decaying meat. In 1668 Redi showed that this did not happen provided insects were carefully excluded. And in 1860 Pasteur extended the proof to the bacteria which he had shown were the cause of putrefaction. It seemed fairly clear that all the living beings known to us origin ate from other living beings.

At the same time Darwin gave a new emotional interest to the problem. It had appeared unimportant that a few worms should originate from mud. But if man was descended from worms such spontaneous generation acquired a new significance. The origin of life on the Earth would have been as casual an affair as the evolution of monkeys into man. Even if the latter stages of man's history were due to natural causes, pride clung to a supernatural, or at least suprising, mode of origin for his ultimate ancestors.

So it was with a sigh of relief that a good many men, whom Darwin's arguments had convinced, accepted the conclusion of Pasteur that life can originate only from life. It was possible either to suppose that life had been supernaturally created on Earth some millions of years ago, or that it had been brought to Earth by a meteorite or by microorganisms floating the rough interstellar space. But a large number, perhaps the majority, of biologists, believed, in spite of Pasteur, that at some time in the remote past life had originated on Earth from dead matter as the result of natural processes.

The more ardent materialists tried to fill in the details of this process, but without complete success. Oddly enough, the few scientific men who professed idealism agreed with them. For if one can find evidences of mind (in religious terminology the finger of God) in the most ordinary events, even those which go on in the chemical laboratory, one can without much difficulty believe in the origin of life from such processes.

Pasteur's work therefore appealed most strongly to those who desired to stress the contrast between mind and matter. For a variety of obscure historical reasons, the Christian Churches have taken this latter point of view. But it should never be forgotten that the early Christians held many views which are now regarded as materialistic. They believed in the resurrection of the body, not the immortality of the soul. St Paul seems to have attributed consciousness and will to the body. He used a phrase translated in the revised version as "the mind of the flesh", and credited the flesh with a capacity for hatred, wrath, and other mental functions. Many modern physiologists hold similar beliefs. But, perhaps unfortunately for Christianity, the Church was captured by a group of very inferior Greek philosophers in the third and fourth centuries AD. Since that date views as to the relation between mind and body which St Paul, at least, did not hold, have been regarded as part of Christianity, and have retarded the progress of science.

It is hard to believe that any lapse of time will dim the glory of Pasteur's positive achievements. He published singularly few experimental results. It has even been suggested by a cynic that his entire work would not gain a Doctorate of Philosophy today! But every experiment was final. I have never heard of anyone who has repeated any experiment of Pasteur's with a result different from that of the master. Yet his deductions from these experiments were sometimes too sweeping. It is perhaps not quite irrelevant that he worked in his latter years with half a brain. His right cerebral hemisphere had been extensively wrecked by the bursting of an artery when he was only forty-five years old; and the united brain-power of the microbiologists who succeeded him has barely compensated for that accident. Even during his lifetime some of the conclusions which he had drawn from his experimental work were disproved. He had said that alcoholic fermentation was impossible without life. Buchner obtained it with a cell-free and dead extract of yeast. And since his death the gap between life and matter has been greatly narrowed.


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