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Catholic Writers And Spontaneous Generation

( Originally Published 1919 )

THE names of great Catholic men of science, laymen like Pasteur and Muller, or ecclesiastics like Stensen and Mendel, are familiar to all educated persons. But even educated persons, or at least a great majority of them, are quite ignorant of the goodly band of workers in science who were devout children of the Church. Nothing perhaps more fully ex-emplifies this than the history of the controversy respecting the subject whose name is set down as the title of this paper. For centuries a controversy raged at intervals around the question of spontaneous generation. Did living things originate, not merely in the past but every day, from non-living matter ? When we consider such things as the once mysterious appearance of maggots in meat it is not wonderful that in the days before the microscope the answer was in the affirmative.

Today the question may be considered almost closed. True, the negative proposition cannot be proved, hence it is impossible to say that spontaneous generation does not take place.

However, the scientific world is at one in the belief that so far all attempts to prove it have failed utterly.

St. Thomas Aquinas had a celebrated and sometimes misunderstood controversy with Avicenna, a very famous Arabian philosopher. It was a philosophical, but not strictly scientific, controversy, for both persons accepted or assumed the existence of spontaneous generation. Avicenna claimed that it took place by the powers of Nature alone, whilst St. Thomas adopted the attitude which we should adopt today, were spontaneous generation shown to be a fact, namely, that if Nature possessed this power, it was because the Creator had willed it so.

We come to close quarters with the question itself in 1668, when Franceso Redi (1626-1697) published his book on the generation of insects and showed that meat protected from flies by wire gauze or parchment did not develop maggots, whilst meat left unprotected did. From this and from other experiments he was led to formulate the theory that in all cases of apparent production of life from dead matter the real explanation was that living germs from outside had been introduced into it. For a long time this view held the field. Redi was, as his name indicates, an Italian, an inhabitant of Aretino, a poet as well as a physician and scientific worker.

He was physician to two of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany and an academician of the celebrated Accademia della Crusca. Those works which I have been able to consult on the subject say nothing about his religion, but there can scarcely be any doubt that he was a Catholic. At any rate there is no doubt whatever as to the other persons now to be mentioned in connection with the controversy, which again became active about a century after Redi had published his book. The antagonists on this occasion were both of them Catholic priests, and both of them deserve some brief notice.

John Turberville Needham (1713-1781) was born in London and belonged on both sides to old Catholic families. He was educated at Douay and ordained priest at Cambray in 1738.

After teaching in that place for sometime he journeyed to England and became head-master of the once celebrated school for Catholic boys at Twyford, near Winchester. From there he went for a short time to Lisbon as professor of philosophy in the English College. Subsequently he travelled with various Peers making " the grand tour." After that he retired to Paris, where he was elected a member of the Academie des Sciences. He was the first director of the Imperial Academy in Brussels ; a canon, first of Dendermonde and afterward of Soignies.

He died in Brussels and was buried in the Abbey of Condenberg. Needham was a man of really great scientific attainments, and perhaps nothing proves the estimation in which he was held more than the fact that in 1746 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, being the first Catholic priest to become a member of that distinguished body. When one remembers the attitude at that time, and much later, of Englishmen towards Catholics it is clear that Needham's claims to distinction must have been more than ordinarily great. His clear, firm signature is still to be seen in the charter-book of the society, and it is interesting to note that he signs his name " Turberville Needham." Needham did not confine his attention to science, for he was an ardent antiquary, and in 1761 was elected a Fellow of that other ancient and exclusive body, the Society of Antiquaries of London. In this connection it may be mentioned that Needham published, in 1761, a book which caused a great sensation, for he endeavoured to show that he could translate an Egyptian inscription by means of Chinese characters ; in other words, that the forms of writing were germane to one another. He was shown to be quite wrong by some of the learned Jesuits of the day, who, with the assistance of Chinese men of letters, proved that the resemblances to which Needham had called attention were merely superficial.

But our interest now is in his controversy with Spallanzani. Lazaro Spallanzani (1729-1799) was born at Scandiano in Modena and educated at the Jesuit College at Reggio di Modena. There was some question as to his entering the Society; he did not do so, however, but repaired to the University of Bologna, where his kinswoman, Laura Bassi, was then professor of physics. He became a priest, but devoted his life to teaching and experimenting. He must have been something of what we in Ireland used to call a " polymath," for he professed at one time or another, in various universities, logic, metaphysics, Greek, and finally natural history. He first explained the physics of what children call " ducks and drakes " made by flat pebbles on water ; laid the foundations of meteorology and vulcanology, and is perhaps best of all known in connection with what is termed " regeneration " in the earthworm and above all in the salamander. His experiments still hold the field in a region of study which has vastly extended itself in recent years, becoming of prime importance in the vitalistic controversy.

In the dispute, however, with which we are concerned Needham and Spallanzani defended opposite positions. The former, as the result of his observations, asserted that, in spite of the boiling and sealing up of organic fluids, life did appear in them. His opponent claimed that Needham's experiments had not been sufficiently precise. The latter had enclosed his fluids in bottles fitted with ordinary corks, covered with mastic varnish, whilst Spallanzani, employing flasks with long necks which he could and did seal by heat when the contents were boiling, showed that in that case no life was produced.

He declared, and correctly too, as we now know, that Needham's methods did permit of the introduction of something from without. The controversy went to sleep again until the discovery of oxygen by Priestley in 1774. When it had been shown that oxygen was essential to the existence of all forms of life, the question arose as to whether the boiling of the organic fluids in the earlier experiments had not expelled all the oxygen and thus prevented the existence and development of any life.

In the further experiments which this query gave rise to, we meet with another illustrious Catholic name, that of Theodor Schwann, better known as the originator of that fundamental piece of scientific knowledge, the cell-theory.

Theodor Schwann (1810-1882) was born at Neuss and educated by the Jesuits, first at Cologne, afterward at Bonn. After studying at the Universities of Wurzburg and Berlin he became professor in the Catholic University of Louvain, where his name was one of the principal glories of this now wrecked seat of learning. Thence he went as professor to Liege, where he died. He was, says his biography in the Encyclopedia Britannica, " of a peculiarly gentle and amiable character and remained a devout Catholic throughout his life." Schwann's experiments tended to show that the introduction of air—of course containing oxygen—did not lead to the production of life, if the air had first been thoroughly sterilised. It was thought that this question had been finally answered, when it was reopened by Pouchet, in 1859. He was a Frenchman, the director of the Natural History Museum of Rouen, but as to his religious views I have no information. It is quite probable, however, that he was a Catholic. Pouchet and all on his side were finally—so far as there can be finality in such a matter — disposed of by Pasteur, of whose distinction as a man of science and devoutness as a Catholic nothing need be said.

It is quite unnecessary to devote any consideration here to the character of Pasteur's experiments, for they have become a matter of common knowledge to all educated persons. Let it suffice to say that they were on the lines first laid down by Redi and greatly elaborated by Spallanzani, namely the exclusion from the fluids or other substances under examination of all possible contamination by minute organisms in the air.

Spallanzani knew nothing of these organisms; they were not discovered until many years after his death. But he surmised that there was something which brought corruption into the fluids; he excluded that something, with the result that the fluids remained untainted. From our point of view, however, there are several things to be learnt. In the first place quite a number of ignorant persons have thought that the discovery of spontaneous generation would upset religious dogmata. That of course is quite absurd. From what has been said above it will be seen that St. Thomas Aquinas—in common with all the men of learning of his day—fully believed in it, as did Needham, another ecclesiastic as to whose orthodoxy there is no doubt. Further, the entire controversy is a complete confutation of the false allegation that between Catholicism and science there is a great gulf set. There have been few longer and more remarkable controversies in the history of science, and scarce any other—if indeed any other—which has such important bearings upon health and industry than that which relates to bio- or abio-genesis. It is significant to find that the names of so many of the protagonists in this controversy were those of men who were also convinced adherents of the Catholic Church.



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