A recipe for life

“Hence without parents by spontaneous birth
Rise the first specks of animated earth”
– E. Darwin, 1803

Spontaneous generation is the idea that life can arise from non living material at any given moment and one of the earliest references I found to the concept was from Anaximander in the 3rd century BC.  Not long after, Aristotle was writing in the 4th century about eels.  They troubled him as he could find no trace of their sex.  He concluded that eels “proceeds neither from pair, nor from an egg” but that instead they were born of the “earth’s guts”, that is spontaneously emerging from mud.  Aristotle believed that worm casts were actually embryonic eels boiling out of the ground.  Pliny the Elder had another idea, that eels would rub themselves against rocks and the scrapings would come to life.  Other eel theories included young emerging from the gills of fish, from dew or being created by electrical disturbances.  The reason that eels caused natural history such issues is because of their lifecycle which starts out at sea, away from the eyes of man.

Aristotle also thought that spontaneous generation applied to a few other creatures, often small, including flies and frogs, which were considered to be lower life forms.  Some were thought to be produced in putrefying mud and dung, in wood, in excrement, and dew.  Later, naturalists would claim that insects spontaneously generated out of old wax, vinegar, damp dust and books.  Even decaying larger animals were thought to generate these smaller lifeforms.  Horses were thought to be transmogrified into hornets, crocodiles into scorpions, mules into locusts and bulls into bees.  Rats were said to come from garbage, aphids from bamboo, flies from sweat and ants from sour wine.

Athanasius Kircher included ‘recipes’ for life in his 1665 book, for example, to create frogs, you needed to collect clay from a ditch where frogs have lived, incubate it in a large vessel, add rainwater and voila!

Jan Baptist van Helmont in the 17th century tells us how to make poisonous, predatory arachnids; fill a hole in a brick with basil, cover with a second brick and leave in the sun.  To make mice, he instructs us to place wheat and water in a flask, cover with the skirt of an unclean woman, leave for 21 days and there you’ll have baby mice.  Another mouse suggestion was that they emerged from the earth and in some places you could see them fully formed as far as the breast and front feet, the rest still just mud.

To make flies, you collect fly cadaver’s, crush them slightly, put them on a brass plate and sprinkle with honey water.  You can make bees by killing a bull, putting the corpse on branches and herbs during spring and by summer you’d have your bees.  Oysters would grow from slime, cockles from sand and salamanders from fire.

Whilst all of this sounds absurd to us today, if you put yourself in their shoes, I think you’d struggle to find a better theory.  After all, caterpillars don’t have parents that resemble them, and when they die (turn into a chrysalis), they create a butterfly.  Mushrooms grow from dead logs, mould appears out of nowhere and then there are the ‘annual’ fishes of Africa and South America:

“Their lifestyle is almost magical.  They live in puddles, ponds and ditches that dry up for part of the year.  When the puddles dry up, they die.  Only their eggs survive, buried under the dried mud, waiting for the next rains.  Collect mud, add water – and presto, you get fish.  You can see why people believed in spontaneous generation.”
– Olivia Judson

Over time, the idea of spontaneous generation began to be questioned.  In 1646 a sceptic was ridiculed for questioning the idea but Francesco Redi would seek to disprove the idea that maggots grew out of raw meat with experiments in the 17th century (he still believed that living matter could create other living matter eg trees creating wasps and gallflies).  Unfortunately, his results were questioned, holes were poking in the methods and John Needham would go onto ‘prove’ via another experiment that spontaneous generation was of course real.  Needham’s experiment took gravy and heated it, then sealed the end of the flask and the idea was that nothing could survive the heat or get it as it was sealed.  When life started to form, Needham was validated in his belief.  However, he hadn’t heated the flask high enough to kill the bacteria enclosed in it so they survived the process.

Other people would work at disproving spontaneous generation including Lazzaro Spallanzani who built on the work of Redi, but it wasn’t until Louis Pasteur came onto the scene in the 19th century that the theory was conclusively disproved.

Ultimately, by investigating the theory of spontaneous generation, we would come across pasteurisation and the field of microbiology would be born.

Suggested Reading:

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Insects in the bible

When we think of insects in the bible, we tend to think of plagues of locusts and destruction, devastation and punishment.  Alternatively you might think of examples where they are held up as pests.  But they are also used as metaphors and occasionally they are just there as observations of actual insects.

The translation of the bible will affect your reading of insects.  The King James version has 120 references to insects but more recent translations have put the number at 98 as a result of differing interpretations, changes include:

  • The word translated as hornet in the king james version is now considered to be more likely the word panic.
  • “Therefore will I be unto Ephraim as a moth, and to the house of Judah as rottenness” – “as a moth” has been changed to “as a festering sore”.
  • Lice, in the context of the plagues, is now considered to be maggots; an animal which makes more sense in the context.

Translation difficulties can arise because words used include that for generic flying creature which could mean bird or it could be a flying insect.  But where particular insect species are referred to there is less ambiguity.

Ants are mentioned as examples of industriousness, gathering food in preparation for winter in the book of proverbs.  They are also held up as a creature which is small but wise along with other animals such as the locust.

Go to the ant, you sluggard, watch her ways and get wisdom, Proverbs 6.6

Bees are another specific inclusion with numerous references to honey eg land “flowing with milk and honey”.  It was thought that bees were collectors of honey and that it was originally from the stars where it was a food of the gods.  The bees collected it from dew on leaves and branches and were thought to store it in their hives.  As with the ant, this industriousness became synonymous with the bee.

Flies on the other hand fare less well, something which is also the case in mythology.

Dead flies make the perfumer’s sweet ointment turn rancid and ferment; so can a little folly make wisdom lose its worth. Ecclesiastes 0:1

If you do not let my people go, I will send swarms of flies upon you, your courtiers, your people; and your houses. The houses of the Egyptians shall be filled with the swarms and so shall all the land they live in. Exodus 8.21

Of course the plagues of locusts are possibly the most dramatic inclusion of insects.  Today plagues of locusts are destructive and can cause devastation but when the bible was written, the impact would have been far greater, the dark cloud being an omen of death through starvation.  Of course, huge groups of locusts occur naturally and whilst it was seen at that time through a biblical eye, later in Europe at least, it would be seen through a legal eye.

If this is something you find interesting, Insect Mythology has a several page table looking at insects in the bible and Simon Roberts has looked at all the animal references in the bible.

Ant: Animal Dreaming

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Fire Ants: Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Deck

I covered a lot about the ant in the wild unknown post including their strength and community approach which are really relevant here.  Physical strength, strength in nature and so on which I won’t repeat here.

In Australia, folklore says that ants are a sign that rain is coming.  What could the ant be prophesising for you?

Fire Ants: Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Deck

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Fire ant gets its name from it’s powerful, stinging bite which apparently feels like fire.  They use their mandibles to grip their victim (or prey!) and then inject venom using their stinger.  They are small but they can be deadly (if you’re allergic to them) and to further teach us that size doesn’t matter, these tiny beings have huge economic consequences.  As with many animals, they have found themselves transported across the world to places which are less than welcoming.  As an aggressive, invasive animal they cause a lot of harm to their new habitats and huge efforts are made to eliminate them.  Australia, for example, spends £20 million a year trying to get rid of them.

I’m going to look at ants more generally for the rest of the post.

The ant

Ants are amazing!  I had an ant infestation in my bathroom last year so I know they aren’t great house guests but they are very persistent and definitely hard workers!  They seem to be able to get everywhere and appear to come from nowhere.

In addition to being work focused, there are a lot of similarities to the bee;  they are community focused, everyone has a role to play and the ants are devoted to their duties.  Like the bee, the ant is an architect, creating an amazingly complex home.  They even pull in help from others such as the species of ant which cultivates fungus to provide food and use their own antibiotic formula to control the growth of the fungus.

As with the bee, we will see that every little act, every role an ant takes on makes a difference and contributes to the strength of the community.  Again, this super organism has a queen at it’s head, most workers are non reproducing females and the males of the ant world are essentially just sperm donors – they mate and then they die.  Where do you feel you fit into the ant family right now?  Maybe you are the queen ant, creating life and light and coordinating a major project or maybe you’re feeling a bit more like the male ant, that is, used for sex…

Super-ant?

Ants may be annoying, especially during a picnic but there can be no doubt that they are essentially miniature superheroes!

One species of ant can stand upside down on a plate of glass and hold 100 times their weight without falling off.  Apparently the key to their strength is their neck and the neck joint of a common field ant can withstand 5,000 times the ant’s weight (presumably not whilst also hanging upside from from a glass plate though!).  The ant does not let its environment hinder it, if they need to they will use their own bodies to create structures eg ladders and bridges to overcome obstacles.  They can, and often do, take on animals much larger than themselves and ants have even been seen carrying dead baby birds back to the ant nest.

You have within you much much more strength than anyone can imagine and probably much more than you will ever need.

Smelling the world

Their amazing life is mostly a result of their highly cooperative set up.  In terms of finding food, scouts will head out to find a good source and leave a chemical trail behind them.  Once they’ve found something tasty, they head back to the nest and strengthen the trail as they go.  Depending on the species you may then have leaf cutter ants head out followed by transporter ants to bring the bounty home.  The different roles are carried out by ants who have their own specialist adaptation for the job.

Without their amazing communication system they would probably fall into chaos, it is communication which makes the community work. 

Which feels like a very applicable statement for human life.  I hadn’t realised until just now that communication and community are linked right down to the actual word form.  We should also ask ourselves what we could achieve if we worked together in a cooperative and organised fashion.

Also, note that the ant’s world is very much one of smell as opposed to our highly visual world.  Maybe its a prompt towards scented candles or aromatherapy or just a reminder to us not to rely so heavily on our eyes for information.

Myths and folklore

We see the ant as a predictor in ancient Rome where Ceres used ant behaviour as divination and in a number of cultures, the ant is supposed to be able to to predict the weather.

In Cornwall it was unlucky to destroy an ants nest as ants were the souls of unbaptised children or faeries, as we’ll see later, the same was said to be true of frogs.

In a story from the Hopi Indians, we see that the ant has saved humanity not once but twice.  Another reminder that size does not matter, especially when you work together.

In another myth, the bear and the ant are in conflict.  Life is all darkness and this is hard for the ant who is always busy working – she can’t see what she’s doing.  Bear liked the dark and accepted a contest from the ant thinking that she would clearly win any challenge against a feeble little ant… On the day of the dance off, there was a banquet of food.  Bear ate happily but the little ant decided that she should not eat anything despite her hunger.  As the contest went on, bear got fuller and fuller and sleepier and sleepier until she could no longer dance and thus the ant won.  But ant is community minded and thus she made a deal with the bear, there would be light but it would be followed by dark and thus even now, we have day and night.  I think it worked out well for the ant this way… her generosity means that she has night time to rest and isn’t working 24 hours a day… I don’t know if ants really care about day and night but my key message here is don’t work too hard!

The story of the ant and the grasshopper illustrates the ants diligence, patience, forethought and planning, all qualities which help the ant colony achieve their collective goals.

Given that we were looking at the fire ant, I would be tempted to take all these characteristics and essentially amp them up.  For example, where ant may symbolise hard work, fire ant may symbolise working too hard and burning out.