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.

House Guests, House Pests

Whilst I have commandeered the title of this post from the book by Richard Jones, and whilst I am using his book as part of my research, I am focusing specifically on the pest side of things today.  As is true throughout this month, I will not be looking at spiders… *shudders*

What makes an insect into a pest?

The world is filled with insects, they live everywhere and fill all kinds of ecological niches but we don’t consider them all to be pests.  We value butterflies for their beauty but we consider moths in our home to be a nuisance.  What is the difference?

Well, Richard Jones highlights a crucial divide between our inner and outer worlds, our private homes and the space outdoors.  This invisible line, when crossed, can turn an insect into a pest.  We pay to encourage nature to come closer but we also pay to remove nature when it crosses the arbitrary line of the doorstep.  What seems interesting or magically suddenly becomes unwelcome and disgusting.  The home is a scared space, it’s private and shared only by invitation.  By violating these symbolic boundaries, animals become intrusive.

Why do insects like our homes?

All of the things we value about our homes are the very same things that insects value.  They are looking for somewhere dry to shelter, somewhere warm where food is available.  In winter, for example, butterflies seek the warmth of buildings but then central heating can cause them confusion about the time of year and affect their behaviour.  The same is true for ladybirds.  And wasps and bees can hide in cavity walls until unwittingly disturbed when they may attack.

“Our houses, our food, our belongings and our very existence are under constant attack from a host of invaders eager to take advantage of our shelter, food stores and soft furnishings.”
– Richard Jones

Because of how successfully these insects have lived alongside us, many of them no longer exist in the wild.  They have become so specialised and so well adapted to live in our homes that they cannot survive without us.

When we started wearing clothes 100,000-40,000 years ago, lice evolved to live on us.  There are three kinds; crabs, head lice and body lice.  The latter actually lived in clothes and spread typhus and relapsing fever but is now thankfully rare.  If you could afford a change of clothes you could escape the lice and as such it was something which predominantly affected the poor and reports of 30,000 lice on one person was not uncommon.  It is likely because of these murderous body lice that head lice have such a bad reputation.

Our homes are also an excellent place to find something else that insects like; us.  The blood of mammals and birds is a high protein source and comes helpfully available as a liquid for easy consumption so it is no wonder than some creatures chose to nibble on us.  In mosquitoes, it is the female who goes after our blood and we can’t blame her too much, she needs it to get enough protein for the eggs which are developing inside her.  These vampiric bloodsuckers carefully insert a needle into the bloodstream and have anticoagulant chemicals they use to stop the wound from clotting.  It is the immune response to the chemical that causes itching and swelling but with it they can also transmit malaria, sleeping sickness, the plague, typhus and viruses.  For humans, the amount of blood lost is trivial but the diseases contracted can be deadly.

Another answer to why we have pests in our homes is explained by Danish folklore – the flea was sent to pester mankind as a punishment for laziness!

Today about 3000 animal species pollute human habitations.  This includes obligate parasites such as lice, facultative parasites such as fleas and commensals which are organisms that live with us without harming us or our belongings.  But those which do harm us shape our attitudes to the rest.

Attitudes to pests

It is very revealing that when I was searching google for information on this post most of the results where about extermination or the horrors of insects and creepy crawlies in the home.

As we saw with the lice example, pests and infestations of insects has social meaning and stigma attached and often the presence of bugs in the home is taken as a sign of dirt, of poor living and of laziness even which this isn’t true.  We see pests as symbolising people who are lower in social status than ourselves even though we can all be affected by them – think of how quickly head lice can run through a primary school.

“Scientists have found that some pillows, even in clean houses, are 40% dustmite faeces by weight.”
– Gordon Grice

Towards the end of the 19th century, entomologists who had previously contemplated nature, invoking the creator’s wisdom and artistry, began to view insects as pests in need of eradication.  This was happening alongside the industrial revolution and the discovery of bacteria, which spelled bad news for insects, in particular for house flies.  This also opened up a market for pest control chemicals and it was thus in the interest of industry to perpetuate the negative attitudes to insects.

As time went by, we got more and more sure that humans could and should control nature and Silent Spring is a good commentary on the negative impacts this had.  It was written after the harsh chemicals, developed during the war, began to feature in households and in agriculture.  Through Carson, we get a glimpse into how we perceived, and still perceive, insect life in the western world.  They are very much viewed as something to eliminate.  And some of these attitudes can be seen in words and phrases such as buzz off, stop bugging me, a swarm of teenagers, pests, he’s a cockroach, nitwit etc.

Even where our house guests don’t cause us harm, we still rail against them.  We are precious about our belongings and feel violated when insects nibble on clothing and furniture, somehow the insect existing feels like a personal attack on us.  But of course, some do more than make holes in your favourite jumper.

The danger of pests

Most household insect pests pose little risk unless you happen to be allergic to them.  It’s unlikely to be a problem for you, unless you are not a land dweller, but in 1593, larder beetle larvae nearly caused a ship to sink as the hull had been reduced to honeycomb.

Having said that, some insects are better at killing us that any other animal.  Cockroaches can bite and are attracted to the milk around the mouths of sleeping babies which is pretty unsettling.

“In areas where they pose a serious hygiene problem, roaches outrank even spiders as a focus of phobia”
-Grice

Given that they invade orifices of the human body I think this is a reasonable fear, especially as their legs are covered with bristles which cause immense pain on our sensitive inner body surfaces. Again, they are a vector of disease and the dust they create is the leading cause of asthma in inner city children in the US.

But the deadliest of our enemies, according to Grice, is the fly.  The most dangerous of which is the mosquitoes.  It’s the mechanism by which the mosquito sucks blood which makes it so deadly – there is a regular exchange of blood and saliva and it is this which opens up opportunity for disease to spread.  And this can include malaria which kills over 2 million people a year and makes many more ill.  The most deadly forms of malaria evolved alongside the agricultural way of life in Africa.  People settled in one place, they needed to be close to water, and in doing so they found themselves living near the breeding places of mosquitoes.

More than 40 diseases are spread by flies and they don’t even have to bite us to spread them.  Drinking water invested with eggs is a major reservoir of cholera.  The common house fly spreads at least a hundred different disease causing agents including typhoid, cholera, dysentery and anthrax and can infect us in three different ways; the bristles on their legs and abdomen carry bits of whatever they’ve previously landed on and so by walking on humans can spread diseases, they defecate indiscriminately and digestion is partly exterior – they vomit digestive fluids onto a substance and then suck up the half digested mess.

Another deadly disease spread by insects is the plague.  Through transmission by fleas, this disease which ravaged many people and shaped our culture and history.

In a later post I’m going to look at the ill effects of insects outside the home and we’ll see more ways in which these creatures have shaped human history.  I will also be balancing this out with a look at the benefits of them and of course, we should value all animals for themselves, not for what they do or don’t do for humans.

Further reading:

Insect mythology

Specific insects tend to have specific features and qualities attributed to them in mythology, for example ants are used positively to symbolise industry, thrift, forethought and service to the community.  This use of ant symbology is near universal but there are exceptions.  The pueblo Indians believe ants are vindictive and cause diseases and the industriousness of ants is considered excessive in Hinduism and Buddhism.

Bees, butterflies, moths and dragonflies are seen widely in insect mythology but I’ve already touched on their use in symbolism as part of my animal spirit series.  Here instead I will be looking at other types of insects including flies and locusts.  There will be a separate post for the beetle as it’s one of the animal allies I haven’t looked at yet.  I’m also going to look at cicadas separately because they seem quite interesting.

So, let’s start with crickets and locusts which are popular insect when it comes to mythology.  They were held in high esteem and were emblems of good luck and happiness.  They also symbolised summer, courage and, again, resurrection.  The singing of the Japanese Tree Cricket represented the chanting of Buddhist priests.  In Brazilian folklore, the singing of crickets foretold coming rains or financial windfalls.  Similarly, in Barbados, crickets in the house must be treated with respect because they bring money with them.  Obviously in the form of plagues, we find locusts to be less revered.  En masse the behaviour and nature of crickets changes and becomes more destructive

Flies are really interesting, at least I think so, in terms of myth.  We tend to consider them as pests, as annoying and as something we don’t want around us and these attitudes are reflected in a lot of the mythology around them.  They are used to signify insignificance, feebleness, corruption and are associated with demons – Beelzebub was a Syrian god of flies.  Other ways the fly is depicted include as greedy, as worthless and as impudent. Comparing the fly with other insects is one way of highlighting their lack of virtues.  In an aboriginal Australian myth “a lazy tribe becomes bothersome flies while an industrious tribe becomes bees” (Kritsky and Cherry).

There is also a clear association between flies and death, but not in the way that cicadas and crickets are positively associated through resurrection.  Demons of disease and death take on the form of flies and there is also a fly demon of decomposition.  In Zoroastrianism, Nasu is a demoness of dead matter and is depicted as a fly.

Big Biter was a fly who was the overlord of fish and appeared when fishermen were taking fish from the water.  He appeared to check how the fish, his subjects, were being treated and to warn the fishermen against greed and wastefulness.

Big Fly is more positive depiction of a fly who is benevolent and who mediates between man and god.  When heroes get into trouble, it is Big Fly who will guide them.  Another interesting use of flies as symbols is from ancient Egypt where large golden flies were awards for valour and tenacity in battle, possibly because of the way a fly will return to try and bite it’s victim even after it’s been swatted away.  A particular type of fly with a metallic green or blue appearance was considered to be the spirit of a person and so shouldn’t be killed.  And a fly helped the goddess Inanna in an ancient Sumerian poem.

Being a bit more specific about flies, we find the mosquito in a number of interesting myths.  In Mayan mythology, the mosquito was a spy who learned about people by biting them.  The Tahltan of British Columbia have a tale about a mosquito which explains the behaviour of the woodboring beetle.

“A long time ago, Wormwood (the larvae of a beetle) and Mosquito lived together.  Day after day, Wormwood saw Mosquito come home swollen with blood that he had eaten.  When questioned, Mosquito, not wishing to give away his secret, replied that he had sucked it out of trees.  Wormwood immediately attacked the trees, and to this day he and his descendants bore into the wood looking for blood.”
– Gene Kritsky and Ron Cherry

Other stories explain the existence of mosquitoes as the result of ash from significant fires, such as the burning of a cannibal or the burning of an immortal giant.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we find mosquito monsters in myth.  The Great Mosquito features in stories from some native americans and it is told that the monster swooped down into villages and destroyed many people.  In Thai mythology, mosquitoes the size of chickens inhabit the World of the Dead.

Turning from specific species to the themes covered in insect mythology, we find insects feature in creation myths, stories of metamorphosis and we also find them playing positive and negative roles including helpfulness, industriousness, evil beings and plagues.  Myths are also told to explain the behaviour of different insects.

Kritsky and Cherry considered the different groups of insects and the different types of myths they star in and found that whilst most groups of insects feature reasonably equally in creation myths around the world, flies very rarely do.  When it comes to considering metamorphosis, Charles Hogue said:

“It is logical that the changes attending developmental metamorphosis led unrelated cultures to a parallel adoption of winged adult insects as symbols of the soul.”

And indeed, we find that butterflies, moths and other insects which transform are featured in regeneration and immortality myths around the world.

Beetles, ants, wasps and bees are rarely depicted negatively whilst flies overwhelmingly were and conversely, whilst most insects feature in positive roles the flies do not.

There is also a role for insects in mythology as punishers.  One particularly nasty example is from China where the sixth hell is for those guilty of sacrilege.  The punishments included being devoured by locusts.  The ninth hell, for incendiaries and obscene painters, is divided into 16 smaller hells and punishments include being devoured by wasps, ants and scorpions.  Something to remember when you’re painting obscene things…

Further reading: