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:


Frog: Wild Unknown Spirit Cards


Did you know that 29th April is Save the Frogs day? If not, check out my post over on my the day of what series…

Frogs are found living in fresh water and on land as we all know but there are also a few who live underground or in trees.  Such as the tree frog!  I had a quick look on google but I couldn’t decide what frog this is (again, vertigo is a hinderance… it might be a pacific tree frog), please shout up if you know.

Frogs have stout bodies, protruding eyes, a cleft tongue and no tail.  They fold their limbs under their body, hiding their powerful legs.  Frogs are fantastic jumpers, according to wikipedia the striped rocket frog, a mere 5.5cm can leap over 2 metres.

Whilst frogs are well known for the jumping ability, it’s their skin which amazes me.  They shed their skin every few weeks, who knew?!  The skin, once shed, is then eaten by the frog which seems pretty resourceful.  If you’ve put a lot of nutrients and energy into making your skin, why not reuse them? And actually, frogs are apparently really good at turning food in general into body mass.  Anyone who knows me, knows I love efficiency so I find this fantastic!  Bring more efficiency into life folks!

Their skin is awesome in more ways; it secretes chemicals, some of which are toxic.  They are sometimes talked about as having a pharmacy on their back and indeed the chemicals on some frogs’ skin have important, or potentially important, medical uses.  One frog secretes a potent painkiller which is stronger than morphine and another type secretes poison which is used to make poison darts.  Research is also being carried out to see if the chemicals secreted by a particular frog may be helpful in treating HIV.

They use their skin to absorb water which makes them very sensitive to their environment and changes within it.  There can be so many toxins in the water which can affect their health and they have no way of avoiding it really.  One example I came across was the hormones in birth control pills.  Some of these pass into the water system through urine and they can cause birth defects to frogs.

Please don’t read this as you need to get rid of all the chemicals in your life – chemicals are our life.  Water is a chemical.  Salt is a chemical.  Everything made of matter is a chemical.  But you can be more mindful about which chemicals you interact with.  Think back hundreds of years – women wore lead on their skin for beauty and it killed them.  If you have a cold, don’t reach automatically for the antibiotics.  Note, I am on a million meds so I’m not at all anti medication, but again I think a conscious awareness of using them rather than habitual unthinking is best.  I feel that the frog card is just asking for us to pay attention to our environment and our bodies and what we put into both of them.

Frogs can pass oxygen through their skin which means they can respire in environments where they cannot breath conventionally.  However, this is only possible if their skin is moist and it is this which ties the frog to water.  So the frog in the picture, which is being rained on, is probably loving the rain!  How you feel about the rain, and many other things in life, depends so much on perspective… Wherever you find a frog, there will be water nearby.  Whether that’s a pond or a stream or a puddle in a leaf in a tree in the rainforest.  These land dwelling animals cannot forget about their watery needs and nor should we.

If you’re eating or a bit squeamish, pass over this paragraph.  I think it’s fascinating but that doesn’t mean you will…  Frogs have long tongues (well, a few frogs don’t have any tongue but in general…) which are coiled in the mouth.  When food comes along, it shoots out and springs back really fast.  So far, so what?  The next bit is the kicker.  They then push the food, which they eat whole, down their throat using their eyes.  They literally use their eyes to eat.  How interesting is that?!

Talking of eyes, they tend to have bulging eyes which see distance better than close up.  Beware of immediate dangers which can be overlooked whilst you’re scanning the horizon.  The mosquito which sneaks up behind you is probably more deadly than the lion which you can barely make out.  The way eyes are positioned means a frog can hide under water with just their eyes above the surface which is great for hunting food.  They also have a membrane which protects them when they’re under water.

We associated frogs with ribbiting but they make other noises as well and their croak is unique to their species.  To make their call, most puff up their vocal sacks.  This self inflation can mean the frog is seen as prideful.  If this is the pacific tree frog then they do make a stereotypical frog ribbit.  This sound, to me at least, has echoes of the ba-bum of a heartbeat and perhaps chanting or using this sound as a mantra could help when meditating on what the frog card has to say.

From a metaphorical perspective, the life cycle of the frog is obviously going to be important and will reflect some of the ideas discussed in relation to the butterfly.  A quick refresher of the frog cycle:

Frogs lay eggs in water (frogspawn).  Frogspawn hatches into tadpoles (sometimes called polliwogs which I love!) which have tails and internal gills.  It grows a bit and develops limbs and lungs.  Then, through metamorphosis over about 24 hours, it then becomes an miniature adult frog and can venture onto land.

This progress from water to land has been paralleled with our own evolutionary development, both as a species and personal evolution and growth.  Has the frog come to you now because you are venturing into a time of change, because you need to step into necessary growth?  Perhaps it is time to get out of the water and onto land.  Whilst emotions are great and most of us don’t spend enough time with them, they can become all consuming and there is a wider world out there for us too.  Note too that frogs tend to lay their eggs in ponds or areas where the water is calm and sheltered.  Perhaps it’s time to leave the relative safety of the pond?  Yes, it’s scary as hell to head out onto land where herons can see you and dive after you but it will be rewarding as well.


Frogs and beliefs and stories and mythology is an abundant field.  If you find the frog chimes with you or seems to have something to say to you, do your own research, there is so much out there.  I’ll skim over a few of the ideas here but I won’t go into much detail or this would be very very very long!

Frogs are associated with fertility and new life.  In the past they were used as a pregnancy test.  Because of their life cycle, they are used as a Christian symbol of the holy trinity and resurrection.

Ancient egyptians believed frogs were divine and also linked them with regeneration.  The hieroglyph of a tadpole stood for the number 100,000.  We have to remember how important the river Nile would have been to ancient Egyptians and frogs were probably associated with that.  As such, it is not so suprising that they held the frog as a symbol of life and fertility.  The goddess Heqet was represented as a frog and was the goddess of fertility.

In terms of superstitions, we have the idea that the sighting of frogs heralds the end of the dry season, it’s lucky to meet a frog and unlucky to kill a frog because they house the spirit of dead children.  Because of the association with weather, they feature in anti-drought ceremonies.

There are a number of tales of a frog in a well where the frog is symbolic of someone lacking in understanding and vision.

There is this idea that if you put a frog in boiling water, they jump out but if you put it in cold water and heat it, they don’t.  This is disputed and please don’t try it at home.  But the idea is that slow changes build up to massive changes and our reaction to them is then different.  As a very trivial sort of example, it’s like the idea of someone getting taller.  Mum who sees him every day doesn’t notice her boy has shot up a foot but aunty Mable who only seems him once a year does.  Look back on your own progress, it’s easy to think nothing has changed as so much of our life is in baby steps.

In culture, we see the story of the frog prince as well as the frog in many many tales including the lovely Jeremy Fisher pictured above!  In a lot of these, the frog is portrayed as ugly, clumsy etc but with some sort of concealed beauty or skill.  Like the oyster, it’s a reminder to look inside.