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.

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Rat

Rats are often misunderstood, scapegoated and blamed for heinous events such as the black plague which was apparently actually down to other rodents.  Instead of being pests, rats can be amazingly helpful and some are trained to sniff out TB and landmines, and they also help to get rid of our rubbish.  We also test many chemicals and medicines on them and they have helped further our understanding of how the body works, or doesn’t in some cases.

There are a number of fascinating things that we know about rats:

  • Rats have a form of “chastity belt” – mating plugs get inserted into the female rats after they’ve had sex to try and prevent sperm from other rats from reaching the vagina. They can also contain a chemical which decreases the female’s sexual receptivity…
  • Rats are ‘deceived’ by placebos which scientists think is down to conditioning although there doesn’t seem to be a clear understanding about why.
  • Their brain is similar to ours in some ways and anti-psychotic drugs that humans use also work for rats.
  • They are behaviourly flexible – one of the tests for consciousness – with research showing that rats often take a moment to reflect on what they’ve learned when running a maze; they pause and play back the route in their heads in reverse order and edit their experiences.
  • In the lab, tests involving intelligence and learning often use rats because of their high intellect, ingenuity and adaptability.

Prejudged as dirty and diseased, rats are actually fascinating creatures which don’t deserve their reputation.  Think twice when you hear gossip and aspersions and instead form your own opinions.

Today there are more than 60 species of rats and whilst they originated in Asia, they have spread all over the world.  Able to sneakily stow away on ships and able to tread water for up to three days, seas were no barrier to these amazingly adaptable creatures.  In fact, some people reckon they are the most invasive species in the world and hold them responsible for extinctions on islands when in reality they are doing what they do best, surviving. Rats are born survivors and unfortunately sometimes in order for you to survive, others suffer.  Whilst this feels uncomfortable to think about for those of us who are kind and compassionate, it is a part of life.  If you go for a job and get it, someone else doesn’t.  There are times and places when you need to put yourself first and if you don’t, you will suffer.

When rats arrive in a new habitat, they need food and having not met rats before, native species don’t know that they are dangerous.  This can result in a lack of defensiveness which allows rats to kill baby birds and steal eggs for food without too much issue.  The high breeding rate of rats combined with easy food means that before you know it, rats are ruling the roost and the native species have been wiped out.

And on that note, rats are incredibly good breeders, for example, a female brown rat can breed from around 3 months old, and has an average of five litters a year, each of up to 12 young.  Because of this, in some cultures associated with fertility and wealth and abundance.

Perhaps because of this vast reproduction rate (which causes high populations and rat crowding), rats show social skills.  For example, in tests for empathy, rats showed concern for other rats.  A free rat was placed in an arena with a caged rat and once they’d learned how to free the caged rat, they would do so intentionally and quickly.  They did not react the same to cages which were empty or which contained objects.  They even continued freeing rats when chocolate was placed in a second cage although they would they open the chocolate container and would share it.  Perhaps in someways, rats are more humane than some humans…

They also really like play which is inherently a social behaviour.  They show an increase in dopamine activity simply by anticipating the opportunity to play.  When happy, they chirp with joy and rats who are tickled bond with the researchers and seek out more tickles.  Studies of their brain chemistry supports the idea that play is pleasurable and fun for them, and these feelings help to create and maintain social ties.  Rat play involves individuals assessing and monitoring one another, then fine tuning and changing their own behaviours to maintain the play mood.  If play rules are violated however, and the play is no longer fair, it stops.

Rats and humans creates an odd dichotomy.  There are the rats that save our lives through lab work, through sniffing out landmines and diseases and the rats which we keep as pets.  Then there are the rats that we call pests and put resources into killing.  When I googled rats the first result, predictably, was Wikipedia, then how to control these pests followed by a local newspaper article warning about rat infestations.  These incredibly helpful, intelligent animals still suffer because of their reputation.  We judge them without knowing them.  And casting them as dirty and disease riddled makes it easier to use them in labs I guess…  This idea of judgement feels really important when thinking about the rat oracle card.

Perhaps the most well known rats in folklore or mythology is the rat in the Chinese astrology.  It is the first and most prominent of the Chinese zodiac animals and is about curiosity, imagination and keen observation skills.  With these skills, they can deduce a lot about other people and situations and they are also able to be really adaptable and resourceful.  This in turn can lead to success in work and business and when I was reading about the sign of the rat it was suggested that those born under it need to be careful about their work life balance.

I don’t know where I got this from but my notes have the rat down as a sacred animal of the underworld, carrying spiritual wisdom as opposed to fleas. Perhaps we are overlooking pearls because of our expectation.  If you do have rats and don’t think they are bringing wisdom, you can get rid of them by asking politely, either verbally or through a nice little note.  That said, you might want to be careful because whilst rats appearing is said to be a bad omen, rats leaving a building is said to mean that the building will fall down, or elsewhere in the world, mean that someone in the home will soon die.  These contradictory ideas says much more about humans feelings about rats than anything else… If we don’t like something, if we think of them as dirty and diseased then we will always find a reason to cast them in a bad light.  What are you viewing with blinkered eyes?

Of course, there is also the story of the pied piper and in case you don’t remember…  there was a prosperous town which was infested with rats.  Cats were imported to deal with it but they were eaten by the rats.  Rat catchers tried and failed and in the end a reward was put up for anyone who could get rid of them. A stranger came into the town and said he could do it.  He played his pipe which lured the rats to him and he led them to the harbour and into a boat. He took them out to a mudflat where they got stuck and then they drowned when the tide came back in.  When he returned to town for his reward, he was given less than half of the money.  Angry at being conned, he walked round town again, again he was playing his pipe and this time instead of the rats, it was the town’s children who followed him.  He took them into a wood and they were never seen again.  An entire generation was lost and the town never recovered.  Greed had got the better of the townsfolk and they were punished by the loss of something more valuable than money.  In terms of the spirit card, this speaks to me of materialism, of greed, of having the wrong priorities and the consequences of misleading or conning others.  What you do to others, will be done to you.  Karma.

More positively, there is a temple in India where people go to worship rats and in Europe (I think) if parents wanted their child to have good, sharp teeth they would put one of their baby teeth in a rat hole and beg for it to be swapped for a better, more rat like one.  And if you happen to see a white rat, you’ll be lucky.

As I said part way through, a key part of this animal is around misunderstanding, prejudgement and not forming your own opinions.  Bear this in mind if you pull the rat animal spirit card, if you don’t, you might miss out on some really great opportunities.