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:

Scorpion: Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Cards


The scorpion was apparently one of the early creatures to venture onto land and this pioneering creature asks us what territories are we conquering?

Scorpions are generally loners who only meet up to mate.  This involves a passionate sex dance and once it’s over, the female may eat the male…  Something you may be more familiar with when it comes to spiders, indeed scorpions are related to spiders.

Despite the fact we generally view them with fear, these fierce creatures are rarely harmful to humans and when death occurs after a sting (it is the stinger that is harmful, not their bite) it is often due to an allergic reaction.

As with most animals, I suspect they generally only harm humans when we get in their way, such as when we put a foot in a shoe where they are resting…  After all, they wouldn’t have much interest in eating us… Scorpions much prefer insects, spiders and even other scorpions.  Mostly, they lay in wait, sensing approaching prey through sensitive hairs and once close enough, they will ambush their target using their pincers to crush it.  Following this, they have to inject a chemical into the prey which turns it into a sort of soup which the scorpion drinks as they can’t digest solids…  They can go over six months without food if they need to.

The ever vigilant scorpion is defensive of their territory.  They keep their instincts sharp and listen and act on what their gut is telling them.  Be aware, pay attention but don’t strike too soon.  For me, there is a subtle difference between protecting and defending.  Protection is about keeping something of value safe, for the scorpion, this is its territory which provides food.  Probably more so for humans, defence is a reaction.  And in some situations this is a reaction to a clear danger but in a lot of cases, humans react defensively  because someone has touched a nerve and we don’t want to face that. According to someone called Sharon Ellison (quoted in an article about defensiveness in humans), to be defensive is to react with “a war mentality to a non-war issue.”  Protection feels more about safety whereas defensiveness feels more about shutting down an issue.  Reflect on the subtle differences and see how they apply to your life.   This may also be a call to think about vulnerability.  The scorpion has set up very clear defences – poison, hard shell, angry temperament – to prevent it from being vulnerable.  But what are you losing out on because of that?

Despite having three to six pairs of eyes, the scorpion has poor eyesight.  They can’t form sharp images but one pair is very sensitive to light.  This allows it to use star light to navigate at night, the time when this creature is active, a call perhaps for you to do the same?  Let the stars guide you, stop trying to grasp a fully focused picture and instead relax into the vagueness and the feelings of the intuitive but unexplainable.

In terms of symbolism, the obvious representation of the scorpion is Scorpio; both a star sign and a constellation.

According to the wisdom of wikipedia, scorpio people are ruled by their desires, but their strength is resourcefulness, and this allows them to control their desires unless they have a plan to achieve them.  A good lesson for all of us.  As we’ve seen in the scorpions hunting technique, it is prudent to watch, wait and go in for the kill at just the right moment.

The symbol of Scorpio comes from the constellation Scorpius who killed the great hunter Orion.  Orion had boasted that he could kill every animal on earth.  Mother Earth objected to this and sent the scorpion to kill him.  Following Orion’s death, the scorpion was given a place in the heavens, but on the opposite side of the sky to the hunter.

Other, perhaps less known, stories include one of the goddess Isis and her protector scorpions.  When an old woman wouldn’t provide shelter for Isis, the scorpions sought to avenge her by hurting or killing, depending on which version you read, the old woman’s son.  When Isis found out about this, she reversed the poison and the son lived.

In one fable, a scorpion asks a frog to carry it across a river. The frog hesitates, afraid of being stung, but the scorpion argues that if it did so, they would both drown. Considering this, the frog agrees, but midway across the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog, dooming them both. When the frog asks the scorpion why, the scorpion replies that it was in its nature to do so.