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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Animal parents: from self sacrifice to murder

In the animal kingdom, reproduction is a vast and interesting topic with many different methods having evolved.  Take for example the frog mums who let tadpoles develop in their tummy and then have to regurgitate them.  Or any one of the marsupials who give birth to jellybean sized young who then have to struggle across mum to find her pouch where lies safety and food.  I’ve written before about kangaroos and how females are essentially a baby making conveyor belt with young at various stages ‘on the go’.

Birth might sound difficult for the kangaroo but I’m betting the hyena is looking on wistfully… Female hyenas experience horrific births.  Their birth canal is a funny shape, it’s longer than most similar sized mammals and the umbilical cord is short.  This means there is a higher risk of asphyxiation, but it gets worse.  The baby’s head is too big to pass through the clitoris (hyenas have an unusual genital makeup and urination, fertilisation and birthing are all carried out through the clitoris) so when a mother gives birth, the clitoris tears.  Not just painful, this can be deadly, with estimates of over 10% of females dying the first time they give birth and more than half of cubs being stillborn.  Things don’t get much better for those cubs that survive either… they tend to arrive in litters of two and the one that is born first tends to kill the second within minutes of birth.

Not necessarily a difficult birth, but the frilled shark has to suffer pregnancy for over three years…  The babies grow a frustrating ½ inch per month and don’t emerge into the water until they reach 1 ½ to 2 feet long…

On land, the longest pregnancy falls to elephants who have to endure almost two years of pregnancy before a baby pops out but thankfully, once little ellie has arrived, the whole herd play a role in raising it.  Similarly, sea lions have collective arrangements with a nursery so they can drop off the pups and then head out to feed.  This rota system works well for sea lions but this communal approach isn’t the case for all animals.  In many species, mum and dad don’t actually engage in parenting and in others, the burden falls on just one parent.  And in some cases, this burden can literally kill mum.

Self sacrificing parents include octopus mums who guard their eggs for several months, starving during this time as they can’t leave them.  Once they hatch, the mother dies.  As sad as this is, it pales in comparison to the desert spider.  When the female desert spider lays an egg sac, her insides start to liquefy.  Once her babies hatch, she regurgitates her innards for her young to eat and nine days later, only a husk remains.

When desert spider lays an egg sac, her tissues start to degrade until the spiderlings hatch. Once this happens, she regurgitates her own liquefied insides for the babies to eat.  9 days later they finish up her innards and then head off into the world, leaving her husk behind…

For orangutans the substantial workload falls to mum who has to spend 8 years raising her babies, longer than any other animal single parent.

Whilst pregnancy and childrearing might be tough for mum, not all dads are hands off.  Indeed, in some cases, its only the male who’s involved in child rearing – the male rhea receives eggs from various females to incubate and rear and the same is true for the cassowary.

Indeed, this system – where the males look after the young from several females, and females spread their brood between several males – is common, especially among fish.
– Olivia Judson

Childcare arrangements vary throughout the natural world with some parents having no involvement, some species specialising in single parenthood and others working together to raise their children.  The type of gestation affects the possible roles for parents.  In mammals for example, where the fetus develops in the womb, there isn’t a lot that the males can do.  For birds however, dad can sit on the eggs and provide food for the chicks just as well as mum can.

Looking at a couple of egg examples, we can see there are different levels of involvement and different roles the parents can play.  The spraying characid is a fish that lays its eggs out of water – the female leaps out of water and lays eggs, then the male leaps out and fertilises them, an act which is repeated until about 300 eggs have been laid.  For the next three days, dad has to stay with them and splash the eggs with his tail to keep them from drying out.

For some leeches, parenting is the basic guarding eggs from predators but for African leeches, a kangaroo style approach has been adopted and they carry their young in a pouch, and for another type of leech, the young are glued to their parents tummy.

But moving onto mammals, we find the Dayak fruit bat where both mum and dad produce milk, taking shared responsibility for nursing their young.  Djungarian hamster males are also devoted to their babies.  They “forage for seeds which they stuff into their pouches in their cheeks; on arriving back at the burrow, they unload their cargo by pushing on the pouches with their forepaws so that seeds stream forth” (Judson).  In addition to finding the food, the males help in the birth process, acting as a midwife and helping the pups out.  They also open their airways and lick them clean, even going so far as to eat the placenta.  Male marmosets also carry out a similar role and will go on to play an active role in childrearing.

Hornbills are another devoted parent.  The female climbs into a nest in a tree and seals up the entrance so that there is only space for her beak.  She is then reliant on her partner to bring her food whilst she incubates the chicks.  Once they are born, the father must bring food for the whole family until it is time for them to emerge.  Overall, the female spends as much as 137 days cooped up in the nest.

But there’s always two sides to a story…  And on the flip side to these dedicated parents, we find infanticide.

In many species where fatherhood is clear, males will kill offspring that is not there.  Infanticide gets pesky children out of the way so that dad doesn’t have to spend resources, time and energy on raising them.  They also do this because without children around, the females get in season and thus he can get her pregnant and have children of his own.  Squirrels, wolves and primates are some of the creatures that engage in this behaviour and about 34% of gorilla infant deaths and 64% of languar infant deaths are down to infanticide (Bondar).

In species which are particularly prone to infanticide, females have evolved a number of countermeasures such as keeping babies in burrows or pouches so that males can’t get to them but there are times when even mum can’t keep their baby alive.

“In rodents, an increased incidence of infanticide is observed for males during periods of food deprivation, and for females during periods of lactation (which confers high energetic demands).”
– Carin Bondar

In coot and moorhen families, who have a large number of chicks at once, parents tend to feed the closest mouth, but if one chick becomes particularly demanding, the parents will try and discourage it by picking it up and shaking it, sometimes killing it.

In some animals, a male having a mistress can lead to the death of the children, the ultimate in wicked stepmothers!  The mistress will often murder the wife’s children and if the opportunity arises, vice versa.

“In both the house sparrow and the great reed warbler, for example, a male with two mates will help only the female whose clutch hatches first, so to ensure herself of male assistance, a savvy mistress will smash all the wife’s eggs.”
– Olivia Judson

Murder isn’t only a risk that comes from your parents; the sand shark practices intrauterine cannibalism, the biggest fetus gobbles up its embryonic siblings whilst in the womb. Whilst an extreme example, siblingcide is not uncommon in the animal kingdom.  In many invertebrates, cannibalism is the way to get rid of your pesky brothers and sisters and thus not only do you get a good meal, you also guarantee increased access to resources going forward.  Whilst not so extreme, eagles and hyenas also kill their siblings, although they wait until after birth.

Of course there are many other interesting births and parenting techniques in the animal kingdom and I could never do any more than scrape the surface here but if these exmaples have whet your appetite, try checking out some of the links below and look into seahorses, that well known fully involved dad!

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Spider: Animal Dreaming

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Spider: Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Deck

Tarantula: Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Deck

“No one knows, incidentally, why Australia’s spiders are so extravagantly toxic; capturing small insects and injecting them with enough poison to drop a horse would appear to be the most literal case of overkill. Still, it does mean that everyone gives them lots of space.”
― Bill Bryson, In a Sunburned Country

It’s common knowledge that Australia has some highly venomous spiders.  Whilst some are deadly, most are not very toxic.  Despite being very feared, they are an important part of the web of life; controlling insect populations.  They have been depicted in aboriginal art and one dreaming focuses on the spider’s sexuality and desire.  She would seduce some men and not others and this caused tension and jealousy.  To escape the consequences of her action, she turned herself and her lovers into spiders.  Be careful of getting caught in your own web.

“Women are spinners and weavers, we are the ones who spin the threads and weave them into meaning and pattern. Like silkworms, we create those threads out of our own substance, pulling the strong, fine fibres out of our own hearts and wombs. It’s time to make some new threads; time to strengthen the frayed wild edges of our own being and then weave ourselves back into the fabric of our culture.”

– Sharon Blackie, If Women Rose Rooted

Spider: Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Deck

Note, there is a separate tarantula card.

I’m going to say from the start, I don’t like spiders, writing this is making me feel things crawling up my legs… I used to, once upon a time. I would play with them and they were all called Humphrey… Then I accidentally saw an episode of a David Attenborough documentary with a spider the size of a dinner plate which could kill you… I was only little at the time and it instilled a fear of all spiders.

When I was in Ghana I had to face a toilet full of jumping spiders and in Bali and Cambodia there were some pretty huge ones which I had to scurry past *shudder*.

So a hat tilt to Kim who has managed to make this much feared animal still look beautiful. And that’s probably a good first thing to take from this card – all plants and animals are part of the web of life, they all have a role to play and we shouldn’t discount any based on their looks (or their potential to kill).

Obviously it’s not just me, a lot of people are afraid of spiders.  Taz Thornton writes about facing fears in her book, using the spider as an example:

“If you are afraid of spiders, try to remember when you first learned that fear, then work out what, exactly, you believe you are afraid of… Is it the swift movement?  Would they still be scary if they moved at a snail’s pace?  Is it the legs?  Who else do you know with legs?  Are they scary?  What would a spider have to do to make friends with you?  What if they started delivering your favourite treats, or spinning lovely words for you to wake up to in the morning?”

(By the way, you really should get her book, it’s ace – Whispers From The Earth.)

Tell me something that isn’t about fear…

Why is the spider in the earth suit?  Surely it makes more sense to be in the air where they build their webs?  Well… I am glad you asked!

Firstly, not all spiders build webs in the air, some build traps in the ground.  But probably more relevant here is the spiders starring role in a number of creation myths.  In these stories they literally created the earth, weaving it into existence, so of course the earth suit is the perfect place for them.

I think it’s interesting that this spider is weaving a rainbow web – one could take that as a sign of the diversity of life and existence.  The web of life is complicated and varied but we all have our part to play.

In terms of reflection, how are you creating your reality?  There are a lot of things beyond our control but how are you approaching those things which you have influence over?  This might be your physical environment, like the spiders web, or your thoughts, like the spider’s persistence.

So what else?

Random fact: Collectively a group of spiders is a clutter of spiders.

Most of us know that spiders have 8 eyes and 8 legs, making the number 8 very significant to a spider.  In numerology, the number 8 is often associated with balance, something which is crucial when you live on a delicate web!

In terms of how it perceives the world, the spider will see the world in intricate and minute detail.  And all these eyes must come in handy for the hunters of the spider family.  The numerous legs also have a role to play allowing the spider to feel subtle vibrations in it’s web through them.

Spiders have a range of approaches to finding food; some trap it in their sticky webs, some lasso it and some hunt it.  Regardless of how it gets it, spiders cannot digest solids so they have to liquefy their food first using digestive enzymes.  Their hunting approaches have resulted in the spider symbolising patience and persistence, something which is echoed in the nursery rhyme below.  Do you need to pay more attention to the detail?  Do you need to channel some of the spider’s attitude?

Incy wincy spider climbed up the waterspout.
Down came the rain
and washed the spider out.
Out came the sun
and dried up all the rain
and incy wincy spider climbed up the spout again

Probably one of the most well known symbols of the spider is it’s web…

However much I don’t like spiders, I do really admire their webs.  These fantastic, delicate looking creations are wonderful.  Spiders produce silk from their spinnerets which is itself mindbogglingly amazing.  It is very lightweight and yet incredibly strong and it’s elasticity – how far it can stretch without breaking – is far superior to that of anything humans have created.

This delicate looking and yet architecturally solid web allows the spider to catch large prey in an energy efficient way.  And webs are not just the stereotypical design, no, the species have a number of different types of webs depending on the spider spinning it.  There is the funnel web, the sheet web, the orb web and more.

In religion and mythology, spiders have concealed people by spinning webs over cave entrances, earning them respect in some cultures.

8 of Pentacles

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The 8 of Pentacles is an excellent card for illustrating the spiders skills, talents and perseverance.  Some spiders have to remake their web daily and yet they don’t complain, they just get on with it.

This tarot card is all about honing your skills, carefully paying attention to the details, mastering your abilities, and being focused and engaged in what you are doing.

Sometimes it can be asking you to look at your approach to life and other times it can be a much more literal suggestion to make something with your hands.

“Women are spinners and weavers, we are the ones who spin the threads and weave them into meaning and pattern.  Like silkworms, we create those threads out of our own substance, pulling the strong, fine fibres out of our own hearts and wombs.  It’s time to make some new threads; time to strengthen the frayed wild edges of our own being and then weave ourselves back into the fabric of our culture.”

– Sharon Blackie, If Women Rose Rooted