Sparks of Life: Darwinism and the Victorian Debates over Spontaneous Generation

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How, asks James E. Strick, could spontaneous generation--the idea that living things can suddenly arise from nonliving materials--come to take root for a time (even a brief one) in so thoroughly unsuitable a field as British natural theology? No less an authority than Aristotle claimed that cases of spontaneous generation were to be observed in nature, and the idea held sway for centuries. Beginning around the time of the Scientific Revolution, however, the doctrine was increasingly challenged; attempts to prove or disprove it led to important breakthroughs in experimental design and laboratory techniques, most notably sterilization methods, that became the cornerstones of modern microbiology and sped the ascendancy of the germ theory of disease.

The Victorian debates, Strick shows, were entwined with the public controversy over Darwin's theory of evolution. While other histories of the debates between 1860 and 1880 have focused largely on the experiments of John Tyndall, Henry Charlton Bastian, and others, Sparks of Life emphasizes previously understudied changes in the theories that underlay the debates. Strick argues that the disputes cannot be understood without full knowledge of the factional infighting among Darwinians themselves, as they struggled to create a socially and scientifically viable form of "Darwinian" science. He shows that even the terms of the debate, such as "biogenesis," usually but incorrectly attributed to Huxley, were intensely contested.

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About the Author:

James E. Strick is Assistant Professor of Biology at Arizona University.

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With impressive scholarship, Strick examines the major books, articles, lectures, and letters on, as well as experiments and institutions involved with, the origin of life controversies in scientific philosophy. He rigorously analyzes the complex Victorian (1860-80) debates surrounding the idea of spontaneous generation...He also emphasizes the social aspects and personal interests that influenced those arguments offered by both naturalists and physicians. The result of prodigious research, Sparks of Life is highly recommended. (H. James Birx Library Journal)

Between 1860 and 1880, the scientific community vigorously debated the doctrine of spontaneous generation...and it held sway for generations before being challenged in the era of Darwin's theory of evolution. Strick investigates the evidence brought to bear on this controversy, including improvements in microscope technology, laboratory techniques, and experimental method, all of which helped author germ theory. Strick also treats conceptual changes and public controversy that lay beneath the research and scientific advances of Darwin's era. (Science News 2000-12-02)

[Strick] explores the debate in Victorian Britain (1860-80) over the view that life was formed from nonliving matter (spontaneous generation or abiogenesis), against the background of controversy generated by Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and development of the germ theory of disease...The author strives to connect...diverse issues, making the work...attractive to those well versed in the scientific and historical details. (J.S. Schwartz Choice 2001-04-01)

Sparks of Life provides a fascinating, scholarly account of the 19th century spontaneous generation controversy that raged in England which focuses on the work of Henry Charlton Bastian...Strick's highly readable account of English microbiology during the late Victorian period is superb and unlikely to be bettered--a must for everyone interested in the development of both microbiology and biology in general. (Milton Wainwright Microbiology Today 2001-08-01)

In accessible language and an engaging narrative style, Strick navigates through the Victorian power politics of both observational and experimental science (Darwin's immediate 19th-century legacy) and the old (and inevitable) rifts between men of science and arrogant medical practitioners. He illuminates especially the European backdrop and the relations of the debates over spontaneous generation to the "big questions." (Lynn Margulis Science 2001-02-09)

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