Pasteur vs. Pouchet and the Demise of Spontaneous Generation: Lessons for Today from an Old Controversy, Part 2

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Note: This post is continued from yesterday.

But what about Pouchet’s theological position? As noted above, Pouchet in his major work on heterogenesis had presented an extensive theological rationale. Recall that the prevailing view of spontaneous generation was that it ran counter to Christian beliefs. In fact, spontaneous generation in mid-nineteenth century France was universally associated with materialism and atheism and was viewed as totally antithetical to the generally held belief in an original creation of life at the beginning as described in Genesis. Therefore, Pouchet, who was a Christian, was at pains to argue an opposing interpretation. He sought at length to reconcile his version of spontaneous generation with the traditional belief in a Creator. He reasoned that the first appearance of life was a spontaneous generation inspired by God, and he saw no reason to deny that other spontaneous generations had occurred since the original creation. [1] “Where is the verse in the sacred text,” he asked, “which tells us that he imposed on himself never to resume his work? Or where is it said that after this rest, he has broken his moulds and annihilated his creative faculty.” [2] He argued that heterogenesis was part of God’s design and that, in his words, the “laws of heterogenesis, far from weakening the attributes of the Creator, can only augment the Divine Majesty.” [3] Pouchet’s argument is not far removed from that of theists in the present day who would suggest in a similar manner that God is still creating and that God’s greatness is enhanced by his participation in this continuing creation of the cosmos as a whole and the development of life in particular. Thus we might contend that while Pouchet got the science wrong he got the theology right. Unfortunately for Pouchet, in France in the latter half of the nineteenth century his attempts at reconciling his beliefs about spontaneous generation with the prevailing religious viewpoint fell on deaf ears. In spite of his clear rejection of materialistic doctrines, he found his name repeatedly associated with heresies that he had repudiated.

Meanwhile Pasteur was on the winning side in two respects. Not only had his paper won the prize, but his theological views on the questions related to spontaneous generation squared with the prevailing views in the French populace. In 1864 Pasteur delivered a public lecture at the Sorbonne on spontaneous generation and its religious and philosophical implications. Just two years earlier the first French translation of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” had appeared with a preface written by the ardent atheist and materialist Clemence Royer in which she engaged in an acerbic diatribe against the Catholic Church. This only served to heighten the tension between those who expressed a belief in special creation and the materialists who welcomed Darwin’s publication and supported spontaneous generation. In his lecture Pasteur was eager to identify where his sentiments lay in both the scientific and the philosophical controversies.

While he was careful to contend that his theological/philosophical beliefs did not influence his science, Pasteur was not hesitant to expound on the significance of his science on the related theological questions. Before an audience that included the elite of French society including authors Dumas and George Sand, Pasteur began with a list of the great issues confronting mankind, including “the unity or multiplicity of human races; the creation of man…; the fixity of species or the slow and progressive transformation of one species into another; the reputed eternity of matter…; and the notion of a useless God.” [4] After a brief historical sketch of the spontaneous generation controversy, he continued: “…What a triumph, gentlemen, it would be for materialism if it could affirm that it rests on the established fact of matter organizing itself, taking on life of itself;…what would be more natural than to deify such matter? What good then would it be to resort to the idea of a primordial creation….Of what use then would be the idea of a Creator-God.” [5] Pasteur thus left little doubt which side of the religious controversy he was on. In short, the scientific theory of spontaneous generation was to be viewed as a threat to the traditional religious beliefs regarding the creation of life. In many respects the sentiments expressed by Pasteur bear a similarity to expressions by individuals on both sides of the creation/evolution controversy today who are prone to identify any physical theory of origins with materialistic atheism and call into question the possibility of any consonance between scientific theories of origins and belief in a Creator. Pasteur concluded his talk with a denial that his scientific work had been motivated or influenced by these concerns and followed with an account of the evidence he had garnered against spontaneous generation. There is no evidence that Pasteur ever criticized Pouchet directly on philosophical or theological grounds. Nevertheless it is apparent from his comments in the Sorbonne lecture where his sentiments lay.

Is there a moral to this story? Can we learn anything from this historical episode that might influence our behavior today? One obvious lesson is that the current creation/evolution controversy among Christians is not a uniquely modern phenomenon. The Pasteur vs. Pouchet incident represents a clear prior instance in which religious believers found themselves on opposite sides of what amounts to a scientific disagreement. In both the creation/evolution question and the spontaneous generation debate it would be a distortion to characterize the controversies simplistically in terms of science versus faith. Secondly, the example of Pasteur’s attempt to approach the scientific question without preconceived notions derived from his religion or philosophy is a worthy one to follow, although it must be noted that historians are divided as to whether he was successful. All truth is God’s truth and we should be ready to discover it wherever it is found.

Finally, another lesson that we might derive relates to the appropriate treatment of other Christians with whom we differ on theologically sensitive issues in our science. I cannot help but feel sympathy for Pouchet. He seemed genuine in his desire to find congruence between his faith and his science, but his clearly stated theological positions were apparently ignored by the religious advocates on the other side of the scientific question. Unfortunately there appear to be similar tendencies in the current creation/evolution controversy, and their presence only tends to weaken the common witness of the faith that the protagonists share. When we find brothers or sisters who hold to the central tenets of the faith as defined, for example, in the historic creeds, who differ with us on scientific issues such as the age of the earth or the origin of life or humankind, we should embrace them as fellow believers, not call into question the sincerity of their faith or worse yet call them heretics.


  1. Pouchet was a vitalist, believing that God had invested living matter in the beginning with ‘plastic forces’ of ‘latent life’, which remained in organic matter even after death and which could cause spontaneous regeneration of life under the right conditions. [return to body text]
  2. Quoted in J. Farley, The Spontaneous Generation Controversy: From Descartes to Oparin; (Baltimore, 1974), p.98 [return to body text]
  3. Ibid. [return to body text]
  4. Quoted in G.L.Geison, The Private Science of Louis Pasteur, (Princeton, 1995), p.110. [return to body text]
  5. Ibid., p.111. [return to body text]

Notes

Citations

MLA

Funck, Larry. "Pasteur vs. Pouchet and the Demise of Spontaneous Generation: Lessons for Today from an Old Controversy, Part 2"
https://biologos.org/. N.p., 1 Apr. 2014. Web. 22 September 2018.

APA

Funck, L. (2014, April 1). Pasteur vs. Pouchet and the Demise of Spontaneous Generation: Lessons for Today from an Old Controversy, Part 2
Retrieved September 22, 2018, from /blogs/archive/pasteur-vs-pouchet-and-the-demise-of-spontaneous-generation-lessons-for-today-from-an-old-controversy-part-2

About the Author

Larry Funck

  Larry Funck is an Emeritus Professor at Wheaton College where he taught Inorganic Chemistry for over forty years. He was a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Lesotho, southern Africa in 1995-96, and the Chief Reader for College Board’s Advanced Placement Chemistry program from 2009 through 2013. He continues to be engaged in the Wheaton Chemistry Department, and is currently teaching the origin of life component in the Theories of Origins course on the Wheaton campus. Married for fifty years, he enjoys swimming, listening to classical music, following major league baseball and learning to know his grandchildren.

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