Chapter I

1.7 Teach the Kulturkampf

Origins or Bust—Pasteur, evolution and religion in the French scientific tradition

As for where Pasteur stood on the Darwin or creation, one quotation that would bear on this point concerned an allusion tossed off in Pasteur (1881) to potentially virulent microbes having evolved over millions of years, which Wilkins (2004) and Cross (2007) both deployed to suggest that Pasteur was not an antievolutionist. But Gillen & Sherwin (2008, 49) correctly pointed out that the version of the Pasteur statement Cross had used was not that of the original paper, though even Gillen & Sherwin relied on a 19th century American translation as their source. But the actual French Comptes Rendus paper did confirm this: somewhere along the scholarly line (Wilkins had quoted from a 1965 Pasteur biography) a parenthetical clarifying insertion had appeared that millions of years were involved in evolution.

Pasteur’s 1864 Sorbonne address on spontaneous generation framed the matter more broadly: “Great problems are in question today, keeping every thinking man in suspense: the unity or multiplicity of human races, the creation of man 1,000 years or 1,000 centuries ago; the fixity of species, or the slow and progressive transformation of one species into another,” Pallen (2009, 78). Since Pasteur would have known human beings had been around for more than a millennium (1000 years earlier would have been at the time of Charlemagne, 800 years after the birth of Christ), his use of mille likely owed more to rhetoric than temporal reflection, nor did Pasteur discuss that “slow and progressive transformation” issue any further.

Gillen & Sherwin (2008, 51) were not so equivocal:

Although he was not a young-earth creationist (YEC or biblical creationist) in the modern sense (he lived in a different time, continent, and culture), Pasteur was clearly skeptical of Darwin’s idea of evolution. Little is said about his beliefs on the age of the earth. But from a few anecdotal remarks, there is reason to believe that he believed in a recent creation, not one evolving over millions of years.

None of those “anecdotal remarks” they bothered to share with their readers, apart from Pasteur’s frequent attestations to being a man of faith. But before Gillen & Sherwin get to pop their champagne cork and toast the antievolutionist Pasteur, they should have paused to wonder why, in all of the years of painstaking reportage Pasteur and his contemporaries devoted to his activities, not a single sentence could be adduced where Pasteur even mentioned Darwin, let alone criticized him. The case is like the old Sherlock Holmes story, Silver Blaze:

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

Apparently Pasteur was so “clearly skeptical of Darwin’s idea of evolution” that no one at the time or since could dredge up anything from Pasteur himself expressing that opinion! And then there’s the Silver Blaze factor: not the slightest whiff of concern crossed the vigilant noses of Darwin, Huxley or Wallace over many years, who we know (as in the Flourens case above) were primed to notice and respond to every challenger. And yet Darwin and company accepted the evidence of Pasteur on spontaneous generation without much fuss, and decades later, MIT bacteriologist William Sedgwick (1855-1921) readily connected the two scientists’ accomplishments without perceiving any underlying tension, Sedgwick (1923).

Darwin’s attitude on the subject is illustrated by two letters from the period quoted by Pallen (2009, 78). Darwin enthused in 1863 how he “was struck with infinite admiration” of Pasteur’s work. As for the failure of spontaneous generation biogenesis of modern organisms, that didn’t rule out the possibility of a far more fundamental abiogenesis (another Huxley neologism coined during this period) involving potentially very different prebiotic components and theoretical conditions. In an 1871 letter to Hooker, Darwin tentatively pondered the matter in a way ultimately remarkably prescient in light of prebiotic research conducted over a century later:

It is often said that all the conditions for the first production of a living organism are now present, which could ever have been present. But if (and oh! what a big if!) we could conceive in some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity, etc., present, that a proteine compound was chemically formed ready to undergo still more complex changes, at the present day such matter would be instantly devoured or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed.

That some antievolutionists then (particularly in France) tried to conflate the two issues of biogenesis and abiogenesis (and modern ones like Toleman, Gillen & Sherwin still do) just reinforces how apologetics can trump fine distinctions.

It may be most revealing that Pasteur was as exasperatingly imprecise on chronology as he was in his brief allusion to centuries past in 881 and the thousand years/thousand centuries remark at the Sorbonne in 1864—this from a man known for not being imprecise. If the cosmos really were Ussher-scaled, there would have been only sixty centuries since Creation, even as 19th century geologists were adding orders of magnitude to that. But Pasteur simply didn’t seem to think much about chronology. Then again, he didn’t need to. His work dealt exclusively with living microbes, and no fossil record or DNA sequences existed to demand questions about their deeper relationship. Here Pasteur and Michael Behe may well have shared a genuine temperamental concordance—enjoy it while you can.

Meanwhile, while Darwin studied some microbes, viewing them as just as subject to natural selection as any other life, and actively corresponding with botanist Ferdinand Cohn (1828-1898) who pioneered bacterial taxonomy (recognizing how some forms were related to another), the Origin of Species had not dwelt on them and overall microbiology and evolutionary thinking operated at a distance until after the 1940s, Drews (2000), O’Malley (2009), Pallen (2009) and Moxon (2011). Add to that (as noted back in section 1.5) how the French practical scientific tradition shied away from larger theoretical contexts anyway, deriding them as speculative distraction, so why bother venturing into areas beyond where his work applied?

But there was another factor, one more conceptual than factual. The inference that Pasteur must have been an antievolutionist because of the spontaneous generation disproof follows what may be called the Origins or Bust logic that modern antievolutionists also take as a given: if life did not (and cannot) originate naturally, then it did not (and cannot) have evolved. QED, case closed. Strictly atheistic evolutionists also need a purely natural origin of life just as stringently as creationists want there not to be one, of course, and early German evolutionists tramped along that mechanistic philosophy path, Farley (1986, 41-42). It was certainly a creationist trope in play by the time Byron Nelson (1893-1972) nicked a mistranslation of Darwin on life’s origin (courtesy of Ernst Haeckel, of all people) in 1927, as recounted by Glenn Branch (2015d). Nelson’s role in the popularization of Price’s Young Earth geology (and controversies over how humans fitted into the picture) was covered by Numbers (1992, 105-115), with a legacy carrying on, after a fashion, in his grandson, current Discovery Institute IDer (and Young Earth Creationist still) Paul Nelson.

Over in Britain, though, Darwin, Wallace and Huxley refused to play the game from that direction. For them, the evolution of life could be deduced by a variety of interlocking hard facts, independent of whether its initial origin was by natural or supernatural means—and none of that evidence for branching common descent would go away just because life did or did not arise in a particular way. By moving the origins issue to an unnecessary speculative siding, the British Darwinian evolution train never arrived at the theistic station—in contrast to the politicized French edition of the Origins or Bust game, where the theistic platform represented both the arrival and departure points.

Pasteur recognized the downside implications of this focus though, warning in the 1864 Sorbonne address quoted by Farley (1986, 39) what awaited should abiotic life experiments succeed. Not only would the prospect of the evolution of all life follow almost as a conceptual afterthought, but the need for that First Cause would be rendered at best optional: “To what good then would be the idea of a Creator God.”

Which is evidence that Pasteur may have thought through his circumspection a bit more deeply than had Michael Behe. Not that Behe could resist playing the Origins or Bust game briefly at Dover, though with a tighter purpose. One of Behe’s court exhibits was a reprint of Crick & Orgel (1973) on their “directed panspermia” notion that life here may have been part of a grand seeding program of highly advanced alien, and Muise played it up in the court proceedings, Chapman (2007, 49-50).

Presupposing as it did that life couldn’t have originated on the early Earth on its own, and so must have come from space, Crick & Orgel’s idea begged the “chicken or egg” question big time, of course, because it wouldn’t explain who seeded the highly advanced aliens in order for them to come along later to do their own seeding here. Behe and Muise’s use of it at Dover thus hinted at Origins or Bust logic without having to do any further lifting, though this venerable origins chestnut was of no more relevance to current thinking than the spontaneous generation debate in Pasteur’s day. But it may have served a narrower intent if the idea was to solidify ID’s scientific legitimacy by proxy, dangling Francis Crick (1916-2004) of DNA fame and early life researcher Leslie Orgel (1927-2007) as some manner of scientific design precursors.

In the end, Pasteur’s reticence on Darwin and Deep Time may just reflect a reluctance to stare too long into the abyss that modern antievolutionists confront on an even grandeur scale. Representing several enlarging data sets too many, and ones outside his area of expertise besides, they would only have muddied the clearer conceptual waters offered by the Origins or Bust game. Instead, it was much easier to rest where their side had points, spontaneous generation safely buried. And modern creationists do the same: as long as abiogenesis isn’t accomplished, the simpler Origins or Bust version of “evolution” is unproven (if not downright falsified). So we can understand and spare Pasteur a smile for resting on the effect his biogenesis research had on the materialists of the mid-19th century who thought to coax complex life from a gauze covered flask. Working out the true origin of life was not going to be that easy.

As for Pasteur’s religious convictions, though not a particularly observant Catholic (rather like Darwin, his cathedral was his work), he was certainly no materialist, and occasionally voiced his disdain whenever materialist thinking got too bossy in the French academic world, Crosland (1992, 199). Here again the spontaneous generation debate was a ready redoubt here. And yet Wheeler (1889, 251) listed Pasteur as Vice-President of the British Secular Union, which would land him on the freethinker side of things—prompting Brendon Barnett (2011) at Pasteur Brewing (revel in those yeast!) and the Celebrity Atheist List (2012) more secondarily to haul him far afield of traditional theology. Amid the dueling authority quotes, though, a pause would be in order before speculating too broadly (devoid of clear declarations from Pasteur himself) as to whether his philosophical apple would not fall nearer to the more inclusive Francis Collins theistic evolution tree than to the narrowly-gated Answers in Genesis YEC orchard.

As we exit this spontaneous generation garden maze, the final piece of the Mark Toleman puzzle concerns where his piece appeared: Luke Randall’s Was Darwin right? website—Randall being another creationist biologist who publishes regular work on bacterial resistance much as Toleman does. Toleman’s spontaneous generation venture was rubbing shoulders with a mélange of YEC advocates, from astronomer Donald DeYoung and aircraft engineer Andrew McIntosh to Randall’s plucky American protégé Joe Baker, Was Darwin right? (2011). An amiable response letter to BCSE (2007d) suggested Toleman hadn’t given much thought to the general age of things that concerned the rest of Was Darwin right? How Pasteuresque. Instead, he had derived his convictions chiefly from his work experience with “the mind boggling complexity of bacteria let alone higher eukaryotes like ourselves” mapped into the general precepts of Jesus in the New Testament.