Chapter I

1.7 Teach the Kulturkampf

Venturing Further into the Bacterial Maze—Creationist history lessons on religion & politics

Parenthetically, the metallo-β-lactamase issue briefly elbows us into the Biblical antievolution scene via Toleman et al. (2003), as microbiologist Mark Toleman happens to be a British creationist. His involvement didn’t preclude their collective employment of phylogenetic analysis to generate a cladogram of IMP relationships (suggesting how creationists can operate within an overall framework of evolutionary presumptions, at least while they don’t think too much about the implications of their own collaborative work). Venturing into the garden maze of Toleman’s non-evolutionary view of things affords an opportunity to explore those pesky bacteria from another direction, to see how they fit into the larger frame of antievolutionary expectations.

Apart from signing the Discovery Institute petition, his only declaration on the antievolution theme was Toleman (2003) framing the 18th century dispute over “spontaneous generation” biogenesis as one of sloppy pseudoscientific charlatans egged on by “godless peer pressure” until the superior skills of properly devout scientists confirmed the truth that only God could do Life. There were quite a few dramatis personae involved, but the primary figures were John Needham (1713-1781) on the spontaneous generation side and his resolute opponent Lazzaro Spallanzani (1729-1799).

Toleman had drawn on only one main resource for this affair, the 1926 classic Microbe Hunters by microbiologist Paul de Kruif (1890-1971), which while an invigorating read (awash with imagined conversations and vivid scenic detail) offered a precariously dated popular science footing for what Toleman thought to do with the biogenesis story: kicking away abiogenesis experiments of the 21st century by proxy, work involving amino acids and lipid research not only unfamiliar to Spallanzani in the 18th century but to de Kruif in the Roaring Twenties.

The historical scholarship of the Needham-Spallanzani dispute had also progressed since 1926 (the year after the Scopes Trial, remember), such as Hellman (1998, 63-79) and Capana (1999) or the survey by Wilkins (2004) for Talk.Origins, but superficial documentation wasn’t Toleman’s only problem. Because his 21st century creationist world is a combat zone between godly design and materialist atheism, Toleman had to do some careful parsing of the religious convictions of the spontaneous generation protagonists, characterizing Needham as a “Catholic priest who liked to dabble in pseudoscience” while identifying Spallanzani as also “a Catholic priest but one that really believed in a God.”

In this he had to climb over his own source, where the chapter on Spallanzani in de Kruif (1926, 23-53) was already prone to breezy characterizations like “the Italian was a nasty fellow who liked to slaughter ideas of any kind that were contrary to his,” but de Kruif was particularly serpentine regarding Spallanzani’s faith:

Despising secretly all authority, he got himself snugly into the good graces of powerful authorities, so that he might work undisturbed. Ordained a priest, supposed to be a blind follower of the faith, he fell savagely to questioning everything, to take nothing for granted—excepting the existence of God, of some sort of supreme being. At least if he questioned this he kept it—rogue that he was—strictly to himself.

Even stipulating that Spallanzani was ultimately devout, though, what of Needham? As de Kruif dismissed Needham as “a devout Catholic who liked to think he could do experiments,” nothing in Microbe Hunters suggested the priest’s devotion was any less deep or thoughtful than his Italian critic. So how exactly Toleman was divining this distinction was anybody’s guess. Needham certainly warranted points for pluck: managing to garner some renown as a Catholic in Protestant Georgian Britain was no small accomplishment (he was the first Catholic elected to the Royal Society, though his conservative defense of the divine right of kings may have helped). De Kruif was snide on this matter too: “Worst of all, the Royal Society tumbled over itself to get ahead of the men in the street, and elected Needham a Fellow, and the Academy of Sciences of Paris made him an Associate.”

That no one seems to have accused Needham of apostasy at the time is relevant, since the materialist implications of a successful demonstration of biogenesis were obviously not lost on his Enlightenment contemporaries, particularly deist (but no atheist) Voltaire, the nom de plume of François-Marie Arouet (1694-1776), who lit into Needham and spontaneous generation with a vengeance. On this point, Toleman may also have accepted too readily de Kruif’s blanket attribution of overconfident Jazz Era cynicism (he and H. L. Mencken grew into fast friends) to the 18th century:

The world would have liked to believe Needham, for the people of the eighteenth century were cynical and gay, everywhere men were laughing at religion and denying any supreme power in nature, and they delighted in the notion that life could arise haphazardly.

One might hardly imagine that the French Revolution was about to happen, or that some of those “cynical and gay” folk might burn your house down (and physically tar and feather you besides, had they managed to catch you) for denying the Trinity, as would happen to Unitarian chemist Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), prompting his precipitous departure to America with his family, Jackson (2005, 254-260).

Toleman concluded his spontaneous generation piece with a gratuitous stab at Erasmus Darwin as someone who “simply chose deception rather than truth and ignored Spallanzani’s experiments as though they were never performed.” But that was filtering grandpapa Darwin’s occasional poetic ventures on this topic through hindsight (just as Toleman imposed his own religion/materialism sensibilities rather than granting the players the luxury of their own independent sincerity). Although Spallanzani’s careful work showing how properly sealed and sufficiently heated flasks argued against biogenesis for the curious “animalcules” visible to their microscopes (let alone flies and bigger pests), investigators looking into the origin of diseases in the 18th century were expanding the range of culprits so quickly that spontaneous generation could not be ruled out as a general principle until well into the next century, noted for example by Egerton (2008). It was also a time of adventurous but often credulous discovery, such as the mania for electric fluids that swept through European science and attracted the prolifically curious Erasmus Darwin as well, Pancaldi (2009). Making sense of all these new findings was no easy task, especially when the story had been decanted solely from Microbe Hunters.

The biogenesis question was knee deep in something Hellman (1998, 63-79), Capanna (1999) and Wilkins (2004) all identified regarding 18th century thinking, but not touched on in Microbe Hunters. While we now know how sperm and egg interact in vertebrates to begin embryonic development, much of that was still a mystery in the 18th century—the hypothesized mammalian egg wouldn’t even be observed until 1827 by Karl Ernst von Baer (1792-1876). Operating in that informational twilight were two competing (and ultimately equally wrong) explanations carried over from the 17th century: the epigenesists who thought embryos coalesced from formless substances (rather as Aristotle had imagined, maybe even from garden variety mud) after some prodding by the sperm—and the rival preformationists who envisaged embryos as miniature adults (a homunculus) residing in the egg until it began to enlarge after fertilization. The popularity of the two camps ebbed and flowed as a duel of improving microscopes left a trail of tempered reputations and bruised egos.

While the epigenesists grasped at the mirage of spontaneous generation, preformationists tilted with some problematic windmills of their own. Spallanzani, for example, thought hybridization could occur on a ridiculous scale (a mare with a bull, or a rabbit with a hen), and regarding sexual insemination, denied sperm any role in fertilization at all (deeming it but a wiggly parasite accompanying the vital seminal fluid)—though to be fair, sperm wouldn’t be actually observed microscopically penetrating an egg until the 1870s. That chronology would have fallout too, as the Catholic Church would come to its doctrinal convictions about life beginning “at conception” in the context of that coalescing flood of microscopic discovery.

If preformationists were thought to have won the biogenesis debate after Spallanzani’s experiments, it was at a cost: retaining arbitrary notions about embryological development that acted more as obstacle than inspiration until cell theory eventually supplanted preformationism altogether. Looking back on the controversy long after the dust had settled, molecular biologist Paul Zumbo (2012) wryly summed up how the ultimate positional genetic and epigenetic substructure of embryonic development lay more in the middle: “the epigenesis of something preformed.”

By the 19th century the debate had moved on to different issues anyway: the causes of disease (an obvious health safety issue) and what caused fermentation (of considerable practical economic interest to winemakers and brewers). A strictly chemical (atheist/materialist?) model of fermentation was first proposed by scientific heavyweight Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794), while the rival biological idea involving yeast was offered by a lesser light in French science, engineer Charles Cagniard-Latour (1777-1859). Although Cagniard-Latour helped identify yeast as living organisms in the late 1830s, even this observation was not immediately accepted in science, reminding us again of the dangers of hindsight when playing the “Who’s On First?” discovery game (Science Edition).

As for the last gasp of spontaneous generation advocacy, vitalist-minded theists and materialists alike (Spallanzani and Erasmus Darwin notwithstanding) were able to entertain the idea even as Origin of Species rumblings began to be heard from across the English Channel (Pasteur’s final assault on spontaneous generation began in the early 1860s). This made the materialist implications of biogenesis claims impossible to ignore, and made the issue an undeniable philosophical hot potato. Continuing to complicate the problem, though, was the fact that 19th century biologists were still only beginning to stake out the environmental range of living things, such as heat resistant organisms that could survive the very sterilization regimens being so confidently employed by both sides, Strick (1997).

Gerald Geison (1943-2001) added another wrinkle to the modern evaluation of Pasteur’s role when he examined the scientist’s original experimental notebooks and found even that pioneering work was not immune to some confirmation bias, as Pasteur had rejected 90% of his own results as due to contamination or error whenever they happened to conflict with his theoretical expectations, Geison (1995). In a creationist paean for AiG decrying the “politically correct revisionist historians” besmirching the Christian pedigree of Pasteur’s contribution to science, Gillen & Sherwin (2008, 46-47) veered disingenuously close to this cliff by cribbing a single quotation from The Private Science of Louis Pasteur:

Protestant François Guizot, a historian and politician, came to the defense of the Catholic Church against the materialist attack, which he saw as an assault upon the Christian faith. In an 1862 book, he insisted that “under the blows that [the materialists] bring against Christian dogma, the entire religious edifice collapses and the entire social edifice shakes, the Empire, the essence of religion itself, vanishes” (Geison 1995, p. 124)

And yet Gillen & Sherwin somehow managed to avoid alluding to any of the book’s main content on the method and legacy of Pasteur (the topic of their Answers Research Journal paper), a display of selective quotation worthy of the master, Duane Gish.

Since they brought the fellow up, though, François Guizot (1787-1874) was a constitutional monarchist whose “asleep at the switch” administration for the clueless and undemocratic King Louis Philippe (1773-1850) had the perky bootstrap economic motto of Enrichissez-vous par le travail et par l’épargne et ainsi vous serez électeur! (“Enrich yourself through work and savings and you will be electors!”). That proved more sizzle than steak, as inequality and bad harvests all across Europe boiled over into the Revolution of 1848.

As it happened, Guizot had been trembling over the collapse of social order for some time, fueled by many of the same concerns that unsettle culture warriors today. My old college textbook on the period, Ferguson & Bruun (1969, 652), quoted poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) writing in 1842: the Parisian “bourgeoisie itself is obsessed by a nightmare apprehension of disaster. It is not fear of a republic but an instinctive dread of communism, of those sinister fellows who would swarm like rats from the ruins of the present regime.”

It is against that backdrop that Guizot advised fractious French Catholics and Protestants in 1838 (during which time that certain British fellow had lately returned from his long sea voyage) of their common threat: “Impiety, immorality, these are the enemy which they both have to fight. Reviving religious life, this is the work to which they must devote themselves,” Guizot (2014). Apparently that labor did not require addressing festering social ills by expanding the franchise in Louis Philippe’s corrupt domain (less than 1% of France’s 35 million people could vote) or forgoing police repression to the point where revolutions didn’t happen.

As the revolutionary cauldron boiled, worried middle class Frenchman took refuge in an increasingly defensive Catholic Church, and religion and politics dominated reaction to evolution there after the Origin of Species was translated into French in 1862, Farley (1986, 39-42)—the same year Victor Hugo (1802-1885) came out with his stinging moral commentary Les Misérables, by the way (giving us another window into the hot button issues of period). By that time Napoleon III (1808-1873) was on the scene, and that posturing spectacle was the “Empire” whose dissolution Guizot was so concerned about. Which does make one wonder why Gillen & Sherwin thought to bring up Guizot and his age at all. Were there not enough Kulturkampf battles for them to fight in the 21st century, that they felt the need to exhume a few more in musty pantaloons from the Second Empire?

Gillen & Sherwin remind us that, like Einstein noted earlier, Pasteur is another of those Great Scientists who offer a most tempting apologetic football for both sides in the creation/evolution debate, anxious to claim as their own (provided you don’t pay too much attention to whatever else was going on at the time or what their views actually were). Henry Morris (1982; 1985, 14) summarily listed Pasteur as a creationist, and the Creation Science Hall of Fame (2013) excerpted another Morris book for the bald claim that Pasteur “was the object of intense opposition by almost the entire biological establishment, because he opposed spontaneous generation and Darwinism.” Dao (2008c) at the ICR and Conservapedia (2013f) were more circumspect, alluding to his faith but offering nothing about his stance on evolution.

Strolling farthest out on the gangplank, CreationWiki (2013l) relied on Coppedge (2000) secondarily to deny the various biographical evidence that suggested Pasteur harbored no serious technical objections to evolution. But jumping fully off the gangplank were Gillen & Sherwin (2008, 47) when they assured their AiG readers that “Despite the growing trend elsewhere in Europe, Pasteur came to oppose evolution,” and promptly tried to import the scientist by packing him in someone else’s valise, that of a certain “Mrs. Flourens” extracted secondarily from a historical analysis by John Farley (1974):

Mrs. Flourens, who succeeded George Cuvier as secretary for the French Academy of Sciences, opposed Darwinism. The French Academy of Sciences published Flourens’ Examining the Book Written by Mr. Darwin Concerning the Origin of Species (Examen du livre de M. Darwin sur l’origine des especes) in 1864. The theme of the book was that Darwinian evolution depended on the occurrence of spontaneous generation and therefore could not be considered because spontaneous generation was false (Farley 1974).

Only the physiologist Marie Jean Pierre Flourens (1794-1867) was neither a Mrs. despite his first name (perhaps somehow misconstrued by Gillen & Sherwin from monsieur or that secretarial occupation?) nor Pasteur. Why not then just quote Pasteur? And, clearly lacking the ability to do that, why bring up Flourens as drag camouflage? That the fellow bristled at Darwin was plain enough, but how could the speciation activity Darwin was proposing be depending on spontaneous generation when that subject was not germane to either the natural variation being observed or the efficacy of the natural selection mechanism proposed by Darwin (and independently by Wallace) to preserve and channel it?

For such reasons Flourens passed like a blip on the scene. In a letter to Wallace, Darwin (1864) dryly alluded to Flourens’ “little dull book” and Wallace (1872) easily flicked the late scientist aside when his work was invoked by another critic of evolution. Nor has subsequent history burnished Flourens’ scientific reputation. Although he ventured into brain research and had his supporters in French science, his conceptual refusal to entertain the possibility of cortical specialization put him on the sidelines of the field, aggravated by lab practices more Needham than Spallanzani: “Flourens’s experimental technique was not accurate, and his behavioural studies were both crude and rudimentary,” Pearce (2009, 312).