Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 12.djvu/493

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SPONTANEOUS GENERATION.

so that, were I not otherwise informed, I should have found the conclusion of Mathiole a natural one, namely, that tadpoles are generated in lake-mud by the vivifying action of the sun.

The checks which experience alone can furnish being absent, the spontaneous generation of creatures quite as high as the frog in the scale of being was assumed for ages to be a fact. Here, as elsewhere, the dominant mind of Aristotle stamped its notions on the world at large. For nearly twenty centuries after him men found no difficulty in believing in cases of spontaneous generation which would now be rejected as monstrous by the most fanatical supporter of the doctrine. Shell-fish of all kinds were considered to be without parental origin. Eels were supposed to spring spontaneously from the fat ooze of the Nile. Caterpillars were the spontaneous products of the leaves on which they fed, while winged insects, serpents, rats, and mice, were all thought capable of being generated without sexual intervention.

The most copious source of this life without an ancestry was putrefying flesh, and, lacking the checks imposed by fuller investigation, the conclusion that flesh possesses and exerts this generative power is a natural one. I well remember when a child of ten or twelve seeing a joint of imperfectly salted beef cut into, and coils of maggots laid bare within the mass. Without a moment's hesitation I jumped to the conclusion that these maggots had been spontaneously generated in the meat. I had no knowledge which could qualify or oppose this conclusion, and for the time it was irresistible. The childhood of the individual typifies that of the race, and the belief here enunciated was that of the world for nearly two thousand years.

To the examination of this very point the celebrated Francesco Redi, physician to the Grand-dukes Ferdinand II. and Cosmo III. of Tuscany, and a member of the Academy del Cimento, addressed himself in 1668. He had seen the maggots of putrefying flesh, and reflected on their possible origin. But he was not content with mere reflection, nor with the theoretic guess-work which his predecessors had founded upon their imperfect observations. Watching meat during its passage from freshness to decay, prior to the appearance of maggots he invariably observed flies buzzing round the meat and frequently alighting on it. The maggots, he thought, might be the half-developed progeny of these flies.

The inductive guess precedes experiment, by which, however, it must be finally tested. Redi knew this, and acted accordingly. Placing fresh meat in a jar and covering the mouth with paper, he found that though the meat putrefied in the ordinary way, it never bred maggots, while the same meat placed in open jars soon swarmed with these organisms. For the paper cover he then substituted fine gauze, through which the odor of the meat could rise. Over it the flies buzzed, and on it they laid their eggs, but, the meshes being too