THE appearance of the long-promised work of Dr. Bastian on the "Beginnings of Life" will be welcomed by the students of natural history as an important step forward in the progress of an old and interesting controversy. Whether all the life of the earth came from some primordial spark in the dim beginning, that has spread in multitudinous diversity through earth, sea, and air; or whether all forms of living things sprang into perfect existence after their distinctive kinds by a supernatural fiat; or whether the origination of living things is still within the compass of natural operations, are questions equally fascinating to pursue and difficult to determine. But the radical problem of the origin of life is now accepted as legitimate in the field of science, and much of the world's ablest talent is profoundly occupied with its investigation. We propose to give a brief account of Dr. Bastian's contribution to the inquiry, or rather to point out his line of research, referring those who are interested in the subject to his able work, which is now accessible to American readers.
The doctrine that certain forms of living things originate directly in the operations of Nature, without the agency of parentage, is an ancient speculation. Three centuries before the Christian era, Aristotle believed in the spontaneous origination of eels and other fish out of the slimy mud of rivers and marshes; also, that certain insects took origin from the vernal dew on plants; and that lice were spontaneously engendered in the flesh of animals. He believed also that animals might proceed from vegetables—that the caterpillars of certain butterflies, for instance, were actually the products of the plants upon which they fed. To the authority of Aristotle, which was despotic in the schools for nearly two thousand years, was added in this case the influence of poetry by which the Aristotelian science was popularized. Ovid, who is reputed to have been forty-three years old at the Christian era, sung of spontaneous generation as follows—Dryden being responsible for the English:
Produced, in various forms received their birth.
The native moisture, in its close retreat
Digested by the sun's ethereal heat
As in a kindly womb, began to breed,
Then swelled and quickened by the vital seed;
And some in less, and some in longer space,
Were ripened into form and took a several face.
- "The Beginnings of Life; being some Account of the Nature, Modes of Origin, and Transformations of Lower Organisms." By H. Charlton Bastian, M.A., M.D., F.R.S. In two volumes, pp. 1200; with numerous Illustrations.