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The Temple of Nature

By Erasmus Darwin




Hence without parent by spontaneous birth
Rise the first specks of animated earth. CANTO I. l. 227

Prejudices against this doctrine.

I. FROM the misconception of the ignorant or superstitious, it has been thought somewhat profane to speak in favour of spontaneous vital production, as if it contradicted holy writ; which says, that God created animals and vegetables. They do not recollect that God created all things which exist, and that these have been from the beginning in a perpetual state of improvement; which appears from the globe itself, as well as from the animals and vegetables, which possess it. And lastly, that there is more dignity in our idea of the supreme author of all things, when we conceive him to be the cause of causes, than the cause simply of events, which we see; if there can be any difference in infinity of power!

Another prejudice which has prevailed against the spontaneous production of vitality, seems to have arisen from the misrepresentation of this doctrine, as if the larger animals had been thus produced; as Ovid supposes after the deluge of Deucalion, that lions were seen rising out of the mud of the Nile, and struggling to disentangle their hinder parts. It was not considered, that animals and vegetables have been perpetually improving by reproduction; and that spontaneous vitality was only to be looked for in the simplest organic beings, as in the smallest microscopic animalcules; which perpetually, perhaps hourly, enlarge themselves by reproduction, like the roots of tulips from seed, or the buds of seedling trees, which die annually, leaving others by solitary reproduction rather more perfect than themselves {2} for many successive years, till at length they acquire sexual organs or flowers.

A third prejudice against the existence of spontaneous vital productions has been the supposed want of analogy; this has also arisen from the expectation, that the larger or more complicated animals should be thus produced; which have acquired their present perfection by successive generations during an uncounted series of ages. Add to this, that the want of analogy opposes the credibility of all new discoveries, as of the magnetic needle, and coated electric jar, and Galvanic pile; which should therefore certainly be well weighed and nicely investigated before distinct credence is given them; but then the want of analogy must at length yield to repeated ocular demonstration.

Preliminary observations.

II. Concerning the spontaneous production of the smallest microscopic animals it should be first observed, that the power of reproduction distinguishes organic being, whether vegetable or animal, from inanimate nature. The circulation of fluids in vessels may exist in hydraulic machines, but the power of reproduction belongs alone to life. This reproduction of plants and of animals is of two kinds, which may be termed solitary and sexual. The former of these, as in the reproduction of the buds of trees, and of the bulbs of tulips, and of the polypus, and aphis, appears to be the first or most simple mode of generation, as many of these organic beings afterwards acquire sexual organs, as the flowers of seedling trees, and of seedling tulips, and the autumnal progeny of the aphis. See Phytologia.

Secondly, it should be observed, that by reproduction organic beings are gradually enlarged and improved; which may perhaps more rapidly and uniformly occur in the simplest modes of animated being; but occasionally also in the more complicated and perfect kinds. Thus the buds of a seedling tree, or the bulbs of seedling tulips, become larger and stronger in the second year than the first, and thus improve till they acquire flowers or sexes; and the aphis, I {3} believe, increases in bulk to the eighth or ninth generation, and then produces a sexual progeny. Hence the existence of spontaneous vitality is only to be expected to be found in the simplest modes of animation, as the complex ones have been formed by many successive reproductions.

Experimental facts.

III. By the experiments of Buffon, Reaumur, Ellis, Ingenhouz, and others, microscopic animals are produced in three or four days, according to the warmth of the season, in the infusions of all vegetable or animal matter. One or more of these gentlemen put some boiling veal broth into a phial previously heated in the fire, and sealing it up hermetically or with melted wax, observed it to be replete with animalcules in three or four days.

These microscopic animals are believed to possess a power of generating others like themselves by solitary reproduction without sex; and these gradually enlarging and improving for innumerable successive generations. Mr. Ellis in Phil. Transact. V. LIX. gives drawings of six kinds of animalcula infusoria, which increase by dividing across the middle into two distinct animals. Thus in paste composed of flour and water, which has been suffered to become acescent, the animalcules called eels, vibrio anguillula, are seen in great abundance; their motions are rapid and strong; they are viviparous, and produce at intervals a numerous progeny: animals similar to these are also found in vinegar; Naturalist's Miscellany by Shaw and Nodder, Vol. II. These eels were probably at first as minute as other microscopic animalcules; but by frequent, perhaps hourly reproduction, have gradually become the large animals above described, possessing wonderful strength and activity.

To suppose the eggs of the former microscopic animals to float in the atmosphere, and pass through the sealed glass phial, is so contrary to apparent nature, as to be totally incredible! and as the latter are viviparous, it is equally absurd to suppose, that their parents float universally in the atmosphere to lay their young in paste or vinegar!

{4} Not only microscopic animals appear to be produced by a spontaneous vital process, and then quickly improve by solitary generation like the buds of trees, or like the polypus and aphis, but there is one vegetable body, which appears to be produced by a spontaneous vital process, and is believed to be propagated and enlarged in so short a time by solitary generation as to become visible to the naked eye; I mean the green matter first attended to by Dr. Priestley, and called by him conferva fontinalis. The proofs, that this material is a vegetable, are from its giving up so much oxygen, when exposed to the sunshine, as it grows in water, and from its green colour.

Dr. Ingenhouz asserts, that by filling a bottle with well-water, and inverting it immediately into a basin of well-water, this green vegetable is formed in great quantity; and he believes, that the water itself, or some substance contained in the water, is converted into this kind of vegetation, which then quickly propagates itself.

M. Girtanner asserts, that this green vegetable matter is not produced by water and heat alone, but requires the sun's light for this purpose, as he observed by many experiments, and thinks it arises from decomposing water deprived of a part of its oxygen, and laughs at Dr. Priestley for believing that the seeds of this conferva, and the parents of microscopic animals, exist universally in the atmosphere, and penetrate the sides of glass jars; Philos. Magazine for May 1800.

Besides this green vegetable matter of Dr. Priestley, there is another vegetable, the minute beginnings of the growth of which Mr. Ellis observed by his microscope near the surface of all putrefying vegetable or animal matter, which is the mucor or mouldiness; the vegetation of which was amazingly quick so as to be almost seen, and soon became so large as to be visible to the naked eye. It is difficult to conceive how the seeds of this mucor can float so universally in the atmosphere as to fix itself on all putrid matter in all places.

Theory of Spontaneous Vitality.

IV. In animal nutrition the organic matter of the bodies of dead animals, or vegetables, is taken into the stomach, and there suffers {5} decompositions and new combinations by a chemical process. Some parts of it are however absorbed by the lacteals as fast as they are produced by this process of digestion; in which circumstance this process differs from common chemical operations.

In vegetable nutrition the organic matter of dead animals, or vegetables, undergoes chemical decompositions and new combinations on or beneath the surface of the earth; and parts of it, as they are produced, are perpetually absorbed by the roots of the plants in contact with it; in which this also differs from common chemical processes.

Hence the particles which are produced from dead organic matter by chemical decompositions of new consequent combinations, are found proper for the purposes of the nutrition of living vegetable and animal bodies, whether these decompositions and new combinations are performed in the stomach or beneath the soil.

For the purpose of nutrition these digested or decomposed recrements of dead animal or vegetable matter are absorbed by the lacteals of the stomachs of animals or of the roots of vegetables, and carried into the circulation of their blood, and these compose new organic parts to replace others which are destroyed, or to increase the growth of the plant or animal.

It is probable, that as in inanimate or chemical combinations, one of the composing materials must possess a power of attraction, and the other an aptitude to be attracted; so in organic or animated compositions there must be particles with appetencies to unite, and other particles with propensities to be united with them.

Thus in the generation of the buds of trees, it is probable that two kinds of vegetable matter, as they are separated from the solid system, and float in the circulation, become arrested by two kinds of vegetable glands, and are then deposed beneath the cuticle of the tree, and there join together forming a new vegetable, the caudex of which extends from the plumula at the summit to the radicles beneath the soil, and constitutes a single fibre of the bark.

These particles appear to be of two kinds; one of them possessing an appetency to unite with the other, and the latter a propensity to be united with the former; and they are probably separated from the vegetable blood by two kinds of glands, one representing those of the {6} anthers, and the others those of the stigmas, in the sexual organs of vegetables; which is spoken of at large in Phytologia, Sect. VII. and in Zoonomia, Vol. I. Sect. XXXIX. 8. of the third edition, in octavo; where it is likewise shown, that none of these parts which are deposited beneath the cuticle of the tree, is in itself a complete vegetable embryon, but that they form one by their reciprocal conjunction.

So in the sexual reproduction of animals, certain parts separated from the living organs, and floating in the blood, are arrested by the sexual glands of the female, and others by those of the male. Of these none are complete embryon animals, but form an embryon by their reciprocal conjunction.

There hence appears to be an analogy between generation and nutrition, as one is the production of new organization, and the other the restoration of that which previously existed; and which may therefore be supposed to require materials somewhat similar. Now the food taken up by animal lacteals is previously prepared by the chemical process of digestion in the stomach; but that which is taken up by vegetables lacteals, is prepared by chemical dissolution of organic matter beneath the surface of the earth. Thus the particles, which form generated animal embryons, are prepared from dead organic matter by the chemico-animal processes of sanguification and of secretion; while those which form spontaneous microscopic animals or microscopic vegetables are prepared by chemical dissolutions and new combinations of organic matter in watery fluids with sufficient warmth.

It may be here added, that the production and properties of some kinds of inanimate matter, are almost as difficult to comprehend as those of the simplest degrees of animation. Thus the elastic gum, or caoutchouc, and some fossile bitumens, when drawn out to a great length, contract themselves by their elasticity, like an animal fibre by stimulus. The laws of action of these, and all other elastic bodies, are not yet understood; as the laws of the attraction of cohesion, to produce these effects, must be very different from those of general attraction, since the farther the particles of elastic bodies are drawn from each other till they separate, the stronger they seem to attract; and the nearer they are pressed together, the more they seem to repel; as in bending a spring, or in extending a piece of elastic gum; {7} which is the reverse to what occurs in the attractions of disunited bodies; and much wants further investigation. So the spontaneous production of alcohol or of vinegar, by the vinous and acetous fermentation, as well as the production of a mucus by putrefaction which will contract when extended, seems almost as difficult to understand as the spontaneous production of a fibre from decomposing animal or vegetable substances, which will contract when stimulated, and thus constitutes the primordium of life.

Some of the microscopic animals are said to remain dead for many days or weeks, when the fluid in which they existed is dried up, and quickly to recover life and motion by the fresh addition of water and warmth. Thus the chaos redivivum of Linnæus dwells in vinegar and in bookbinders paste: it revives by water after having been dried for years, and is both oviparous and viviparous; Syst. Nat. Thus the vorticella or wheel animal, which is found in rain water that has stood some days in leaden gutters, or in hollows of lead on the tops of houses, or in the slime or sediment left by such water, though it discovers no sign of life except when in the water, yet it is capable of continuing alive for many months though kept in a dry state. In this state it is of a globulous shape, exceeds not the bigness of a grain of sand, and no signs of life appear; but being put into water, in the space of half an hour a languid motion begins, the globule turns itself about, lengthens itself by slow degrees, assumes the form of a lively maggot, and most commonly in a few minutes afterwards puts out its wheels, swimming vigorously through the water as if in search of food; or else, fixing itself by the tail, works the wheels in such a manner as to bring its food to its mouth; English Encyclopedia, Art. Animalcule.

Thus some shell-snails in the cabinets of the curious have been kept in a dry state for ten years or longer, and have revived on being moistened with warmish water; Philos. Transact. So eggs and seeds after many months torpor, are revived by warmth and moisture; hence it may be concluded, that even the organic particles of dead animals may, when exposed to a due degree of warmth and moisture, regain some degree of vitality, since this is done by more complicate animal organs in the instances above mentioned.

{8} The hydra of Linnæus, which dwells in the rivers of Europe under aquatic plants, has been observed by the curious of the present time, to revive after it has been dried, to be restored after being mutilated, to multiply by being divided, to be propagated from small portions, to live after being inverted; all which would be best explained by the doctrine of spontaneous reproduction from organic particles not yet completely decomposed.

To this should be added, that these microscopic animals are found in all solutions of vegetable or animal matter in water; as black pepper steeped in water, hay suffered to become putrid in water, and the water of dunghills, afford animalcules in astonishing numbers. See Mr. Ellis's curious account of Animalcules produced from an infusion of Potatoes and Hempseed; Philos. Transact. Vol. LIX. from all which it would appear, that organic particles of dead vegetables and animals during their usual chemical changes into putridity or acidity, do not lose all their organization or vitality, but retain so much of it as to unite with the parts of living animals in the process of nutrition, or unite and produce new complicate animals by secretion as in generation, or produce very simple microscopic animals or microscopic vegetables, by their new combinations in warmth and moisture.

And finally, that these microscopic organic bodies are multiplied and enlarged by solitary reproduction without sexual intercourse till they acquire greater perfection or new properties. Lewenhoek observed in rain-water which had stood a few days, the smallest scarcely visible microscopic animalcules, and in a few more days he observed others eight times as large; English Encyclop. Art. Animalcule.


There is therefore no absurdity in believing that the most simple animals and vegetables may be produced by the congress of the parts of decomposing organic matter, without what can properly be termed generation, as the genus did not previously exist; which accounts for the endless varieties, as well as for the immense numbers of microscopic animals.

{9} The green vegetable matter of Dr. Priestley, which is universally produced in stagnant water, and the mucor, or mouldiness, which is seen on the surface of all putrid vegetable and animal matter, have probably no parents, but a spontaneous origin from the congress of the decomposing organic particles, and afterwards propagate themselves. Some other fungi, as those growing in close wine-vaults, or others which arise from decaying trees, or rotten timber, may perhaps be owing to a similar spontaneous production, and not previously exist as perfect organic beings in the juices of the wood, as some have supposed. In the same manner it would seem, that the common esculent mushroom is produced from horse dung at any time and in any place, as is the common practice of many gardiners; Kennedy on Gardening.


THE knowledge of microscopic animals is still in its infancy: those already known are arranged by Mr. Muller into the following classes; but it is probable, that many more classes, as well as innumerable individuals, may be discovered by improvements of the microscope, as Mr. Herschell has discovered so many thousand stars, which were before invisible, by improvements of the telescope.

Mr. Muller's classes consist of

1. These animalcules are discovered in two or three days in all decompositions of organic matter, whether vegetable or animal, in moderate degrees of warmth with sufficient moisture.

2. They appear to enlarge in a few days, and some to change their form; which are probably converted from more simple into more complicate animalcules by repeated reproductions. See Note VIII.

3. In their early state they seem to multiply by viviparous solitary reproduction, either by external division, as the smaller ones, or by an internal progeny, as the eels in paste or vinegar; and lastly, in their more mature state, the larger ones are said to appear to have sexual connexion. Engl. Encyclop.

4. Those animalcules discovered in pustules of the itch, in the feces of dysenteric patients, and in semine masculino, I suppose to be produced by the stagnation and incipient decomposition of those materials in their receptacles, and not to exist in the living blood or recent secretions; as none, I believe, have been discovered in blood when first drawn from the arm, or in fluids newly secreted from the glands, which have not previously stagnated in their reservoirs.

5. They are observed to move in all directions with ease and rapidity, and to avoid obstacles, and not to interfere with each other in their motions. When the water is in part evaporated, they are seen to flock towards the remaining part, and show great agitation. They sustain a great degree of cold, as some insects, and perish in much the {11} same degree of heat as destroys insects; all which evince that they are living animals.

And it is probable, that other or similar animalcules may be produced in the air, or near the surface of the earth, but it is not so easy to view them as in water; which as it is transparent, the creatures produced in it can easily be observed by applying a drop to a microscope. I hope that microscopic researches may again excite the attention of philosophers, as unforeseen advantages may probably be derived from them, like the discovery of a new world.