Spontaneous generation is an obsolete body of thought on the ordinary formation of living organisms without descent from similar organisms. Typically, the idea was that certain forms such as fleas could arise from inanimate matter such as dust, or that maggots could arise from dead flesh. A variant idea was that of equivocal generation, in which species such as tapeworms arose from unrelated living organisms, now understood to be their hosts. Doctrines supporting such processes of generation held that these processes are commonplace and regular. Such ideas are in contradiction to that of univocal generation: effectively exclusive reproduction from genetically related parent(s), generally of the same species.
Belief in the ongoing spontaneous generation of certain forms of life from non-living matter goes back to ancient Greek philosophy and continued to have support in Western scholarship until the 19th century; this was paired with the belief in heterogenesis, i.e. that one form of life derived from a different form (e.g. bees from flowers). Classical notions of spontaneous generation, which can be considered under the modern term, abiogenesis, held that certain complex, living organisms are generated by decaying organic substances. According to Aristotle, it was a readily observable truth that aphids arise from the dew which falls on plants, flies from putrid matter, mice from dirty hay, crocodiles from rotting logs at the bottom of bodies of water, and so on. In the 17th century, such assumptions started to be questioned. In 1646, Sir Thomas Browne published his Pseudodoxia Epidemica (subtitled Enquiries into Very many Received Tenets, and Commonly Presumed Truths), which was an attack on false beliefs and “vulgar errors.” His conclusions were not widely accepted at the time. His contemporary, Alexander Ross wrote: “To question this (i.e., spontaneous generation) is to question reason, sense and experience. If he doubts of this let him go to Egypt, and there he will find the fields swarming with mice, begot of the mud of Nylus, to the great calamity of the inhabitants.”
In 1665, Robert Hooke published the first drawings of a microorganism. Hooke was followed in 1676 by Anton van Leeuwenhoek, who drew and described microorganisms that are now thought to have been protozoa and bacteria. Many felt the existence of microorganisms was evidence in support of spontaneous generation, since microorganisms seemed too simplistic for sexual reproduction, and asexual reproduction through cell division had not yet been observed. Van Leeuwenhoek took issue with the ideas common at the time that fleas and lice could spontaneously result from putrefaction, and that frogs could likewise arise from slime. Using a broad range of experiments ranging from sealed and open meat incubation and the close study of insect reproduction, by the 1680s he became convinced that spontaneous generation was incorrect.
The first experimental evidence against spontaneous generation came in 1668 when Francesco Redi proved that no maggots appeared in meat when flies were prevented from laying eggs. It was gradually shown that, at least in the case of all the higher and readily visible organisms, the previous sentiment regarding spontaneous generation was false. The alternative seemed to be biogenesis: that every living thing came from a pre-existing living thing (omne vivum ex ovo, Latin for “every living thing from an egg”).
In 1768, Lazzaro Spallanzani demonstrated that microbes were present in the air, and could be killed by boiling. In 1861, Louis Pasteur performed a series of experiments that demonstrated that organisms such as bacteria and fungi do not spontaneously appear in sterile, nutrient-rich media, but only invade them from outside. He boiled a meat broth in a flask that had a long neck that curved downward, like a goose. The idea was that the bend in the neck prevented falling particles from reaching the broth, while still allowing the free flow of air. The flask remained free of growth for an extended period. When the flask was turned so that particles could fall down the bends, the broth quickly became clouded. However, minority objections were persistent and not always unreasonable, given that the experimental difficulties were far more challenging than the popular accounts suggest.
The investigations of John Tyndall, a correspondent of Pasteur and a great admirer of Pasteur’s work, were decisive in dispelling lingering difficulties. Still, even Tyndall encountered difficulties in dealing with the effects of microbial spores, which were not well understood in his day. Like Pasteur, he boiled his cultures to sterilise them, and some types of bacterial spores can survive boiling. The autoclave, which eventually came into universal application in medical practice and microbiology, was not an instrument that had come into use at the time of Tyndall’s experiments, let alone those of Pasteur.