"On the Origin of Life"

By Lord Kelvin (William Thomson)

Excerpt. From the Presidential Address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science; held at Edinburgh in August, 1871
Reprinted in Kelvin's Popular Lectures and Addresses, p. 132-205. (Bracketed additions are from reprint.)

[p. 197.]

The essence of science, as is well illustrated by astronomy and cosmical physics, consists in inferring antecedent conditions, and anticipating future evolutions, from phenomena which have actually come under observation. In biology the difficulties of successfully acting up to this ideal are prodigious. The earnest naturalists of the present day are, however, not appalled or paralysed by them, and are struggling boldly and laboriously to pass out of the mere "Natural History stage" of their study, and bring zoology within the range of Natural Philosophy. A very ancient speculation, still clung to by many naturalists (so much so that I have a choice of modern terms to quote in expressing it) supposes that, under meteorological conditions very different from the present, dead matter may have run together or crystallised or fermented into "germs of life," or "organic cells," or "protoplasm." But science brings a vast mass of inductive evidence against this hypothesis of spontaneous generation, as you have heard from my predecessor in the Presidential chair. Careful enough scrutiny has, in every case up to the present day, discovered life as antecedent to life. Dead matter cannot become living without coming under the influence of matter previously alive. This seems to me as sure a teaching of science as the law of gravitation. I utterly repudiate, as opposed to all philosophical uniformitarianism, the assumption of "different meteorological conditions"—that is to say, somewhat different vicissitudes of temperature, pressure, moisture, gaseous atmosphere—to produce or to permit that to take place by force or motion of dead matter alone, which is a direct contravention of what seems to us biological law. I am prepared for the answer, "Our code of biological law is an expression of our ignorance as well as of our knowledge." And I say yes: search for spontaneous generation out of inorganic materials; let any one not satisfied with the purely negative testimony of which we have now so much against it, throw himself into the inquiry. Such investigations as those of Pasteur, Pouchet, and Bastian are among the most interesting and momentous in the whole range of Natural History, and their results, whether positive or negative, must richly reward the most careful and laborious experimenting. I confess to being deeply impressed by the evidence put before us by Professor Huxley, and I am ready to adopt, as an article of scientific faith, true through all space and through all time, that life proceeds from life, and from nothing but life.

How, then, did life originate on the Earth? Tracing the physical history of the Earth backwards, on strict dynamical principles, we are brought to a red-hot melted globe on which no life could exist. Hence when the Earth was first fit for life, there was no living thing on it. There were rocks solid and disintegrated, water, air all round, warmed and illuminated by a brilliant Sun, ready to become a garden. Did grass and trees and flowers spring into existence, in all the fulness of ripe beauty, by a fiat of Creative Power? or did vegetation, growing up from seed sown, spread and multiply over the whole Earth? Science is bound by the everlasting law of honour, to face fearlessly every problem which can fairly be presented to it. If a probable solution, consistent with the ordinary course of nature, can be found, we must not invoke an abnormal act of Creative Power. When a lava stream flows down the sides of Vesuvius or Etna it quickly cools and becomes solid; and after a few weeks or years it teems with vegetable and animal life; which, for it, originated by the transport of seed and ova and by the migration of individual living creatures. When a volcanic island springs up from the sea, and after a few years is found clothed with vegetation, we do not hesitate to assume that seed has been wafted to it through the air, or floated to it on rafts. Is it not possible, and if possible, is it not probable, that the beginning of vegetable life on the Earth is to be similarly explained? Every year thousands, probably millions, of fragments of solid matter fall upon the Earth—whence came these fragments? What is the previous history of any one of them? Was it created in the beginning of time an amorphous mass? This idea is so unacceptable that, tacitly or explicitly, all men discard it. It is often assumed that all, and it is certain that some, meteoric stones are fragments which had been broken off from greater masses and launched free into space. It is as sure that collisions must occur between great masses moving through space as it is that ships, steered without intelligence directed to prevent collision, could not cross and recross the Atlantic for thousands of years with immunity from collisions. When two great masses come into collision in space it is certain that a large part of each is melted; but it seems also quite certain that in many cases a large quantity of debris must be shot forth in all directions, much of which may have experienced no greater violence than individual pieces of rock experience in a land-slip or in blasting by gunpowder. Should the time when this Earth comes into collision with another body, comparable in dimensions to itself, be when it is still clothed as at present with vegetation, many great and small fragments carrying seed and living plants and animals would undoubtedly be scattered through space. Hence and because we all confidently believe that there are at present, and have been from time immemorial, many worlds of life besides our own, we must regard it as probable in the highest degree that there are countless seed-bearing meteoric stones moving about through space. If at the present instant no life existed upon this Earth, one such stone falling upon it might, by what we blindly call natural causes, lead to its becoming covered with vegetation. I am fully conscious of the many scientific objections which may be urged against this hypothesis, but I believe them to be all answerable. I have already taxed your patience too severely to allow me to think of discussing any of them on the present occasion. The hypothesis that [some] life [has actually] originated on this Earth through moss-grown fragments from the ruins of another world may seem wild and visionary; all I maintain is that it is not unscientific, [and cannot rightly be said to be improbable.]

From the Earth stocked with such vegetation as it could receive meteorically, to the Earth teeming with all the endless variety of plants and animals which now inhabit it, the step is prodigious; yet, according to the doctrine of continuity, most ably laid before the Association by a predecessor in this Chair (Mr. Grove), all creatures now living on earth have proceeded by orderly evolution from some such origin. Darwin concludes his great work on "The Origin of Species" with the following words:—

"It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us." .... "There is grandeur in this view of life with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms, most beautiful and most wonderful, have been and are being evolved."

With the feeling expressed in these two sentences I most cordially sympathise. I have omitted two sentences which come between them, describing briefly the hypothesis of "the origin of species by natural selection," because I have always felt that this hypothesis does not contain the true theory of evolution, if evolution there has been, in biology. Sir John Herschel, in expressing a favourable judgment on the hypothesis of zoological evolution, with, however, some reservation in respect to the origin of man, objected to the doctrine of natural selection, that it was too like the Laputan method of making books, and that it did not sufficiently take into account a continually guiding and controlling intelligence. This seems to me a most valuable and instructive criticism. I feel profoundly convinced that the argument of design has been greatly too much lost sight of in recent zoological speculations. Reaction against frivolities of teleology, such as are to be found, not rarely, in the notes of learned Commentators on Paley's "Natural Theology," has I believe had a temporary effect in turning attention from the solid and irrefragable argument so well put forward in that excellent old book. But overpoweringly strong proofs of intelligent and benevolent design lie all round us, and if ever perplexities, whether metaphysical or scientific, turn us away from them for a time, they come back upon us with irresistible force, showing to us through nature the influence of a free will, and teaching us that all living beings depend on one ever-acting Creator and Ruler.