Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Darwin, Pasteur, their sleep among the immortals and the need to dig back to primary sources

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a short piece for the magazine Microbiology Today, entitled Darwin; from the origin of species to the origin of infection. Once it has been published in a week or two's time in the May edition of the magazine, I will be able to share the piece in full with you. But today I checked through the proofs, made a few minor alterations and then stumbled across a major problem. 

Primed by all the Darwin misquotes and myths I have encountered, I started to doubt the veracity of an oft-cited quotation from Louis Pasteur that I had used:
"Virulence appears in a new light which cannot but be alarming to humanity; unless nature, in her evolution down the ages (an evolution which, as we now know, has been going on for millions, nay, hundreds of millions of years), has finally exhausted all the possibilities of producing virulent or contagious diseases -- which does not seem very likely."
I first found the quote in Claim CA114.22 in the Index to Creationist Claims on the talk.origins website, but it has been propagated in many places elsewhere. On the face of it, it appears to lend support to the idea that Pasteur accepted Deep Time, one of the pre-requisites for Darwin's Theory of Evolution and rejected Biblical Young Earth Creationism. But something in that parenthetic phrase about "millions, nay, hundreds of millions of years" jarred with me. And of course, the quotation cannot be precisely original, as Pasteur would have written it in French.

Pasteur was clearly aware of the issues of evolution and Deep Time. In his address to the Sorbonne in 1864 on Spontaneous Generation, Pasteur opens with these ponderous tones:
"Mesdames et messieurs. De bien grands problèmes s'agitent aujourd'hui et tiennent tous les esprits en éveil: unité ou multiplicité des races humaines; création de l'homme depuis quelques mille ans ou depuis quelques mille siècles; fixité des espèces, ou transformation lente et progressive des espèces les unes dans les autres....
Ladies and Gentlemen. Great problems are in question today, keeping every thinking man in suspense: the unity or multiplicity of human races, the creation of man one thousand years or one thousand centuries ago; the fixity of species, or the slow and progressive transformation of one species into another...."
But here Pasteur is sitting on the fence, not actually saying what he believed. Aside from the now questionable quotation, I have found no evidence that Pasteur ever said anything about Darwin or Deep Time. 

And so, I chased up the source of the questionable quotation. The Index To Creationist Claims has the source as: "Cuny, Hilaire. 1965. Louis Pasteur: The man and his theories. Translated by P. Evans. London: The Scientific Book Club".

But sadly this work is not available on line (does anyone have a copy?). And in any case, to get at what Pasteur really said, we have to search in French. With my schoolboy Français and a few minutes with Google, I managed to track down the original Pasteur quote as follows:
"Et voilà que la virulence nous apparaît sous un jour nouveau qui ne laisse pas d'être inquiétant pour l'humanité, à moins que la nature, dans son évolution à travers les siècles passés, n'ait déjà rencontré toutes les occasions de production des maladies virulentes ou contagieuses, ce qui est fort invraisemblable."
which is documented on at least two sites:
But look carefully! No mention of millions of years here! Just "siècles passés" or "past centuries". So, where did the parenthetical phrase originate? My guess is that Hilaire Cuny added it to the original French version of his out-of-print biography of Pasteur (Louis Pasteur et le mystere de la vie), written in the 1960s, when Deep Time was well accepted.

And the sting in the tail? An article on the otherwise execrable Young Earth Creationist website Answers in Genesis arrived at a similar conclusion before me:
"The quote from Pasteur given above, without the parenthetical statement, appeared in an article co-authored by Pasteur (Pasteur, Chamberland, and Roux 1881, p. 203). The parenthetical statement was added at a later time by an unknown author."
So, I guess as proponents of evolution we have to be as careful with our use of quotations and take care to avoid the sin of quote-mining, just as we urge the creationists to do!

But before I close, let me share one more discovery with you. While nosing around the potential links between Darwin and Pasteur, I turned up a gem of an article from a 1923 issue of Science Magazine: Darwin and Pasteur: an essay in comparative biography. 

For some reason, Science magazine still insists that non-subscribers should pay for the article, even though it is now out of copyright. It is rather too long to reproduce in full here, but if anyone wants the whole text, let me know and I will supply it.

The editorial note that opens the essay is particularly poignant:
"The accompanying essay was left uncompleted by the late William Thompson Sedgwick [first president of what was to become the American Society for Microbiology] of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, when he died, as we all wish to, quickly and before his work was finished. Such an essay may be not only especially timely in this Pasteur anniversary, but may also be useful at a time when men of faith are attacked by men of ignorance and credulity.-G. J. P"
And the closing paragraphs give you a flavour of the writing—nobody writes articles like this any more!
"Both Darwin and Pasteur were fortunate in bringing out their great ideas at the right time. (Agnosticism in medicine, agnosticism in cosmology). The world was tired of supernaturalism and ready for naturalism. It was tired of confusion and ignorance concerning disease, and eagerly embraced the germ theory. 
The fame of Darwin has grown greater with the passing years. Darwinism has already become merged and may one day become submerged in the broader doctrine of evolution, of which it was the forerunner. Pasteur's name, curiously enough, is popularly best known in pasteurization, a process of applied science employed long before his day under other names and no name, but first made rational and scientific by him. But Pasteur's original ideas and discoveries have spread like an infection until today they cover the earth.
Darwin, the master of the organic world, sleeps near Newton, the master of the inorganic, in the great Abbey, among the most famous of his race. Pasteur rests alone in the chapel of his laboratory. The world claimed Darwin's body to place among its great ones. Science kept Pasteur's for its own. Both dwell forever among the immortals. The last half of the nineteenth century may well be called their age-the Age of Darwin and Pasteur."

1 comment:

Janet said...

I so agree with you about the paramountcy of primary sources. The ideas of those famous enough to become common property - Plato, St Paul, Darwin, Marx, Freud - inevitably mutate and spread as simpler or more aggressive forms.

I enjoyed the conclusion you quoted to Sedgwick's 1923 essay. They certainly don't write that way any more. I always enjoy reading William James' (1902) 'The Varieties of Religious Experience" - which has never been out of print - for it's style as much as its content.