Out of the stoa, two thousand years ago, strode a giant to lay hold on life and explain it. He went down to the "primordial slime" of the seashore to look for its origin. There is anywhere he would find it, he thought, where the salt water and the earth were met, and the mud quivered like a living thing, and from it emerged strange shapeless primitive beings, themselves scarce more than animate bits of ooze. To Aristotle, it seemed plain enough that out of the dead and the inanimate is made the living, and back to death are turned the bodies of all things that have lived, to be used over again. So nothing was wasted; all moved in a perpetual cycle. Out of vinegar, he felt certain, came vinegar eels, out of dung came blow-flies, out of decaying fruit bees were born, and out of the rain pool frogs spawned.
But the eye of even Aristotle was purblind in its nakedness. Of the spore and the sperm he never dreamed; he guessed nothing of bacteria. Now man can peer down through the microscope, up at the revealed stars. And behold, the lens has only multiplied the facts and deepened the mystery.
For now we know that spontaneous generation never takes place. Life comes only from life. Was not the ancient symbol for it a serpent with a tail in its mouth? Intuitive old fellows, those Aryan brothers of ours, wise in their superstitions, like old women. Life, we discover, is a closed, nay, a charmed circle. Wherever you pick it up, it has already begun; yet as soon as you try to follow it, it is already dying.
More information on our Almanac For Moderns project and the work of Donald Culross Peattie can be found here.