This is how science lost God: Atheism, evolution and the long road to Richard Dawkins' latest Twitter controversy

The roots of today's battles over atheism, science, religion and climate change actually date back centuries

Published January 17, 2016 5:00PM (EST)

René Descartes, Richard Dawkins   (Wikimedia/AP/Fiona Hanson)
René Descartes, Richard Dawkins (Wikimedia/AP/Fiona Hanson)

Excerpted from "A Brief History of Creation: Science and the Search for the Origin of Life"

In the seventeenth century, most natural philosophers believed that every type of living organism on the face of the Earth had always existed, from the very beginning of the Earth’s creation. Every organism—every dog, every bird, every human being, and every worm—had been created by God in the form of something called “germs.” These germs were like the seeds of plants, scattered at the dawn of creation by God over the face of the planet, like a gardener would scatter a future crop. Germs were tiny, far too small to be seen even with the aid of a microscope. And each such germ contained even tinier germs, the germs of every successive generation that any creature would ever spawn. They were all stacked inside each other, like Russian nesting dolls. The infinite nature of the theory was the one thing that people had a hard time coming to grips with, but one of the theory’s most influential proponents, the French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche, would point out that it was no harder to believe in germs than in the life cycles of plants.* “One can say that in a single apple pit,” he said, “there would be apple trees, apples, and the seeds of apples for infinite or almost infinite centuries.”

Some believed that, in humans, germs were contained in male semen. Others saw them in the female’s egg. In France, the theory was called “embodiment”; in England, “preformation” or “preexistence.” It wasn’t just conjecture. Proponents of preformation could see the evidence all around them in the natural world. The transformation of caterpillars into butterflies was taken as a sign of God’s blueprint unfolding. The bulb of a tulip with its endless unfolding layers seemed a clue to the infinite layers of tulips that would spring forth, one after another. In the tiny eggs of frogs, microscopists thought they could see future generations of frogs waiting to be born. Those who believed in preformation were never short of evidence.

The theory was an old one, but it had gained traction in the late seventeenth century as a response to the theories of one of the most important thinkers of all time, René Descartes. Descartes’s great contribution to the natural sciences was to use his principles of deduction to understand a world whose workings, in his eyes, resembled that of a machine. Descartes carried this mechanical view of the world into what he hoped would be a great treatise on physiology. Yet the act of creation—the most important piece of the puzzle of life—continued to elude him until his final years. In the end, Descartes had settled on a theory that was purely physical, though the details were always sketchy. It was based on the mixing of sperm— something that, at the time, females were also commonly thought to produce. This mixing then led to a kind of fermentation in the womb. “If one knew what all the parts of the semen of a certain species of animal are, in particular, for example, of man,” he wrote in the posthumously published "De la formation de l’animal" in 1648, “one could deduce from this alone, by reasons entirely mathematical and certain, the whole figure and conformation.” He compared the process to that of “a clock, made of a certain number of wheels, to indicate the hours.”

According to preformation, God alone was responsible for the ultimate act of creation. Descartes’s version was creation by matter alone. His concepts of mechanical laws governing nature or the heavens could be accepted without discarding prevailing religious dogma. And indeed they were, especially in France. What most people couldn’t accept was his argument that human life owed itself merely to the workings of this vast machine. This seemingly small distinction marked a line that few dared cross. To do so was to invite the accusation of being a materialist—of believing in a world without any role for a grand creator—or even of being an atheist. French author Bernard de Fontenelle summed up the worries of many when he asked, “Do you say that beasts are machines just as watches are? Put a male dog-machine and a female dog-machine side by side, and eventually a third little machine will be the result, whereas two watches will lie side by side all their lives without ever producing a third watch.”

By the time Buffon sat down to write his own treatise of natural knowledge, the doctrine of preformation was still in vogue, even with most natural philosophers. But preformation didn’t sit well with Buffon. He was a materialist who saw the world much as Descartes did. Everything in nature, including the origins of living things, should be explicable by comprehensible laws. Preformation, he was sure, was little more than conjecture. But though he felt that Descartes’s version seemed closer to reality, he was aware the details were lacking. Then, Buffon was confronted by two discoveries that he thought could be clues to how living things were generated.

The first of these discoveries was made in 1741, near the Dutch seashore, where two little boys had spent a carefree morning roaming around the grounds of their father’s estate. They had come upon some tiny creatures in an inland pond, little curiosities, which were quarter-inch-long green specks that appeared to be wading in the water. The boys put them in a jar and took them home to their tutor, a Swiss naturalist named Abraham Trembley. Whether what Trembley’s charges had found were plants or animals was not clear at first. Whatever they were, they moved slowly—so slowly it was hard to tell whether they truly moved at all. But as the weeks passed, Trembley was quite sure that they did, in fact, move, if only an inch or two a day, and that they were indeed animals.

Trembley’s first thought was that he had discovered a completely new species. This would turn out to be untrue, as these tiny animals had already been identified by van Leeuwenhoek. The name van Leeuwenhoek gave them was “polyps,” though they would eventually be commonly known as hydras. They were strange creatures, to say the least. Beneath the lens of a microscope, they looked like a cross of a snail, an octopus, and a plant. As Trembley tried to learn more about the little creatures, he cut some of them in half. He was shocked to see that both halves continued to live. He wondered whether he was just witnessing residual movement akin to a severed lizard’s tail. Then something amazing happened. Each half polyp gradually began to regenerate the portions of its body that it had lost. Amazingly, the two halves became two separate creatures.

Trembley sent a summary of his results and a sample of the freshwater polyps to a well-known naturalist in Paris, René-Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur, an important skeptic of the doctrine of preformation who had written an influential paper about the regeneration of crayfish claws. Réaumur repeated Trembley’s steps, cutting the odd specimens into sections. He, too, watched in wonder as the little creatures he had split formed into entirely new creatures. “I could hardly believe my eyes,” he later wrote. “It is a fact that I am not accustomed to seeing after having seen it again hundreds and hundreds of times.” When he presented a demonstration to the Paris Academy of Sciences later that year, the official report on the event compared it to “the story of the Phoenix that is reborn from its ashes,” and asked witnesses to draw their own conclusions “on the generation of animals . . . and perhaps on even higher matters.”

The conclusion Buffon drew was that life was not nearly as clear-cut as preformationists would have people believe. The freshwater polyp’s ability to be split into two separate organisms did not, in his mind, fit the notion of preformation. He began looking for new explanations of how living things came about and found a possible solution in Needham’s observations of “eels” springing to life in water, which seemed to revive the idea of spontaneous generation. Buffon decided more investigation was warranted. His book would not shy away from dealing with the all-important question of how life begins. If an answer to this question was not known, he was going to find the answer himself. He wrote to Needham in London and invited the Englishman to join him at his home in Paris for experiments.

In the spring of 1748, Needham arrived in Paris. Buffon’s home was far more lavish than Needham could ever have imagined. His host was, by then, a fabulously wealthy man. Buffon’s noble title had, in fact, been acquired through his outright purchase of the entire French village of Buffon, from which he took his name. He actually came from a family of civil servants. He himself had been destined for such a career until he inherited a fortune from a childless uncle who had been tax collector for the entirety of Sicily during a period when the island had come under French rule. In the hands of a politically connected mathematical genius like Buffon, the fortune grew enormous.

The laboratory Buffon had set up for Needham filled an ornate drawing room, in the center of which was an intricately carved table well suited for fine dining, atop of which beautiful screens sat as dividers. This became the work space for Needham’s microscopes, which he had brought with him at Buffon’s request. Around the table, chairs were arranged so that Buffon’s acquaintances could watch the two men at work.

Little else was frivolous about their collaboration. Buffon normally worked fourteen-hour days, even when his health began to fail in old age. While he compiled his grand inventory, a servant was paid a gold crown every day just to wake him at five in the morning. His motto was simple: “Do not waste time.” He expected the same of everyone. Sometimes Needham worked alone while Buffon attended to his responsibilities at the Jardin du Roi or conducted research for his massive book project. Sometimes the two men worked side by side. They set about dissecting the reproductive organs of dogs, rabbits, and rams. Under the lenses of Needham’s microscopes, they examined the seminal fluids of all manner of creatures, even those of men, mapping out reproductive processes and searching for clues to a grand theory of how life began. They also searched for such clues in animalcules, where Needham’s interest and experience were sharpest. They repeated his experiments on wheat and refined them, hoping to strengthen their case for spontaneous generation.

Needham began experimenting on mutton gravy, something he knew to be teeming with the kinds of microscopic life he wanted to understand. He took a dab of this gravy and enclosed it in a glass vial, which he sealed with a cork. He sealed it yet again with resin, to be absolutely sure it was airtight. He then heated the mixture. All of this care and preparation were to ensure that nothing could contaminate the experiment, that no living egg would be present in the tube, and that a microbe too small to see could not find its way into the mixture.

Needham was quite sure that no egg could survive in the miniature environment he created. Nothing could. He let weeks go by before he opened his sealed tubes. “My Phial swarmed with Life,” he later wrote, “and microscopical Animals of most Dimensions, from some of the largest, to some of the least.” The experiment was repeated with different substances replacing the gravy. Each time, the result was the same. First, Needham would observe tiny particles that he called “atoms.” Day by day, these “atoms” grew and began to cling together until they became, in a couple of weeks, “the true microscopical Animals so often observed by Naturalists.” It was, in many ways, a repeat of van Leeuwenhoek’s experiment, with the same results that had so perplexed the Dutchman. For Needham and Buffon, it was clear that they had witnessed life emerge from nonlife, that they had witnessed evidence of spontaneous generation.

Needham published his work in the Philosophical Transactions in 1748, several years before Buffon would publish the results of their collaboration in his own book. This time, Needham went far beyond his first submissions. He had become bolder, more confident in the theories he had developed and perfected in the presence of Buffon’s inquisitive mind. He didn’t shy away from drawing conclusions that would make a mark on the world of natural philosophy. The spontaneous generation he witnessed, he argued, was not just the way some creatures reproduced. It was the method every creature used to reproduce. For, what were the spermatozoa he saw in his microscope if not little animalcules? He was convinced that these, and not the preformationists’ “germs,” were the true source of all life. He had discovered what he called a “vegetative force” that was the “one common Principle, the source of all, a kind of universal Semen.” Needham added something else about his discovery, something that went beyond the purely scientific. He said that his “universal semen” was proof of an “an All-wise Being, All-powerful, and All-good, who gave to Nature its original force, and now presides over it.” Not everyone would see it that way.

A year after Needham’s paper appeared in the Philosophical Transactions, the first volumes of Buffon’s simple “inventory” began to arrive in the bookstores of Paris. Released under the title "Natural History: General and Particular," every available copy sold within a few weeks. The publishers rushed to keep up with demand. By the time Buffon was finished, Natural History comprised thirty-six volumes filled with gorgeous illustrations, including a plated illustration of Buffon and Needham at work in the laboratory.

In the second volume, Buffon unveiled his own grand theory of life. All organisms were composed of what Buffon called “organic molecules” that governed the life cycle from birth to death. For Buffon as it was for Descartes, life wasn’t especially different from any other phenomenon found in nature. “Living and animation,” he wrote, “instead of being a metaphysical degree of being, is a physical property of matter.”

Buffon believed these molecules continued to exist even after death, traveling through the air until they joined with other organic molecules and reassembled themselves, forming entirely new creatures that could be different by grades from the original. This was how he accounted for the gradations within species that so many natural philosophers had begun to notice. His theory may not have been correct, but it was, for the time, awfully good conjecture, and a decent precursor to Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Even variations within the human race, Buffon believed, were a result of this phenomenon. Adam and Eve were Caucasians, while what he saw as lesser races were their descendants who had been made inferior by their weak environments.* As caustic as such views would sound a century or so later, they were almost progressive at a time when many thought of different races as altogether different species.

Buffon did something else in Natural History that would have historic implications. He used the word “reproduction” to describe the creation of offspring, a phenomenon previously referred to as “generation.” The term “reproduction” had first been used by Réaumur to describe regeneration such as that found in Trembley’s polyp, but Buffon used the word both in the regenerative sense and to describe the normal process of giving birth. While “generation” implied the blooming of a seed crafted by the hand of God, “reproduction” suggested replication, however inexact. Soon, more natural philosophers would begin to think of biology in terms of continuity, in terms of lines of descent.

Voltaire first read Natural History in Geneva in 1767, not long after he had identified Needham as his foil on the subject of miracles. In his copy of Buffon’s book, Voltaire scribbled angry notes in the margins. The word “chimera” appears over and over again, he noted. Where Buffon described Needham’s work, Voltaire wrote, “Needham has seen, has imagined, has said only foolishness!”

Voltaire and Buffon had been friends in their youth, but Voltaire had grown wary of Buffon by the time Natural History was released. The director of the Jardin du Roi was far too close to a man Voltaire considered an enemy, the brilliant natural philosopher Pierre-Louis Maupertuis. As Voltaire read through Buffon’s book, he saw Maupertuis’s influence everywhere, especially in Buffon’s theory of life.

Voltaire’s feud with Maupertuis was rather one-sided, and personal. They, too, had been friends once. Both shared a passion for the work of Isaac Newton, whose use of mathematics to describe natural phenomena had revolutionized the study of physics. At the time, the French scientific establishment was reluctant to embrace Isaac Newton, whose reputation abroad was supplanting that of their own preeminent natural philosopher, René Descartes. That Newton was an Englishman made it even worse.

Voltaire didn’t share those prejudices. He spent his first exile in England and was treated like a visiting dignitary. He received a pension from King George II and was fêted by London’s high society, including Jonathan Swift, whose own work had influenced the younger French author. In letters to friends at home, Voltaire had referred to France as “your nation” and noted the “difference between their liberty and our slavery, their sensible toughness and our superstition, the encouragement that all the arts receive at London and the shameful oppression under which they languish at Paris.” He attended Newton’s funeral at Westminster Abbey and set about learning everything he could about the Englishman whose use of mathematics was transforming the study of physics.

No figure would ever have more influence on Voltaire’s view of the natural world. Voltaire began slipping in the word “gravity” whenever he had the chance, often merely to indicate his pleasure, similar to the way a modern writer would use the word to show seriousness. London, Voltaire said, ran on “gravity.” To Maupertuis, he wrote that he had become a convinced Newtonian. “The more I glimpse of this philosophy, the more I admire it,” he said. “One finds at each step that the whole universe is arranged by mathematical laws that are eternal and necessary.”

A woman soon came between Voltaire and Maupertuis. Her name was Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet. By the time her relationship with Voltaire started in earnest, du Châtelet was married, the mother of three children, and on her way to becoming one of the most brilliant women of an era in which brilliant women were simply not recognized. She had largely stolen her education, sneaking her way into weekly seminars conducted by the country’s most accomplished writers and scientists, and hosted by her father, the secretary to the king. As a little girl, du Châtelet devoured the lectures. Later, she became a regular at meetings of the French Academy of Sciences, where her young mind was quick to accept the brilliance of Newton, even while so many of the lecturers dismissed him. Voltaire had always ridiculed the notion of love, but anyone could see that he was smitten by the marquise. She had a mind that could compete with his own. It could even surpass it. He told friends he had met “his Newton.” She said the two of them would be together forever.

In 1734, the fawning account Voltaire had written of his earlier exile in England was finally published in France. Voltaire had compared the two countries and found France wanting in nearly every respect. The treatise caused an uproar in Paris, and Voltaire fled the capital for a country estate owned by the marquise’s husband. Soon the marquise herself joined him there. The house was set in the picturesque woodlands of Champagne, in countryside dotted with iron foundries built by the Romans. More important, the woods provided plenty of advance warning in case the authorities decided to arrest Voltaire, and it was close to the border in case they had to flee. The house was called Cirey.

Together, Voltaire and du Châtelet assembled a huge library of twenty-one thousand books on natural philosophy. The two set up a makeshift laboratory, where they would spend their days conducting experiments, most of which reportedly involved Voltaire’s interests in the nature of fire. The room next door served as a bedroom for du Châtelet’s husband, who would often come to visit. He knew of the affair. He didn’t like it but stayed out of the way.

The two lovers wrote prolifically. Du Châtelet went to work translating Newton’s great work Principia mathematica into French. Her translation would become the definitive French edition of one of the most important scientific books in history, and would still be used into the twenty-first century. Voltaire continued writing plays and commentary but also found time to write "Elements of Newton’s Philosophy," a book presenting the great thinker’s theories in ways that were easy for regular people to comprehend. The book helped Newton win acceptance in France and popularized the story of the Englishman’s “eureka” moment of the apple falling from a tree.

Eventually, Voltaire and du Châtelet drifted apart. Both took other lovers, and du Châtelet died in 1749, while giving birth to the child of the poet Jean Francois de Saint-Lambert. In a letter to Frederick, now King of Prussia, Voltaire wrote that du Châtelet was “a great man whose only fault was being a woman.”

Throughout their affair, the arrogant Voltaire could never quite shake the fact that du Châtelet, not he, was the brilliant scientific mind. Du Châtelet likely wrote at least some of Voltaire’s book on Newton, and may have written most of it. She understood Newton at a level Voltaire never could. What made it all worse was that du Châtelet had a man in her life who was her scientific equal. It was Maupertuis. She had known him since he tutored her as a girl, and had loved him once.

There was no evidence that Maupertuis ever returned du Châtelet’s affections, but Voltaire could never shake his jealousy. In 1736, letters from Maupertuis began to arrive at Cirey, delivered from “the pole.” Maupertuis was in Lapland, measuring a meridian to prove the shape of the Earth. At the time, many thought the Earth to be in the shape of an elongated globe, slightly longer about its axis, but Maupertuis was in the process of proving Newton’s theory that just the opposite was true, that the Earth is, in fact, slightly flatter at the poles. Maupertuis returned a national hero and was named head of the French Academy of Sciences, the organization to which Voltaire would never so much as be offered a membership. Voltaire put his mind to seriously studying physics. He asked his friend Alexis Clairaut, a mathematician and astronomer with a reputation for simple straightforwardness, to assess his progress. Unimpressed, Clairaut told Voltaire to stick to literature.

In 1750, not long after du Châtelet’s death, Voltaire went to Berlin, where Frederick had ascended to the throne. The king lavished his old friend with a 20,000-franc pension. But once again, Voltaire found himself overshadowed by Maupertuis, who a few years before had been named head of the Prussian Royal Academy of Sciences, even as he directed the equivalent organization in Paris. That was when Voltaire wrote his first of several satires pointed at Maupertuis, a story called The Story of Doctor Akakia and the Native of St. Malo. Frederick had the book burned and even threw Voltaire in prison for a short time. Later, a book appeared making the accusation that almost everyone who visited the Prussian court knew to be true but none dared to say, that Frederick was a homosexual. Voltaire was believed to be the author, and his friendship with Frederick was strained. They eventually reconciled in Voltaire’s later years.

It was by way of Maupertuis that Voltaire first heard the name of John Needham. In 1752, Maupertuis published a series of letters detailing his thoughts on a range of scientific subjects. One of them delved into the subject of the origin of life, drawing on Buffon’s Natural History and Needham’s Philosophical Transactions paper. Maupertuis described Needham’s experiment and the little eel that “looks to the eye like small fish” and “when allowed to dry and be without life for entire years, is always ready to be revived when one returns it to its element.” But Maupertuis took Needham’s observation to a place the priest had not intended. “Does not all of this,” he continued, “plunge the mystery of generation back into an obscurity even more profound than that from which we had wanted to draw it?” The implication was clear, to Voltaire at least. For him, Maupertuis, like so many in the circle of French intellectuals in which they ran, was questioning the need for a creator.

Voltaire responded to Maupertuis’s letters with disdain. He wrote another satire, Séance memorable, a parody of Berlin in which Maupertuis is depicted presiding over a lavish dinner that includes “a superb dish composed of paté of eels all one within the other and born suddenly from a mixture of diluted flour” and “fish that were formed immediately from grains of germinated wheat.” At that point, Voltaire could still treat the science touted by Maupertuis as ridiculous. He would soon come to understand it as dangerous.

By the time of his argument with Needham, Voltaire was an aging philosopher who no longer seemed quite so radical, at least in the radicalized world of French intellectuals. He had lived long enough that the world seemed to be passing him by. His support of enlightened monarchy seemed passé in light of the growing demands for a republican or even a democratic form of government. In the area of religion, where he had made such a mark as a provocateur, his views had begun to look tame. When he was young, those who questioned the tenets of religion were few and cautious. Their enemies saw little distinction among atheists, deists, or the many shades between. Neither, often, did the atheists or deists themselves. But things were changing. Men were becoming more daring, and those who called themselves atheists were becoming more brash.

Voltaire’s views on religion, like his views on nearly everything else, were sometimes arbitrary and often contradictory. They were united in their hatred of superstition, and beyond that, little else. At times, his argument for God could appear utilitarian. He worried about whether morality could exist in a world devoid of a supreme being, a world in which good and evil were all relative. “If God did not exist,” he wrote, “it would be necessary to invent him.” Voltaire had a habit of quoting himself, a backhanded way of elevating his own importance. That quote was one of his favorites.

But there was a deeper reason for Voltaire’s advocacy of the divine in the face of this now open disbelief: Voltaire really did see the natural world as proof of a divine intelligence. In the "Dictionnaire," he had ridiculed the notion of an active God. But he did believe in an ultimate creator, what he called a “Supreme Infinite,” responsible for creation, after which the world existed as it had always existed. Mountains stood where they stood because that is where God had placed them. They had never moved, as some natural philosophers, like Buffon, suggested. Nor had the seas or the forests. Fossils were not the remains of long-lost species, as some were beginning to suggest. They could tell us nothing about the world in which we lived or the creatures that inhabited it previously.

It was all too complicated to simply have happened by chance. These things had been carefully laid out. Nature had laws, but laws that fit the plan of a creator. They were an “intelligent design,” as such a notion would one day be known. Voltaire’s view of the world was much the same as that held by Newton, another deist. In the book on Newton that Voltaire had completed at Cirey, he had written, “If I examine on the one hand a man or a silkworm, and on the other a bird or a fish, I see them all formed from the beginning of things.” The world may indeed be a clock, as Descartes suggested, but it had always been a clock. It had been, from the beginning, fully formed. Complete. “A watch,” Voltaire said, “proves a watchmaker.” If he detested organized religion, he detested atheism even more.

Slowly, as he grappled with the ideas of Maupertuis, Needham, and Buffon, Voltaire came to understand these ideas better than he thought their originators understood them themselves. Voltaire came to see the three men as a dangerous clique, one whose notions were leading men to materialism, after which atheism would inevitably follow. By the fifth letter of their exchange on miracles, he told Needham as much: “You had made small reputation for yourself among atheists by having made eels from flour, and from that you have concluded that if flour produces eels, all animals, starting with man, could have been born in approximately the same manner . . . from a lump of earth just as well as from a piece of paste.” In subsequent letters, Voltaire’s tone grew harsher. He began to call Needham “l’Anguillard”—the eelmonger—and an “Irish Jesuit.” This last was to Voltaire one of the basest insults imaginable, as he had been schooled by Jesuits who he learned to detest, while he saw the Irish as hopelessly besotted by superstition. He also described Needham’s microscope as “the laboratory of the atheists.” Needham, like any proper Englishman, tried to ignore the name-calling. But the last charge, his complicity with atheism, was becoming harder to deny. It was all about to be proved true, in the pages of a book that would shock all of France.

Excerpted from "A Brief History of Creation: Science and the Search for the Origin of Life" by Bill Mesler and H. James Cleaves II. Published by W.W. Norton and Co. Copyright © 2015 by Bill Mesler and H. James Cleaves II. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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Bill Mesler is a journalist who lives in Washington, DC.

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