The last time we heard from Dr. Thomson, he was scolding Thomas Edison for not believing in a soul. So what does he say about the origin of life?
Well, nothing conclusive, of course, He mostly muses about how it’s an interesting question. He touches a little bit on the possibility of Intelligent Design, and marvels at how animals keep having offspring of the same species, but concludes that we really don’t know how it all works.
Every one of the millions of cells of [an elephant’s] future body must develop from that first cell. They are all constructed on the elephant-cell pattern, and according to no other pattern. Each cell must contain an even, never an odd, number, in its nucleus of those little bodies called chromosemes, and upon which heredity depends, because finally that first cell contains something which determines that it will grow into an elephant and not into a frog, according to its hereditary descent from the first elephant.
As a result, the absolute absurdity of the supposition of the spontaneous generation of life appears when we consider that it is not a living substance or thing which we are invenstigating, but a thing which can be a dot and then an animal, and then a dot again for any number of times. It would be easier to imagine a watch spontaneously generating itself than for an oak to become an acorn and then an oak again, and so on through all the years of its geological period.
Reproduction of like from like by means of an inconceivably complex series of connected changes is a characteristic of life only. It has not a single analogue in the non-living kingdom. There is no such thing as hereditary fire, though it may spread, any more than a hereditary glacier, however it may grow by accumulating snow and ice.
His musings take him in directions touching on genetics, but it would be about 25 more years before DNA was understood to be a building block of life.
DR. WILLIAM HANNA THOMSON ON THE ORIGIN OF LIFE: Author of “Brain and Personality” Discusses the World’s Greatest Mystery, Which Has So Long Baffled Science. (PDF)
From April 23, 1911
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