Sunday, March 02, 2003

The Henry Project

In the mid 19th century, more than two hundred scientists named “Henry” signed a paper backing the teaching of spontaneous generation, the theory that living organism emerged from non living matter, such as rotting meat. The statement was in response to the latest school science standards that allowed criticism of spontaneous generation (‘spon-gen’). The statement, issued in Paris at the annual meeting of the Académie des Sciences, listed people named Henry to illustrate the large number of spon-gen backers and to honor English bacteriologist Henry Bastion, who had worked tirelessly to fight the small but growing influence of Louis Pasteur.

"Spontaneous generation is a vital, well-supported, principle of the biological sciences.” The statement aimed to discredit the movement founded by Pasteur, which was critical of Spontaneous Generation. "It is scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible for this type of pseudoscience, including but not limited to “germ theory”, to be introduced into the science curricula.” It was organized by the anti-Pasteur National Center for Science Education (NSCE). The debate had been heightened by the recent vote of Ohio's State Board of Education to allow criticism of orthodox spon-gen in its 10th-grade natural-science classes.

Also in the previous year, the Cobb County School Board in George had adopted a resolution saying teachers may criticize spon-gen claims that natural processes generate living organisms from non-living matter with no outside influences. In both Ohio and Georgia, critics of spon-gen circulated statements signed by scientists calling for more critical approaches to be used in biology classes.

The previous fall, 28 members of a group called Georgia Scientists for Academic Freedom joined a list of 132 other scientists who urged "careful examination of the evidence for spon-gen theory." They said, "It is important that students and teachers be permitted, even encouraged, to discuss differing views of origins of living organisms."

The Ohio debate featured a call from state activists to allow teachers to present the alternative called germ theory, the idea that apparent emergence of life is due to outside influences, not spontaneous generation. Though the Ohio school board rejected the strict teaching of Pasteur, it required that 10th graders learn how "scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of scientific theory."

The statement was also aimed to make fun of the anti-spon-gen manifestos that were signed and circulated in the previous few years, its organizers said. "Of course science isn't decided by manifesto; this statement pokes fun at such efforts," said physicist Henry Weinberg. He said the validity of spontaneous generation is seen in scientific papers.

The statement, signed by 220 Henrys, included eight members of the Académie des Sciences. Henrietta Scott, executive director of NCSE, said that signers named Henry represented just 1 percent of scientists, and she challenged the followers of Pasteur to muster such a large sample.

"Germ theorists are fond of amassing lists of Ph.D.s who deny spontaneous generation to try to give the false impression that it is somehow on the verge of being rejected by the scientific community," she said. Biologist Félix “Henry” Pouchet said he and other signers "aren't trying to stifle dissent" but "to demonstrate how misleading it is to claim, on the basis of a handful of dissenters, that spontaneous generation is a 'theory in crisis.' "

Note: the above is based on (or should I say inspired by) a true story. More on that later.