Darwin’s “warm little pond”

After reading about an experiment that showed some moulds could survive boiling, Darwin speculated in a letter to his friend Joseph Hooker that life on earth might have started in a “warm little pond”:


It is often said that all the conditions for the first production of a living organism are now present, which could ever have been present.— But if (& oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia & phosphoric salts,—light, heat, electricity &c present, that a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes, at the present day such matter wd be instantly devoured, or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed.

Letter to J. D. Hooker, 1 Feb [1871]


A lovely chemical soup!  But not a popular theory among recent scientists who have increasingly looked for the origins of life around hot springs deep in the ocean.  Now new work suggests Darwin may have been on the right track: researchers in Germany have looked, among other things, at the relative levels of salt and potassium in living organisms and think Darwin’s pond is a better fit for our first home than the ocean floor.  You can read about their theories on the New Scientist website.


Composite image copyright Cambridge University Library

We will be publishing Darwin’s letter to Hooker next month in volume 19 of the Correspondence of Charles Darwin, along with all the other letters he wrote and received in 1871 (a vintage Darwin year).   Those letters will all also be made available on this site eventually, but in the meantime we have rushed the complete text of this particular letter online ahead of schedule.  You can read it here.


You can read more about Darwin’s correspondence in 1871 here.



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