April 30, 2007

Omne vivum ex ovo

In English: Every living thing comes from an egg.

I thought I would continue with the previous days' proverbs about eggs with this famous Latin saying about the egg! This is not a proverbial saying but rather a scientific motto, a fundamental principle of the modern life sciences.

Although we are all now used to the idea that every living thing comes from eggs, even human beings, this was not always a universally accepted principle. Instead, many people believed in "spontaneous generation," the idea that living creatures could arise from non-living matter, especially decaying organic materials, such as maggots that seemed to grow in rotting meat or mice growing in moldy grain or frogs growing in the mud of the Nile river.

Because Aristotle promoted the idea of spontaneous generation, it remained a fundamental tenet of western science for many centuries, until the rise of modern science. In addition, with regard to human generation, it is worth noting that Aristotle and many other ancient scientists did not believe that the female contributed an egg; rather, they thought that the male provided the human embryo in the sperm, and the woman was simply a container who carried the embryo until it became an infant.

Over time, however, the evidence for spontaneous generation was dismissed by scientific investigators. In the late 17th century, an Italian scientist, Francesco Redi, proved that maggots did not grow in meat where flies were prevented from laying their eggs there.

The belief that omne vivum ex ovo is most closely associated with William Harvey, the 17th-century English doctor who explained the circulation of blood in the body. As he argued, omnia omnino animalia, etiam vivipara, atque hominem adeo ipsum, ex ovo progigni, "absolutely all animals, including those who give birth to live young, and even man himself, are born from an egg." This is a very striking contention to make in the 17th century, given that the actual mammalian egg was not found until 1827!

I'm excited about the way learning Latin proverbs can be a way to promote general cultural literacy - and this time, the Latin saying provides a bit of scientific literacy, too!

So here is today's proverb read out loud:

481. Omne vivum ex ovo.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Latin Via Proverbs: 4000 Proverbs, Mottoes and Sayings for Students of Latin.

If you are reading this via RSS: The Flash audio content is not syndicated via RSS; please visit the Latin Audio Proverbs blog to listen to the audio. You can also hear this saying read aloud at a Polish website: Wladyslawa Kopalinskiego Slownik wyraz?w obcych i zwrot?w obcojezycznych (weblink).
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