6

Still from Ice Age (Love, Death & Robots)

The trope

The essence of the trope goes like this: Somebody creates a new biosphere or civilisation by accident, such as leaving some sandwich lying around. Often, the product is microscopic with respect to the creator and they get to play god, but that’s not a must.

It is essential that the the creation is accidental and not intentional (or unknown).

Examples I found (potential spoilers)

  • In 1960, Thomas Gold hypothesised that life as we know it may have originated from an accidental panspermia, i.e., some garbage left on Earth by aliens.

  • In Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (1987), life as we know it is caused by a crashed spaceship.

  • Terry Pratchett’s Faust Eric (1990) discusses the possibility that a sandwich left by Rincewind at the beginning of time may be the origin of life on Discworld.

  • In the segment The Genesis Tub from the Simpsons episode Treehouse of Horror VII (1996), Lisa creates a civilisation by exposing a tooth to cola and accidentally discharging a spark onto it.

  • In the short story Ice Age by Michael Swanwick (2000), a civilisation matures in an ancient fridge. This was adapted into an episode of Love, Death & Robots (2019).

  • In the South Park episode The Simpsons Already Did It (2002), the kids create a civilisation in a fish tank by adding semen to sea monkeys. The resemblance a Simpsons episode (see above) as well as a Twilight Zone one (see below) are mentioned in universe.

Close calls

The following feature microscopic life, civilisations, etc. that are of unknown origin or created intentionally:

My question

I would be surprised if Dirk Gently is really the first to use this trope in fiction, in particular since serious examples as well as the idea of a microscopic civilisation have been around much longer.

So what is the first example of this trope in fiction?

  • 4
    The Bolero segment of Bruno Bozzetti's 1976 animated movie, Allegro non Troppo, deserves mention as probably the most beautifully filmed example of this trope. In this movie, an astronaut heaves a Coca-Cola bottle onto the bare surface of a planet, and the residue left in the bottle evolves into one creature after another. Watch on YouTube: youtube.com/watch?v=5pgANtzO2G4 – Invisible Trihedron Nov 2 '19 at 0:06
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    I think that the Golgafrincham Ark Fleet Ship B predates Dirk Gently by 7 years. But in that case "humans" simply replace the natives as teh dominant species – Peter M Nov 2 '19 at 23:35
  • Almost every Treehouse of Horror short is a parody or retelling of a previous work. All these examples are not useful in finding the earliest. – OrangeDog Nov 4 '19 at 14:24
  • Perhaps surprisingly, I can't find an entry for this on TVTropes. – OrangeDog Nov 4 '19 at 14:25
  • This is how Aphrodite was formed, from the spilling of Uranus' sperm and blood into the ocean – Valorum Nov 4 '19 at 14:46
5

In 1751, the Danish-Norwegian Ludvig Holberg published Moral Fables, of which No. 81 was Midernes art og egenskab (The Ways of Mites)¹. It describes a civilization of mites having sprung up on an old cheese in a farmer's larder.

The setting, which may or may not make this a close call is a past where all animals were sentient and the story is written as a report by a group of worms who were sent as anthropologists by the other animals. (Holberg uses the word missionaries.)

The story is a satire on religion, with the mites believing the world (the cheese that is) having been created for them and some mites identify the milk-maid as a benevolent creator god and the rat who eats of the cheese as evil incarnate. They pray to both though, to placate the rat. A few heretic spinoza-mites reject the notion of a creator as ludicrous and believe that the cheese has always existed and always will.


¹ Here is a full ancient German translation.

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7

Larry Niven's 1966 novel, World of Ptavvs, is an example (published earlier, 1965, as a novella). In this case, the Earth is seeded with food yeast some billions of years ago, and the yeast accidentally evolves into all subsequent terrestrial forms of life. From the Wikipedia summary of the plot:

Eons ago, Kzanol's spaceship had suffered a catastrophic failure; its reactive drive system failed and the navigation computer automatically jettisoned it. Faced with insufficient power to use hyperspace, Kzanol aimed his ship at the nearest uninhabited Thrint planet used to grow yeast for food (Earth), and turned his spacesuit's emergency stasis field on to survive the long journey and impact. He also arranged for his ship to change course for the system's eighth planet (Neptune) after he was in stasis, with his amplifier helmet and other valuables stashed inside his spare suit (in order to hide these valuables from any rescuers).

Although he assumed that the resident Thrint overseer would be able to rescue him after seeing the plume of gas created by his impact, his timing could not have been worse; while he was in stasis, the races enslaved by the Thrint revolted. Facing extinction, the Thrint decided to take their enemies with them by constructing a telepathic amplifier powerful enough to command all sentient species in the galaxy to commit suicide. (Only the artificially created Bandersnatchi survived, having been secretly designed to be resistant to the Power.) After hundreds of millions of years, the yeast food mutated and evolved into complex life on Earth.

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7
  • Arthur C. Clarke's story, Before Eden from Amazing Stories (June 1961), where human explorers leave behind sufficient garbage and wastes on an alien planet to contaminate it with microscopic Earth life. The story doesn't specify whether the lifeforms from Earth continue to survive and evolve on the alien planet.

  • Alfred Bester's story Adam and No Eve from Astounding Science Fiction (September 1941) suggests that if a large multi celled organism dies on an otherwise totally lifeless planet, the billions of microscopic lifeforms within its body could survive for some time feeding on its cells, and possibly survive and spread and populate the previously lifeless planet.

Those two stories, and possibly others I can't think of at the moment, thus spread the concept of introducing life and ecosystems to another planet, perhaps by accident.

  • The War of the Worlds (1897) by H.G. Wells spread the concept that microorganisms from planet A might be able to infect macro organisms from planet B.

  • As a result of the fear of possible infection of Earth by Lunar microorganisms, the first few Apollo crews to return from the Moon were quarantined for weeks after returning to see if they developed any infections. From Wikipedia on planetary protection:

    Planetary protection is a guiding principle in the design of an interplanetary mission, aiming to prevent biological contamination of both the target celestial body and the Earth in the case of sample-return missions. Planetary protection reflects both the unknown nature of the space environment and the desire of the scientific community to preserve the pristine nature of celestial bodies until they can be studied in detail.

    There are two types of interplanetary contamination. Forward contamination is the transfer of viable organisms from Earth to another celestial body. Back contamination is the transfer of extraterrestrial organisms, if such exist, back to the Earth's biosphere.

    This has been a concern in the space exploration community since 1956.

    In 1967, the US, USSR, and UK ratified the United Nations Outer Space Treaty. The legal basis for planetary protection lies in Article IX of this treaty: "Article IX: ... States Parties to the Treaty shall pursue studies of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination and also adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter and, where necessary, shall adopt appropriate measures for this purpose...

    So space probes intended to crash or to soft land on other astronomical bodies have usually been sterilized to reduce the possibility of contaminating other worlds with Earth life forms.

So science fiction has a long history of considering the possibility of introducing lifeforms into previously lifeless settings and thus creating new and possibly permanent ecosystems, either deliberately or accidentally. The further step of creating civilizations of intelligent beings no doubt appeared much later, but that is not a requirement for the purpose of the question.

So a chronological list from this answer and other answers and comments would be:

  1. The War of the Worlds (1897) by H.G. Wells.

  2. At the Mountains of Madness (1936) by H. P. Lovecraft.

  3. Adam and No Eve (Astounding Science Fiction, September 1941) by Alfred Bester.

  4. Thomas Gold's accidental panspermia theory (1960).

  5. Before Eden (Amazing Stories, June 1961) by Arthur C. Clarke.

  6. World of Ptaavs (1965, 1966) by Larry Niven.

  7. United Nations Outer Space Treaty (1967).

  8. March of the Dinosaaurs segment of Alegro non Troppo (1976) by Bruno Bozzetto.

  9. Dr. Who serial "The City of Death", 29 September 1979 to October 1979, where the accidental explosion of a spaceship causes life to develop on a planet,as suggested by SpaceWolf1701.

  10. Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (1987) by Douglas Adams.

And I suspect there should be a number of other examples, and it is quite possible that the best candidate for the first example has not yet been mentioned.

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  • 1
    If you'd care to add it to your answer, the Doctor Who serial "City of Death" predates Dirk Gently by around 8 years; the development of humanity is inadvertently kickstarted by an exploding spaceship that crashed into the primordial soup. Douglas Adams actually worked on the script for "City of Death" and reused that story element for Dirk Gently. – SpaceWolf1701 Nov 2 '19 at 20:37
  • Of the examples from this intriguing list, the earliest that corresponds to the OP's question in a strict sense is Bester (1941), Adam and No Eve. In Arthur Clarke's story, the biosphere of Venus is wiped out by accidental contamination. – Invisible Trihedron Nov 2 '19 at 21:53
6

It's part of the backstory in At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft (written in 1931 but not published until 1936). The Old Ones (as they are known in that story; to distinguish them from other beings known by that name, they are frequently referred to as the "Elder Things") were supposed to have created life on Earth as "a joke or mistake."

In fact, this is sort of a meta-example, since it is actually clear from the story that the Elder Things did not create life on Earth as a mistake. They created the shuggoths intentionally, and the extent to which other life forms were accidental byproducts is unclear. However, in universe, the Necronomicon states that life on this planet was created as a joke or a mistake.

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  • 1
    Since the Shoggoths later revolted against the Elder Things, creating them could be called a mistake, in the sense of an intentional action which turned out disastrously. – M. A. Golding Nov 2 '19 at 20:24

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