Friday, October 15, 2004

Promethean Ambitions: Book Review by Peter Dear

American Scientist Online - Art versus Nature :
Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature. William R. Newman. xvi + 333 pp. University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Review by Peter Dear, Science and Technology Studies and History, Cornell University:

"Perhaps most pertinent to the overall theme of Newman's book, alchemy challenged the boundary between art and nature most spectacularly with the idea of the homunculus, a 'little man' generated artificially in a glass vessel by the knowing alchemist. Newman shows that related stories date from late antiquity and came into the Latin West via Arabic sources. But it was the German physician and mystic Paracelsus who in the 16th century definitively created the idea of the homunculus as a feature of species-creating alchemy, which now transcended the making of gold.

Paracelsus, like earlier writers, including Aristotle, thought that male semen was the central ingredient for generating offspring; the mother only contributed the matter from which the young were made. So, he theorized, the alchemist should be able to cultivate human semen in a flask, keeping it warm and providing it with appropriate nutrients as it developed into a person. This rather disturbing proposal became widely known in Europe and was given a fair degree of credence in the 17th century. But the theological problems with artificially made human life were immediately obvious: Where would the creature's soul come from, and could God be obliged to provide one on demand? Designer babies have never been unproblematic."


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