Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Edward Dolnick's "The Seeds of Life"

Edward Dolnick is the former chief science writer for The Boston Globe and is the author of, among others, The Rush and The Clockwork Universe.

Dolnick applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Seeds of Life: From Aristotle to da Vinci, from Sharks' Teeth to Frogs' Pants, the Long and Strange Quest to Discover Where Babies Come From, and reported the following:
The Seeds of Life is a book that seeks to answer a simple question – how could it be that, until astonishingly recent times, no one knew where babies come from? The solution to the mystery did not come until 1875. Until then, ordinary people didn’t know, and neither did the scientists who helped shape the modern world. Leonardo da Vinci didn’t know, Galileo didn’t know, Isaac Newton didn’t know.

They knew, that is, that men and women have sex and as a result, sometimes, babies, but they did not know how those babies are created. They did not know that women produce eggs, and when they finally discovered sperm cells, they did not know that those wriggly tadpoles had anything to do with babies and pregnancy. (The leading theory was that they were parasites, perhaps related to the newly discovered mini-creatures that swam in drops of pond water. This was Newton’s view.)

Page 99 isn’t typical of the book, because the tone is a bit more earnest. For me, the great appeal of the subject is the spectacle of some of the greatest thinkers who ever lived knocking their heads against a riddle that a ten-year-old today knows all about. But they truly were great minds, so part of the fascination is learning what led them astray.

Much of the book deals with the scientific and intellectual blinders of the titans who created the scientific revolution. One key problem was religious faith. Virtually all these thinkers were devout, and they believed with all their heart that God was not merely the Creator but the only Creator. How could it be, then, that ordinary men and women, huffing and puffing in the dark, could create new life?

Page 99 explores blinders of a different sort. In these early days, virtually all scientists were males. Not everyone went as far as Aristotle, who described females as “mutilated males.” Still, almost all of them took for granted that women were inferior to men, physically, mentally, and morally. This was not a good starting point.
Typically, in the early modern age, women were condemned for their lustful, fickle natures. Men were supposedly higher-minded. Certainly, this was the view of Robert Boyle, one of the founders of the Royal Society and the most important English scientist in the generation before Isaac Newton. Celibate through his long life, Boyle feared the wanton, scheming ways of women, all of them temptresses like Eve. ‘I am confident that thousands would be whores could they but be so without being thought so.’ Men’s highest calling was to study God’s works, but women would lure the weak and unwary from that sacred mission. Who would gaze through a microscope, Boyle asked, when he might be staring down a lady’s cleavage?
Learn more about the book and author at Edward Dolnick's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Forger's Spell.

The Page 99 Test: The Clockwork Universe.

The Page 99 Test: The Rush.

--Marshal Zeringue