The Ovary of Eve: Egg and Sperm and Preformation.
Clara Pinto-Correia, in The Ovary of Eve: Egg and Sperm and Preformation, aims to rescue preformation, an early modern theory of generation, from the dustbin of positivist medical history. Instead of dismissing this theory as an irrational curiosity, she examines preformation with a refreshing mixture of excitement, reverence, and marvel. She draws on an immense collection of both popular and scientific literature from the heyday of its influence (roughly 1650 to 1750), and proves that preformation answered to a whole range of cultural demands.
Briefly, preformation posited "that all living beings existed preformed inside their forebears in the manner of a Russian doll, put there by G-d at the beginning of Creation with a precise moment established for each one to unfold and come to life" (p. 3). Preformation was the rival explanation of generation to epigenesis, by which the parts of the fetus grew gradually during pregnancy. Pinto-Correia focuses not on the debate between epigenesis (the ultimately prevalent theory) and preformation (what she calls the "beautiful loser"), but on the battle between the contesting factions within preformation: ovism and spermism. Ovists, including Marcello Malpighi and Jan Swammerdam, argued that a miniature human was housed within each female egg (then recently described by William Harvey); spermists such as Antoni van Leeuwenhoek and Nicolas Hartsoeker argued that each sperm contained little people, or homunculi.
Pinto-Correia avoids a chronological account of the development of preformation, rather structuring the book around each of the challenges to preformation in general, illustrating how ovists and spermists responded differently. She shows, for instance, how each side dealt with the thorny question of monsters: why would G-d have implanted "defective" creatures into the testes of Adam or the ovaries of Eve? Similarly, she describes how spermists wrestled with the fact that many more sperm were ejaculated in a minute quantity of semen than could grow to maturity, leading them to wonder why G-d would have created a surplus of homunculi, only for them to be wasted.
The finest sections of the book are where the author describes the seemingly ludicrous experiments that led to preformation theory, which she does with both humour and appreciation for their scientific rigour. One example is her discussion of Lazzaro Spallanzani's trials to discover whether an egg could grow spontaneously, or whether some sort of input from the male was necessary. He first let female frogs ovulate into a container of water. Then he sewed minuscule, taffeta "boxer shorts" onto male frogs, impeding their semen flow, and had them swim in the water. He discovered how, in the absence of male semen, the eggs could not be fertilized, thereby concluding that the miniature animal was really contained in the sperm.
The religious, political, and social issues of early modern culture not only generated the questions to be answered by scientific experiments, but also dictated which results would be culturally acceptable. Pinto-Correia employs her enormous literary and linguistic erudition to illustrate how the general prejudices against the term homunculus associated with spermism ultimately contributed to its dismissal; how ovism was automatically bolstered by the spherical nature of an egg, a universal symbol of generation (like the Earth, the Sun, and the chicken egg); and how ovism was nonetheless prejudiced for ascribing, in a patriarchal society, the chief role in generation to an egg found only in women.
Yet her attempt to establish the broad cultural basis from which preformation arose also points to the most serious flaw in her work. The elegant foreword by Stephen Jay Gould claims that this book describes "the remarkable reach of the tentacles of this theory [preformation] into virtually every important comer of life in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries" (p. xvi). Pinto-Correia adds that preformation was a theory "that was to rule the scene" between 1650 and 1750 (p. 3). These statements leave the impression that preformation, because of its cultural relevancy, dominated the European mind for a hundred years. But she does not show how preformation, either ovism or spermism, was transformed from an elite theory of scientists into a popular idea: did average early modern European men and women believe preformation explained generation?
One way Pinto-Correia might have answered this question is by looking at more editions of the Master-Piece (in its day falsely ascribed to Aristotle), a work she cites occasionally. She describes its anonymous author as an "obscure popularizer" (p. 41). But the Master-Piece was hardly obscure. According to Roy Porter, it was the most ubiquitous example of sex advice literature in early modern England: it saw over forty-three editions between its first publication in 1684 and 1800. (In Roy Porter and Lesley Hall, The Facts of Life: the Creation of Sexual Knowledge in Britain, 1690-1950 [New Haven, 1995], p. 36.) The Master-Piece provided lay men and women with an explanation of what happened inside their bodies to cause generation.
Like the edition of the Master-Piece (1741) to which Pinto-Correia refers, two editions of 1698 and 1749 demonstrate a familiarity with William Harvey's argument that women produce eggs, not sperm. But, neither the 1698 nor the 1749 edition mentions anything about miniature people housed inside either eggs or sperm. In other words, there is no reference, either explicit or implicit, to preformation. This suggests that even by the time preformation had reached its twilight among scientists, it does not seem to have taken hold in popular culture.
Clara Pinto-Correia's The Ovary of Eve should be applauded for its careful and sympathetic examination of preformation, a theory which has been neglected since it was dismissed by the march of scientific progress. In her attempt to ground this theory in popular culture, however, she shows only how the scientists who formulated it were driven by the cultural norms of their day. What she does not show, yet which is equally important, is how this theory was in mm received by the general, lay population which shaped those norms in the first place.
Raymond Ludwin University of Toronto
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 1998|
|Previous Article:||At the Heart of the Empire: Indians and the Colonial Encounter in Late-Victorian Britain.|
|Next Article:||A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition.|