- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 28, 2004


William R. Newman

University of Chicago Press, $30, 333 pages


It is a nearly archetypal anxiety of the past century: Our unprecedented power to destroy and to create has, just in this last historical lap, outrun our wisdom to exercise it.

It is the theme of any science-fiction novel you can name: Will our creations rise up against us? Will God (or Nature, or some combination) punish our hubris?

These anxieties seem to define us as modern because the technologies they center on — cloning, nuclear weapons, artificial intelligence, bioengineering — seem so utterly unprecedented.

But in a new book, “Pro-methean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature,” William R. Newman shows that debating the ethical limits of human meddling in nature — even over creating artificial life in the laboratory — has a remarkably long history, going back well before the scientific revolution.

Mr. Newman, a professor of history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, is one of a few scholars who have taken medieval and Renaissance alchemy seriously as a laboratory discipline.

The prevailing view, advanced most forcefully in the last century by Carl Jung, has been that alchemy was mainly a spiritual or psychological enterprise — a form of Gnostic mysticism in which occurrences in test tubes were read like Rohrshach tests, and transmuting lead into gold was mainly a metaphor for perfecting the soul.

In previous books, including “Alchemy Tried in the Fire” (with Lawrence M. Principe), Mr. Newman has seriously challenged such a view by showing that some practitioners, such as the influential 17th-century American alchemist George Starkey, followed recognizably modern experimental protocols, even though they used deliberately obfuscatory symbolism when describing their work. Starkey’s friend Robert Boyle — often regarded as the father of modern experimental science — carried on an experimental mindset directly inherited, via Starkey, from the alchemical tradition.

Transmutation was understood as a real physical undertaking, not simply a metaphor. As such, it raised real ethical issues. These issues are the subject of Mr. Newman’s latest book.

Medieval alchemy was understood as an art, so Mr. Newman begins by placing alchemical debates over nature and artifice in the context of ancient arguments over substance and appearance that go back to the Greeks.

From Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century to Robert Boyle and Francis Bacon in the 17th, much ink was spilled (by alchemists and critics alike) on questions like whether alchemically-created gold differed from natural gold and if so, how — in substance? In appearance? In name?

Many of the arguments Mr. Newman paraphrases have a scholastic “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” sound that will be wearying to non-historians. But lurking just under the surface of these debates are much more timeless and pertinent anxieties.

This is particularly apparent when it comes to the vexing issue of artificial life. It wasn’t just a theoretical issue; the means already existed (alchemists and philosophers believed) to make life in the laboratory.

The medieval Jewish cabalists, for instance, believed that artificial servants — golems — could be created with clay and animated with words. Making these soulless and moronic beings was a perilous undertaking, since they would run amok if not deactivated after a certain length of time.

An even more fascinating alchemical obsession of the 16th and 17th centuries — and the source of much ethical anxiety — was the creation of homunculi, miniature humans that, like cloned fetal embryos today, possessed valuable therapeutic properties.

Homunculus ethics, on the one hand bizarre, were weirdly prescient. Mr. Newman cites one text falsely attributed to Thomas Aquinas in which the author outlines a procedure for heating bottled semen in dung to create a mini-man whose blood is “useful against many infirmities.”

It would be okay to harvest the blood, the author says, since being produced artificially, the being would lack a rational soul. Here as throughout the book, Mr. Newman pithily translates the issues at stake into modern terms: “How much simpler this issue for pseudo-Thomas than it is for the President’s Council on Bioethics: the absence of a rational soul imparted to the fetus by the Creator allowed the homunculus to be classified as subhuman and hence fit for research purposes.”

Yet opinions varied. Conservative theological critics countered, for instance, that creating a being without a soul would diabolically tempt God to provide it with one, an abominable undertaking.

Then as now, the ethics of test-tube life were bound up with issues of reproductive politics. Some alchemical writers saw homunculi as a desirable way to circumvent sexual reproduction and create highly spiritualized (indeed, largely transparent) beings purified of the “gross materiality” of the female sex.

(Mr. Newman points out the ironic resemblance here to one of the dreams of recent in vitro techniques, the fertilization of an egg by another egg, obviating the need for, in this case, a male genetic contribution.)

And this again raised serious counter-arguments, such as the theological quibble that, having been created asexually, homunculi were not subject to original sin — thus creating them was, as one Jesuit critic put it, “foolish, impious, erroneous and blasphemous”: How could sinful Man create a being that did not need Christ’s redemption?

Occupying a strange middle ground in the homunculus debate was the most fascinating character in Mr. Newman’s book, the great 16th-century alchemist and physician Theophrastus Paracelsus.

Rejecting the medieval dogma that ill health was caused by imbalances of the four bodily humors, Paracelsus sought the cause of disease instead in toxins, climate, diet and other influences — a surprisingly modern view. Yet the brilliant physician also devoted much ink to the problem of homunculi, which he saw as both the summa of the alchemical art and also a real and present biohazard.

His obsessive fear that homunculi could be produced accidentally by virtually any form of nonreproductive sexuality (such was the power of the male seed if unchecked by the womb’s inhibitory matrix) verged on an idee fixe. (Even chastity — the retention of seed — was dangerous; as a policy of public health, Paracelsus seriously recommended to parents that their male children should be either married or castrated.)

On the one hand, Mr. Newman observes that “The medievals had a surprisingly open attitude on issues that are now mired in dogma and reflexive apologetics.” Yet squeamishness of various kinds — religious, sexual, technological — clearly permeate the debates in this book, just as they permeate modern debates over everything from stem cells to nuclear power.

Squeamishness was not just a monopoly of alchemy’s critics. Take Paracelsus: Probably a lifelong virgin and very likely also a hermaphrodite, the freethinking and irreligious physician’s views on organic processes were powerfully informed by his own pathological (even by the conservative standards of his day) squeamishness over sex.

The pursuit of knowledge can never be disentangled from personal and cultural obsessions. Which is why, in the end, Mr. Newman’s welcome (and well-researched) approach to alchemy as a laboratory discipline-cum-ethical quagmire carries us back ironically to a view not unlike Jung’s — that we are dealing, really, with mentalities projected onto matter.

Matter is morals, and science (like alchemy) is bound to be an ethical problem that people take very personally. Wherever we stand, whatever our particular squeamishness, we are bound to invoke God, Nature, or some idiosyncratic mixture of the two, in our own defense. To do so has, indeed, a long history.

Eric Wargo is an associate editor at the Biblical Archaeology Society in Washington.

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