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The Seeds of Life

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

Edward Dolnick
Basic Books
2017
320 pp.
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Although the truth about how babies are made continues to be shrouded in innuendo and analogy, the science behind human reproduction is well known. If you rewind the clock a handful of centuries, however, the answer to “Where do babies come from?” was more likely to be guided by mysticism and guesswork than scientific consensus.

Tracing the path from early anatomists, through the great “egg versus sperm” debate in the 1700s, into the late 19th century when all of the pieces finally began to fit together, The Seeds of Life paints an amiable picture of blunder, discovery, and the ways that cultural biases and religion complicated scientific discovery in centuries past.

The book is organized into four parts, each full of intriguing anecdotes and colorful historical figures. In “Peering into the Body,” Dolnick begins with an overview of conception myths and ideas from the ancient world, eventually settling in with a slew of early anatomists who endeavored to understand the human body by taking it apart. Here, he traces the contributions made by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and Andreas Vesalius to early theories of reproduction.

The quest continues in “The Search for the Egg,” which recounts the century-long debate between “ovists” and “spermists,” who were both certain that one or the other was solely responsible for the creation of new life but couldn’t agree on which.

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Some early philosophers and physicians believed that every creature that would ever exist resided, in miniature, within members of the same species.

Religion and science come together in “Russian Dolls,” as Dolnick tackles the theory of preexistence (or preformation). Those who subscribed to this way of thought believed that every life was stashed away “in Adam’s testicles or in Eve’s ovaries,” each nestled inside the next larger one. Although the idea is laughable today, Dolnick explains how such a notion made sense to early scientists, who would not have conceived of a world without a divine creator. Wrote one scientist at the time, such a theory would “only appear bizarre to those who measure the wonders of the infinite powers of God according to the idea of their senses and of their imagination.”

Slowly but surely, the modern understanding of reproduction comes into focus in the book’s final section. The compelling climax starts with a frog in silk pants and only gets more interesting from there.

The book paints a stark picture of how women were viewed by early scientists; in summary: “Eggs were special. Women were not.” Although quick to highlight and criticize this dismissal, Dolnick sometimes treats that reality as an amusing anecdote. In chapter 6, for example, he summarizes Aristotle’s argument that although both semen and menstrual blood were essential for reproduction, semen alone gave shape to the new life, writing, “One sex performed magic; the other provided supplies.” An acknowledgment that many of the patriarchal systems of the past still hold sway in the present would have been more appropriate in these instances.

As a modern-day scientist, I found myself willing researchers of days long past to look just a little closer and think a bit more critically. In reality, the road to discovery is rarely as straightforward as it appears in hindsight, and The Seeds of Life captures that truth well.

About the author

Genetics Society of America, Bethesda, MD 20814, USA