Books by Clara Pinto-Correia

Released: Nov. 1, 1997

The origins of humankind have inspired endless speculation in myth, religion, philosophy, and science. In this scholarly volume, Portuguese developmental biologist Pinto-Correia elaborates on the history of one theory. From the mid-17th to the mid-18th centuries, battle lines were drawn between preformationists, who believed that all mankind was conceived in the ovary of Eve, and epigeneticists, who believed that development began de novo in each egg. Within the first camp there was further division between ovists, who believed future generations were encased within the egg like a series of ever-shrinking Russian dolls, and spermists, who saw a similar series of minipersons in the sperm head. Pinto-Correia's point is that the preformationists have gotten short shrift in the historical record, their ideas ridiculed and caricatured. But, she says, you can read today's homage to the genome as preformation reconfigured in the form of the idea that it's all written in the genes. Many will question that conclusion, however: Today's epigeneticists point to complex gene-environment interactions in development. In all fairness, the volume covers much more than an arcane chapter in the history of embryology. There are fascinating details on the evolution of thought in Harvey, Leeuwenhoek, Spallanzani (who preceded Pasteur in showing that spontaneous generation didn't exist), and numerous others. Many were skilled microscopists and experimental scientists who nevertheless reconciled what their eyes saw with what their soul believed. Pinto-Correia also elaborates on the denigration of women that colored many arguments, the importance of measurement and numerology (you could figure out how many Russian dolls you'd need, given that the universe was only 6,000 years old), and so on. (Stephen Jay Gould contributes a foreword.) In short, there is a rich meal to dine on—not to be swallowed at one sitting—but perhaps to inspire other scholar/chefs to stew about. (55 b&w photos, not seen) Read full book review >