Where do babies come from? If you’d been alive before 1650, you might never have known, as this instructive and pleasing history relates.
Cobb, a British biologist whose day job while writing was “studying the sense of smell in maggots—really,” here notes that the causal connections between anatomical equipment and usage and reproduction were not well understood before 1650; even Leonardo da Vinci got some of the most important details wrong, while the once-influential scientist Athanasius Kircher was sure that something alchemical was at work and offered up a recipe involving crushed maggots—really—and honey water to prove his point. “If you wanted to generate flies, Kircher’s procedure was sure to succeed,” Cobb writes. Flies relish such a dish indeed, but for reasons for which Kircher did not account, and it took the combined efforts of a generation of scientists from across Europe to overturn the old beliefs. Leiden University was a particularly effective hive of activity, blessed with a bibulous (the university “gave students an annual tax-free alcohol allowance of 194 litres of wine and around 1500 litres of beer”) but talented corps of scholars. Men such as Jan Swammerdam, Nils Stensen, Reinier de Graaf and Anton Leeuwenhoek, of various backgrounds and conditions, embodied the best aspects of the Dutch Golden Age, corresponding and visiting with their peers in other countries and gradually developing techniques and theories that underlie modern genetics, biochemistry and other disciplines. Not that their efforts weren’t start-and-stop: As Cobb notes, it took a while for even those great thinkers in that great era to link the “little animals” that lived inside semen to their role in fertilizing eggs. And yet, in time, “They showed us where we come from,” Cobb concludes.
Readers fond of such works as Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men (2002) will find Cobb’s tale a pleasure.