In the 17th Century, Scientists Laid Myths to Rest
By WILLIAM GRIMES | NYT
In the 17th century, scientists didn’t believe that the stork delivered babies, but they might as well have. Reproduction remained a deep mystery, its processes the subject of wild speculation and absurd flights of fancy. Otherwise sophisticated intellects believed that carp grew from reeds and that it was possible to create mice by putting a dirty shirt and a few grains of wheat into a sealed jar and letting it sit for 21 days.
These and other follies, the received wisdom of centuries, were debunked in a brief but startling burst of scientific creativity lasting from about 1665 to 1680. A loosely bound network of scientists, empowered by the experimental method and new technologies like the microscope, overturned the old theories of Aristotle and Galen, parted company with the alchemists and laid down the basic framework for our modern understanding of reproduction. This is the story that Matthew Cobb tells in “Generation,” his competent if less than enthralling reconstruction of the bold experiments, intellectual alliances and bitter battles that led to a new scientific frontier.
Mr. Cobb, an animal behaviorist at the University of Manchester, tries to place his scientific material in historical context, pulling the camera back for some panoramic shots of the Dutch and English Wars, or the London of Samuel Pepys. To enliven his narrative, he plays up the personal drama involving Jan Swammerdam, Niels Stensen and Reinier de Graaf, fellow students at the Leiden University who made key discoveries about animal and human reproduction and who function as Mr. Cobb’s protagonists.
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Posted Wed Aug 2nd, 2006