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In Promethean Ambitions, William R. Newman ambitiously uses alchemy to investigate the thinning boundary between the natural and the artificial. Focusing primarily on the period between 1200 and 1700, Newman examines the labors of pioneering alchemists and the impassioned—and often negative—responses to their efforts. By the thirteenth century, Newman argues, alchemy had become a benchmark for determining the abilities of both men and demons, representing the epitome of creative power in the natural world. Newman frames the art-nature debate by contrasting the supposed transmutational power of alchemy with the merely representational abilities of the pictorial and plastic arts—a dispute which found artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Bernard Palissy attacking alchemy as an irreligious fraud. The later assertion by the Paracelsian school that one could make an artificial human being—the homunculus—led to further disparagement of alchemy, but as Newman shows, the immense power over nature promised by the field contributed directly to the technological apologetics of Francis Bacon and his followers. By the mid-seventeenth century, the famous "father of modern chemistry," Robert Boyle, was employing the arguments of medieval alchemists to support the identity of naturally occurring substances with those manufactured by "chymical" means.
In using history to highlight the art-nature debate, Newman here shows that alchemy was not an unformed and capricious precursor to chemistry; it was an art founded on coherent philosophical and empirical principles, with vocal supporters and even louder critics, that attracted individuals of first-rate intellect. The historical relationship that Newman charts between human creation and nature has innumerable implications today, and he ably links contemporary issues to alchemical debates on the natural versus the artificial.
— David Knight
— Ed Rothstein
— Simon Ings
— Eric Wargo
— Iwan Rhys Morus
— John Hedley Brooke
— Pedro J. Bernal
“As William R. Newman reminds us in Promethean Ambitions, his fascinating history of alchemy, the failure to distinguish good science from bad has been a recipe for policy disaster for centuries. Newman shows that alchemists were more than dreamers trying to convert lead into gold. From 1200 to 1700, they followed trends in metaphysical fashion by trying to create tiny humans, called homunculi. One hears echoes of today’s cloning debates in the 16th-century wrangling over the moral status of these imaginary creatures.”
— Russell Seitz
— Kathleen R. Sands
— Walter W. Woodward
— Peter J. Ramberg
— Tara E. Nummedal
— Deborah E. Harkness
— John T. Young
Many of us feel besieged by the rapidly eroding boundaries between the realms of the artificial and the natural. Not only does nature itself appear to be experiencing an unparalleled threat from environmental degradation and human encroachment on what once was wilderness, but the very concept of nature as an intelligible category seems increasingly remote. After all, we live in the era of "Frankenfoods," cloning, in vitro fertilization, synthetic polymers, Artificial Intelligence, and computer generated "Artificial Life." Pope John Paul II, driven by fears that the impact of biomedical research on human nature will soon deprive life of its dignity, warns of the "Promethean ambitions" implicit as he sees it in much contemporary science. But the artistic world too offers challenges to the category of the natural-consider the emergence of transgenic art, which claims to have produced a bioluminescent rabbit by means of DNA extracted from jellyfish. All of these technological marvels impinge on areas that, in the not-too-distant past, seemed to belong to a domain beyond the power of humankind. We are worried, and perhaps rightly so.
Part of our fear stems from the feeling that humans are being increasingly outclassed by machines. Not only has our biological champion, Garry Kasparov, been defeated at the hand of the robotic chess master Deep Blue-we are now beginning to observe the animated products of Computer Graphics Imaging substitute for living actors in film and television. The farcical events surrounding Andrew Niccol's virtual actress in the recent film Simone stem from genuine apprehensions about the replacement of real humans by animated screen images. Even fashion models are beginning to feel threatened by their virtual counterparts-the New York Times has reported that modeling agencies have begun using cyberspace personalities such as "Webbie Tookay" in their clothing advertisements. The founder of a famous model-management company expounds his semijocular wish that "all models were virtual," in view of their "hassle-free" personalities and their ability to keep looking good over the long haul. The virtual model, a two-dimensional creature of unthinking electrons impelled by human artifice, could end up replacing her (or his) natural exemplar.
But is the phenomenon of "art" (or as we now say, technology) impinging on nature really a new thing, and is our attendant anxiety a novel sentiment? Clearly the answer must be no, since Leon R. Kass, chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, recently raised a minor sensation by assigning Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1843 story, "The Birth-Mark," to his fellow committee members as required reading for their deliberations on human cloning. A closer connection with the theme of the present book cannot be imagined. The principal character of Hawthorne's story is a chemist named Aylmer, who is obsessed with the desire to remove a hand-shaped birthmark from the cheek of his wife Georgiana, a faultless beauty in every respect other than this blemish. With Georgiana's consent, Aylmer concocts an elixir that succeeds in eliminating the birthmark, but with one unfortunate side effect-it also kills Georgiana. Hawthorne ends the story with an explicit moral:
had Aylmer reached a profounder wisdom, he need not thus have flung away the happiness, which would have woven his mortal life of the self-same texture with the celestial. The momentary circumstance was too strong for him; he failed to look beyond the shadowy scope of Time, and living once for all in Eternity, to find the perfect Future in the present.
Kass and his committee members broadcast a related message in Human Cloning and Human Dignity: The Report of the President's Council on Bioethics-we should ban human cloning in all areas of research, whether intended for producing children or for biomedical purposes. Otherwise we run the risk of tampering too eagerly with nature, and may, like Aylmer, succeed in destroying the very humanity that we desire to improve.
Whatever the reader may think of Kass and his report, one must sympathize with the council's desire to find some grounding in tradition for the profound ethical dilemmas that surround our increasing power over nature. There is every reason to seek moral guidance in the classics of literature. But there are dangers as well as benefits to such an approach. The key problem, illustrated clearly by the council's published discussion, stems from the treatment of literature in a historical vacuum. By looking at "The Birth-Mark" as an atemporal index of human repulsion to the hubris inherent in "the pursuit of perfection," one commits the fallacy of reification. With all due respect to the council, our reaction to Aylmer is not a "natural" or "necessary" one born of universal, diachronic human emotion without the aid of prior tutelage. Nor did Hawthorne merely draw on his own sense of moral outrage to "invent" the subject about which he wrote so skillfully. Indeed, the council's discussion failed to notice that Hawthorne himself, in composing "The Birth-Mark," drew upon a much older tradition of debating the hubris implicit in human beings' godlike power over the natural world. That tradition forms the subject of Promethean Ambitions.
Even the most casual reader of Hawthorne cannot fail to see that the "chemist" Aylmer is really an alchemist. After presenting a number of traditional "natural magic" demonstrations to Georgiana, such as the magic lantern, camera obscura, and artificial rebirth or "palingenesis" of a plant, Aylmer launches into an enthusiastic discussion of alchemy, describing "the universal solvent, by which the Golden Principle might be elicited from all things vile and base," and the Elixir Vitae that could indefinitely prolong life. As though these well-worn themes were not enough to identify Aylmer's alchemical lineage, Hawthorne later has Georgiana rummage through her husband's library, finding tomes by Albertus Magnus, Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Roger Bacon, all famous medieval and early modern writers on alchemy and the occult sciences. All of this is obvious to the reader. What is not immediately evident, however, is that the very language in which Hawthorne clothes his discussion of the powers of art versus nature is itself drawn from a centuries-old debate about the legitimacy of alchemy and its claim to refashion nature in the image of man. If we are going to view current debates on the limits of science in the context of literary traditions, it is imperative that we fully understand the history of the alchemical debate upon which Hawthorne and similar authors drew.
In Hawthorne's words, the alchemists "imagined themselves to have acquired from the investigation of nature a power over nature." Like them, Aylmer had "faith in man's ultimate control over nature." But the omniscient narrator of "The Birth-Mark" points out that in reality, nature "permits us indeed to mar, but seldom to mend, and, like a jealous patentee, on no account to make." Throughout the present book we will meet these three categories time and time again-perverting nature, perfecting nature, and creating nature anew. These were traditional distinctions employed countless times by alchemists and their detractors in order to defend or defeat the art. When Aylmer finally announces to Georgiana that he must "change your entire physical system" in order to eliminate her birthmark, he verges on the third category, a transmutation in all respects as complete as the alchemical conversion of base metal into gold. Even the preliminary demonstration that Aylmer gives of his elixir, rejuvenating a dying geranium by pouring the liquid on its roots, finds its sources in alchemy. The first famous scientist of the American colonies, "Eirenaeus Philalethes" or George Starkey, used the rejuvenation of a withered peach tree by the alchemical elixir as a means of broadcasting his own transmutational prowess.
It is no accident that Hawthorne chose alchemy to illustrate the conflict of art and nature, or that the same cast of alchemists and magicians-including Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Albert-appears in the early education of Mary Shelley's character, Victor Frankenstein. In Shelley's novel it is again the traditional upholders of the occult sciences-and particularly alchemy-who profess the wisdom that Frankenstein updates by more modern means to produce his monster. But as with Hawthorne, Shelley was not creating this fantasy or its attendant philosophical dilemmas out of whole cloth. This book will show that medievals and early moderns alike were already deeply concerned with such issues as artificial human life and the identity of synthetic products with their natural counterparts, topics of profound interest both to alchemists and to their opponents. Not only did such topics raise the general religious problem that man seemed to be usurping the creative powers of his own maker; they also evoked a host of more specific objections. Consider some of the following historical examples.
Let us imagine that humans could produce a laboratory mouse by artificial means, assembling the proper ingredients and subjecting them to heat and moisture in a controlled environment, a feat that most medievals and early moderns believed to be within the realm of possibility. Would this mouse then be the same as its sexually generated counterpart? Not if one consults the twelfth-century Arabic philosopher Averroes, who explicitly raises this puzzle. Even if the two mice look and act exactly the same, the artificial mouse will not be genuine. Averroes explicitly applied the same argument to the gold produced by alchemists. No matter how closely the artificial product matched the properties of its natural exemplar, the two would be separated by an unbridgeable gulf. Who has not heard this sort of argument employed by modern proponents of vitamin C from rose hips and other natural food products? Even if they have the same molecular structure, the natural and the artificial are assumed to be different. And lest we prejudice the discussion, it must be admitted that vitamin C from natural sources may well contain impurities that do make it differ from the pure, synthesized variety. Even if we could not perceive these differences with our most powerful tests, they might still be present. Does this mean, then, that the synthetic version of the chemical is fake? And if that is so, does it follow that a sheep cloned from mammary cells like the famous Dolly is a fake sheep? Averroes and his followers would have responded with a resounding yes.
The stakes, of course, were raised when premodern thinkers turned from spontaneously generated mice to the artificial production of human life. Here one encountered a host of concerns beyond the mere identity of the artificial and natural product, though that remained a problem too, of course. Let us imagine that a human being could be made by placing the proper progenerative fluids in a flask and subjecting the apparatus to an incubating heat. In the era of in vitro fertilization, this is not a huge stretch of the imagination, even if modern biologists have not yet replaced the human womb as an instrument of gestation. But many premodern thinkers were also capable of believing this eventuality, if their Aristotelian biology was only given a modest bit of fine-tuning. The homunculus, or miniature human created in an alchemical flask, was a topic of discussion already among the medieval Arabs. Could one use this form of generation to alter the sexuality of the child? Why not make a being of extraordinary intelligence, with powers denied to the offspring of normal sexual generation? Was it permissible to use the bodily fluids of the homunculus as a means of curing dangerous diseases? Have we not heard all of these questions discussed recently in the controversy surrounding the artificial selection of gender, the prenatal modification of biological traits, and the use of fetal tissue for medical purposes?
As in the contemporary incarnation of these questions, the medievals and early moderns felt that they were coming perilously close to playing god and transgressing the boundaries imposed on man and nature by a wise Creator. Like many a contemporary critic of cloning, premodern opponents of artificial life feared the implication that the laboratory worker could create a soul on demand. The famous Catalan physician of the late thirteenth century, Arnald of Villanova, was said to have smashed his gestating homunculus before it could acquire a rational soul, driven by the fear that this would be a mortal sin. Others worried over a different implication of the homunculus. Like Leon Kass and the members of his presidential council-fearing the "manufacture" of human beings and the consequent dehumanization that this might imply-early modern theologians already worried that humanity would soon be relegated to the status of a soulless artisanal product. Over a century after Arnald, his story was still told, with the added concern that the making of such a test tube baby would diminish the role of the human mother, demoting her to the status of a hollow flask. Others, however, were not beset by such worries. Some sixteenth-century followers of the outrageous medical and chymical writer Paracelsus had no problem with the gender-altering connotations of the homunculus. By segregating the male and female generative fluids, they believed that they could separate out the sexual characteristics of their artificial beings and produce a "pure" male and a "pure" female. The ruminations on this experiment are strangely reminiscent of the infatuation that ectogenesis and artificial parthenogenesis hold for modern advocates of biotechnology as a tool of attaining sexual equality, from J. B. S. Haldane in the 1920s to contemporary exponents of radical lesbian feminism. Babies produced in bottles, their sex and other characteristics predetermined in the laboratory, form a desideratum extending well into the Middle Ages.
There is another area as well where the contemporary infringement of technology on nature had prescient underpinnings in the world of premodern Europe. We are accustomed to thinking of the current rivalry between science and the combined arts and humanities as following on the heels of the Second Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century. As industry and wealth have come to rely ever more on the fruits of applied science and high technology, the place of the arts and humanities has suffered a concomitant erosion. Yet already in the sixteenth century, many artists strongly believed that alchemy had imposed on their discipline and that the claims of the aurific art should be combated.
Excerpted from Promethean Ambitions by William R. Newman Copyright © 2004 by University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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