- The Ovary of Eve: Egg and Sperm and Preformation
In this book, biologist and novelist Clara Pinto-Correia focuses on the history of preformation, an early modern concept of animal reproduction. Preformation presupposes that at the union of egg and sperm the orderly unfolding of a previously existing, tiny, preformed being begins. To a believer, it was inconceivable that new life could spring spontaneously from matter. Preformation supported the biblical view that God, not chance, governed all creation.
Like her mentor, Stephen Jay Gould, Pinto-Correia approaches her subject with gusto, irreverence, and a sense of discovery. She hopes the reader will appreciate preformation as “an entertaining interlude in the study of reproduction” (p. 8). Further, presumably addressing other biologists, she says that her object in writing this book is to show that preformation was not a bizarre, aberrant theory, but one of the great mental constructions that take their places briefly in the history of scientific thought “when enough knowledge has been amassed to elicit them, but the limitations of further knowledge have not yet undermined their potential as explanatory models” (p. 10).
Pinto-Correia criticizes earlier biologists-turned-historians such as Frederick J. Cole, who published Early Theories of Sexual Generation in 1930. Cole saw early modern biology as a progressive march toward greater objectivity, with epigenesis eventually prevailing over the “incorrect” idea of preformation. Pinto-Correia thinks too much has been made of the battle between epigenesis and preformation in the history of biology, but she does not cite Jacques Roger’s monumental and balanced account, Les sciences de la vie dans la pensée française du XVIIIe siècle (1963), recently translated by Robert Ellrich as The Life Sciences in Eighteenth-Century French Thought (1997).
To Pinto-Correia, the history of early modern thought about reproduction was an internecine fight between two interpretations of preformation, one based on the egg (the ovist position), the other on the sperm. First the ovists take the field, thanks to Jan Swammerdam’s precise observations of insects and the religious justification he proposes for the idea of encasement of germs. The spermists gain the upper hand after Leeuwenhoek discovers “little animalcules” in semen. But ovism stages a comeback with the discovery of parthenogenesis by Charles Bonnet, followed on its heels by the discovery of regeneration by Abraham Trembley. Regeneration temporarily throws the ovists off balance, but spermism, [End Page 497] by then on the defensive, loses the final battles, thanks to the work of Lazzaro Spallanzani.
Pinto-Correia claims that it is preformation’s compatibility with religion and with a mechanical view of the world that explains the theory’s hold over early modern thought. In her view, the biological discoveries themselves were “less important side effects” (p. 21). She suggests that part of the attraction of ovism was that human beings are naturally drawn to explanations based on the ancient belief that the circle is the image of perfection. More problematic was the question of why God had placed perfection within woman, an inferior creation.
Regrettably, Pinto-Correia’s speculations on the universality of some aspects of human thought seem to negate her argument that preformation must be understood within its historical context. Because of her focus on ideas, she makes little use of her background in biology. She fails to examine critically what magnificent observers like Swammerdam, Leeuwenhoek, Bonnet, Haller, Trembley, and Spallanzani thought they saw and why. Nevertheless, The Ovary of Eve is an intriguing, if idiosyncratic, account of the history of an idea. Through diligent reading of primary sources and other historians of biology, the author has brought freshness and humor to what is generally regarded as an abstruse subject.