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c h a p t e r s e v e n The Challenge of Insects 7.1 Changing Perceptions on Insects The years 1668–69 can be described as anni mirabiles in the study of insects: within a few months readers witnessed the appearance of three major contributions that changed common perceptions about some of their most fundamental features and represented a point of departure for future investigations. In 1668 Redi published in Italian Esperienze intorno alla generazione degli insetti, followed in 1669 by Malpighi ’s De bombyce and Swammerdam’s Historia insectorum generalis, a work written in Dutch despite its Latin title. Within the very short time in which they appeared, Malpighi saw Redi’s essay before sending his manuscript to the Royal Society, and Swammerdam saw and cited both the Esperienze and De bombyce before the printing of his book was complete. In some instances it is possible to trace in the later works responses to specific issues from the earlier ones, such as the effect of oil on the respiration of insects and the generation of galls.¹ Redi’s and Swammerdam’s works had an explicit philosophical agenda against Aristotle and Harvey, respectively, and a confrontational style: the former focused on denying spontaneous generation against some seventeenth-century Jesuits and devised sophisticated experiments to that end; the latter denied sudden metamorphosis and observed the entire life cycle, transformation, and classification of insects. By contrast, Malpighi’s treatise focused on observation and lacked an explicit philosophical agenda, although of course it did have one. Aristotle and Pliny, for example, the two most quoted classical sources on insects, had denied that they had viscera besides the gut from the mouth to the anus and the stomach: in Parts of Animals Aristotle had not gone beyond the claim that the intestine of some insects is not straight but twisted in a spiral. Malpighi’s work provided the most resounding yet implicit refutation of this simplistic view about the inner structure of insects.² De bombyce provided a historia of the silkworm including its development, habits, and fine anatomical structure, 176 Between Anatomy and Natural History all described with an extraordinary sensitivity to color in a dramatic departure from Borelli’s philosophical tenets. Starting in 1661, Malpighi’s research had opened a new level of microscopic investigations , and other works, especially by Redi, offered refined methodological tools for experimentation. Although the works of 1668–69 were conceived independently and addressed different issues in different ways, that remarkable juncture in the study of insects was part of broader intellectual changes that were coming to fruition at the same time. Redi’s essay appeared in Latin translation in Amsterdam in 1671 and 1686, and Swammerdam’s appeared in French at Utrecht in 1682 and 1685 and in Latin at Leiden in 1685. Somehow the textile merchant and microscopist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek also became familiar with Redi’s work, despite his ignorance of both Italian and Latin. Thus, by the mid-1680s European readers would have had access to all three works of 1668–69.³ A closer look at all these texts reveals such a wealth of themes that one may justifiably argue that despite their small size and esoteric nature, insects lay at the intersection of a number of crucial issues in the intellectual world of the third quarter of the seventeenth century; besides generation and metamorphosis, their small size and peculiar modes of reproduction stimulated reflection on refined experimental techniques and analogies with automata and other mechanical contrivances, thus giving insects a role in philosophical debates about mechanism and generation. Further , the need to fix their minute parts and make them visible required refined and novel techniques of investigation and observation under the microscope. Lastly, the illustration of insects and their organs required careful reflection on how to show the arrangements of the parts, the use of white or shaded background, and the use of color. While examining in turn the works by Redi, Malpighi, and Swammerdam in the following three sections, this chapter pays special attention to these themes. It is especially rewarding to look at insects not from the perspective of a single technique of investigation, such as microscopy, for example, but rather from the range of techniques their study stimulated. The mechanistic worldview was an important component of those investigations—especially for the role it attributed to structure as a way to understand bodily operations. Ultimately, however...


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