[Paleopsych] NYTDBR: Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Wed Feb 2 22:12:29 UTC 2005

Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature
New York Times Daily Book Review, by 4.8.2 [picked up by the International 
Herald Tribune maybe later. Note date.]

    Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature
    Reviewed by Edward Rothstein NYT
    Monday, August 02, 2004
    Nonfiction. By William R. Newman. 333 pages. $30. University of
    Chicago Press.

    Among the secrets revealed in this unusual history of alchemy is
    Leonardo da Vinci's recipe for making artificial pearls "as large as
    you wish" - take a small genuine pearl, dissolve it in lemon juice,
    dry the paste into a power, mix it with egg white, let it harden, then
    grind and polish.
    A less appealing recipe might be one the philosopher John Locke
    proposed for creating a toad or a serpent by using a duck or a goose:
    Boil the bird without salt, place it between two platters, seal them
    against the air with a mixture of earth, salt, sand and tarter, and
    let the dish sit in a warm place for two or three weeks. Locke wrote
    that after breaking the seal, he had "found sometimes all Serpents a
    foot long sometimes all Toads large and black" - a description that
    suggests he had the temerity to try this more than once.
    And why not? Over the course of a millennium, the annals of alchemy
    tell of all manner of generation, transmutation and transfiguration.
    None of it ever produced pure gold, but it did yield inks and metals
    and perfumes and pigments, worms and rodents and putrid flesh, and, of
    course, principles and theories and controversies, along with
    accusations of witchcraft and heresy and hubris.
    Alchemy was once broadly dismissed as a form of primitive,
    prescientific belief - like Aristotle's conviction that lice were
    spontaneously generated from flesh, or claims that human life was
    created in the forms of homunculi.
    But in the last few decades, alchemy emerged out of the condescending
    and eclipsing shadows cast by modern science. In the 1970s, one of its
    most radical champions, the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend,
    baldly suggested that there was very little to distinguish between
    alchemy and science: The techniques were similar, and so was the
    accuracy of the results.
    Even more temperate interpreters of science, though, have been
    changing their ideas about alchemy. Historians now treat the
    enterprise less as a naïve activity supplanted by science than as an
    intellectual discipline out of which science gradually evolved. In
    "Promethean Ambitions," William R. Newman, who teaches the history and
    philosophy of science at Indiana University, goes even further.
    For him, alchemy, from its ancient origins as a servant to the
    decorative arts to its 17th-century transmutation into modern
    chemistry, provided the crucible in which many contemporary ideas
    about nature and artifice were first examined.
    Today, he writes, "we live in the era of 'Frankenfoods,' cloning, in
    vitro fertilization, synthetic polymers, Artificial Intelligence, and
    computer generated 'Artificial Life,'" an era in which Pope John Paul
    II has warned of the "Promethean ambitions" of biomedical science, and
    the President's Council on Bioethics has studied Hawthorne's
    alchemical story, "The Birth-Mark."
    But Newman argues that most current debates about boundaries between
    nature and artifice, or boundaries between proper and improper
    scientific exploration, echo debates that run through the history of
    alchemy. Critics of alchemy argued that the natural world could not be
    replicated or improved and that such goals should not be pursued.
    Advocates found porous boundaries between nature and artifice that
    could be explored and tested.
    In Newman's view, this tension between nature and artifice is
    fundamental. Alchemy is primarily an art of transmutation: One metal
    is turned into another, one living creature erupts out of the
    substance of another. Alchemy is concerned with the character of that
    change. It thus pays attention to categories, differences and
    boundaries. If one substance is changed into another, does it change
    its essence or only some of its properties? Is nature being revealed
    or overturned?
    Of course, much of the change that alchemists believed was taking
    place we now know to be illusion - the goose doesn't turn into
    serpents, nor is mercury transformed into gold. That is why much
    alchemy really is quaintly prescientific. But Newman's probings also
    break down the categories in which alchemy itself is usually placed,
    transforming its character.
    He shows, for example, that alchemy actually shared many of its goals
    with the visual arts in the Renaissance. Both enterprises tried to
    replicate or improve on nature. A number of Renaissance artists,
    including Leonardo and the French pottery maker Bernard Palissy, even
    used alchemical techniques to improve colors, glazes and pigments.
    But artists also considered themselves alchemists' rivals and objected
    to their claims of superior accomplishment. Palissy, for example,
    argued that beautiful shells are made by the "most malformed fish that
    could be found in the sea" but could not be replicated by the
    alchemist. Palissy said that he, on the other hand, could create
    animals, "sculpted and enameled so close to nature that other natural
    lizards and serpents will often come to admire them."
    As an art, Newman shows, alchemy was an attempt to construct and
    create objects; it experimented with them. In fact, Newman argues, the
    methods and ideas of modern science evolved out of alchemical
    research. Newman even finds references to alchemy in Darwin's theory
    of evolution, in which animal species are transformed (metaphorically
    speaking) by the alchemical pressures of the environment.
    There is more information gathered by Newman than the casual reader
    can easily absorb, including difficult analyses of philosophical and
    religious arguments taking place over centuries in Latin, Greek and
    Arabic. But Newman, a clear and graceful writer, keeps his goal in
    view. He is an initiate - tapping, testing and transmuting - until
    something different, still called alchemy, gradually takes shape.

More information about the paleopsych mailing list