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