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The Ovary of Eve: Egg and Sperm and Preformation Hardcover – 4 Dec 1997

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First Sentence
IT IS THE MIDDLE of the seventeenth century, and a highly mystical Dutchman, blessed with the most refined microscopic talent, is present at a convention of learned people in the country home of the Parisian gentleman Melchisedec Thevenot, a former representative of the French king in Genoa and well-traveled citizen of the world. Read the first page
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Mystery, history, science...... 5 Mar. 2001
By Dianne Foster - Published on
Format: Hardcover
For the longest time, humans did not understand reproduction. Maybe they still don't. According to archeomythologists like Marija Gimbutas (THE GODDESS) humans first believed they came into existence spontaneously from the Goddess. After all, they could empirically detect that babies came from female bodies so why shouldn't a great big female goddess be the source of all life. With the arrival of Indo-Europeans in old Europe came the belief that the source of life was God the Father. After all, didn't the Bible say God made Adam and Eve and later on planted the baby Jesus in Mary? Her womb was merely a vessal to carry him (Zeus!! if she had been his real mother he would have been at least half human).
The second millenium of the Common Era produced a new twist on an old way of thinking. Renaissance men, being devoutly religious, still believed the source of all life was male, but now they sought to demonstrate this "truth" scientifically.
The "father of insemination" Spallanzani, demonstrated with frogs that male sperm was a requisite for the production of progeny. Correia tells of Spallanzani and his research in her amusing chapter "Frogs with boxershorts." But the Italians weren't the only scientists interested in sperm. Dutch scientists like Nicholas Hartsoeker (the heart searcher with the microscope), Antoni van Leeuwenhock, and Swammerdam fiddled with fleas and tulips and "advanced" the theory of spermism--that preformed little characters (homunculi) were planted in females (think penises) and then grew into babies. The female was still merely the vessal for rearing these perfectly formed progeny (think kangaroo pouch).
Dr. Clara Pinto Correia, professor of developmental biology says the theory of preformation was still being discussed in the 19th Century. Although the jacket of THE OVARY OF EVE insists men and women were engaged in the study of preformation, the truth according to Correia is that this was a male-insprired activity largely driven by the belief that males were the source of life.
Preformation was a wrong turn down a dead-end street. Usually historians tell us the story of scientific sucessesses, but what makes this book so interesting is that Correia tells us the amusing and heart-breaking story of the losers. And, these losers were a pretty impressive bunch of guys. Many of them were geniuses we know for other reasons, who were failures on spermism/preformation front, but sucessful elsewhere. This is a fascinating, readable and wonderful story that involves demons, dragons and Dracula. I recommend THE OVARY OF EVE to anyone who loves science and a good mystery.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Much labor to bring forth an animicule 24 Jun. 2009
By Elizabeth A. Root - Published on
Format: Paperback
Pinto-Correia is a professor of Developmental Biology at Universidade Lusofona, in Lisbon, Portugal. The preformation theory of development flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe. The discovery of "animicules", the ubiquitous microscopic creatures that surround us, lead to the conclusion that living things could be infinitely small. The idea then arose that the bodies, or at least parts of bodies, of all generations were contained in the first parent, either Adam or Eve. The usual image is of the Russian dolls that are contained one inside the other.

This story is usually recounted, in brief, as a tale of losers who believed a silly idea. Here Pinto-Correia attempts to tell it without such post-facto judgments. She organizes the material by basic ideas, e.g., ovists, who believed that all future people were contained in the ovary of Eve, spermists, who believed that they were in Adam's testes.

I was disappointed with this book, although I am willing to concede that I simply may not be a receptive audience. I thought that the text consisted too much of quotations and required more explication. At one point, it seemed to me that the quote seemed to allowing for trans-species reincarnation (p.83), which would certainly be surprising in Christian Europe, but I am not sure that I understood what the author was saying. Perhaps they meant that the germ cells were a simpler form in a life cycle, like a pupa. As a modern reader, I was also wondering how the thinkers explained the similarity of children to the parent from whom they were not actually descended, since they were preformed in one or the other. If all children were contained preformed in the ova of Eve, why would they resemble Adam or any other father? And how does one explain hybrids like mules? This is mentioned only briefly here and there. It isn't clear; was this not dealt with in any detail by the preformists, or is this an artifact of the author's organization?

On the other hand, Pinto-Correia devotes 47 pages to the issue of monstrosities, covering all sorts of marginally related topics: mythical hybrids, birth defects, symbolic monsters, exotic animals, natural oddities, etc., with a side trip about regeneration, only to conclude that actually, the issue was not an important one. I emphatically agree with her comment partway through: "We must admit at this point the possibility of having wasted tens of pages on the analysis of a paper tiger." And yet she continues for another 16 pages. Has she not the least sense of irony when she writes disapprovingly of other authors' "delight in repeating folk ideas even if they were too learned and cultivated to believe in them themselves."? The entire point of the chapter is that while birth defects seem to later writers to be a problem for preformationists, it wasn't an issue at the time. With examples, this was worth possibly 2-3 pages. Several of her chapters have this same quality of bringing artillery to bear on a fly.

All in all, It seems like great labor to little purpose. When she stays on point, I don't find the story of preformationism worth the effort and passion that she puts into it, or the time I spent reading it. When she goes off point, her little snippets, some of which are for no apparent reason banished to the notes, simply drag out the agony without being developed enough to be interesting in their own right, although some readers may find them charming. If all the digressions were omitted, this could be edited into a worthy magazine article.

The book includes numerous illustrations, a bibliography and index.
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