Where do we come from? Leaving aside the puerile snickers of our younger selves, we eventually learn “the facts of life” and get on with it. The funny thing is, conception wasn’t really understood until the late nineteenth century. Obviously people had been reproducing from the very beginning. Chances are they were curious about the matter even then. Scientific investigation was a long way off, however. Edward Dolnick tells the story of the discovery in a wide-ranging, entertaining, and informative way in The Seeds of Life. The subtitle gives an idea of the range and quirkiness of the account: From Aristotle to da Vinci, from Sharks’ Teeth to Frogs’ Pants, the Long and Strange Quest to Discover Where Babies Come From. I used to tell my students that using the Bible for sexual ethics was difficult because biblical writers really didn’t understand what was going on “down there.” I think Dolnick would back me up on that.
Ancient people generally made the connection between sex and babies, of course. What was actually happening, however, wasn’t understood because sex cells require a microscope even to be seen, and that doesn’t make it obvious what they’re doing. Dolnick’s tale looks at advances in various sciences and, perhaps more importantly, the religious constraints under which they operated. The idea of the atheistic scientist is a fairly new one. Up through most of the nineteenth century scientists tended to share the worldview of others that God was assumed and that religious rules applied to such mysteries as life. That’s amply demonstrated in this book. True insight was slowed down considerably by religious presuppositions.
That’s not to say Dolnick blames religion—this book is much too congenial to do any blaming. A number of ideas had to coalesce, however, before it was understood that both women and men contributed to the developing embryo. Medicine was often looked down upon by science, and religion often crossed its arms and stood in the way. Despite all that, careful observation, and putting unexpected things beneath a microscope, finally led to the answer. It was sea urchins who finally yielded up the mystery’s clue. This book will take you some strange places. The individuals described are a curious lot. For the most part they’re also a religious lot. Persistent theorizing and persistent peering through a microscope and a willingness to question convention all had to combine to answer a question as basic and profound as where it is we come from.