- The Ovary of Eve: Egg and Sperm and Preformation by Clara Pinto-Correia
Chicago, 396 pp, £23.95, November 1997, ISBN 0 226 66952 1
The doctrine of preformation, which dominated the theory of generation for most of the 18th century, asserted a single divine act of creation for all plant and animal life. The original ancestor of each species, it was believed, held within its body the entire series of its type, each future organism enclosed inside its parent, waiting to be stimulated into growth at the moment of conception. ‘Ovists’ held that the pre-existing germ resided in the female egg, while ‘spermists’ (Pinto-Correia’s neologism for ‘animalculists’) located it in the ‘spermatic animalcule’ discovered in 1677 by Leeuwenhoek; the dispute between them is the subject of Clara Pinto-Correia’s book.
Vol. 20 No. 12 · 18 June 1998
From Susan Ryley Hoyle
Catherine Wilson (LRB, 21 May) obviously had difficulty accepting Carla Pinto-Correia’s third or fourth-hand story, according to which ‘in the fifty years before 1805, “every naturalist, and indeed every man who pretended to the smallest portion of medical science, was convinced that his children were no more related, in point of actual generation, to his own wife, than they were to his neighbours.”’ I would have shared her incredulity had I not listened, incredulously, ten days earlier to a very similar story from County Offaly in the Republic of Ireland: in the Fifties, my friend’s parents regarded as fools those of their acquaintance who looked for any resemblance between parents and children; as far as my friend knew, this belief had no scientific basis, but her family was clear that children were not related to their parents any more than they were to the milkman, the butcher or anyone else. Are other readers aware of any historical or modern evidence for such beliefs? Would the prevalence of these ideas (if they have indeed been prevalent) help to explain the sort of historical attitudes to child-abandonment that John Boswell documented in The Kindness of Strangers?
Susan Ryley Hoyle
Vol. 20 No. 16 · 20 August 1998
From Catherine Wilson
Susan Ryley Hoyle (Letters, 18 June) is right to point out, apropos of my review of Clara Pinto-Correia’s The Ovary of Eve: Egg and Sperm and Preformation, that the belief that children are related to their parents has not been universal. I am nevertheless sceptical about J.M. Good’s much-quoted claim that everyone in the second half of the 18th century with a smattering of medical education ‘was convinced that his children were no more related, in point of actual generation, to his own wife, than they were to his neighbours’. What kind of survey did he do, and what would be the result of this belief? Did enlightened medical men point out that wealth could be retained in families if marriages were arranged between, for example, a widow’s son and her daughter by a new husband, because the pair were related only by convention?
Science represents itself as replacing superficial impressions with deep truths, and Pinto-Correia was evidently taken with the idea that the superficial impression that women are importantly creative was debunked by 18th-century empiricists armed with microscopes. But the belief in male prepotency in generation antedates and postdates the acceptance of spermist preformation theory. Breeders of racehorses still found it credible a few years ago. May be the notion is innate and attracts various rationalisations. My youngest child holds that fathers contribute more to their offspring than mothers because men are ‘more distinctive’ than women, where their hair is concerned.
University of Alberta, Edmonton
Vol. 20 No. 18 · 17 September 1998
From Peter Morriss
Catherine Wilson (Letters, 20 August) seeks to cast doubt on the claim of J.M. Good (and others) that spermist beliefs holding that a woman was not related ‘in point of actual generation’ to the children she bore were widespread in the 18th century by pointing to the no less widespread acceptance of incest prohibitions then as at other times. She takes the fact that (virtually) nobody would allow a woman to marry her son (to simplify her example) to imply that no one really believed that the woman and son were ‘related only by convention’. But this argument works only if incest prohibitions were thought of as keeping apart the genetically related and only the genetically related; and that is clearly not the case. For instance, in the Book of Common Prayer there are 30 categories within which marriage is prohibited, 20 of which are of people related only by marriage. The controversy that raged through the 19th century about whether the law should be changed to allow a man to marry his deceased wife’s sister was not fuelled by any belief (however sublimin al) that he was somehow related to her ‘in point of generation’. Indeed, it can be powerfully argued that the main point of incest prohibitions has been precisely to protect ‘conventional’ familial relationships, and that beliefs about generation have little or nothing to do with it.
National University of Ireland, Galway