Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Contraceptive Bicycle Shorts and Original Sin

There's absolutely no way I'm going to put up a post on the subject of Original Sin and pass up on a chance to mention the life and works of Abbe Lazzaro Spallanzani. A pioneer in the scientific study of man juice and the man who gave the world condoms for frogs.

Oh no

Forget the Galileos, the Darwins or the Newtons. By far and away the most entertaining and informative stories from the history of science are those of the scientists, often very clever, very meticulous scientists, who went to superhuman efforts to reconcile their observations with the prevailing beliefs of their times. Even when those observations flat out contradicted those beliefs.

Of course, we're a lot more sophisticated now and simply recalibrate our instruments, correct our data or simply write-off anomalies as being insignificant.

Anyway, back to Lazzaro

Lazzaro, like many of his contemporaries in the mid 1700s, was an ovist.

Ovists believed that the offspring of an individual are preformed within the egg.

Which meant that, logically, if every egg contains a tiny little preformed person, that tiny little preformed person must also contain eggs which also contain even tinier preformed people. In fact, all future generations of offspring would be contained within an egg

The great thing about ovism was that it did a very neat job of reconciling Genesis with Science. Christian ovists were able to conclude...

  • Eve literally held all of mankind in her ovaries
  • All of mankind was present inside Eve when she was cast out of Eden and therefore shares her guilt
  • As the egg bearers of mankind, women are responsible for transmitting the stain of Original Sin
  • Men do not carry eggs and are therefore inherently purer

Or put more simply

Science proves that we are all born in Sin and women are to blame

An absolutely brilliant idea. Totally bonkers, but brilliant nevertheless.

The only problem was actually proving that babies were preformed within eggs.

Enter Stage Left, Lazzaro Spallanzani...

Spallazani believed that contact between egg and semen was not necessary for generation to occur. He believed that sperm only 'awoke' the dormant embryo within the egg by means of transmission of what he called 'spermatic vapour'.

And to prove his theories he carried out an experiment in which he dressed male frogs in tight-fitting contraceptive bicycle shorts made from taffeta before introducing them socially to girl frogs.

Strangely enough, no matter how many times the boy frogs came in their pants, those spermatic vapours stubbornly failed to do their job and no tadpoles were conceived. Occasionally the shorts would split and Lo! baby frogs but Spallanzani still didn't get the hint.

Some people did take the hint and became 'spermists', believing that the imaginary, preformed little people must, obviously, be present in sperm rather than eggs; though history fails to record whether any of them went on to follow in the footsteps of The Master and fit lady amphibians with prophylactic underwear

Eventually, Spallanzani gave up on frogs and took to masturbating dogs in the name of science instead but that's another story...

Horse Whisperer

Dog Wanker

Anyway, that was pretty much that for the 'scientific' belief that sin could be transmitted through the generations genetically. And modern evolutionary theory is quite strict on the transmission of characteristics acquired by an individual in its lifetime to its offspring i.e. it doesn't happen. A man who loses a leg in accident doesn't have one-legged kids. So, presumably, a man who did something wicked in his lifetime doesn't necessarily spawn wicked children either.

At least I thought so. Until the last couple of years when I started to come across stories about the new science of epigenetics - the notion that the genes we inherit from our ancestors are shaped by their experiences and their environment. Which would mean that someone could argue that maybe we do inherit guilt for our ancestors' actions after all.

Bad news for Darwinists, excellent news for lawyers.



Sophia said...

I enjoyed the post and your ability to present these very complex issues. I come from the field of epigenetics and I can tell you it is a very promising field but it is awfully complexe to determine exactly what is a gene's 'experience' ?

Stef said...

Any new field of study that offers the potential of making Archbishop Richard Dawkins and some of his nuttier disciples look like idiots is good for me

Keep up the good work