Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature


"A clear and graceful writer.…Mr. 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."—Edward Rothstein, New York Times

"Newman is a prominent among the historians of science who have shown how important alchemy was as a part of the serious 'chymistry' of Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton and their contemporaries. In this book, he looks at the divide between 'art,' which used to mean anything productive involving artifice and forethought, and 'nature,' a illuminated in discussions of, and laboratory and clinical practice in, alchemy."—David Knight, Nature

"With close attention to historical and textual detail that is never less than engaging, Newman unpacks the historical accidents and political machinations that led to alchemy's marginalisation, bringing sympathy, wit and imagination to his account."—Simon Ings, New Scientist

An excerpt from
Promethean Ambitions
Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature
William R. Newman

From Alchemical Gold to Synthetic Humans: The Problem of the Artificial and the Natural

Many of us feel besieged by the rapidly eroding boundaries between the realms of the artificial and the natural. Not only does nature itself appear to be experiencing an unparalleled threat from environmental degradation and human encroachment on what once was wilderness, but the very concept of nature as an intelligible category seems increasingly remote. After all, we live in the era of “Frankenfoods,” cloning, in vitro fertilization, synthetic polymers, Artificial Intelligence, and computer generated “Artificial Life.” Pope John Paul II, driven by fears that the impact of biomedical research on human nature will soon deprive life of its dignity, warns of the “Promethean ambitions” implicit as he sees it in much contemporary science. But the artistic world too offers challenges to the category of the natural—consider the emergence of transgenic art, which claims to have produced a bioluminescent rabbit by means of DNA extracted from jellyfish. All of these technological marvels impinge on areas that, in the not-too-distant past, seemed to belong to a domain beyond the power of humankind. We are worried, and perhaps rightly so.

Part of our fear stems from the feeling that humans are being increasingly outclassed by machines. Not only has our biological champion, Garry Kasparov, been defeated at the hand of the robotic chess master Deep Blue—we are now beginning to observe the animated products of Computer Graphics Imaging substitute for living actors in film and television. The farcical events surrounding Andrew Niccol's virtual actress in the recent film Simone stem from genuine apprehensions about the replacement of real humans by animated screen images. Even fashion models are beginning to feel threatened by their virtual counterparts—the New York Times has reported that modeling agencies have begun using cyberspace personalities such as “Webbie Tookay” in their clothing advertisements. The founder of a famous model-management company expounds his semijocular wish that “all models were virtual,” in view of their “hassle-free” personalities and their ability to keep looking good over the long haul. The virtual model, a two-dimensional creature of unthinking electrons impelled by human artifice, could end up replacing her (or his) natural exemplar.

But is the phenomenon of “art” (or as we now say, technology) impinging on nature really a new thing, and is our attendant anxiety a novel sentiment? Clearly the answer must be no, since Leon R. Kass, chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, recently raised a minor sensation by assigning Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1843 story, “The Birth-Mark,” to his fellow committee members as required reading for their deliberations on human cloning. A closer connection with the theme of the present book cannot be imagined. The principal character of Hawthorne's story is a chemist named Aylmer, who is obsessed with the desire to remove a hand-shaped birthmark from the cheek of his wife Georgiana, a faultless beauty in every respect other than this blemish. With Georgiana's consent, Aylmer concocts an elixir that succeeds in eliminating the birthmark, but with one unfortunate side effect—it also kills Georgiana. Hawthorne ends the story with an explicit moral:

had Aylmer reached a profounder wisdom, he need not thus have flung away the happiness, which would have woven his mortal life of the self-same texture with the celestial. The momentary circumstance was too strong for him; he failed to look beyond the shadowy scope of Time, and living once for all in Eternity, to find the perfect Future in the present.

Kass and his committee members broadcast a related message in Human Cloning and Human Dignity: The Report of the President's Council on Bioethics—we should ban human cloning in all areas of research, whether intended for producing children or for biomedical purposes. Otherwise we run the risk of tampering too eagerly with nature, and may, like Aylmer, succeed in destroying the very humanity that we desire to improve.

Whatever the reader may think of Kass and his report, one must sympathize with the council's desire to find some grounding in tradition for the profound ethical dilemmas that surround our increasing power over nature. There is every reason to seek moral guidance in the classics of literature. But there are dangers as well as benefits to such an approach. The key problem, illustrated clearly by the council's published discussion, stems from the treatment of literature in a historical vacuum. By looking at “The Birth-Mark” as an atemporal index of human repulsion to the hubris inherent in “the pursuit of perfection,” one commits the fallacy of reification. With all due respect to the council, our reaction to Aylmer is not a “natural” or “necessary” one born of universal, diachronic human emotion without the aid of prior tutelage. Nor did Hawthorne merely draw on his own sense of moral outrage to “invent” the subject about which he wrote so skillfully. Indeed, the council's discussion failed to notice that Hawthorne himself, in composing “The Birth-Mark,” drew upon a much older tradition of debating the hubris implicit in human beings' godlike power over the natural world. That tradition forms the subject of Promethean Ambitions.

Even the most casual reader of Hawthorne cannot fail to see that the “chemist” Aylmer is really an alchemist. After presenting a number of traditional “natural magic” demonstrations to Georgiana, such as the magic lantern, camera obscura, and artificial rebirth or “palingenesis” of a plant, Aylmer launches into an enthusiastic discussion of alchemy, describing “the universal solvent, by which the Golden Principle might be elicited from all things vile and base,” and the Elixir Vitae that could indefinitely prolong life. As though these well-worn themes were not enough to identify Aylmer's alchemical lineage, Hawthorne later has Georgiana rummage through her husband's library, finding tomes by Albertus Magnus, Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Roger Bacon, all famous medieval and early modern writers on alchemy and the occult sciences. All of this is obvious to the reader. What is not immediately evident, however, is that the very language in which Hawthorne clothes his discussion of the powers of art versus nature is itself drawn from a centuries-old debate about the legitimacy of alchemy and its claim to refashion nature in the image of man. If we are going to view current debates on the limits of science in the context of literary traditions, it is imperative that we fully understand the history of the alchemical debate upon which Hawthorne and similar authors drew.

In Hawthorne's words, the alchemists “imagined themselves to have acquired from the investigation of nature a power over nature.” Like them, Aylmer had “faith in man's ultimate control over nature.” But the omniscient narrator of “The Birth-Mark” points out that in reality, nature “permits us indeed to mar, but seldom to mend, and, like a jealous patentee, on no account to make.” Throughout the present book we will meet these three categories time and time again—perverting nature, perfecting nature, and creating nature anew. These were traditional distinctions employed countless times by alchemists and their detractors in order to defend or defeat the art. When Aylmer finally announces to Georgiana that he must “change your entire physical system” in order to eliminate her birthmark, he verges on the third category, a transmutation in all respects as complete as the alchemical conversion of base metal into gold. Even the preliminary demonstration that Aylmer gives of his elixir, rejuvenating a dying geranium by pouring the liquid on its roots, finds its sources in alchemy. The first famous scientist of the American colonies, “Eirenaeus Philalethes” or George Starkey, used the rejuvenation of a withered peach tree by the alchemical elixir as a means of broadcasting his own transmutational prowess.

It is no accident that Hawthorne chose alchemy to illustrate the conflict of art and nature, or that the same cast of alchemists and magicians—including Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Albert—appears in the early education of Mary Shelley's character, Victor Frankenstein. In Shelley's novel it is again the traditional upholders of the occult sciences—and particularly alchemy—who profess the wisdom that Frankenstein updates by more modern means to produce his monster. But as with Hawthorne, Shelley was not creating this fantasy or its attendant philosophical dilemmas out of whole cloth. This book will show that medievals and early moderns alike were already deeply concerned with such issues as artificial human life and the identity of synthetic products with their natural counterparts, topics of profound interest both to alchemists and to their opponents. Not only did such topics raise the general religious problem that man seemed to be usurping the creative powers of his own maker; they also evoked a host of more specific objections. Consider some of the following historical examples.

Let us imagine that humans could produce a laboratory mouse by artificial means, assembling the proper ingredients and subjecting them to heat and moisture in a controlled environment, a feat that most medievals and early moderns believed to be within the realm of possibility. Would this mouse then be the same as its sexually generated counterpart? Not if one consults the twelfth-century Arabic philosopher Averroes, who explicitly raises this puzzle. Even if the two mice look and act exactly the same, the artificial mouse will not be genuine. Averroes explicitly applied the same argument to the gold produced by alchemists. No matter how closely the artificial product matched the properties of its natural exemplar, the two would be separated by an unbridgeable gulf. Who has not heard this sort of argument employed by modern proponents of vitamin C from rose hips and other natural food products? Even if they have the same molecular structure, the natural and the artificial are assumed to be different. And lest we prejudice the discussion, it must be admitted that vitamin C from natural sources may well contain impurities that do make it differ from the pure, synthesized variety. Even if we could not perceive these differences with our most powerful tests, they might still be present. Does this mean, then, that the synthetic version of the chemical is fake? And if that is so, does it follow that a sheep cloned from mammary cells like the famous Dolly is a fake sheep? Averroes and his followers would have responded with a resounding yes.

The stakes, of course, were raised when premodern thinkers turned from spontaneously generated mice to the artificial production of human life. Here one encountered a host of concerns beyond the mere identity of the artificial and natural product, though that remained a problem too, of course. Let us imagine that a human being could be made by placing the proper progenerative fluids in a flask and subjecting the apparatus to an incubating heat. In the era of in vitro fertilization, this is not a huge stretch of the imagination, even if modern biologists have not yet replaced the human womb as an instrument of gestation. But many premodern thinkers were also capable of believing this eventuality, if their Aristotelian biology was only given a modest bit of fine-tuning. The homunculus, or miniature human created in an alchemical flask, was a topic of discussion already among the medieval Arabs. Could one use this form of generation to alter the sexuality of the child? Why not make a being of extraordinary intelligence, with powers denied to the offspring of normal sexual generation? Was it permissible to use the bodily fluids of the homunculus as a means of curing dangerous diseases? Have we not heard all of these questions discussed recently in the controversy surrounding the artificial selection of gender, the prenatal modification of biological traits, and the use of fetal tissue for medical purposes?

As in the contemporary incarnation of these questions, the medievals and early moderns felt that they were coming perilously close to playing god and transgressing the boundaries imposed on man and nature by a wise Creator. Like many a contemporary critic of cloning, premodern opponents of artificial life feared the implication that the laboratory worker could create a soul on demand. The famous Catalan physician of the late thirteenth century, Arnald of Villanova, was said to have smashed his gestating homunculus before it could acquire a rational soul, driven by the fear that this would be a mortal sin. Others worried over a different implication of the homunculus. Like Leon Kass and the members of his presidential council—fearing the “manufacture” of human beings and the consequent dehumanization that this might imply—early modern theologians already worried that humanity would soon be relegated to the status of a soulless artisanal product. Over a century after Arnald, his story was still told, with the added concern that the making of such a test tube baby would diminish the role of the human mother, demoting her to the status of a hollow flask. Others, however, were not beset by such worries. Some sixteenth-century followers of the outrageous medical and chymical writer Paracelsus had no problem with the gender-altering connotations of the homunculus. By segregating the male and female generative fluids, they believed that they could separate out the sexual characteristics of their artificial beings and produce a “pure” male and a “pure” female. The ruminations on this experiment are strangely reminiscent of the infatuation that ectogenesis and artificial parthenogenesis hold for modern advocates of biotechnology as a tool of attaining sexual equality, from J. B. S. Haldane in the 1920s to contemporary exponents of radical lesbian feminism. Babies produced in bottles, their sex and other characteristics predetermined in the laboratory, form a desideratum extending well into the Middle Ages.

There is another area as well where the contemporary infringement of technology on nature had prescient underpinnings in the world of premodern Europe. We are accustomed to thinking of the current rivalry between science and the combined arts and humanities as following on the heels of the Second Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century. As industry and wealth have come to rely ever more on the fruits of applied science and high technology, the place of the arts and humanities has suffered a concomitant erosion. Yet already in the sixteenth century, many artists strongly believed that alchemy had imposed on their discipline and that the claims of the aurific art should be combated. Artists of such varied stripe as Leonardo da Vinci and the French potter Bernard Palissy attacked alchemy as an irreligious fraud that claimed for itself the creative powers of God. It was the painters, sculptors, and ceramicists who really held the key to imitating nature, not the bragging simulators of gold, silver, and precious stones. Alchemists and visual artists were in an immediate sense rivals in the business of re-creating nature, even if the former claimed to replicate a natural product while the latter were engaged in its representation. Here already we witness a restricted instance of the now commonplace rivalry between art and science, based on their differing attitude toward nature. Yet in the Renaissance, the debate was not between two such radically distinct fields of human culture, but between two “arts,” one of which claimed to replicate and one to simulate the features of natural world.

In order to appreciate how such apparently diverse fields as alchemy and painting could once have been competitors, we will have to place ourselves firmly in the minds of our premodern ancestors. Our forebears firmly labeled any productive activity carried out with forethought an “art.” In order to approach the issues that we have touched upon more deeply, it will therefore be necessary to consider evidence from the fine arts, as well as artisanal and technical fields. The central thesis of this book, that alchemy provided a uniquely powerful focus for discussing the boundary between art and nature—a question that resonates even today—can be understood only if the reader is willing to engage with the presuppositions of premodern philosophers, theologians, alchemists, and artists about the structure and nature of the world around them. Although our main target is the period from around 1200 to 1700, it will be necessary, as always, to survey the material left by Greek and Roman antiquity if we are to see how the various arts were thought to interact with nature. The first chapter of Promethean Ambitions therefore considers the relationship of the various arts to nature in the ancient world. The fine arts, technology, and finally alchemy will all come under our purview so that we get a sense of the different ways in which Western man has traditionally envisioned the competition of art with nature and the struggle for supremacy among the arts themselves.

The book then goes on to treat a variety of issues growing out of the relationship between the study of alchemy and the topic of art and nature. In the second chapter I present a brief overview of alchemy with an emphasis on what can be called the art-nature debate, a topic that reached its apogee in the treatises by alchemists and their opponents from the thirteenth through the seventeenth century. The Scholastic theologians and philosophers of the Middle Ages appropriated alchemy as a point of reference for determining the power of human art in general. Whether one believed its claims or not, alchemy served as a convenient benchmark for determining the limits to the power that divinity had placed in the hands of those perennial frustraters of human salvation—the race of demons. Since the powers of demons stood or fell with those of the alchemist, the legitimacy of alchemical claims acquired an importance that it would otherwise probably not have had. A disputation literature therefore emerged on the subject, which branched out into other discussions that were still vibrant in the early modern period. In the third chapter, I examine one of those early modern branches in detail by considering the peculiar relationship between alchemists, painters, and practitioners of the plastic arts during the Renaissance. As we will see, alchemy and the fine arts revisited the classical discussion of competition with nature in the sixteenth century, and the two fields engaged in a head-to-head polemic. Although this was an argument between siblings rather than strangers, we need no reminder that such close and personal encounters are often the most unpleasant to both parties. The fourth chapter examines the most controversial of all alchemical claims—namely the tradition associated with the itinerant preacher, lay physician, and alchemist Paracelsus von Hohenheim, who claimed that he could create a homunculus. As I will show, however, Paracelsus was himself a latecomer to the discussion of artificial life, which had been fermenting for many centuries. The topic of ectogenesis along with its various attractions and moral dilemmas had already been conceived by the early Middle Ages, but its full parturition required the strange mixture of naturalizing intellect and impetuous imagination that stamped the sixteenth century. Finally, in the fifth chapter I discuss the art-nature debate in the history of experimental science, focusing in particular on Francis Bacon and his followers. The alchemical art-nature debate had a direct input into Bacon's ideas on the relationship of man to nature and continued to exercise a surprising degree of influence on his famous apologist Robert Boyle. The newly empirical tendencies of the seventeenth century owe a strong and surprising debt to the alchemical literature and to the debate surrounding the natural status of its products. A close analysis of this neglected debate will show that several of the reigning beliefs prevalent in the historiography of science are open to serious and sustained objection.

These themes, all flowing from the traditional debate on art and nature as seen through the lens of alchemy, provide a rich tapestry of arguments and attitudes prefiguring modern views of science, technology, and their limits. As the example of Leon Kass and Hawthorne's “Birth-Mark” shows, current attitudes toward an area as distinct from alchemy as contemporary bioengineering cannot be approached without an understanding of the artificial-natural dichotomy over the longue durĂ«e. My hope is that Promethean Ambitions will open the topic to historical discussion and reveal the wealth of divergent interpretation that characterized its premodern configuration. If the picture that emerges is not a simple one, it will ideally serve to help us reflect on the centuries of argument—colored now with abhorrence, now with approval—that underlie our own fluid perception of the shifting boundaries between the artificial and the natural.


Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 1-10 of Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature by William R. Newman, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2004 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

William R. Newman
Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature
©2004, 352 pages, 8 color plates, 20 halftones
Cloth $30.00 ISBN: 0-226-57712-0
Paper $22.50 ISBN: 0-226-57524-1

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