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Promethean Ambitions

Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature

In an age when the nature of reality is complicated daily by advances in bioengineering, cloning, and artificial intelligence, it is easy to forget that the ever-evolving boundary between nature and technology has long been a source of ethical and scientific concern: modern anxieties about the possibility of artificial life and the dangers of tinkering with nature more generally were shared by opponents of alchemy long before genetic science delivered us a cloned sheep named Dolly.

In Promethean Ambitions, William R. Newman ambitiously uses alchemy to investigate the thinning boundary between the natural and the artificial. Focusing primarily on the period between 1200 and 1700, Newman examines the labors of pioneering alchemists and the impassioned—and often negative—responses to their efforts. By the thirteenth century, Newman argues, alchemy had become a benchmark for determining the abilities of both men and demons, representing the epitome of creative power in the natural world. Newman frames the art-nature debate by contrasting the supposed transmutational power of alchemy with the merely representational abilities of the pictorial and plastic arts—a dispute which found artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Bernard Palissy attacking alchemy as an irreligious fraud. The later assertion by the Paracelsian school that one could make an artificial human being—the homunculus—led to further disparagement of alchemy, but as Newman shows, the immense power over nature promised by the field contributed directly to the technological apologetics of Francis Bacon and his followers. By the mid-seventeenth century, the famous "father of modern chemistry," Robert Boyle, was employing the arguments of medieval alchemists to support the identity of naturally occurring substances with those manufactured by "chymical" means.

In using history to highlight the art-nature debate, Newman here shows that alchemy was not an unformed and capricious precursor to chemistry; it was an art founded on coherent philosophical and empirical principles, with vocal supporters and even louder critics, that attracted individuals of first-rate intellect. The historical relationship that Newman charts between human creation and nature has innumerable implications today, and he ably links contemporary issues to alchemical debates on the natural versus the artificial.


"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,’ as illuminated in discussions of, and laboratory and clinical practice in, alchemy. . . . Newman, a clear and graceful writer, keeps his goal in view. He is an initiate--tapping, testing and transmuting--until something different, still called alchemy, gradually takes shape."

David Knight | 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. Critics of alchemy argued that the natural world could not be replicated or improved and that such goals should not be pursued. Advocates found porous boundaries between nature that could be explored and tested."

Ed Rothstein | New York Times

"With close attention to historical and textual detail that is never less than engaging, Newman unpicks the historical accidents and political machinations that led to alchemy’s marginalisation, bringing sympathy, wit and imagination to his account."

Simon Ings | New Scientist

"William R. Newman shows that debating the ethical limits of human meddling in nature--even over creating artificial life in the laboratory--has a remarkably long history, going back well before the scientific revolution."

Eric Wargo | Washington Times

"Newman chooses the fascinating topic of alchemy as his case study in the long history of human efforts to breach the barriers between nature and human artifice. . . . A thought-provoking book. "

Iwan Rhys Morus | Science

One of the Wall Street Journal’s "Five Best Science Books--2006"
“As William R. Newman reminds us in Promethean Ambitions, his fascinating history of alchemy, the failure to distinguish good science from bad has been a recipe for policy disaster for centuries. Newman shows that alchemists were more than dreamers trying to convert lead into gold. From 1200 to 1700, they followed trends in metaphysical fashion by trying to create tiny humans, called homunculi. One hears echoes of today’s cloning debates in the 16th-century wrangling over the moral status of these imaginary creatures.”

Russell Seitz | Wall Street Journal

"Newman’s book, a masterpiece of historical synthesis, leads the reader through all sorts of topics, including the shape-shifting of early modern witches, the possibility of demonic assistance in the creation of trompe-l’oeil effects, Leonardo da Vinci’s pigment recipes. . . . The weaving of these threads into Newman’s careful and scholarly explication of alchemy’s history enlivens that history and validates alchemy as an important and influential contributor the the Western intellectual tradition."

Kathleen R. Sands | Chemical Heritage

"Newman’s book will reward readers interested or involved in biogenetics or bioengineering, as well as historians and philsophers of science. The former will find a background for contextualizing the ethical dilemmas they face; the latter will find a powerful example of their discipline at its most thoughtful."

Walter W. Woodward | Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences

"Promethean Ambitions is extraordinarily rich in detail. . . . An important and ambitious book that will reward the careful reader."

Peter J. Ramberg | Bulletin for the History of Chemistry

"Promethean Ambitions demonstrates Newman’s mastery of the alchemical textual tradition; he is at his best when reconstructing the long afterlife of specific medieval arguments and showing how Renaissance artists and seventeenth-century natural philosophers alike engaged them even as they turned them to new ends....This erudite book is an important contribution to the intellectual history of art and nature in medieval and early modern Europe."

Tara E. Nummedal | Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"In this important new book, William Newman uncovers the surprisingly long history of modern debates concerned with delineating the natural and the artificial by exploring the philosophical underpinnings of alchemy from the ancient world to the period of the Scientific Revolution. With his characteristic command of difficult primary sources and his flair for framing provocative, historically nuanced arguments based on formidable archival research, Newman succeeds in bringing together the ancient myth of Daedalus and the modern concerns about Dolly the cloned sheep."

Deborah E. Harkness | Technology and Culture

"Newman’s own ambitions in this volume verge on the Promethean, and there are points at which the sheer wealth of material under discussion threatens to overwhelm the coherence and comprehensibility of his arguments. However, given a work of such range and quality--deeply serious but often entertaining, challenging but never tendentious, erudite but eminently readable--it seems churlish to grumble about an embarrassment of rishes."

John T. Young | Ambix

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
A Note on Terminology
Introduction. From Alchemical Gold to Synthetic Humans: The Problem of the Artificial and the Natural
1. Imitating, Challenging, and Perfecting Nature: The Arts and Alchemy in European Antiquity
2. Alchemy and the Art-Nature Debate
3. The Visual Arts and Alchemy
4. Artificial Life and the Homunculus
5. The Art-Nature Debate and the Issue of Experiment
Afterword. Further Ramifications of the Art-Nature Debate

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