The Seeds of Life


Edward Dolnick




Date Reviewed:

November 20, 2021

read a book review of The Writing of the Gods: The Race to Decode the Rosetta Stone, by Edward Dolnick, which sounded really interesting. I know the Rosetta stone is famous for allowing linguists to discover how to read Egyptian hieroglyphs, but that is all I know about it (I did see it on display in the British Museum once!). But our library only had The Writing of the Gods on order, not yet on the shelves. Plus, there was already a long wait list to get a copy, so it would be a while before I would get a chance to read it. I decided to try a different book by Dolnick, to see if I liked his writing. I checked out The Seeds of Life and discovered that I am impressed by Dolnick's research and writing skills. Now I want to read more of his books, The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World sounds intriguing...

The full title of this book is The Seeds of Life: From Aristotle to da Vinci, from Sharks' Teeth to Frogs' Pants, the Long and Strange Quest to Discover Where Babies Come From - I don't know why non-fiction books need to have a sentence-long title, but this book is indeed a quest to discover where babies come from. It covers about 300 years of scientific research, blunders and crazy theories. The book begins with Leonardo Da Vinci and his trailblazing research into anatomy. Up until that time, humanity had very little idea what actually happened inside the human body. Certainly bodies had been cut open during warfare or torture, but no one actually studied the purpose of the organs, or how the system worked. When William Harvey published in 1628 his understanding that the heart is actually a pump that keeps blood moving through the body, people were outraged, because conventional wisdom is that the heart contains the soul and is the seat of consciousness and emotion. To declare that the heart is merely a mechanical device for pumping blood goes against accepted understanding.

Dolnick is careful throughout his book to portray those early scientists as smart, but confused. Remember, says Dolnick, people believed that life could spontaneously generate (anyone who has left out decaying meat can easily see that it will soon generate maggots and beetles and flies). People had no notion of heredity - the early scientists could not explain how it happened that a child could bear the have characteristics of both the father and mother - did God know ahead of time that those two people were fated to meet? People knew that depositing semen into a woman could make her pregnant, but how that process actually worked befuddled everyone. Even when the early microscopes were invented, they were not powerful enough to see the tiny human egg. When sperm cells were seen wiggling under the microscope, the scientists assumed that those were just infecting "animalcules" that seemed to inhabit everything - saliva, pond water, or anything else placed under the lens. It wasn't until the nineteenth century that the microscopes become powerful enough to permit scientists to see cells. It wasn't until cells were discovered that the process of conception was understood (though it would be another hundred years before DNA was discovered to explain how heredity worked). Dolnick's point is that the early scientists were hampered by prevailing wisdom, existing belief, and the inability to see the tiny cells that start each human life.

Dolnick walks the reader through the different beliefs that were held down through the centuries. Different scientists contribute new knowledge. Some devise ingenious experiments - such as the Italian Spallanzani, who dressed his male frogs in silk pajamas - and thus proved that sperm from the frog must actually touch the eggs from the female in order to fertilize them (thus ending the theory that semen had a magic aura that caused eggs to become fertile.)

I found the book was full of interesting topics, such as the excitement created by the discovery of electricity. Was electricity the spark of life? Dolnick tells us of the famous experiment by Galvani, where electric shocks applied to the legs of a dead frog caused the muscles to twitch and the legs to jump (this led to some gruesome experiments where the dead bodies from hanged criminals were rushed to exhibition halls - electric shocks were applied to the corpses, and the dead man's limbs would spasm, and sometimes the eyes would open or the chest would appear to rise and fall. These experiments gave Mary Shelley the idea to write a tale about Doctor Frankenstein bringing a dead body back to life). Every chapter had a new insight about what people were thinking and how they wrestled with the ongoing mystery of how humans come to be. The book ends in 1875 when a man named Hertwig witnesses under a microscope for the first time a sperm cell enter a transparent sea urchin egg and fertilize it. The egg begins to divide, and divide again - life had begun.

I definitely want to read more of Dolnick's books. The Seeds of Life is a great example of non-fiction writing - interesting, clear in its explanations, and full of neat anecdotes about people and events that happened in our past. I recommend this book.