It is the project of the mad scientist, whether he knows it or not, to extract all that is crass, hidden, and horrifying, and flay it mercilessly before the light of science. Doing so does not strip the world of her wonder. On the contrary—it breathes new life into the magic of old. To witness an account of this process in action, we need look no further than the homunculus of Paracelsian lore.
If you have access to some vials, semen, and significant quantities of human blood and putrefied horse manure, you may want to try Paracelsus’ recipe on your own time:
“Let the semen of a man putrefy by itself in a sealed cucurbite with the highest putrefaction of the venter equinus [horse manure] for forty days, or until it begins at last to live, move, and be agitated, which can easily be seen…If now, after this, it be everyday nourished and fed cautiously and prudently with [an] arcanum of human blood…it becomes, thenceforth, a true and living infant, having all the members of a child that is born from a woman, but much smaller.”1
Did it work? Congrats! You just created a homunculus!
The idea that human life can be created artificially through strict adherence to magic and ritual is nothing new. The Greek myth of Pygmalion and the Golem narratives of Jewish legend are just two notable examples of a tale that’s been told over millennia. Paracelsus’ contribution, as an intermediary between medieval occultism and enlightened empiricism, was to translate this myth into the language of proto-science. By framing artificial genesis (hereafter termed “ectogenesis”) as a natural process, he transformed a supernatural story into a plausible hypothesis. In fact, when you consider the prevailing reproductive science of the day, this weird recipe doesn’t even seem that far-fetched.
“Spermists” up until the end to the 18th century argued that children drew their essential features from the father.2 The mother, it was thought, provided only a womb and the raw material.2 Dutch physicist Nicolaas Hartsoeker’s 1694 “discovery” of pre-formed humanoid “animalcules” inside sperm cells lent credence to the theory.2
In this phallocentric view of inheritance, the male testes contain legions of swarming homunculi. If doctors could just simulate the conditions of the womb—say, by mixing shit and blood in a sealed glass cask—they should reasonably be able to extract life from nothing more than a glob of sperm.
To be sure, the idea of life arising purely through male ingenuity and substance smacks more than a little of chauvinism. But before everyone starts shouting that Paracelsus was just a big ol’ misogynist, I must note, for the purpose of making him look exceptionally weird, that his own relationship with semen was incredibly odd and complex.
He wrote fervently against masturbation. Cum that did not find its way into a woman’s womb, Paracelsus feared, could form monsters.1 But he also opposed abstinence, claiming that sperm left inside the body would decay and spawn lumps.1 The only recourse for the bachelor—castration.1
“[His] complex of ideas concerning sexual pollution, unnatural generation, disease, and religious purification by castration,” notes science historian William Newman, “is, even by sixteenth-century standards, bizarre.”1 The man was religious, but he was no ascetic.3 In fact, he seems to have been a pretty heavy drinker.3 Still, as far as anyone knows, he had no interest sex, and never let anyone see him naked.3 This has lead to speculation that Paracelsus was castrated at some point during his reportedly gruff, rural upbringing, or perhaps born a hermaphrodite.4 An analysis of Paracelsus’ skull, dug up in the 1930s, gave indications of congenital syphilis, but I digress.4
Modern science has rendered spermist preformationism obsolete, but the homunculus is still very much alive and—um—doing whatever gross thing it is that homunculi do.
In psychological circles, the concept has stretched into metaphor. Neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield used the term to denote a specific area in our brain that acts as a map of our own body. His “somatosensory homunculus” is now taught in most introductory psych classes. Cognitive psychologists talk of the “homunculus fallacy”—the erroneous assumption that your sensations are projected onto your mind like a movie, which logically necessitates the presence of a viewer, or homunculus, inside your brain.
In the lore of rare birth defects, the word homunculus may refer to a tumor that has mysteriously begun to display fetal characteristics.5
It is among hard-nosed reproductive biologists, however, that the enterprise of the homunculus has been most directly pursued. In the 1980s, when in-vitro fertilizations were beginning to demonstrate the viability of test tube embryos, Japanese scientist Yoshinori Kuwabara set about developing a fully functional test tube uterus.6 He excised more than 50 goat fetuses and brought them to term using a bio-regulated tank setup that pumped amniotic fluid through network of tubes and filters.6
Dr. Helen Hung-Ching Liu of Cornell University has tested her artificial womb on human embryos. The results have been successful thus far, but are limited to a maximum length of 14 days under U.S. embryo law.7
Penn State feminist theorist Irina Aristarkhova cites what she terms an “ectogenetic desire” in scientific and academic circles.6 It is a desire that, she argues, “corresponds to and promises to realize the old philosophical desire for autogenesis/self-creation.”6
Yes, researchers may occasionally couch their studies in the language of health benefits and reproductive opportunities, but science, like sorcery, has its own ends. Much like the titular homunculus, wriggling in Paracelsus’ flask, the theory of ectogenesis has crept and nudged its way through centuries of obscurity and scientific dead ends, only to find itself at the vanguard of reproductive research.
Dammit Paracelsus! Quit being so interesting! I’m going to spend one more week talking about the strange relationship between Paracelsianism and psychoanalysis and then that’s it. (edit: ah never mind, let’s just move onto the next one.)
(note: most of the profiles I do won’t be this long and rambling)
1. Ball, P. (2006). The Devil’s Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance and Magic. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
2. Epigenesis and Preformationism. (2005). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved December 31, 2010, from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/epigenesis/
3. Pagel, W. (1982). Paracelsus: an Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance (2nd ed.). New York: Karger.
4. Bayon, H.P. (1941). Paracelsus: Personality, Doctrines and His Alleged Influence in the Reform of Medicine. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 35(1), 69-76.
5. Weiss, J.R., Burgess, J.R., Kaplan, K.J. (2006). Fetiform Teratoma (Homunculus). Archives of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine, 130(10), 1552-1556.
6. Aristarkhova, I. (2005). Ectogenesis and Mother as Machine. Body & Society, 11(3), 43-59.
7. Eaton, S. (2005). The Medical Model of Reproduction: A Path to Artificial Wombs. New Antigone, 1, 28-37.
8. Kuwabara, Y. et al. (1989). Artificial Placenta: Long-Term Extrauterine Incubation of Isolated Goat Fetuses. Artificial Organs, 13(6), 527-531.