Fortean Frankensteins

Recently, Dr. Craig Venter has made the claim of “creating life” by constructing a bacterium from dead material.

While not a 9 foot tall monster, the artificial bacterium has the potential to become the first practical biological nano-particle that could have industrial and medical applications.

But Venter isn’t the first to claim the mantle of godlike powers of life and death.

There were earlier models of which Mary Shelley used as her model for “Dr. Frankenstein”:

Craig Venter is being portrayed as a modern Frankenstein, creating life from inanimate matter and starting another debate about scientists “playing god”. But he is by no means the first scientist said to have created life in the laboratory.

This goes back to the Renaiss ance, when one of the great goals of alchemy was the creation of a homunculus, a miniature human being. Paracelsus, greatest of the alchemists (in his own view, at least – see‘Paracelsus: The Mercurial mage’) provided a recipe to create such a being. Semen is sealed in a glass container and buried in horse manure for 40 days. After being “properly magnetised”, it will take on human form and come to life. [1] The growing homunculus is fed with Arcanum sanguinis hominis, the secret of human blood, and incubated at a constant temperature. After 40 weeks, it grows into “a human child, with all its members developed like any other child, such as could be born by a woman; only it will be much smaller… and it should be afterwards educated with the greatest care and zeal, until it grows up and starts to display intelligence.”

Paracelsus claimed to have successfully created such a homunculus with this formula; it grew to be a foot tall and eventually ran away. Alchemical formulæ were often intended to be taken symbolically rather than literally. Also Paracelsus was prone to misleading his rivals. Having invented laudanum, opium dissolved in alcohol, he published a recipe including gold and crushed pearls.

Paracelsus described the creation of the homunculus as “a miracle and a marvel of God, an Arcanum above all arcana, and deserves to be kept secret until the last of times”. In other areas (such as chemotherapy and anæsthesia), Paracelsus achieved successes which put him centuries ahead of his time, but the creation of intelligent life does seem something of a stretch. He was, however, one role model for Mary Shelley’s Baron Frankenstein, as well as Goethe’s homunculus-making Faust. Aleister Crowley also claimed to have created homunculi, a claim which may be taken with a pinch of alchemical salt.

Simply creating life from decaying matter would not have been considered much of a feat, as it was commonly held that life spontaneously arose in this way. Experiments seemed to show that, left to itself, a piece of meat or bread would produce moulds, maggots and other life through natural processes. It was not until 1859 that Louis Pasteur proved that bacteria or other organisms had to be present to start with and that there was no spontaneous generation.

But although it is one thing to harness nature’s own generative force, it is something else to create entirely artificial life. One of the most notable controversies arose in 1836 when experimenter Andrew Crosse published results of his electrocrystallisation experiments. Crosse, who had carried out much previous work in this area, was attempting to create a new mineral by the action of electricity on liquids when something unusual caught his eye, small projections emerging from the electrified stone:

“On the eighteenth day these projections enlarged, and stuck out seven or eight filaments, each of them longer than the hemisphere on which they grew. On the twenty-sixth day these appearances assumed the form of a perfect insect, standing erect on a few bristles which formed its tail. On the twenty-eighth day these little creatures moved their legs…” [2]

Crosse found the presence of these insects baffling and sought help from theorists and experimenters. Crosse and other scientists assumed that insects’ eggs must have somehow got into the experimental appar­atus. However, when the experiment was repeated by amateur experimenter WH Weeks of the Electrical Society, even with thorough sterilisation of the apparatus, the insects again appeared.

When the story was picked up by the popular press, it was inevitably magnified. They suggested that the insects were an entirely new species, Acarus crossii, which Crosse had created out of nothing. This drew a violent react ion. Crosse was accused of blasphemy and received death threats; his crops were burned and cattle killed at his estate in Somerset. There does not seem to have been further work on this, and Crosse himself did not claim to have created life (for more on Crosse see FT91:46, 139:38).

As knowledge of biochemistry grew, the prospects of creating life from scratch receded. However, in a famous 1952 experiment, Stanley Miller and Harold Urey at the University of Chicago took a flask of water, methane, ammonia and hydrogen and passed an electric current through it for a week. At the end of that period, a whole range of amino acids, “the building blocks of life” (the units of protein chains), were present in the mixture. [3] Again, the experiment was hailed by the popular media as scientists creating life.

We can see many of the same elements at work in the Venter case. Like Paracelsus, he is not starting from scratch, but using DNA from an existing organism. As with Crosse, Miller and Urey, the media exaggeration of what has been achieved obscures the actual work. In this case, life is not created from scratch, but assembled from the ready-made components provided by nature – this gives the project more than a touch of the Frankensteins, albeit on a cellular level. However, there is one big differ ence: few are doubting Venter’s claims. The creation of artific ial life has now moved from the fortean fringes of science squarely into the mainstream.

It’s interesting to note that Paracelsus is mentioned by name in Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ and is put down by one of Frankenstein’s professors at University.

Science as we know it today, especially chemistry is directly descended from alchemy.

That most famous of physicists (until Einstein), Isaac Newton, was an alchemist.

Is Venter and his ilk modern day alchemists?

Maybe, especially since one of his stated goals, (along with Aubrey de Grey) is the search for human immortality.

Which of course, was one of the goals of ancient Alchemy.

Modern Frankensteins

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: