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America has a mad science gap. Well, sure we also have a science gap, but this is less fundamentally disconcerting, since it reflects a certain blasé attitude towards science, a bland acceptance that scientific method is the go-to epistemology for the conduct of inquiry into the nature of the universe. Admittedly, most of us just aren’t that interested in the universe, although we may have a certain passing appreciation for those big-brained boys and girls who gave us television, flu vaccines, and Oreos. In a sense, after a few hundred years of improving the general welfare of our species, science is a victim of its own success. Nobody trades in rookie cards for Neils Bohr, Max Planck, Enrico Fermi, Francis Crick or James Watt. Einstein doesn’t count, because it’s mostly about the hair. I’m relatively certain that a “Men of Microbiology” calendar is not in the offing, nor would it sell very well, except among graduate students in the life sciences. Its not that there aren’t some suavely handsome scientists out there, its just that, well, science is boring. We like our science like we like our talk show hosts. Mad. Now that we can genetically engineer tomatoes that perform better on standardized tests than the average college student, in vitro fertilize octogenarians, create boy-bands on demand, synthesize fast-food meats from dubiously meaty industrial byproducts, and hurl satellites at comets, our expectations of mad science have changed. Our popular consciousness associates mad science with the likes of Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll, and Dr. Evil, who frankly spend more time with the madness than they do with the science. For generations, true mad scientists (the European variety have long been referred to as alchemists) have been toiling away in obscurity searching for crazy stuff like the Philosopher’s Stone, the secrets of immortality, and attempting to create life in the form of a tiny little monstrosity called a homunculus (Latin. “Little Man”), mostly because it’s hard not to feel a bit god-like if you can assemble a supernatural horror out of toads, snails, and puppy dog tails and make it do your bidding.

An Alchemist at Work (G-Rated Version)

An Alchemist at Work (G-Rated Version)

Swiss physician, occultist, and alchemist Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (1493-1541 A.D.), who went by the slightly more modest name (relative to a name including “Bombastus”) of Paracelsus (“as good as or better than Celsus”, Celsus being the 1st century B.C. Roman medical encyclopedist Aulus Cornelius Celsus) proving not only that he recognized the ridiculous length and unpronounceability of his own name, but also that the adoption of a single appellation predated Madonna and Prince, is credited with the first use of the term homunculus. Paracelsus was a contemporary of the less occult-oriented Copernicus, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Martin Luther, but was compared to them as he evinced the same anti-establishment attitudes, and even this august intellectual company no doubt thought he was a bit weird. Paracelsus manifested a certain simpatico with the thinking rebels of his age, but rejected the comparison, famously remarking “I leave it to Luther to defend what he says and I will be responsible for what I say. That which you wish to Luther, you wish also to me: You wish us both in the fire.” The desire for a good burning at the stake may not be an entirely unnatural reaction to someone desirous of manufacturing monsters, but thankfully civilization has outgrown such tendencies. We just deny you tenure. At any rate, Paracelsus maintained an interest in making a homunculus, more specifically the creation of a fully-formed, miniature human.

But we must by no means forget the generation of artificial men. For there is some truth in this thing, although it hath been a long time concealed, and there have been no small Doubts, and Questions, raised by some of the ancient Philosophers, Whether it were possible for Nature, or Art to beget a Man out of the body of a Woman, and natural matrix? To this I answer, that it is no way repugnant to the Art of Alchymie, and Nature yea it is very possible: But to effect it, we must proceed thus. Let the Sperm of a man by itself be putrefied in a gourd glass, sealed up, with the highest degree of Putrefaction in Horse dung, for the space of forty days, or so long until it begin to be alive, move, and stir, which may easily be seen. After this time it will be something like a Man, yet transparent, and without a body. Now after this, if it be every day warily, and prudently nourished and fed with the Areanum of Mans blood, and be for the space of forty weeks kept in a constant, equal heat of Horse-dung, it will become a true, and living infant, having all the members of an infant, which is born of a woman, but it will bee far less. This we call Homunculus or Artificial). And this is afterwards to be brought up with as great care, and diligence as any other infant, until it come to riper years of understanding. Now this is one of the greatest secrets that God ever made known to mortal, sinful man, for this is a miracle; and one of the great wonders of God, and secret above all secrets, and deservedly it ought to be kept amongst the secrets until the last times, when nothing shall be hid, but all things be made manifest (Paracelsus, De natura rerum Book I, 1537).

Why exactly anyone would care to do this, particularly since it involves the handling of a lot of substances that would make a forensic technician blush, requires some explanation, apart from the simple fact that they believed that they could. This is undoubtedly the same logic that led to fuel-air explosives. Clearly the bombs we already had didn’t explode spectacularly enough, so some smart guy said, “hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we could light the air on fire?” The prime motivating philosophy of “wouldn’t it be cool” is a hallmark of mad science. Followed closely by “chicks will dig it”. Perhaps disappointment with our fellow men leads the egomaniacal to obsessively investigate if we can create a better one. While the term homunculus seems to originate with Paracelsus, alchemical scholars suggest that Paracelsus was cribbing notes from both kabbalistic notions of the golem, a larger, muter version of artificial man fashioned from clay and popular in Jewish mythology, and ideas of a manufactured human called a takwin from an earlier medieval Islamic text (written sometime between the 3rd-8th Centuries A.D. and attributed to Abū Mūsā Jābir ibn Hayyān, also called “the Father of Chemistry”) that reappeared in the 11th Century as a strange neo-Platonist alchemical text called the Liber Vaccae (“The Book of the Cow”). The Book of the Cow, while offering an even more unwholesome shopping list of elements needed and techniques used to create homunculi, also gives some nice reasons why you might want one hanging around (they seem to be able to answer any question and convey some of their supernatural power to the alchemist, including the harvesting of some of its vitals for their magical properties), although it is believed to stray rather widely from the original Arabic text upon which it was based.

In addition to recipes for creating bees out of a putrefying cow and vice versa, The Book of the Cow also offers a recipe for a homunculus. A homunculus is an artificial humanoid manufactured through alchemical recipes, generally as a means for acquiring magical powers or the answers to difficult questions. The homunculus of The Book of the Cow has superhuman powers; it is thus a significant departure from Jābir’s homunculus, which seems more or less identical with an actual human being. In The Book of the Cow, the homunculus is formed by mixing the “stone of the sun” with the maker’s “water” (presumably sperm). This mixture is then used to plug the vulva of a cow or a ewe, which has been cleansed with medicine and the blood of a ewe or a cow (the opposite animal from the one whose corpse is to carry the homunculus to term). The animal is placed in a dark house and fed a pound of blood from the opposite animal each week. One then grinds sunstone, sulfur, magnet, and green tutia, mixes them with willow sap, dries it all in the shadows and then waits until the cow or ewe gives birth. The creature that emerges should be placed in the powder in order to give the creature human form. After three days it will grow hungry and should be fed blood from its mother for seven days. The resulting creature will provide its maker a number of powers, from changing the progress of the moon to, if it is prepared properly and vivisected to form an ointment for the feet, walking on water (Geraci, 2010, p153).

Now all this unsavory use of male spermatozoa and experimental attempts to create artificial life would not seem out of place in a modern day geneticist’s lab, and bless those geneticists for deigning to work with all those icky organic components of living creatures and trying to find ways to rebuild us better than before. My internal organs applaud your efforts and look forward to the day when you can regrow the cartilage in my knees and replace my sorely abused liver from a petrie dish. Perhaps they’ll even come with that new car smell. Medieval and Renaissance alchemists were coming from a slightly different angle. Apart from the obvious advantages of being able to turn base metals into gold and live forever to insidious plans for ultimate power and world domination, the desire to create homunculi likely originated in two currently unpopular perspectives, that is, the primacy of the masculine (wrapped up in a psychological phenomenon that History of Medicine professor Luis Montiel refers to as “the Promethean Urge”) and misogyny. Theologically, it all goes back to Adam. The story goes, Adam, thus far the only human being on the planet, was wandering around in the Garden of Eden feeling lonely and decided to complain to God about the situation. God, being omnipotent, understood and said, “How about I make you a perfect companion? This creature will be your physical, emotional, and intellectual equal, and you will complement each other perfectly, resulting in infinite happiness. All I need is one of your arms, and one of your legs to make this happen.” Adam thought about this and asked, “What can I get for a rib?” Enter monotheism and patriarchy, and the ladies have had it rough for a few thousand years with the institution of the theological glass ceiling. Of course, when you proceed from the axiom that women are an inferior subspecies, it stands to reason that your search for the mystical secrets of the universe involve removing the generative power of women from the equation. I mean, they keep giving birth to these jerks that bully us in high school. Shouldn’t we be able to build a better person in the lab, and when we do so, we’ll just go ahead and use what we regard as the important part of the equation (i.e. the male contribution to the act of sexual intercourse), rendering those imperfect females superfluous? Consequently, alchemists didn’t date much. Creating life is what gods do, and the archetypal god of the Middle Ages and Renaissance (in both Europe and the Islamic world) was male, so it stood to reason that the assembly of homunculi was a purely masculine act involving a crazy dude, some beakers, and masturbation.

The “Promethean Urge” references the Greek myth of Prometheus, whom which we all owe a debt too, since as the story goes, he was a titan who created mankind from clay. Zeus was not pleased with this and withdrew knowledge of fire from the human race. This augured a cold, wet, and dark future for Homo sapiens. Prometheus, who does not get enough credit these days for services rendered, stole fire from Olympus and gave it back to the humans, thereby assuring us of adequate warmth and barbecue forever. For his troubles he is condemned to have his liver pecked out by an eagle for all eternity. The moral of the story is you don’t piss off Zeus. The subtext involves daring to strive for the knowledge of the gods, the most basic of which, for all cultures is the creation of human life. Make yourself a homunculus and you’ve approached divinity, daring to go where only the gods have gone before you, lack of luck with the mortal ladies notwithstanding.

My main point is that we should ignore this nonsense about the lack of women in science. There are plenty of male drones to pursue humdrum and ludicrously mundane investigations of leptons, genomes, and the 115th element on the periodic table. The time has come to correct the historical under-representation of women in “mad science”, a field from which they have been both operationally and philosophically excluded for too long. No doubt, the resultant homunculi would be prettier and have a better fashion sense. They might even ask you about your feelings.

Geraci, Robert. Apocalyptic AI: Visions of Heaven in Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, and Virtual Reality. Oxford, UKL Oxford Press, 2010.
Paracelsus. De natura rerum, Book I (1537). English translation from Sendivogius, M., French, J., Paracelsus, & Dorn, G. (1650). A new light of alchymie: Taken out of the fountaine of nature, and manuall experience: to which is added a treatise of svlphvr. London: Printed by Richard Cotes, for Thomas Williams.