Parallel Minds, 105–112


Artificial Lives


Although it may seem like a modern fantasy, the project of artificially creating a living organism already resounds through the experiments of the ancient alchemists. Long before the birth of modern chemistry, the physician and alchemist Paracelsus, in his 1537 volume De Rerum Natura, describes a bizarre biochemical procedure for the preparation of what he called a homunculus, a synthetic organism with the appearance of a very small human being. Paracelsus’s procedure involved the use of certain biological components such as human semen, manure, and blood, which, when subjected to a long process of fermentation, would enable the development of an embryo. While this type of occult operation may seem absurd today, the result of magical superstitions and, in terms of our contemporary view, a fundamental misunderstanding of how life works, such tales of ancient science often contain deeper and more relevant significance than it may seem. Alchemical lore was based on the idea that the inorganic matter encountered by the alchemist in his laboratory was related to the soul of the human being via a complex of mysterious connections and that it was possible, through scientific investigation, to build a bridge between the chaos of inorganic matter and the harmony of the living body, through experimental work in which chemical transformations were understood to also reflect an inner transformation of the alchemist carrying them out. I have always been fascinated by the occult origins of chemistry; I think that, although they are not always evident, contemporary chemistry still bears these ancient influences within it.…