May 28, 2011

Lawrence Principe
The Charles Singleton Center for the Study of Pre-Modern Europe
The JohnsHopkins University
Gilman Hall 376
Baltimore, MD 21218
410 516 7501

Dear Lawrence Principe:
I was prepared to toss the article about you (Sara Reardon, The Alchemical Revolution SCIENCE vol. 332 no. 6032 May 20, 2011 page 914) into the stack of things which are fascinating but not relevant, when you closed with a fantasy.  On the strength of that, I make bold to write you again.  I did before and must apologize for spelling your name wrong, but I did invite you to let me know if I messed up. 

Your fantasy involved a lavish villa, a glass of wine and a conversation if you ever managed to accomplish the alchemical transmutation of silver into gold.  But why wait?  Transmutation, like my own quest, is a futile effort.  But you can have the victory feast any time you want.  I invite you to Toad Hall, my home (at least that’s what it says on the mailbox).  Of course I got the name from Wind in the Willows.  If you have not read it, put this down and go read the book to a child, along with Winnie the Pooh and Rabbit Hill

You’re back.  Good.  It’s all right to grow up now.  You have had the best childhood has to offer.

Toad hall is no lavish villa, but it is perched on a hill above Clearwater Harbor with dock and access to the sea. 

The thing that struck me about your fantasy was that at one time it was believed that the ape (defined as a primate that can reach straight up) evolved in Europe, and the ape that was to evolve into humans evolved in the south of France eating chestnuts.  If so then when our ancestors were on a branch, it was clean, cool and safe.  There was plenty to eat and they were among friends.  When they died they fell to earth, which was different in each way and where awful things happened to them.  I suspect that our notions of heaven and hell go back in that direction.  So when you mention having an intelligent conversation in a high place with a bit of a snack, I believe you.  So pour yourself a glass of wine (I’m buying if you come here, but if you don’t you’re on your own.) and let us speak of things alchemical.

Properly lubricated?  Good.

You study transmutation.  I have discovered the secret of eternal life.  Please don’t blow your wine out through your nose like that.  It stings something fierce.  I don’t mean immortality (all right then, life indefinitely extended) of the individual.  I mean the survival of populations.  Feel better?  Yes, it’s the
Tree of Life, all right, just not the individual life.

The soul of courtesy, you respond, “You mean sex.  It might work.  But I think it has been discovered already.  Or maybe you mean the environment.”  Well both of those things are necessary of course but even together they are not sufficient.  If we evolved eating chestnuts and can survive in an environment where there are none, I doubt the environment is going quite to wipe us out however disagreeable it gets.

Aristotle said something like, “Don’t think your teeth were made for your convenience….  They happened by chance and persist because they work.”  Any alchemist would have read that and would have grasped about as much about evolution as anybody understands today.  If fact better, because he clearly understands that there is something we call speciation, which is as fundamental as evolution; indeed it is necessary for evolution.

Speciation takes about 2,000 generations, give or take.  Neither Aristotle nor our alchemical friends would have known that, and I only have indirect evidence. Scientists are coy on the issue. 

So take a couple mice from a litter and drop them along with several others in two different valleys in the Canary Islands.  The mountains there are so rough that the shepherds have developed a dialect of Spanish which is whistled because it is so hard to cross the narrow valleys.  The mice almost never cross into an adjacent valley, and after 2,000 mouse generations they are two different species.  A chromosome from one valley can’t do business with one from the other valley.

Now employ the same setup but force random mating on the mice in one valley and make sure there is plenty of food to support a thousand mice.  Now when two sibling mice have an identical chromosome it will be about 2,000 generations before they get together.  They cannot do business.  The whole valley dies.

Nature prevents this by subdividing populations.  It enforces that subdivision by imposing infertility if the mice, or any other animal including humans, does not have a sufficient degree of consanguinity to be assured that the population is well below 1,000.  Here are some references:
R. Sibly et al., Science 309 607 (2005). 
A. Helgason et al., Science 319 813 (2008).
R. Labouriau, A. Amorim, Genetics 178 601 (2008).
R. Labouriau, A. Amorim, Science 322 1634 (2008).
It all happens too fast for DNA mutations.  I believe the mechanism is epigenetic. 

Another glass of wine?

So the gold you might make may have value, but only so long as there is anyone who wants it.  Gold serves men.  Men serve the gods and the gods must yield to the fates.  One fate spins the thread of life while another measures and the third cuts.  But without the stork there is no thread.  And to whom does the stork answer?  To whom must it yield?  To kissing cousins.

And that is the secret of the Tree of Life. 

Your observation of how much science owes to alchemy is a bit discouraging.  It tells me that new ideas are treated worse and take longer to be accepted than we had reason to believe.  I don’t even have a wealthy patron lusting after world domination supporting me, although one might well do so. 

But if heaven is a conversation, and if you have enjoyed this one, that is probably all I can reasonably hope for.  I’ll post this side of the conversation at  If you want to add your side, do let me know.


M. Linton Herbert MD
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