Inzicht en angst in de dagen van Jan Swammerdam
Insight and fear in the days of Jan Swammerdam
In the second half of the seventeenth century ‘modern’ naturalists turned their backs on traditional ideas and established reputations. By relying purely on their own observations they discovered how respiration works, that the heart is a muscle, how nerves function and how reproduction takes place. But the more they penetrated the secrets of creation the more their new knowledge undermined old certainties.
This involved great personal risk, as Luuc Kooijmans makes clear in Dangerous Knowledge by looking at natural philosophers such as Niels Stensen from Denmark, Marcello Malpighi in Italy, Frenchman Melchisédec Thévenot, and the Dutchmen Jan Swammerdam, Reinier de Graaf and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. They demonstrated that ideas about nature sanctioned by the church were defective, and that natural law could take the place of an intervening God. By so doing they not only risked accusations of atheism, they were in danger of loosing their footing. Some recoiled from the consequences of their findings and underwent a spiritual crisis.
Stensen, for example, concluded that his thirst for knowledge was pure vanity and became a Catholic convert. Swammerdam went through a crisis of faith and briefly joined a religious sect. After resuming his scientific research he came to believe that a God who had given a bee an eye with more than a thousand facets must indeed be omnipotent. This enabled him to reconcile science and faith.
Kooijmans’ handsome and compellingly written book offers a captivating account of the Republic of Sciences in seventeenthcentury Europe. Natural philosophers from different countries kept in close touch. They travelled regularly between Italy, France, the Netherlands and Denmark, corresponded, wrote for the firstever scientific periodicals and joined learned bodies like the Royal Society. This was no harmonious international brotherhood, however, since ambition led to merciless competition for new discoveries and for the protection and financial support of patrons.
The scientific adventures of the brilliant naturalists who laid the foundations for modern biology and medicine provide a fascinating insight into the many difficulties that had to be overcome before science and religion could finally go their separate ways.
- The tension builds, as if in a novel, although everything is based on the writings of the time
- Kooijmans is a master of the paraphrase, able to render in a few sentences the essence of many complex and obscure seventeenth-century texts