The Little Dude Inside

An aside to yesterday’s thread: (and it’s own thread, here)

Well into the Enlightenment, most educated people thought it was impossible for highly complex beings (like humans) to be assembled from parts. Therefore, everything grew out of teeny-tiny versions of themselves, all created at the same time.

Nicholas Hartsoeker’s drawing of tiny people inside a sperm cell, from 1695.

This is called Preformationism, and it’s a WILD theory, but it works if you don’t know about the theory of evolution or germ theory or microscopic life. We can definitely blame it on dead Greek guys (Pythagoras, Aristotle, Galen). It endured for thousands of years.

Their entire framework for understanding life was essentially theological — that life was only created by a Prime Mover, that all life exists by the Prime Mover’s will and volition.
But don’t take that as a sense of sacredness of life in Western culture — see their wars & exploitation & xenophobia…

So when we look backwards on their understanding on life, pregnancy, parenthood (and on rights and property and social values) we have to remember that their framework starts on a very different scientific basis.

This doesn’t mean they were stupid. They just lacked some technology that they were in the process of building, and until they had that technological basis, they had to explain their world in terms of what they knew and could observe.
To be fair, we do this, too.

They were also completely unaware of how memory works, and of unconscious inference.
An example of this: our brains fill in visual data because visual processing is WAY more expensive than using the memory index. So when we see an octagonal street sign? We’ll likely perceive it as red, even if it’s faded to white.

(And why it’s REALLY bad planning for developers to use green octagons that say GO at an intersection.)
Individually, we index new to us things by their similarities to what we’ve already experienced.
If you give a baby a bright green, sweet food, then give them a dill pickle or lime? The baby will be BETRAYED.

In the case of the very early microscopists, they started out looking at single-celled organisms — the amoebas, flagella & fungi. These are about 20-50 microns, .02-.05 mm. A human hair is 50-70 microns, so flagella are hard to see, but can be seen with a single lens microscope.

(A human egg, by the way? Once we finally saw one, we realized they’re HUGE for a single cell. An egg is about the size of a period. While a red blood cell is about 5 microns. A staph bacterium is about .5 to 1.2 microns, and a coronavirus is 0.12 micron.)

Now, flagella and sperm move almost the same, and the human eye is geared towards detecting motion. A sperm cell head is 5×3 microns, and its tail is about 20 microns long, but also only about 1 micron wide. Sperm cells are hard to see as cells with a single lens.

But they’re easy to see as little wiggly things. And if you’ve already seen something larger make the same motion (like a flagella), it’s very easy for your brain to transfer/infer that this tiny version is like the bigger one that came out of the pond.

And if you already know that there’s fungi and amoebae living all over you — on toes, in your teeth, in your ears, in your poo — because you’ve already looked at it and seen similar out in the pond? It makes most sense that there’s little wigglies inside testicles, too.

It’s not much of a logical leap. (And wasn’t even completely wrong, now that we know about both mitochondria and microbiomes. They’re just not the way we reproduce.) And it doesn’t even require a conscious, inductive leap.

The human mind makes these cognitive transfers all the time, and most of the time, it works pretty well for us. It just means we can get off on some weird tangents sometimes… like that picture.

There was no way that Nicholas Hartsoeker actually saw a little dude inside a cell. (Because his microscope wasn’t that good, but also because the little dude never existed.) That’s an artistic interpretation, much like a pretty planetscape.

A planetscape, with two moons and some clouds, from

And I can’t even say if Hartsoeker and Leeuwenhoek knew they were interpreting what they saw through the lens of their theological worldview, or if their brains told them to expect homunculus in sperm cells, and so they saw them. Could go either way.

Nor if their readers understood they were creating an artistic interpretation to fit their framework of reality, or if their readers took them literally.
I think we have to assume the latter for them, but for us? We desperately need to use the former with old science & law.

Hartsoeker (and all of the other microscopists of his era) was fitting what he saw into the framework of his reality.
Before Copernicus, we spent literal centuries doing incredibly complex mathematics to explain why planets appear to go backwards sometimes.

The intellectual leap to say, “hey, look, this math works SO MUCH better if the sun’s at the center” is actually the easy part. The hard part is the emotional leap: “oh, we’re not the center of the universe.”

And for the Enlightenment folks dealing with the concept of Preformation, the emotional leap was that we’re all mud. That we’re not fragments of the moment of creation, that our existence wasn’t anticipated by an omniscient god. That there’s no plan.

We’re still fighting that existential trauma, on both theological and individual levels, and we have far better tools than the Enlightenment had.