'A fascinating subject, full of arresting material and personalities' – Lisa Jardine, Sunday Times 

332 pages/2006 – UK & Commonwealth (Simon & Schuster), US (Bloomsbury), Netherlands (Bezige Bij), Turkey (Everest) 

332 pages/2006 – UK & Commonwealth (Simon & Schuster), US (Bloomsbury), Netherlands (Bezige Bij), Turkey (Everest) 

The Egg and Sperm Race

The Seventeenth-Century Scientists Who Unravelled the Secrets of Sex, Life and Growth
Matthew Cobb

Where do we come from? Where do animals come from?

For thousands of years we had no idea how living things were created – great thinkers such as Aristotle and Hippocrates had attempted to explain what became know as the problem of ‘generation’, but none of them had the tools or the insight to solve the mystery. The result was a wealth of weird and wonderful ideals about the components necessary to create new life – blood, ‘vapours’, invisible particles in the air. It was widely accepted that animals could sometimes produce different species, for example; the notion that two sheep can only ever make another sheep is a surprisingly modern idea.

The Egg and Sperm Race is the story of the exciting, largely forgotten decade during the seventeenth century when a group of young men – Jan Swammerdam, the son of a Protestant apothecary, Nils Stensen (also known as Steno), a Danish anatomist who first discovered the human tear duct, Reinier de Graaf, the attractive and brilliant son of a rich and successful Catholic architect, and Antoni Leeuwenhoek, a self-taught draper – dared to challenge thousands of years of orthodox thinking about where life comes from.

By meticulous experimentation, dissection and observation with the newly invented microscope, they showed that like breeds like, that all animals come from an egg, that there is no such thing as spontaneous generation and that there are millions of tiny wriggling ‘eels’ in semen. But their ultimate inability to fully understand the evidence that was in front of them led to a fatal mistake. As a result, the final leap in describing the process of reproduction – which would ultimately give birth to the science of genetics – took nearly two centuries for humanity to achieve.

Including previously untranslated documents, The Egg and Sperm Race interweaves the personal stories of these scientists against a backdrop of the Dutch ‘golden age’. It is a riveting account of the audacious men who swept away old certainties and provided the foundation for much of our current understanding of the living world.