PERSONAL: Born in Portugal.
CAREER: Universadade Lusofona, Lisbon, Portugal, professor of developmental biology. Author of novels, children's literature, and books of natural science.
AWARDS, HONORS: Award of the Secretary of State for the Environment for her children's book about zoology and ecology, O Sapo Francisquinho, 1986; Best Book of the Year by a Female Author, 1990, for novel Ponto Pe De Flor.
(With others)—Anda uma mae a criar filhas para isto!, A Regra do Jogo (Lisbon, Portugal), 1983.
Agriao!, Relogio d Agua (Lisbon, Portugal), 1984.
(With others) Fantastico no feminino, Edicoes Rolim (Lisbon, Portugal), 1985.
Um esquema, illustrated by Jorge Colombo, Edicoes Rolim (Lisbon, Portugal), 1985.
O Sapo Francisquinho (picture book; title means "The Little Frog Francisco"), [Portugal], 1986.
Adeus, princesa: Crime imperfeito, Relogio d Agua (Lisbon, Portugal), 1986.
(With Mario de Carvalho) E se tivesse a bondade de me dizer porque?, illustrated by Jorge Colombo, Edi-coes Rolim (Lisbon, Portugal), 1986.
Campos de morangos para sempre, illustrated by Joao Lucas, Edicoes Rolim (Lisbon, Portugal), 1987.
Historias naturais, O Jornal (Lisbon, Portugal), 1988.
(With Graca Morais) O principe imperfeito: Uma opera em um prologo e um acto no universo dos contos tradicionais portugueses, Edicoes Rolim (Lisbon, Portugal), 1988.
Ponto Pe de Flor (novel), [Portugal], 1990.
Vitoria, Vitoria, illustrated by Fernanda Fragateiro, Publicacoes Dom Quixote (Lisbon, Portugal), 1991.
Portugal Animal, photography by Antonio Jose Cidadao, Circulo de Leitores/Publicacoes Dom Quixote (Lisbon, Portugal), 1991.
Alentejo: No po da bagagem, photography by Adalrich Malzbender, Quetzal Editores (Lisbon, Portugal), 1993.
(With Cristina Castel-Branco) Os quatro rios do paraiso, photographs by Jose Afonso Furtado, Publicacoes Dom Quixote (Lisbon, Portugal), 1994.
(With Jorge Colombo) A minha alma esta parva, Publicacoes Dom Quixote (Lisbon, Portugal), 1994.
Domingo de Ramos, Publicacoes Dom Quixote (Lisbon, Portugal), 1994.
A musica das esferas, Relogio d Agua (Lisbon, Portugal), 1995.
Mais mares que marinheiros, preface by Paulo Franchetti, Relogio d Agua (Lisbon, Portugal), 1996.
The Ovary of Eve: Egg and Sperm and Preformation, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1997.
Mais que perfeito, Relogio d Agua (Lisbon, Portugal), 1997.
Os Mensageiros secundarios, Relogio d Agua (Lisbon, Portugal), 2000.
A arma dos juizes, Relogio d Agua (Lisbon, Portugal), 2002.
Return of the Crazy Bird: The Sad, Strange Tale of the Dodo, Copernicus Books (New York, NY), 2003.
Author of novels, popular science books, children's books, poetry, essays, and an opera libretto.
SIDELIGHTS: Clara Pinto-Correia may not be a household name in the United States, but in Portugal the professor of developmental biology is a well-known author in a variety of genres, from the novel and poetry to essays and natural science. She told CA that her motivation for doing so much writing is this: "I love it. It makes me feel very, very good. There's no other perfect sense of instant wellness that I know of." When asked what inspired her to write on the subjects she has chosen, Pinto-Correia responded: "My life, my genes, my dreams, go figure."
Of her writing process, Pinto-Correia said: "I write mainly in my head, for time periods that can go up to ten or fifteen years. When I'm just writing in my head, I already know the title, the first and the last sentences, and the main plot. Then comes a day when I know I'm ready to write. I sit down at the computer and the text just flows from my head to the keyboard, I'm nothing but a medium. It feels very good. Then I get my control back when I do the editing—and I'm an editing fanatic. I can rewrite a page up to one hundred times."
Pinto-Correia's The Ovary of Eve: Egg and Sperm and Preformation is linked to her university work but is written for a wide-ranging audience of those interested in the history of science and debates about reproduction. Introduced by well-known Harvard University professor of natural science Stephen Jay Gould, the book explores the history of preformationism, the notion that "all living things existed preformed inside their forebears in the manner of the Russian doll, put there by God at the beginning of Creation." According to a review by Catherine Wilson in the London Review of Books, "Though it was associated with the introduction of the microscope in the mid-17th century, the theory of preformation was much older. The idea of invisible seeds containing pre-existing organisms was a classical notion," although Aristotle was skeptical of it. But it achieved a renaissance in the mid-seventeenth century, after the discovery of the ovaries and of sperm, at which point the great debates concerned whether the egg or the sperm contained the preformed materials of life. Advocates of spermism based their evidence on microscope studies of sperm, which revealed a "homun-culus," a miniature human allegedly seen in the spermatozoon's head. Ovists, Wilson explained, "believed that fertilising power lay in the ambient fluid. The ovist case was supported by analogy with the eggs of humans and other creatures, including plants, parthenogenesis … and ectopic pregnancies."
As outlined by Emily Eakin in a review in the Nation, the renaissance of preformationism accompanied the Counter-Reformation because it "dovetailed neatly with Christian doctrine: All men were literally brothers, as Jesus taught, and because the entire human race had lain encased but unborn inside Eve (or Adam, depending on your preference [as an ovist or a spermist]), all were complicit in original sin." The alternative reproductive theory of the time, epigenesis, according to Dennis O'Brien in Commonweal, argued that "organisms began in an homogeneous state and that the embryo was molded into form solely from external stimuli." O'Brien explained that even with the evidence offered by scientists like Caspar Wolff (1734–1794), "who is generally credited with the definitive refutation of preformationism because of his careful description of the development of organs in chick embryos," preformationism's appeal remained powerful because it offered "a mechanism, not an invisible force," to explain the continuity of species and prove the existence of God.
While Pinto-Correia's book concentrates on the European scientific deployment of preformationism, she does not neglect the creation stories of other cultures around the world or other theories, including those surrounding "the Egyptian goddess Ka, the work of the Arab alchemist Jabir Ibn Hayan, the Jewish myth of the Golem," and so on, according to a review by Frank Gonzalez-Crussi in Nature. Catherine Wilson noted in the London Review of Books that Pinto-Correia "surrounds her exposition with decorative flourishes of esoteric knowledge, concerning monsters, fecundation by the wind, Jurassic Park, masturbation, divine kingship, tarot cards, sperm-wars, the bell-curve, the Code of Manu, the meanings of 'right' and 'left,' copper and iron, regeneration, the golem, Pythagoreanism, morphogenetic fields and more."
The author paints vivid pictures of preformationist experiments, such as those of Lazzaro Spallanzani, whom Eakin described as "the Italian naturalist, [who] outfitted dozens of male frogs in tight, waxed-taffeta pants and allowed them to mate. Despite glaring evidence to the contrary (none of the eggs produced during these unions ever developed), Spallanzani remained a confident ovist, declaring that 'the fetus exists in this species before the male performs the office of fecundation.'" Perhaps better ammunition for the ovists in their war with the spermists was the 1747 article by D'Aumont, which, according to Wilson, "raised five compelling objections [to spermism]: that spermism implied God's willingness to waste billions of tiny human lives for no apparent purpose; that animalcules of all species resembled each other; that they resembled other animalcules and microparasites; that they were never found in the uterus; that it was not clear how they reproduced their own kind."
Although preformationism began to be a subject of some ridicule as early as 1759, when Laurence Sterne used his narrator's avowal of belief in the "rights" of the homunculus to suggest the nonsensical workings of his mind, it dropped out of scientific writings in the early nineteenth century. But Pinto-Correia points out its continuation in today's ideas about nature versus nurture and genes versus environment. She gives as examples of late-preformationists Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, authors of the study The Bell Curve. "These authors," writes Pinto-Correia, "side with those who defend the genetic view of ontogenesis—generally conservatives who emphasize that our mental limits are established at fertilization, and that no program such as Head Start or ABC can change things substantially." She contrasts these ideas to those who take "the epigenetic view, [emphasizing] the plasticity of the human brain and the fact that learning actually can cause new neuronal connections to form."
Reviewers of The Ovary of Eve generally admired Pinto-Correia's wide-ranging knowledge and writing style. Many commented on her appreciation of the energy and hard work of the preformationist thinkers, despite the fact that their ideas came to be outdated and proven wrong. "She delights in the early moderns' befuddled gropings toward knowledge and patiently pursues them down wrong turns and dead ends, all the while cheering their doggedness and ingenuity," wrote Eakin. Pinto-Correia's respect for these ancient scientists is contrasted to the work of other science historians who mock the inability of early naturalists to see the truth as later thinkers would reveal it.
Gonzalez-Crussi, moreover, wrote that while it is "true [that] histories of embryology have been compiled before … most fail to do justice to the multi-hued tints and ramifications that their subject matter offers at every juncture. This deficiency is amply corrected by Clara Pinto-Correia." He agreed with other reviewers that one of the strengths of the book is that it fully appreciates the efforts of the scientists of the past despite the ridicule which greeted them later. In Pinto-Correia's own words, "It is a sad fact that history is written by the victors. In this book, I want to challenge this trend, and tell the marvellous story of the losers."
Pinto-Correia also wrote Return of the Crazy Bird: The Sad, Strange Tale of the Dodo, a study of the large wingless bird first discovered in the early sixteenth century on the island now called Mauritius by a Portuguese sailor. The dodo had no natural enemies, and so lived peacefully until its discovery. The book is more a history than a biological text, and Pinto-Correia documents the explorations, complete with artists, that were launched to study the bird, and the number that were exported or killed as food or to become preserved specimens, the end result being the bird's extinction. Beth Shapiro wrote in the Quarterly Review of Biology that "the author's passion for everything about the dodo is unmistakable throughout the book."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Commonweal, March 13, 1998, Dennis O'Brien, review of The Ovary of Eve: Egg and Sperm and Preformation, pp. 20-21.
Library Journal, February 1, 2003, Henry T. Armistead, review of Return of the Crazy Bird: The Sad, Strange Tale of the Dodo, p. 112.
London Review of Books, May 21, 1998, Catherine Wilson, review of The Ovary of Eve, pp. 21-22.
Nation, February 23, 1998, Emily Eakin, review of The Ovary of Eve, pp. 25-26.
Nature, November 6, 1997, Frank Gonzalez-Crussi, review of The Ovary of Eve, p. 41.
Quarterly Review of Biology, June, 2004, Beth Shapiro, review of Return of the Crazy Bird, p. 197.