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The constitution of the experimental natural philosophy in the study of living organisms in the seventeenth centuries: Francesco Redi contributions do the History of Biology

Grant number: 16/22410-4
Support type:Scholarships abroad - Research
Effective date (Start): August 15, 2017
Effective date (End): January 14, 2018
Field of knowledge:Humanities - History - History of Science
Principal researcher:Maria Elice de Brzezinski Prestes
Grantee:Maria Elice de Brzezinski Prestes
Host: Robert J. Richards
Home Institution: Instituto de Biociências (IB). Universidade de São Paulo (USP). São Paulo , SP, Brazil
Research place: University of Chicago, United States  


The dominant conception in the history of science of the first half of the twentieth century was that its object of research lay in the presentation of the main ideas, concepts and theories over time, in different areas. Little attention was directed to one of the most significant aspects of modern science, the question of observation and experiments. There is a limited literature on the development of experimental methodology as a whole. We know that studies of naturalists during Antiquity and Renaissance were mainly descriptive, and that in the Twentieth Century biology have used a primarily experimental approach. But we know little about this transition, how was it and through which researchers. This project aims to analyze, contextualize and translate into Portuguese a work that ranks among the classics of the history of biology, the 1668 book entitled Esperienze intorno alla generazione degl'insetti (Experiments on the generation of insects), of the Italian naturalist Francesco Redi ( 1626-1698). In general, Francesco Redi is remembered for fighting the idea of spontaneous generation of life through experiments that showed that maggots that appeared on meat stemmed from eggs deposited by flies. However, this work Redi advocated a rather moderate or more complex position on the issue. In addition to the results of experiments with food decomposing and the discussion contemporaries' views, that animals come from eggs, in other sections throughout the book, Redi assigned a productive power and the "vegetative soul", enabling it to generate new plant and animal life. In other words, he maintained, therefore, based on a wider metaphysical system, a sphere of occurrence of spontaneous generation. Quantitatively, the famous experiments of Redi, for its disclosure even in textbooks of biology teaching in primary school, are described in the first 20 pages of the book. The section also contains an overview of the positions of ancient and contemporary authors on the emergence of living bodies, with many quotes that include classics of literature and poetry. It also contains the rejection of the arguments of these authors, and his position contrary to the spontaneous generation, defending the "univocal generation" of living things, based on experiments. In the remaining 200 pages of the book, however, emerges the complex position of the author in relation to the generation, including the defense of "equivocal generation" (spontaneous) in cases such as intestinal worms and bur plants. Besides, and also relevant to the present research, the book also contain passages where the author also presents his epistemological boundary, characterized by a strict empiricism manifested in the discussion on the role of the senses and of reason in understanding the natural things. Thus, the work has that other relevance, little explored in the history of biology, related to explicit reflection on the experimental method of investigation of vital functions within the natural philosophy of the Seventeenth Century. Combining methodologies of contemporary historiography of science and translational act, the product of this research will be a commented translation that will include notes about the actual process of translation and notes focused on the historical context, which will enable the reader to reach the author and the time it was written. The expected consequence is the availability of a primary source of the history of biology that can support the teaching of the history of this discipline in bachelor's and license courses in biological sciences in Brazil. (AU)

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