By J. Waller

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Nearly all natural philosophers of the time, including those at the Royal Society, felt that there had to be at least some immaterial or spiritual activity in the universe. Otherwise they could see no way of accounting for such strange phenomena as magnetism, electricity, the bonding of particles of matter, and, not least, human thought. Boyle, for instance, wrote of the importance of ‘a very agile and invisible sort of fluids, called spirits, vital and animal’, which explained such things as magnetism and even life itself.

Boyle went on to say that he suspected nineteen out of twenty witchcraft narratives to be fraudulent, but forcefully added that just one story based on confirmed testimony would persuade him that witches were real. Boyle’s message was clear: whether witches existed or not was a straightforward empirical question to be tackled in the same manner as one would research the possibility or otherwise of vacuums. As such, the matter had to be investigated on the basis of ‘sensible evidence’ provided by credible witnesses.

In his next series of experiments Spallanzani ‘laid open the [seminal] vesicles of dozens of frogs’ and wiped their ‘watery’ contents with a pencil upon sets of unimpregnated eggs. When he did so, he was nearly always gratified to see the eggs ‘over which the pencil had passed, begin to assume an elongated figure’. ’ Any eggs untouched by his pencil, in contrast, ‘decomposed, and turned putrid’. It’s a testament to Spallanzani’s consummate skills as an experimenter that he was now able to adapt these practices to species in which fertilization occurs internally.

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