We expect science to build upon the past. Aristotle to Watson and Crick. Archimedes through Newton to Einstein, and beyond.
Some vestigial artifacts seem to slip through time. A woman of my acquaintance, with a master's degree in education, refused to hang washing on her clothesline during pregnancy. She believed there was a danger of the umbilical cord wrapping around the neck of the fetus and strangling it.
A folkloric legacy from past generations skipped over an otherwise scientific progression of knowledge. A sympathetic magical relationship between clothesline and umbilical cord was preserved into the modern age.
Some would still use the Bible as a textbook for science, specifically the Old Testament. Witness the push for the teaching of creationism in public schools. A scientific anachronism skips over hundreds of years of advancement and remains viable in the minds of those who would substitute revealed truth for modern science.
One year ago, Todd Akin (R - Missouri) was campaigning for the U.S. Senate and made an unfortunate pronouncement. To the dismay of all but a few desperate apologists for the Republican party, he stated that a woman who endured "a legitimate rape" was unlikely to become pregnant. He said, "the female body has ways to shut that whole thing down." (Aug, 12, 2012)
Social scientists who study cognitive dissonance and other strategies of fact avoidance have struggled through this past year to determine where Akins could have come by this idea. They looked to the Old Testament and did not find it there. They looked to ancient folk tales to no avail.
Now we have found the answer. Here is a short passage from "1215: The Year of Magna Carta" by Danziger and Gillingham (2003, Hodder & Stoughton):
"The medical science at the time taught that conception only occurred when male and female sperm coalesced, and that women produced sperm only as a result of pleasure. This was why, men said, prostitutes did not get pregnant."
Most interestingly, here is explained Akin's puzzling use of the phrase "a legitimate rape". If conception follows only from pleasure, and pleasure implies consent, then a "legitimate" rape would not result in conception. One could almost admire the deductive reasoning here, had not the basis for it been based upon a falsehood.
It is difficult (and frightening) to imagine the mental gymnastics required to preserve an erroneous concept for 800 years. But, there it is: medieval thought transposed into the mind of a twentieth-century politician.