Crawling Matter: Spontaneous Generation from the Ancients to the Moderns – a preview

A preview of a talk I’m giving for the British Animal Studies Network meeting in late April, 2018, in Glasgow.

The key challenge of spontaneous generation is its disruptions of agent/object divisions and the hierarchical divisions they support, including that between immaterial life and mere matter. Very few medieval thinkers followed these thoughts to this point without seeking succor in some quasi-divine force: one was Blaise of Parma (d. 1416). Known to his enemies as the ‘Doctor Diabolicus,’ Blaise’s fame to date rests largely on his work on optics and weights. His optical theories led him to argue that intellection was a form of sense perception, and since sense perception requires a distinct, material object, the objects of intellectual, thought, must be material too. From this, he finally proposed this hypothetical conclusion: ‘that human intellection comes from the potentiality of matter, generable and corruptible.’ He reached similar conclusions in considering the problem of spontaneous generation, where he argued that not just gnats, bees, mice, toads, and the like, could emerge spontaneously, but all life could, including human life, for ‘nothing prevents this matter, so prepared by natural causes, from receiving a form which has the capacity to discern, to reason, and so on.’ Blaise was eventually forced to recant these views, which included an argument that the story of the Ark was mythical, given that the postdiluvian world would have given rise again to the life that had once inhabited it. In this shocking thinker, we can observe a fully materialist, nonpaternal, acentric conception of life, without any transcendent pretensions of a cause disentangled from an effect.