Glasgow Spontaneous Generation Talk

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Thank you so much to Erica Fudge and the British Animal Studies network for the invitation to speak to you today. It’s a great honor. What follows is based on a chapter from what will be my second book, Medieval Nonhumanisms, which will be coming out with the University of Minnesota Press. As there’s still time to entertain comments, corrections, or generative ideas for it, I’m looking forward to hearing from you. If you’d like a copy of the paper, or you’d like to read along as I present, I’ve posted a copy of my talk to my personal website, medievalkarl.com.


Despite what you may have been led to expect by the conference’s title, my talk is not in fact about “sex,” but rather about reproduction—or, rather, generation, but of a sexless sort. I’ll be focusing on the Middle Ages, in part because that’s what I do, but also as a kind of ambassador for my scholarly field:  nonmedievalists sometimes mistake my period as a kind of dead zone for thought, or as sloughed off or disconnected from our present except as an embarrassing remainder: recall the pleonastic insult “medieval brutality” and so on. I’d like to try to change that.

So, here’s a picture of the way we generally expect reproduction to work, from Basil, fourth-century bishop of Caesarea, a city located in what is now Turkey. He observed that

nature, once put in motion by the Divine command, traverses creation with an equal step, through birth and death, and keeps up the succession of kinds through resemblance, to the last. Nature always makes a horse succeed to a horse, a lion to a lion, an eagle to an eagle, and preserving each animal by these uninterrupted successions she transmits it to the end of all things. Animals do not see their peculiarities destroyed or effaced by any length of time; their nature, as though it had been just constituted, follows the course of ages, for ever young.

Even here, you might notice that something is not quite right: Aristotle’s On the Generation of Animals remarks that although “anyone who does not take after his parents is really in a way a monstrosity,” “the first beginning of this deviation is when a female is formed instead of a male, though this indeed is a necessity required by Nature,” which is to say, the first interruption of “uninterrupted succession” occurs with binary heterosexual reproduction itself. All boy children are “really in a way” monstrosities. Sexual reproduction is imperfect as reproduction, then, because it requires unlikeness: it’s generation, but not straightforwardly reproduction.

But there’s yet another strange form of generation that concerns me today, namely, “spontaneous generation.” My talk will aim, in some way, to recuperate this now discredited idea. “Spontaneous generation” is not quite the medieval term. The medieval terminological distinctions were rather between generatio univoca and generatio equivoca, that is, on the one hand, generation from a single source, cause, or even voice–as voca comes from the Latin vox, voice–and, on the other, generation from an ambiguous source. In generatio univoca, a horse produces a horse produces a horse, a human produces a human produces a human, and so on back to the primordial pairs, with the voice of God as the ultimate, paternal creative principle, whatever the gender difference that materializes the operations of univocal generation; in generatio equivoca, for vermin and crawling things of all sorts, the cause is not a certain voice, and certainly not sex either, binary or otherwise, but rather a process indistinguishable from rejected, disordered, and shapeless materials—dust, filth, putrefaction, and slime—or from the general restlessness of the earth itself. For in medieval Christian thought, the earth was not solid, dull stuff. Instead, it was, as Caroline Walker Bynum’s Christian Materialism points out, “fertile, maternal, labile, percolating, forever tossing up grass, wood, horses, bees, sand, or metal.” Although I’ll vacillate indifferently between the two terms over the course of my paper, “equivocal” happily suits my purposes much better as a term for this kind of generation than “spontaneous” does: the latter carries some hint of a thing happening automatically through its own efforts, a “self-starter” if you will, whereas “equivocal”  suggests indetermination, uncertainty, a resistance to being known completely, perhaps acting on its own, but perhaps being enacted in a way that could never be reduced to a singular cause.

Consider an entry in Isidore of Seville’s foundational medieval encyclopedia, his seventh-century Etymologies, which explains that worms “are generated in putrid meat, the mothworm in clothing, the cankerworm in vegetables, the wood-worm in wood, and the tarmus,” whatever that is, “in fat.” Generated by what? By whom? Certainly not by sex. Something has gone awry. Sexual reproduction goes awry because of the very need for sexual difference; asexual reproduction goes awry, we might say, because something happens where it ought not to, because life crawls from disorder, a living something whose swarming, verminous character can hardly be distinguished at all from the disorder that produced it. What happens in and through this disorder happens because of multicausal, indifferent material processes themselves, irreducible to any binary of agent and object, to any hierarchy of form and matter, untraceable to any principle of paternity or maternity. The resonances with contemporary ecocriticism may strike you as obvious.

From the ancients through at least the end of the seventeenth century, equivocal generation was simply a known fact, but generally a known fact about only a specific subset of life, often termed “imperfect,” but which I’ll call crawling or swarming life. Aristotle’s natural science was the key resource, as when he spoke of

some insects not derived from living parentage, but . . . generated spontaneously: some out of dew falling on leaves . . . others grow in decaying mud or dung; others in timber, green or dry; some in the hair of animals; some in the flesh of animals; some in excrements: and some from excrement after it has been voided, and some from excrement yet within the living animal.

Albert the Great’s thirteenth-century commentary on Aristotle’s work on animals makes exactly the same point: “One must respond that some animals are generated from propagation, and some from putrefaction. In those generated from putrefaction there are no members designated for generation, because they are not generated from semen.” Bartholomew the Englishman’s fourteenth-century encyclopedia of natural history explains that the louse is “birthed from moist, corrupt air and vapors that sweat out from between the skin and the flesh from pores”; the snail in “lime or of lime, and is therefore always foul and unclean”; butterflies lay eggs in fruit and “breed therein worms that come of their stinking filth”; and that fleas lay eggs without “mixing of male and female.”

No one seems to have found the science anything but common sense. Basil the Great remarks that on hot rainy days in Thebes, hordes of field mice swarm from the earth and the “mud alone produce[s] eels; they do not proceed from an egg, nor in any other manner; it is the earth alone which gives them birth.” Isidore’s Etymologies just as blandly observes that “many people know from experience that bees are born from the carcasses of oxen,” hornets from horses, “drones from mules, and wasps from asses.” And without any expectation of disagreement, Augustine explains that Noah had no need to coax equivocally generated lifeforms into his ark, because God specifically commanded him to gather only male and female animals, in other words, those generated through sexual reproduction, and anyway vermin would have infested the ark, as they do any house, “not in any determinate numbers.”

The problem was not the natural science itself but rather how equivocal generation challenged God’s monopoly on creation. If equivocal life comes from putrefaction, and if the created world was perfect before Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden, then creeping things may have emerged only after God has finished making the world. Though creeping life, reptiles in Latin, is created twice in the Bible’s first creation story, in Genesis 1:20 and 1:24, it is notably almost entirely absent from medieval artistic depictions of creation, in which the absence perhaps acknowledges that such a form of life had yet to emerge in the earth’s first, uncorrupt days. No doubt the absence is partly due to technical constraints. Creeping things would be too small to illustrate easily, particularly on the sixth day of creation, crowded as that day was with the creation of quadrupeds and humans. However, even when artists had ample space, as in carvings on cathedrals, they still tended to omit the creation of vermin. Who or what could be responsible for them?

Medieval Christian thinkers offered a range of solutions, more or less convincing, to preserve a divine or at least a celestial cause for swarming life. For example, Robert Grosseteste, thirteenth-century Bishop of Lincoln, felt compelled to defend God’s sole responsibility for the ongoing production of oysters, here presumably standing in as a paradigmatic “equivocal” critter. According to Grosseteste, since oysters evidently generate from the water itself, God’s “increase and multiply” has to apply to oysters in some specific way particular to them, not “by the propagation of things brought forth one from other” but rather “through a multiplication of individuals that are begotten from water.” Other writers, using Aristotle, concocted better explanations by following a more logical, less haphazard system, in which the earth is cold, and life requires warmth from some source or other. Thus for Duns Scotus, stellar heat operated on a cow’s corpse, inscribing the matter in such a way that it might produce bees; a work ascribed to Albert the Great similarly explains that when the sun heats rotting matter, trapped heat causes vibrations within the matter, which produce spirit, and thus life. The actual Albert the Great insists that animals sprung from putrefaction require “a superior power and an inferior power. The inferior power disposes the matter for putrefaction, into which, once it has been disposed, the celestial power is introduced, operating on the matter just as sperm operates on the menses.” Albert’s solution suggests an effort to keep God ultimately responsible, in this case through a deputized virtus caelestis, a heavenly patriarchal force, working, like God, on merely receptive, feminine sublunary matter.

The Middle Age’s most widely respected resolution to the problem belongs to Augustine’s On the Trinity. In the course of examining the competing serpent-creating miracles between Moses and the magicians of Pharaoh’s court, told in Exodus 7:9-12, Augustine explains that demons have no power to create matter, and neither, in fact, does anything else but God. Rather, during Creation God had “interwoven” a “natural seminal power” in all life from which they produced particular kinds of seemingly new things, like serpents. Elsewhere, in a Genesis commentary, he suggests that these seeds might have been implanted on Creation’s third day, along with the seeds of plants. Although putrefaction had not yet happened at the time of Creation, seemingly “spontaneous” life has already been provided for by God’s foresight. All these explanations sought to keep God ultimately responsible, and, through that, to preserve hierarchies between object and agent, matter and spirit, and the host of other inequitable distinctions these divisions attach themselves to, like paternal form and feminine matter. And all the explanations themselves, through these strange, extrabiblical interventions, attest to some worry over whether all life is a life enabled by spirit.

The stakes of the problem become even clearer in the waning days of spontaneous generation, from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. The typical story is one that culminates in Louis Pasteur’s conclusive demonstration that a sufficiently sterile environment would prevent even the smallest microbes from arising, and with that, a conclusive demonstration that things in themselves have no power to bring forth something new. The counternarrative is perhaps equally familiar: some thirty years ago, the story of the death of spontaneous generation became a key site for the social history of knowledge, in which the victory of Pasteur over Felix Archimede Pouchet could be understood not simply as the rise and triumph of experimental science over ancient superstition but instead, or at least also, as a victory of Pasteur’s Catholicism and Imperial sympathies over Pouchet’s Protestant Republicanism, differences that themselves correspond to two distinct understandings of what matter can do.

In 1864, Louis Pasteur denounced spontaneous generation as an ally of atheism: “what a triumph, gentlemen, it would be for materialism if it could affirm that it rests on the established fact of matter organizing itself, taking on life of itself.” In the same year, Pasteur again argued that

If we also granted matter this other force we call life, life in all its many manifestations, varying as it does according to the conditions under which it is encountered, what would be more natural but to deify it? What could then be gained from recourse to the notion of an original creation, to whose mystery we must defer? What use the idea of a divine Creator?

What use indeed. Roughly 180 years earlier, Ralph Cudsworth’s massive True Intellectual System of the Universe had made exactly the same point without feeling compelled to don scientific costume: “to assert . . . that all the effects of nature come to pass by material and mechanical necessity, or the mere fortuitous motion of matter, without any guidance or direction, is a thing no less irrational than it is impious and atheistical.” To preserve reason, which, for both Pasteur and Cudsworth, is much the same thing as preserving God, matter and motion and life must all be dependent, ultimately, on some divine or quasi-divine monopoly on a final creative power. Pasteur, the modern scientist, has more than a little in common with his medieval predecessors.

And the defense of divine powers was, unexpectedly, also a defense of human particularity. Cudsworth’s late seventeenth-century contemporaries Antonie van Leeuwenhoek and Jan Swammerdam provide a surprising example of such a motivation in response to their microscopic examinations of insects. In this little world they discovered an astonishing richness of detail, especially in insect wings. They were astonished because of traditions inherited from Aristotle and Albert the Great that held that the more perfect an animal, the more differentiated its parts. Insects should have been minimally detailed, unglorious, uncomplicated, and ugly. But if such beauty could arise from merely material processes, by the work of filth upon itself, then by extension other complex creatures–humans, in particular–could ultimately arise in just the same way. Leeuwenhoek and Swammerdam had to find some cause of insect reproduction more aligned to what they believed to be the typical, sexual modes of animal reproduction. Recognizing the centrality of human dignity to their research helps explain why these and other seventeenth-century Natural scientists were so dedicated to defending the doctrine of bodily resurrection as well, for if human life, like swarming life, could just arise from natural processes, then what spirit could persist after our bodies returned to the swarming earth? Resurrection promises a release from mundane flux; a spontaneously generated soul forces us to recognize that there’s no escape from this or any other earth.

Even the attempts to preserve a responsible celestial power for apparently spontaneously generated life could end up imagining a human self entirely immanent to the ongoing flux of mortal existence. To remind you: many thinkers held the sun or even every celestial body responsible for equivocal generation, explaining that when rotting matter was heated with the right kind of heat, a membrane formed that trapped the heat, which, in seeking to escape, vibrated the matter, which vibrations forced a soul to generate, and with that, life. From this, it could be but a short intellectual step to propose a fully material concept of the soul, distinguishable in function from matter, but not quite a separable, independent principle of identity. A completely immanent concept of life, that is. One astonishing speculative thinker along these lines was Blaise of Parma, whose dates, roughly speaking, were 1347 to 1416. Alternately known as Blasius, Biagio Pelacini da Parma, or, to his enemies, as the “Doctor Diabolicus,” his present fame, such as it is, 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 object, but available to perception, so too did the intellect; and since the objects of the sense are material, so too are the objects of intellection, that is, thought. The conclusion about the materiality of thought led him on to this astonishing last point:

the final conclusion: that the human intellection comes from the potentiality of matter, generable and corruptible.

I’ll repeat that: “human intellection comes from the potentiality of matter, generable and corruptible.” Human reason here is an effect of ongoing, imperfect material processes. Blaise reached similar conclusions in considering the problem of equivocal generation. Agreeing with Avincenna rather than Aristotle, Blaise argued that not just gnats, bees, mice, toads, and the like, could emerge equivocally, but that 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, which is commonly called the “intellective power.”

Some of you might know Avicenna’s influence on another work, the Hayy ibn Yaqzan, that is, Alive Son of Awake, written by the twelfth-century Iberian Muslim scholar ibn Tufail, translated into Latin in the later seventeenth century as Philosophus Autodidactus. Tufai’s philosophical novel is a kind of theological experiment that tries to demonstrate that the highest, divine truths can be arrived at simply through human reason—thus Tufail needed to imagine a human free of any influence from written revelation or inherited tradition. He solved the problem by imagining an island at the equator, uncommonly hot, and thus not unlikely to just produce the highest kind of terrestrial soul, a rational one, spontaneously. We don’t know if ibn Tufail ever had defend himself, but Blaise was eventually forced to recant his views, which also included an argument that the story of the Ark was just a myth, an unnecessary solution to a false problem, given that the postdiluvian world would have given rise again to all the life that had once inhabited it. In Blaise and Tufail and a couple other medieval thinkers, all life, vermin, human, and otherwise, could be produced naturally, through a nonmiraculous interaction between a mobile earth and a mobile sky. Life for them is not something added to matter, but just one of the things matter does.

And looking ahead from Leeuwenhoek and Swammerdam, into modern science, we now must recognize that all generation is spontaneous if tracked back far enough. Darwin himself made the admission in a letter written not long before Pasteur was celebrating his victory over Pouchet, when he recognized that life must be at its origin abiogenetic. To put all this another way: at the very moment spontaneous generation was giving way to modern life science, abiogenesis returned, with a recognition that life is had been aimlessly generated the impersonal, restless creativity of nonlife. Of course, the differences between spontaneous generation and origin of life research should not be obscured or dashed past. Origin of life research hypothesizes about the development of a paired genetic continuity and openness to adaptation across generations; it provides irreversible historical narratives, with key transitional points, of the long rise of DNA out of an RNA world; and it tends to insist that the time of abiogensis is long over, at least on Earth. Life requires at least a combination of both genetic continuity and an openness to the environment that allows for adaptation, which is to say, life requires cross-generational genetic continuity and discontinuity. Spontaneous generation by contrast is discontinuous, as much a closed loop in its own way as pre-Darwinian assertions that like always produces like: filth produces flies, the flies die and return to filth, and so on. And spontaneous generation may be inscrutable but it does not relegate its processes to the great temporal distances of the hundred-million-year rise of DNA out of RNA or to the great speed of chemical reactions occurring in a millionth of a second. Spontaneous generation by contrast happens right before us, though, of course, it does not actually happen, as we now know. Yet over the long time of life, matter still swarms, in mundane, perhaps inevitable ways that require no transcendent divine catalyst, or any supposedly atheological equivalent, to get going.

The campaign against spontaneous generation and various incongruent, profane materialisms must therefore be understood as something other than that of a modern split from medieval habits. We should therefore not draw a line between medieval superstition and modern science but rather between acceptances of material immanence and a faith in immaterial transcendence, and, by extension, a faith in the existence of clear lines between decisive agents and mere objects. The border between immanence and transcendence must be understood as grammatical, per Nietzsche’s famous critique in Twilight of the Idols of “the metaphysics of language,” which, he argues, persists in differentiating between a “doer and doing” and asserting some “will as the cause,” or, more simply, classifying things into clear subjects and predicates, between a matter that needs something or someone to make it happen, and matter whose operations cannot be neatly sorted into effect and external cause, object and external subject. The end of Nietzsche’s critique is well known: “I am afraid that we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.” In short, spontaneous generation is godless, because it is ungrammatical.

In these equivocal operations, there is nothing of what Thomas Aquinas called an “aspect of generation and sonship,” where paternal life transmits information, a word here freighted with all its etymological weight of giving form. The information of supposedly normal paternal life is matter’s informing spirit, potentially separable from any particular materialization so long as it can be transmitted and received properly by other matter, so long, that is, as it can continue to establish a lineage. By these criteria, spontaneous generation fails. The signal meant to be transmitted by God’s first creative command has been cut off or has reconstituted itself on its own terms.

Two last asides as I make my way to my conclusion:

First: Spontaneous generated life tends to be creeping life: worms, maggots, insects, snakes, eels, things many of us find more than a little repulsive. But we need not be so shaken up by that. There is no need to go along with Georges Bataille, whose exploration of human limits delighted in the “prodigality of life,” “the slimy menace of death,” and our anguish over “that nauseous, rank, and heaving matter, frightful to look upon, a ferment of life, teeming with worms, grubs, and eggs.” To apprehend the heaving stuff of worms and body as repulsive is to view things only as ourselves and our own imagined order. It is to see things from the side of God or of masculine certainties about the perfect body. It is to place ourselves and our counterparts on the side of life with politics and a face, as if we, at least, are echoes of God’s primordial commandment, preserving the proper paternal traditions of Creation through our well-ordered but threatened bodies, and to relegate everything else to the side of mere being. We can try abandoning that hope for a beautiful singular Creator beautifully concerned chiefly with our coming beautiful perfection. Down here on earth, creeping things happen through the inscrutable, acentric operations of matter, without any transcendent pretensions of a cause disentangled from an effect.

Second, as many of you know, sexual reproduction is, statistically speaking, an aberration, as most species don’t reproduce sexually. John Launer repeats a common observation along these lines in his recent essay “Do We Even Need Men?,”

There are asexual variants among all sorts of creatures, including jellyfish, dandelions, lichens and lizards. Of the creatures who do reproduce sexually, some species have two sexes, but others have three, or thirteen, or ten thousand, if you are a fungus.

Against this, we have works like George Ripley’s fifteenth-century Compend of Alchemy, which explains that “Things there be no more / except kind within kind in number two / male and female, agent and patient.” Once again, binary gender and binary gendered notions of sexual reproduction support a host of other binary systems, but in comparison to what we know about reproduction now, or indeed what the medieval believed they knew about spontaneous generation, nothing could be more simplistic.

So: Vermin swarm from and in matter without any sexual intermediary, without parental transmission, without a singular cause or singular voice, without a quality separable from their temporary affiliations. Vermin then return to earth, possibly to arise again at some point if conditions are right, but possibly not. What returns has no distinct informational line that could possibly be traced from parent to child. If this stuff is life, it must be life completely immanent to its temporary ordering of stuff, without any of the informational, transcendent, and spiritual implications that “life” carries, and without any split between its particular manifestation and a transcendent “life principle.” That is, the equivocally generated life ultimately offers us what we might call a disanimated, corporeal model of life, barely distinct from the matter from which it temporarily emerges and to which it will return.

If information is not distinguished from material structure, then we have the tools for a radically nonspiritual, nonpaternal, and nonvital conceptualization of objects in general, living things included. If this stuff is body, it is not body as origin or ground or the prediscursive repressed matter underneath social and gender codes. Individuation now need not be something that happens through the application of spirit, or vitality, or writing, or code to matter. It can be understood to happen with matter itself, through its inseparable organization within a roiling field of other matter.

We could do better, then, by recognizing the following: fundamental disorder is not a problem particular to vermin but rather one general to all that is; to call it disorder rather than, for example, “endless generativity” is to continue to think too highly of ourselves; we ourselves and our worldly counterparts are also immanent to material vibrancy or constantly erupting disorder; we are therefore not alive so long as “being alive” means having some escape from presumptively inert, “dead,” or uncreative materiality; that the opposition of life/death, with fertility on the side of life and sterility on that of death, is insupportable; and vibrancy will always swarm forth from the putrefaction, exhaustion, failure, or, for that matter, the ineluctable instability of matter, to try to sustain its own new, temporary order, and it will continue to do so long past anything we can imagine is past the point of caring.

And that’s my manifesto, and my argument, for the benefits for starting our thinking with equivocal generation.

Thank you.

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