The Problem of Animal Generation in Early Modern Philosophy

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews looks at The Problem of Animal Generation in Early Modern Philosophy, edited by our friend Justin Smith.

The puzzle of organic generation and the attendant issues of ensoulment, vitality, organization, and material reductionism, is a long-standing one. Related to this is the explanation of identity between parent and offspring. The opening chapter by James Lennox provides a perceptive overview of the importance of this issue for Aristotle and its relation to his dual project of narrative description (historia) and causal explanation in natural philosophy more generally. Aristotle had himself devoted such considerable space to the issue because it involved in some important respects the question of the origins of sensible substance, and this required some rationalization of organic generation within his larger metaphysical program. Lennox also shows in his analysis that Harvey’s insights, both empirically and methodologically, were deeply indebted to Aristotle, and his influence pervades Harvey’s own creative investigations of this problem in his Exercitationes de generatione animalium of 1651, the most extended text on this topic to emerge from the seventeenth century.

As discussed in the opening chapters of this collection, the pressing need for early modern natural philosophers to engage these questions was a direct result of the efforts to overthrow Aristotelian metaphysics and natural philosophy in the variegated way these were encountered in early modernity. Rejection of Aristotelianism and its conceptions of natural teleology, formal and final causation, and hylomorphic substance theory was central to the project of the new mathematical physics of Galileo and Descartes. Unfortunately for the ambitions of the “new philosophy,” this rejection of tradition simply did not work in the “vital” sciences, setting up a dialectic between the physical and biological sciences that has persisted to the present. Jacques Roger’s 1963 study highlighted the crisis that organic generation posed for this pan-mechanistic program. Further aspects of Descartes’s response to this problem are dealt with in considerable detail by Vincent Aucante through a perceptive discussion of Descartes’s struggle in his unpublished manuscripts to find some rational explanation of embryological development in accord with the laws of motion and his own methodological canons.