Atomism, Atheism, and the Spontaneous Generation of Human Beings: The Debate over a Natural Origin of the First Humans in Seventeenth-Century Britain
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Journal of the History of Ideas 63.2 (2002) 207-224



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Atomism, Atheism, and the Spontaneous Generation of Human Beings:
The Debate over a Natural Origin of the First Humans in Seventeenth-Century Britain

Matthew R. Goodrum


The problem of human origins, of how and when the first humans appeared in the world, has been addressed in a variety of ways in western thought. In the seventeenth century the predominant explanation for the origin of the world and the beings that inhabit it, especially human beings, was based on the biblical account of creation. It was almost universally accepted that humans had been created by a supernatural agent using supernatural means. But alternative explanations for the production of the first humans did exist, according to which the first humans were produced by nature through some form of spontaneous generation. Seventeenth-century proponents of this view differed in their conceptions of how spontaneous generation worked, but all relied heavily upon mechanisms first proposed in antiquity. Some followed the example of Aristotle and other early Greek philosophers, who had described how matter, when subjected to the correct conditions, could produce living beings. 1 Others were influenced by the modifications made to these ideas by medieval Islamic philosophers. 2 [End Page 207] A quite different conception of spontaneous generation was derived from the classical atomists, in part from certain notions attributed to Democritus of Abdera but mainly from the philosophical system of Epicurus.

While any suggestion that humans might have originated naturally by some kind of spontaneous generation was widely and vigorously rejected by natural philosophers and theologians alike, the most vehement attacks were often directed against the atomists' accounts of the origin of the first humans. The reasons for this were both scientific and religious. Atomism had long been criticized for its materialism, its reliance on chance, and its atheistic tendencies. Thus, the efforts of a small number of natural philosophers to formulate and support a naturalistic explanation of human origins based upon its principles was bound to raise profound theological, philosophical, and scientific difficulties. To these natural philosophers, however, atomism seemed to offer a viable mechanism to explain spontaneous generation. Yet while atomism solved some problems, it raised others; and even if these scientific objections could be overcome, there remained religious objections to both the notion of a natural origin of humans and the atomists' account of the process that had to be addressed. Complicating matters further is the fact that these scientific and religious objections were sometimes intimately connected.

This paper investigates the mechanisms proposed by atomists to explain the spontaneous generation of human beings and the kinds of criticisms their hypotheses received in seventeenth-century Britain. This will illuminate a number of interconnected issues relating to the acceptance of atomism as a philosophy of nature and its application to the biological sciences. By analyzing the ways scientific and religious factors interacted in the debate over the spontaneous generation of the first humans we will not only make a contribution to the history of seventeenth-century atomism but also link problems and ideas in the physical sciences with those in the biological and anthropological sciences. At the same time this study illustrates the ways in which scientific ideas were shaped by, or needed to respond to, ideas and concerns that had their roots in religion.

Atomism and the Generation of the First Humans

The most complete account of the atomic philosophy and the mechanisms it proposed to account for the origin of human beings to survive from antiquity was Lucretius's De rerum natura. Several editions of the text were available during the seventeenth century, including one published at Cambridge in 1675 and an English translation by Thomas Creech that went through four editions [End Page 208] between 1682 and 1699. 3 But Lucretius was not the only source describing the atomists' ideas about the spontaneous generation of the first humans. A more contemporary and perhaps more influential proponent of the atomic...