The Secrets of Generation: Reproduction in the Long Eighteenth Century ed. by Raymond Stephanson and Darren N. Wagner (review)
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The Secrets of Generation: Reproduction in the Long Eighteenth Century, ed. Raymond Stephanson and Darren N. Wagner
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015.
584pp. CAD$90. ISBN 978-1-4426-4696-4.

Reproduction, the collection editors tell us in their preface, is “one of the most profoundly creative of all natural processes” (xv). That seems like an understatement. One could as well say that reproduction is the name we give to all creative natural processes. And the creativity with which people have thought about reproduction is amply confirmed by the twenty-two chapters in this substantial volume. The contributions are short and uniformly readable, and the authors come from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds, including literary studies, art history, and the histories of science and medicine. The editors have obviously worked hard to make everything cohere, inserting crossreferences to link the chapters and requiring a solid introduction and conclusion to each one. The chapter bibliographies also overlap to some degree, reflecting the authors’ reliance on a shared body of secondary literature. The volume is handsomely produced by the University of Toronto Press, with numerous illustrations.

It still remains questionable whether such a large and interdisciplinary group of authors has really coalesced around a single theme. They inevitably speak from the perspectives of their own research projects, and some of the chapters stray quite a long way from what is announced as the main subject of the collection. Reading through the volume as a whole, we pass from biological theories of generation and the processes of life to concerns about human reproduction, conception, pregnancy, and birth. Along the way we are led through a range of other topics, [End Page 497] including various pathological conditions, and the fluidities of gender identity and sexuality. Most of the chapters are based on primary sources in English—including medical and scientific texts, novels, poems, and satirical works—and French, Italian, and German materials also put in occasional appearances.

The arrangement of the chapters suggests an implicit argument: that new theories about the reproduction of living things, arising around the middle of the eighteenth century, gradually filtered into discussions of human beings in medical, legal, and literary texts. Even after reading the whole book, however, I remain unsure how exactly—and to what extent—this cultural change occurred. In the introduction, the editors describe how the older idea that each generation of living things is “preformed” inside the bodies of the previous one gave way to a belief in “epigenesis,” according to which animals are formed by natural processes from nonliving matter. But the following chapters complicate this picture, and none of the authors adopts the editors’ label of a “paradigm shift” (4) to characterize the transition. In their chapters, Ivano Dal Prete and Peter Bowler argue that the contest between theories of preformation and epigenesis in Italy and France was complicated by the various religious and political implications drawn from each theory. The complications multiply as we turn to the human realm. David M. Turner shows that the ancient belief that a shock to a pregnant mother could result in the birth of a deformed infant survived in a supposedly enlightened age. Sonja Boon points out that late eighteenth-century doctors did not always follow Jean-Jacques Rousseau in advocating that mothers were naturally best suited to breastfeed their own children. And John C. Waller explores a field in which new scientific ideas seem to have had no purchase whatsoever, namely how European aristocrats thought about the inheritance of their noble characteristics through their own bloodlines.

In other domains, the influence of scientific ideas seems more clearly established. Susanne Lettow’s chapter examines the writings on racial identity by such enlightened savants as the Comte de Buffon and Pierre Louis de Maupertuis. She shows them deploying biological notions about generation in their speculations on the constancy of skin colour and other racial markers, thus laying the groundwork for the emergence of full-blown biological theories of race in the nineteenth century. Many of the authors in the volume agree that scientific thinking also contributed to the emergence of new models of gender identity in the second half of...