Generation of Body and Soul

Propagation of the Soul—Inheritance of Sin

Stefan Borchers

Stefan Borchers' project explored the influence of religious confession in shaping the theories of generation and inheritance in late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Lutheran Germany. Within the historiography of biology the importance of theological thought is widely underestimated; in truth, confessional thinking should be considered as a central reference point for early modern thought on generation and heredity. With regard to the question of how the embryo is formed, the emerging “life sciences” were accompanied by a parallel discourse on the soul’s origin. Because this discourse related the origination of the body and soul to one another, physiological and metaphysical investigations intertwined and sometimes limited one another.

This was especially so because in the course of the seventeenth century, the problem of the soul’s origin had become a subject of controversy among Lutheran, Catholic, and Reformed theologians. The Lutheran doctrine of traducianism amalgamated the physiology and metaphysics of generation, teaching that parents engender both the body and the soul of their offspring. This doctrine made it problematic, if not impossible, for Lutheran physicians and philosophers at the turn of the century to adopt the emerging theory of embryonic preformation as enthusiastically as their Catholic and Reformed contemporaries.

Thus, the way of dealing with preformation can be seen as a touchstone for the respective anthropological model guiding philosophers and physicians of this epoch. The Lutheran model of a continuous propagation of human bodies and souls since the time of Adam and Eve formed part of a non-dualistic anthropology, which remained influential at least until the end of the eighteenth century.