The question of origins has always involved generation in the widest sense; apprehending how individuals come into being is as relevant to planets and stars as to plants, animals and people. Over many centuries, hidden forces of repulsion, attraction and desire have been understood to govern the physical as much as the human world. Since the Renaissance, the association between matter and the passions has been traced to the ancient Roman epic De rerum natura (On the nature of things) by the Epicurean poet Lucretius, who invoked Venus as a symbol of the generative power of nature in the opening lines.
Venus has not featured much in histories of origins, and especially of evolution, many of which still follow a narrow agenda set in the 1950s by the founders of the modern evolutionary synthesis. More generally, the history of ideas dominated twentieth- century surveys such as Arthur Lovejoy's Great Chain of Being (1936) and Peter Bowler's Evolution: The History of an Idea (1983). This tradition, which aimed to unite the advancing flow of time with rational inquiry into the laws of nature, goes back to the universal histories that emerged in late Enlightenment narratives of progress, and was reshaped through late nineteenth-century evolutionism; Lovejoy's book began as lectures at Harvard University named for the evolutionary psychologist William James. If any history were going to be evolutionary and developmental, it would be the history of evolution and development.
Yet the history of thought is an odd approach to adopt for debates about origins, which have been extraordinarily promiscuous in genre, authorship and audience. Conversations in the bedroom, salon and bookshop were continuous with the contributions of scholars and experts in journals and learned societies. Discussions of origins are implicated in mapping social hierarchies and racial stereotypes, defining gender roles, probing the limits of decency, and legitimizing state intervention. These processes of public debate and intimate discourse are not ‘context’ or ‘background’, but the story itself. We need to know what could be written, published and said, and under what circumstances – not simply who thought what.
Recent studies reinforce the need for a new history of origins, with generation, reproduction, gender and sexuality at its core. Mary Terrall located mid-eighteenth-century French discussions of generation in ‘salon, academy, and boudoir’.