Keller 2000

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Keller, Eve. "Embryonic Individuals: The Rhetoric of Seventeenth-Century Embryology and the Construction of Early-Modern Identity." Eighteenth-Century Studies 33.3 (2000): 321-48.

Kerckring examining the "black cherry" of a fetus from a deceased mother

"Yet despite his exclusive concentration on the physiological question of fetal development--as opposed to the more philosophical or theological issue of ensoulment--Kerckring is nonetheless at pains to refer to this incipient organism as a "child," even as an "infant."" (321-2) -- complete child, not just complete shape

the figures he shows of the child: "Taken together, the figures are seemingly embued not only with structural completeness but also with some sense of personhood. The implication of embryonic personhood is all the more remarkable because Kerckring relied on a theory of generation that suggested that procreation was essentially a mechanical process--that the coming-to-be of a new organism could be explained according to the laws of matter and motion; he thus refers to the one-month-old "child" as a "self-sustaining engine."" (323)

part of "larger landscape of theoretical and empirical embryology of the later seventeenth century, during the course of which theorists increasingly looked to mechanism for an explanatory framework in which to understand the process of the development and growth of organisms. At the same time, however, the theories they proposed assert the emergence of a distinctive and coherent identity of the entity created at ever earlier points in the process of generation, thus explaining Kerckring's willingness to designate a three-day-old embryo as a child. The result, during the last half of the century, is an inverse relation between the extent to which a theory is indebted to mechanism and the point at which the entity created can be said to exist as identifiably itself: the more mechanistic the theory, the earlier the attribution of identity." (323)

"I will argue that the competing theories of embryogenesis and the conflicting formulations of the embryo itself take part in the conceptual struggles accompanying the emergence of the early-modern individual. I am not claiming a point of origin for the modern subject (which is--of course--constituted at many sites and in many forms), but rather that the rhetoric of embryology, because it deals with questions of human origins and because it posits a physiological ground for the source of human identity, is a particularly useful arena in which to study the construction of early-modern identity." (323)

early modern fetus represented as dissociated from the materiality of the mother's body:

"the figures were presented with umbilical cords or were housed in containers that bore some semblance of an anatomical appendage--as the ovaries, for example--but even then they appeared to be fully dissociated from the materiality of the mother's body: although some images suggested her existence, they almost uniformly denied her presence. By schematically abstracting the fetus from its physical context within another's body, the illustrations allow the reader to see it--visually, but also conceptually--without regard to the mother, and thus as an autonomous entity. In doing so, they allow a conceptual connection between the reader and the fetus which substitutes for the physiological connection between the fetus and its mother. In effect, these illustrations subjectify the fetus as an individual by silencing the mother, precisely inverting the maternal/fetal relation that the manuals otherwise present in discourse." (328-330)
"Although the visual depiction of the personhood of the fetus at term is a centuries-old device, the seventeenth century offers for the first time in its theories of embryology the personhood of the embryo and even, in one theory, of the generative germ. For all their endurance, therefore, the images of fetal persons common to medical manuals resonate with a special significance in the seventeenth century because they intensify the implications of the new embryology, in both its theory and its practice." (330)
"Just as in the illustrations of the medical manuals, then, the empirical practice of embryology absents the mother from the arena of investigation, substituting for her the "living" presence of the unborn. Embryology thereby affords the researcher seemingly unmediated contact with his now "independent" object of study" (330)


  • epigenesis (mechanistic form by Kenelm Digby, vitalist form by Harvey): sequential production of parts from homogeneous substance
  • metamorphosis: simultaneous emergence of all or most important parts (Highmore; Harvey for lower forms like insects); Henry Power, Malpighi
  • preformation: original heterogeneity of conception, but all parts of the organism were formed before conception; most widespread theory at end of the century
  • pre-existence: existnece of all parts of the future organisism were in miniature in the egg since creation of universe; most popular in eighteenth century


  • tried to "explain the generation of animal bodies in purely mechanical terms, without recourse either to an innate vital spirit to direct the process or to the explicit intervention of God" (330)
  • based on analogy to process of nutrition -- i.e., new creatures come from body's excess food, sequential change acted upon it
  • "all generation is made of a fitting, but remote, monogeneall compounded substance: upon which, outward Agents working in the due course of nature, do chagne it into an other substance, quite different from the first" (Digby, qtd 332)
  • analogizes to bean
  • "In making so effortless an analogy between beans and sensible creatures, Digby silently glosses over the important question of how sentience is generated, of what--for whatever their similarities--distinguishes the generation of creatures from the generation of plants." (332)
  • suffers from lack of explanation re: how life comes from organized inanimate matter

Harvey and Highmore:

  • vitalist in reponse to Digby;
  • include "cunnitn artificer" guiding process o generation
  • Harvey: embryo responsible for own growth; Highmore: father's semen transfers soul that directs progress
"It seems apparent, then, that the problems posed by mechanical epigenesis concerned more than issues of structural complexity and divine intervention in generation. At stake was also the distinctiveness of human generation and therefore of human identity, since if one does not admit divine intervention in the generation of each living being, what is there to distinguish the birth of a man from the emergence of a crystal other than mere physical structure? Or from a bean that cannot choose but to become a plant? " (334)

political identity at stake: agency from the father/King, or not?

"Historians of science have suggested that the particular theories of Digby, Harvey, and Highmore did not take hold in the later seventeenth century for apparent reasons: on the one side, Digby's mechanical epigenesis simply did not work, and on the other side, Harvey's and Highmore's vitalist theories were couched in a language of spiritual form and formative virtue that was simply on the wane. Understood in these terms, the emergence of more mechanistic models of generation that arose in the 1660s and after accords with the field's internal logic: a theory was needed that would cohere more nearly with the reigning mechanistic thinking of the time and that did not have to make thorny theological claims about the emergence of life from inanimate matter." (335)
"Harvey even calls the ovum "a primordium vegetale" and the substance that appears on the twenty-first day after coitus an "amorphous vermiculus or maggot." 60 Thus it is pretty clear that however Harvey subjectified the fetus, the earliest stages of the embryo more nearly resemble vegetable or vermicular life than animal or human life." (337)
"Compared with the embryoes of epigenesis, which call into question the existence and source of identity, the metamorphic embryo asserts its identity unambiguously. What it lacks, however, is any clear sense of individuation or agency--in other words, of subjectivity. That this step was taken by preformation theory (in one of its forms) suggests an inverse relation between mechanism and subject-status: the more indebted a theory is to mechanical explanation, the more the need exists to assert the subjectivity of its products." (337)

performationism: ovism (egg holds preformed individual); spermaticist (sperm does)

  • advanced by Swammerdam
  • pushes the subjectivity of the individual further back in timeline of generation

mother and egg as passive objects; sperm as active, even divine agent/spark (340)

territorial conquering of the womb through adventuring little sperm (341)