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Generatio: medieval debates about procreation, heredity and 'bioethics'

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In medieval debates, the idea that the mixture of substances provided by parents determines the appearance and sex of the child coexisted, without contradiction, with the conviction that environmental and behavioural factors also play an important part. Even though the scholastics invented the concept of hereditary disease, distinctions now common between heredity and development, between the acquired and the inherited, had only limited relevance. Generatio, not heredity, was the central concept. Generatio wasn’t just the stuff of scholastic speculation. As is the case today, debates about the mechanism of conception, the nature of the substances involved, and the development of the seed into a viable human being had larger moral, legal and practical significance. Several of these issues will be addressed in the lecture: whether abortion must be equated with murder, the treatment reserved for ‘monstrous’ births, and the extent to which there was room, within the medieval concept of generatio, for eugenics.

This talk is part of the Wellcome Lecture in the History of Medicine series.

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