‘This is the book of the generations of Adam.’ So begins the fifth chapter of Genesis, and it lives up to the billing. Starting with Adam, who ‘begat a son in his own likeness, and in his own image, Seth’, the chapter describes the generations onwards – through Enos, Cainan, Mahalalel, Jared, Enoch, Methuselah and Lamech – all the way down to Noah, ‘who begat Shem, Ham, and Japheth’.
‘Begetting’ is a fusty old verb. Nowadays we just talk about having children. But there is something primal about the desire to see ourselves in a human chain stretching from past to future; reproduction is, after all, sort of the whole point. Few of us formally worship our ancestors, but most of us want to know about them, especially as we get closer to ancestral status ourselves. Look at the thirst for genealogy and, more recently, genetic history. Perhaps, in a secular age, understanding our own book of generations is solace for the transience of our lives.
‘Generational perspectives are powerful because they are interwoven with the fundamentals of human existence and societal change,’ writes Bobby Duffy in Generations. ‘While individuals are born, live and die, society flows on, changed a little or a lot by our cohort’s presence and then its absence.’