Skip main navigation

Organisms as Russian dolls

In this article, we discuss how early microscopic findings were taken to provide evidence for the preformation theory of animal generation.
© University of Groningen

The findings of early microscopists such as Malpighi and Swammerdam were sometimes taken to support the preformationist theories of thinkers such as Malebranche. Here, we look in some more detail at the connection between preformationist biology and the findings of the early microscopists.

What biologists such as Swammerdam saw under their microscopes, was that the complex organic structure of many animals was there well before it could be discerned by the naked eye. Thus Swammerdam argued that the limbs and wings of a butterfly were already present, albeit folded up, underneath the skin of a caterpillar. If these limbs and wings could not be discerned with the naked eye, the microscope helped to discover them. As he put it Historia insectorum of 1669:

The caterpillar is the butterfly itself, but as it were covered in a robe that prevents its parts from making themselves known. (Historia insectorum, Part II:45)
From caterpillar to butterfly, as illustrated in Swammerdam's *Historia insectorum* of 1669 Illustration from Swammerdam’s 1669 Historia insectorum
The step that preformationists like Malebranche took, was basically to extrapolate the findings of thinkers like Swammerdam. For if the butterfly was already present, with all of its parts, in the caterpillar, then it might already have been present in the egg as well. Indeed Swammerdam himself often claimed that it was. Thus he wrote that the egg ‘contained all of the parts’ of the butterfly, and that indeed it was ‘the little animal itself, covered by a film’ (Historia insectorum, Part I:64).
But since the egg originated from the reproductive organs of a female animal, we might want to think of that female as a kind of Russian doll, containing a miniture version of its offspring in itself.
But reiterating this line of argument, thinkers like Malebranche arrived at the conclusion that the female animal here must itself have been contained as a miniature in its female parent, and so on, right until the first female member of its species. In his own words:
We ought to accept, in addition, that the body of every man and beast born till the end of time was perhaps produced at the creation of the world. My thought is that the females of the original animals may have been created along with all those of the same species that they have begotten and that are begotten in the future. (The Search for Truth, 27. Translation Lennon and Olscamp)
© University of Groningen
This article is from the free online

The Scientific Revolution: Understanding the Roots of Modern Science

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education