Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 16, Issue 1, pp 101–136 | Cite as

Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis—A precursor of Mendel?

  • Iris Sandler


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  1. 1.
    Diseussions of Mendel and his predecessors can be found in Robert C., Olby, Origins of Mendelism (New York: Schocken, 1966); Hans Stubbe, History of Genetics, trans. T. R. W. Waters (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 1972); Conway Zirkle, “Gregor Mendel and his Precursors,” Isis, 42 (1951), 97–104; and A. H. Sturtevant, A History of Genetics (New York: Harper and Row, 1965).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Bentley, Glass, “Maupertuis, a Forgotten Genius,” Sci. Amer., 193 (1955), pp. 104–107. In addition to this paper, Glass has written two others dealing with Maupertuis and his role in pre-Mendelian genetics: “Maupertuis and the Beginning of Genetics,” Quart. Rev. Biol., 22 (1947), 196–210; “Maupertuis, Pioneer of Genetics and Evolution,” in Forerunners of Darwin: 1745–1859, ed. Bentley Glass, Owsei Temkin, and William Straus, Jr. (Baltimore, 1959), pp. 51–83.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    These selections appear in vol. II of a four-volume work entitled Oeuvres, which contains the collected works of P. L. M. de Maupertuis (Hildesheim, 1965). All references to Maupertuis' works apply to the 1768 edition.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Indeed, Maupertuis even seems to have made a supernatural, but unsuccessful, grasp at posthumous fame, as recorded by Sir Walter Scott in his Demonology and Witchcraft: Letters Addressed to J. G. Lockhart, Es. (New York, 1952), p. 34: This extraordinary circumstance appeared in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Berlin, but it is thus stated by M. Thiebault in his Recollections of Frederick the Great and the Court of Berlin. It is necessary to premise that M. Gleditsch, to whom the circumstance happened, was a botanist of eminence, holding the professorship of natural philosophy at Berlin, and respected as a man of an habitually serious, simple and tranquil character. A short time after the death of Maupertuis, M. Gleditsch being obliged to traverse the hall in which the Academy held its sittings, having some arrangements to make in the cabinet of natural history, which was under his charge, and being willing to complete them on the Thursday before the meeting, he perceived, on entering the hall, the apparition of M. de Maupertuis, upright and stationary, in the first angle on his left hand, having his eyes fixed on him. This was about three o'clock in the afternoon. The professor of natural philosophy was too well acquainted with physical science to suppose that his late president, who had died at Bâle ... could have found his way back to Berlin in person. He regarded the apparition in no other light than as a phantom produced by some derangement of his own proper organs. M. Gleditsch went about his own business, without stopping longer than to ascertain exactly the appearance of that object.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    The renaissance of Maupertuis has its origins in the following: A. O., Lovejoy, “Some Eighteenth Century Evolutionists,” Pop. Sci. Monthly, 65 (1904), 238–251; Jerome Fee, “Maupertuis and the Principle of Least Action,” Sci. Monthly, 52 (1941), 496–503; René Dugas, “Le principe de la moindre action dans l'oeuvre de Maupertuis,” Rev. Sci., 80 (1942), 51–59; Paul Ostroya, “Maupertuis et la biologie,” Rev. Hist. Sci., 7 (1954), 60–80; and of course the definitive biography of Maupertuis by Pierre Brunet, Étude biographique, 2 vols., L'oeuvre et sa place dans la pensée scientifique et philosophique du XVIII e siècle (Paris, 1929).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    A discussion of the various categories of the scientific precursor appears in my paper, “Some Reflections on the Protean Nature of the Scientific Precursor”, Hist. Sci., 17 (1979), 170–190.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Gregor, Mendel, Experiments on Plant Hybrids, trans. Eve R. Sherwood, from The Origin of Genetics — A Mendel Source Book, ed. Curt, Stern and Eve R., Sherwood (San Francisco: Freeman, 1966), p. 1. Throughout this paper references to Mendel's work are to this translation. I have also read the original Versuche über Pflanzen-Hybriden to check the use of specific terminology. The original appeared in a facsimile edition, no. 20, ed. W. Junk (Berlin, 1917). I have retained Mendel's terminology with respect to his description of the classes of plants that he used. Thus the hybrid class is designated Aa, and the pure parental classes are denoted simply as A and a. Robert Olby, in his paper, “Mendel No Mendelian,” Hist. Sci., 17 (1979), 53–72, suggests that Mendel did not recognize the homozygous diploid state of the pure lines and hence labeled them with a single letter. The issue, although an interesting one, is beyond the scope of this paper. I raise it to call attention to the fact that my use of the single letter to describe the class is in compliance with Mendel's own description and does not refer to the state of ploidy.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Mendel, Origin of Genetics, p. 2.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Ibid., p. 4.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
  11. 11.
  12. 12.
    Ibid., p. 2.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Ibid., p. 10.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Ibid., p. 13.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Ibid., p. 15.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Ibid., p. 41.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Ibid., n5.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Ibid., p. 42.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Ibid., p. 24.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
  21. 21.
    Ibid., p. 42.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Ibid., p. 43.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Maupertuis, Lettre XIV, 305.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Maupertuis, Vénus physique, 115.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Ibid., p. 117.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Ibid., p. 119.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Ibid., p. 68.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Ibid., p. 69.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Maupertuis, Lettre XIV, 307–308.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Maupertuis' discussion of the role of the egg in fertilization and his subsequent dismissal of it as an important entity appears in chaps. 6–9 of the Vénus physique, 32–47. His discussion and dismissal of the sperm appears in chap. 10, 48–50.Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Maupertuis, Lettre XIV, 305.Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    Ibid., p. 304.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    Maupertuis, Vénus physique, p. 11.Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    Ibid., p. 120. Maupertuis' model of pangenesis was based upon the ideas of the Hippocratic school (fifth century B.C.), which stressed that the semen, the material of reproduction and heredity, was derived from all parts of the body, not just the brain and/or spinal cord, as the Pythagoreans would have it. Moreover, the Hippocratic doctrine held that both male and female parents contributed semen equally to the formation of the next generation. Variations on this theme continued to appear throughout the ensuing centuries, culminating in the “provisional hypothesis of pangenesis” of Charles Darwin in the nineteenth century. A detailed study of the theory of pangenesis, including Maupertuis' place in its history, is available in the following papers by Conway Zirkle: “The Inheritance of Acquired Characters and the Provisional Hypothesis of Pangenesis,” Amer. Nat., 6 (1935), 417–445; “Further Notes on Pangenesis and the Inheritance of Acquired Characters,” Amer. Nat., 7 (1936) 529–546; and “The Early History of the Idea of Inheritance of Acquired Characters and of Pangenesis,” Trans. Am. Phil. Soc., 34 (1946).Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    Maupertuis, Vénus physique, p. 89.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    The Système de la nature made its first appearance in 1751, as a dissertation in Latin by a pseudonymous Dr. Baumann, entitled Dissertatio inaugurales metaphysica de universale naturae systemate.Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    Maupertuis, Système, p. 146, XIV.Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    Ibid., p. 157, XXXI.Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    Ibid., p. 158, XXXIII.Google Scholar
  40. 40.
    Ibid., XXXI.Google Scholar
  41. 41.
    Ibid., p. 159, XXXIV.Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    Maupertuis, Vénus physique, p. 90.Google Scholar
  43. 43.
    Maupertuis, Système, p. 159, XXXV.Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    Maupertuis, Vénus physique, p. 90.Google Scholar
  45. 45.
    Maupertuis, Système, p. 159, XXXVI.Google Scholar
  46. 46.
    Ibid., p. 161, XXXIX.Google Scholar
  47. 47.
    Ibid., p. 162, XL.Google Scholar
  48. 48.
    Ibid., XLI.Google Scholar
  49. 49.
    Maupertuis had a confused idea about what constituted a species. A single dramatic change in any trait was sufficient for him to conclude that a new species had been formed. Hence he regarded as species not only groups that really were species, but also groups now recognized as varieties.Google Scholar
  50. 50.
    Maupertuis, Système, p. 164, XLV.Google Scholar
  51. 51.
    Maupertuis, Vénus physique, p. 120.Google Scholar
  52. 52.
    Maupertuis, Système, p. 162, XL.Google Scholar
  53. 53.
    Several passages refer to the constituents of seminal fluid: on p. 120 of the Vénus physique, in point 2 Maupertuis refers to particles which form traits similar to the parent that contributed them, but he also comments on the presence of particles for traits different from the parental traits; and on p. 122 Maupertuis specifically refers to “the original particles from the ancestors [which] once again find themselves in greater abundance in the semen.”Google Scholar
  54. 54.
    Maupertuis, Vénus physique, p. 121.Google Scholar
  55. 55.
    Ibid., p. 122.Google Scholar
  56. 56.
    Maupertuis, Système, p. 159, XXXV, XXXVI.Google Scholar
  57. 57.
    Maupertuis, Vénus physique, p. 90.Google Scholar
  58. 58.
    Maupertuis, Système, p. 163, XLII.Google Scholar
  59. 59.
    Ibid., XLIII.Google Scholar
  60. 60.
    Ibid., p. 164, XLIV.Google Scholar
  61. 61.
    The genealogy of this trait appears in Lettre XIV, 307.Google Scholar
  62. 62.
    Maupertuis, Système, p. 160, XXXVII.Google Scholar
  63. 63.
    Maupertuis, Lettre XIV, p. 308.Google Scholar
  64. 64.
    Maupertuis, Vénus physique, p. 123.Google Scholar
  65. 65.
    Ibid., p. 121. Maupertuis does acknowledge that the birth of a black child to white parents is a rare phenomenon. What is important to the argument is not the frequency of occurrence, but the fact that Maupertuis believed the occurrence was possible.Google Scholar
  66. 66.
    Maupertuis, Système, p. 170, LI.Google Scholar
  67. 67.
    Ibid., p. 171, LII.Google Scholar
  68. 68.
    Ibid., p. 172, LIV.Google Scholar
  69. 69.
    Maupertuis, Vénus physique, p. 132, II.Google Scholar
  70. 70.
    Ibid., p. 133, III.Google Scholar
  71. 71.
    Ibid., IV.Google Scholar
  72. 72.
    Maupertuis, Système, p. 170, L.Google Scholar
  73. 73.
    Ibid., p. 171, LIII. In this particular passage Maupertuis is not discussing the elements per se, but the amount of “intelligence” present in the universe. The quantity of this intelligence is always the same. But since each particle of matter has been invested with intelligence, and since intelligence is an essential property of the elements, it is reasonable to conclude that the number of particles, like the amount of intelligence they bear, remains the same.Google Scholar
  74. 74.
    Mendel, Origin of Genetics, p. 15.Google Scholar
  75. 75.
    Ibid., p. 24.Google Scholar
  76. 76.
  77. 77.
  78. 78.
    Ibid. The steps in Mendel's hypothesizing and the experiments contingent on his reasoning are clearly stated in pp. 24–27.Google Scholar
  79. 79.
    Ibid., p. 41, n5.Google Scholar
  80. 80.
    Ibid., p. 42.Google Scholar
  81. 81.
  82. 82.
  83. 83.
    Ibid., p. 43.Google Scholar
  84. 84.
    Maupertuis, Vénus physique, p. 89.Google Scholar
  85. 85.
    Ibid., p. 90.Google Scholar
  86. 86.
    Glass, “Maupertuis and the Beginnings of Genetics,” p. 204.Google Scholar
  87. 87.
    Ibid., p. 205. The principle of coincidence of independent items is basic to the calculus of probability. In computing the probability of occurrence of an event, the subevents favorable to the event are treated as independent units, unaffected by what has gone before or what comes after. The probability that an event will occur is determined by multiplying these independent factors. Thus, if one wanted to determine the probability of drawing the ace of spades on three successive occasions from a deck of 52 cards, it would be necessary to multiply 1/52 (the probability of drawing an ace of spades from the deck the first time) by 1/52 (the probability of drawing an ace of spaces on the second turn) by 1/52 (the probability of obtaining an ace of spades on the third draw).Google Scholar
  88. 88.
    J., Dufrenoy and M.-L., Dufrenoy, “Un bicentenaire oublié: La Vénus physique, 1746 ou Maupertuis, precurseur de la patholgie comparée,” Rev. Path. Comp. Hyg. Gen., 48 (1948), 110.Google Scholar
  89. 89.
    Jan, Hacking, The Emergence of Probability: A Philosophical Study of Early Ideas about Probability, Induction and Statistical Inference (London: Cambridge University Press, 1975), p. 14.Google Scholar
  90. 90.
    David, Bohm, Causality and Chance in Modern Physics (Philadelphia: Univ. Pennsylvania, 1971), p. 26.Google Scholar
  91. 91.
    Hacking, Emergence of Probability, p. 14.Google Scholar
  92. 92.
    Bohm, Causality and Chance, pp. 1–33.Google Scholar
  93. 93.
    John T. Merz, A History of European Scientific Thought in the 19th Century (New York, 1965), p. 589, reprint.Google Scholar
  94. 94.
    Hugo Iltis, Life of Mendel, trans. Eden and Cedar Paul (New York, 1932), pp. 75–84.Google Scholar
  95. 95.
    Ibid., pp. 221–237.Google Scholar
  96. 96.
    Mendel, Origin of Genetics, p. 2.Google Scholar
  97. 97.
    Ibid., p. 10.Google Scholar
  98. 98.
    Ibid., p. 22.Google Scholar
  99. 99.
  100. 100.
    Ibid., p. 31.Google Scholar
  101. 101.
  102. 102.
    Ibid., p. 24.Google Scholar
  103. 103.
    Ibid., p. 29.Google Scholar
  104. 104.
  105. 105.
    A valuable discussion of this change in attitude highlights Margaret Osler's paper, “John Locke and the Changing Ideas of Scientific Knowledge,” J. Hist. Ideas, 31 (1970), 3–16.Google Scholar
  106. 106.
    Pierre, Simon, Marquis, de La, Place, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities, trans. F. W. Truscott and L. L. Emory from 6th French ed. (New York: Dover, 1951), p. 1. Although La Place's Philosophical Essay appeared in 1814, the quotation aptly describes the attitude held in the eighteenth century.Google Scholar
  107. 107.
    Hoyt Trowbridge, “Scattered Atoms of Probability”, Eighteenth Cent. Stud., 5 (1971), p. 10.Google Scholar
  108. 108.
    John Locke, Essay on Human Understanding, quoted by Trowbridge, “Scattered Atoms of Probability,” p. 7.Google Scholar
  109. 109.
    “Certainty in the 17th Century,” Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas, ed. Philip P. Wiener (New York, 1973), p. 307.Google Scholar
  110. 110.
    Locke, quoted in Trowbridge, “Scattered Atoms of Probability,” p. 16.Google Scholar
  111. 111.
    “Certainty in the 17th Century,” p. 307.Google Scholar
  112. 112.
    Hacking, Emergence of Probability, p. 146.Google Scholar
  113. 113.
    Bohm, Causality and Chance, p. 27.Google Scholar
  114. 114.
    Trowbridge, “Scattered Atoms of Probability,” p. 19.Google Scholar
  115. 115.
    Maupertuis, “Examen philosophique de la preuve de l'existence de Dieu employée dans l'essai de cosmologie,” Mémoires de l'Académie Royale des Sciences et Belles Lettres, 1756, pp. 389–425. The article was reprinted in the 1974 edition of Oeuvres de P. L. Moreau de Maupertuis, vol. I. Citations are to this latter source.Google Scholar
  116. 116.
    Ibid., p. 391, IV.Google Scholar
  117. 117.
  118. 118.
    Ibid., p. 392, IX.Google Scholar
  119. 119.
    Ibid., p. 391, VI.Google Scholar
  120. 120.
    Ibid., p. 393, X.Google Scholar
  121. 121.
    Maupertuis, Essai de cosmologie, p. xx.Google Scholar
  122. 122.
  123. 123.
    Maupertuis, Lettre XIV, p. 308.Google Scholar
  124. 124.
    Ibid., p. 309.Google Scholar
  125. 125.
    Ibid., p. 310.Google Scholar
  126. 126.
  127. 127.
    Paul Henrich Dietrich, Baron von Holbach, Système de la nature (London, 1777), p. 40.Google Scholar
  128. 128.
    “Hazard,” Encyclopédie française (Paris, 1778), XVII, 126.Google Scholar
  129. 129.
    Maupertuis, Accord de différentes lois de la nature, IV, 21.Google Scholar
  130. 130.
    Maupertuis, Essai de cosmologie, p. 23.Google Scholar
  131. 131.
    Ibid., p. 42.Google Scholar
  132. 132.
    Ibid., p. 45.Google Scholar
  133. 133.
    Maupertuis, Système, p. 183, LXVI.Google Scholar
  134. 134.
    Ibid., p. 158, XXXIII.Google Scholar
  135. 135.
    Maupertuis, Essai de cosmologie, p. xv.Google Scholar
  136. 136.
    Maupertuis, Vénus physique, p. 69.Google Scholar
  137. 137.
    Mendel, Origin of Genetics, p. 43.Google Scholar
  138. 138.
    Ibid., p. 41.Google Scholar
  139. 139.
    Ibid., p. 42.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company 1983

Authors and Affiliations

  • Iris Sandler
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Genetics SK-50University of WashingtonSeattle

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