Preformationism in the Enlightenment
Lawrence, Cera R.
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Preformationism was a theory of embryological development used in the late seventeenth through the late eighteenth centuries. This theory held that the generation of offspring occurs as a result of an unfolding and growth of preformed parts. There were two competing models of preformationism: the ovism model, in which the location of these preformed parts prior to gestation was the maternal egg, and the spermism model, in which a preformed individual or homunculus was thought to exist in the head of each sperm. Preformationism was a widely-held theory by Enlightenment-era scientists, but by the early 1800s, most scientists had abandoned it, in part because higher magnification in microscopes enabled them to see the very earliest stages of embryos as small collections of cells. Prior to preformationism, naturalists who studied embryo development favored the theory of spontaneous generation in lower animals, such as flies, which appeared to arise from manure. In higher animals, however, scientists used the theory of epigenesis put forth by Aristotle, who said that maternal and paternal fluids came together in the uterus and solidified during early gestation into a fetus. Preformationism was the first theory of generation and development that applied to all organisms in the plant and animal kingdoms.