Historiographic Misunderstandings of Preformationist Terminology

Clara Pinto-Correia

This essay by Clara Pinto-Correia is abstracted from her book, The Ovary of Eve, published by University of Chicago Press.

The Argument

This essay examines the association of the term "homunculus" with the "little man" that some of the leading spermists located inside the head of the spermatozoon during the rise of preformationist theories of reproduction in the seventeenth century. Although this terminological association is currently made (and unquestioned) in our days, a re-investigation of the primary sources reveals that the term "homunculus" was never used by the original preformationist authors. Moreover, from antiquity to the Scientific Revolution, the term "homunculus" was consistently related to occult sciences and magical formulas, and the "creation" of homunculi was being strongly criticized by naturalists and theologians alike when the first microscopes revealed the existence of "little animals" in the semen. It would therefore have been impolitic for the spermists to have chosen such a dangerous term when they sought to defend their theories. The modern use of this term may result from the widespread notion that preformation was nothing but a comical and obscurantist episode in the evolution of natural sciences.


"Preformation", or "Preformationism", is the term currently used to designate a theory of reproduction that emerged in the mid-seventeenth century, largely as a result of the introduction of the microscope in life sciences studies, the concept of infinite divisibility launched by calculus and statistics during the scientific revolution, and the widespread belief that time for life on earth was finite, ranging for no more than six thousand years. In its crudest, initial form, the theory postulated that all organisms of all species, of all the generations to come, had been made by God right at the six days of Creation, and had then been encased inside each other, in smaller and smaller sizes, much in the fashion of a Russian doll. Thus generation was nothing but the unfolding of a pre-existent form from the sexual organs of the parent. Since sperm cells were discovered some two decades after the first proposal of this model, preformationists split into two factions: those who believed that all organisms had initially been encased inside the egg (the ovists), and those who held that this role of mother structure had rather been ascribed to the sperm (the spermists).

We tend to assume that spermism is somehow a part of our general knowledge. We may not know many details about this theory. But we all have a certain drawing clearly lingering in the back of our minds. Somewhere, sometime, we have seen a hilarious representation of a sperm cell, dating to the seventeenth century. The figure shows a long tail and a bulky head. Inside the head, a little man is tightly curled up, representing a person in some generation to come, waiting for his time to stretch and push himself into existence. This little man, or so we believe, was called a "homunculus" by the author of the drawing.

Our present belief is widely confirmed in numerous different secondary sources. Even the entry on "ovism/animalculism" in the 1984 edition of the "Dictionary of the History of Science" tells us that "...The spermatozoa, or animalcules, were thought by Animalculists to contain in miniature future generations. Nicolaas Hartsoeker ... propounded the idea of the homunculus, a tiny man supposed to be embodied in the sperm". The same holds true for the introductory chapters to any current book in embryology. Thus Oppenheimer and Lefevre's 1984 edition of "Introduction to Embryonic Development" states that "In 1664 Niklaas Hartsoeker drew a figure of a miniature human (homunculus) inside a sperm, presumably representing what he saw under the microscope"; and then seizes the occasion to remind us that "like the 'canals' on Mars, observations such as this demonstrate that we see what we look for, not at we look at". Bruce Carlson's 1981 edition of "Patten's Foundations of Embryology" includes the drawing mentioned above, with the note "Reproduction of Hartsoeker's drawing of a spermatozoon showing a preformed individual (homunculus) in the sperm head", while stating that the quote is from Hartsoeker's 1664 "Essay de Dioptrique". And John Farley's 1982 "Gametes and Spores", once again sporting the ubiquitous drawing, starts with the recognition that "it is to Nicolas Hartsoeker that we owe the most explicit statement in support of sperm preexistence". We also owe to Hartsoeker "that most extraordinary claim that the sperm actually contained a fully formed miniature adult coiled up within— the famous homunculus." Moreover, the same drawing is also shown in Scott Gilbert's "Developmental Biology", which has been the standard textbook in the field since 1985. The passage "Nicolas Hartsoeker... drew what he also hoped to find: a preformed human ("homunculus") within the human sperm" has remained unchanged through the four editions of the book.

It is no wonder, then, that we were educated to believe that the little man inside the sperm had been described by the spermists as a "homunculus". But we have all been wrong. And this misunderstanding may have played a substantial part, albeit subtle, in our patronizing dismissal of preformation. For we may never have paused to think about it, but— as I shall try to establish in the following sections of this essay— the term homunculus has never been, by any means, an innocent name. Even now, the "determinist" experts in artificial intelligence, who reject the concept of free will playing a part in the function of neural networks, still try to dismiss this claim by calling those who support it "the homuncularists"(1). Bearing this recurrent sarcasm in mind, was it not a very strange move for the spermists to christen their little man-to-be with the burden of a term so easily subject to ridicule?

2. The magical homunculus

2.1 Some notorious forerunners

The myth of creating creatures with a human appearance is an old and enduring one, stretching along a web of tangled connections from Prometheus' fire to the electrical discharges animating the body of Mary Shelley's monster, made by Dr. Frankenstein. Variations on the same subject include the recipes given in the pseudo-platonian "Liber Vacae" for creating edible "rational Beings" inside cow's wombs(2); the "animated statues" and the "morphing machine" of the Persian alchemist Jâbir ibn Hâyyan(3); or the powerful Golems, made of clay and brought to life through the mystical ecstasy of the Medieval hasidim(4). On the more playful side of theconnotations associated with the homunculus, the fascination with smallness could overcome the interest in producing life without generation. In 1658, Giambattista della Porta proposed in the Second Book of his "Natural Magik" to show "how living Creatures of divers kinds, may be mingled and coupled together, and that from them, new, and yet profitable kinds of living Creatures may be Generated". Fulfilling this promise, he presents us, among several other curious tricks, with the ultimate recipe on "how to generate pretty little dogs to play with".

2.2-Paracelsus' homunculus

Alluring as it might be, this line of research and experimentation has also always been extremely controversial, raising all kinds of religious perplexities, from wonder to fury, from philosophy to hysteria. In the process, somehow, the name "homunculus" seems to have crystallized in the famous recipe produced by Aureolus Philippus Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, known to most people simply as Paracelsus.

Let us examine the recipe proper, the core of the uproar that echoed through the centuries and was so many times reprinted and recounted that it reached us as something of a pop icon. Most likely, the procedure was first published in "De Natura Rerum" in 1572 (5). The text is introduced with the statement that we should not "by any means forget the generation of homunculi" followed by a short and incisive sketch of the philosophical grounds for the enterprise:

"For there is some truth in this thing, although for a long time it was held in a most occult manner and with secrecy, while there was no little doubt and question among some of the old Philosophers, whether it was possible to Nature and Art, that a Man should be begotten without the female body and the natural womb. I answer hereto, that this is in no way opposed to Spagyric Art and to Nature, nay, that it is perfectly possible".

This statement is followed by the details of the procedure:

"Let the semen of a man putrefy by itself in a sealed cucurbite with the highest putrefaction of venter equinus for forty days, or until it begins at last to live, move, and be agitated, which can easily be seen. At this time it will be in some degree like a human being, but, nevertheless, transparent and without a body. If now, after this, it be every day nourished and fed cautiously with the arcanum of human blood, and kept for forty weeks in the perpetual and equal heat of venter equinus, it becomes thencefold a true living infant, having all the members of a child that is born from a woman, but much smaller. This we call a homunculus; and it should be afterwards educated with the greatest care and zeal, until it grows up and starts to display intelligence".

For those casually acquainted with the work of Paracelsus— in other words, for the overwhelming majority of us— the little freakish footnote in the bottom of our minds stops here. Yet there was more to it. Paracelsus did not view the homunculus as a mere pretty curiosity to play with. His was a much more complex and grandiose perspective:

"Now, this is one of the greatest secrets which God has revealed to mortal and fallible man. It is a miracle and a marvel of God, an arcanum above all arcana, and deserves to be kept secret until the last of times, when there shall be nothing hidden, but all things shall be manifest. And although up to this time it has not been known to men, it was, nevertheless, known to the wood-sprites and nymphs and giants long ago, because they themselves were sprung from this source; since from such homunculi when they come to manhood are produced giants, pygmies,and other marvelous people, who get great victories over their enemies, and know all secrets and hidden matters".

2.3-The fascination

The existence of this recipe soon went well beyond the boundaries of scholarly knowledge, as illustrated by the folk tale developed after Paracelsus' death: having become old, Paracelsus had himself cut in small pieces and buried in horse manure, intending to resuscitate as a handsome young man. Unhappily, the servant opened the grave two days too soon and thus put an irreversible end to his master's dream (Hutin, 1966). Simultaneously, the homunculus had also deeply captured the scholars' imagination, as illustrated by the number of pieces written on the subject.

In William Maxwell's 1679 "De Medicina Magnetica", the Scottish physician claims to prove the possibility of creating a homunculus in the resurrection of a plant from its ashes. He states that the salt of blood, if properly prepared, is the supreme remedy; and just as salts of herbs can reproduce the likeliness of the herb in the test-tube, so the salt of human blood can show the image of a man— "the true homunculus of Paracelsus"(6). In his 1638 "Rare et Curieux Discours de la Plante Appelée Mandragore", Laurens de Castelan had been careful in admitting that these ideas had been "denied by many", and that Paracelsus' homunculus could be "a bit of diabolical magic"(7). But even before such warnings the appeal was still strong enough to lead Christian Friedrich Garmann to write a short piece in 1672 discussing the evolution of man from the egg and whether conception could take place outside the womb , concerning "the chemical homunculus of Paracelsus" (Thorndike, 1929, vol. VIII, p. 629).

Finally, even fiction adopted the trend. The greatest celebration of the theme occurs in Lawrence Sterne's "The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman". First published in nine volumes between 1759 and 1768, the epistolary novel alerts us, right at the beginning of Book I, that something is not normal about Tristam Shandy. Chapter six starts with the subtly threatening warning that "in the beginning of the last chapter I informed you exactly when I was born; but I did not inform you how". From here, although the secret is going to be withheld in the hallucinogenic convolutions of the narrative, we can see it coming— especially since we have already been informed that his father was somewhat estranged from his mother around the time of his presumed conception. And also because chapter two suddenly interrupts the flow of the story to dwell on the condition of the homunculus in this world— by all accounts, in the author's description, a sad and tormented life.

2.4-The backlash

Although the homunculus had some supporters, the academic reception was not exactly heart-warming. Werner Rolfink, in his 1661 "Chimia in Artis Formam Redacta Sex Libris Comprehensa", strongly refutes the homunculus of Paracelsus. The author says in the preface that his work "comes to life after having feared the light for the space of some years" and some contemporary writers, including Thorndike, perceive in Rolfink's contribution the ultimate goal to initiate the movement away from alchemy into chemistry, away from magic into science (8). The sixth and last volume is dedicated to the refutation of non-existent chemical effects, including the homunculus— as ridiculous, in Rolfink's opinion, as the claim of gold being generated in the human body, as in the episode reported in 1593 of a Silesian boy who grew a gold tooth(9).

The "Destillatoria Curiosa", attributed to different authors but probably written by George Kirsten and published in 1674, opens with a list of nine false entities, one of them being Paracelsus's homunculus(10). Antoine le Grand's "Curious Scrutinizer of Hidden Things of Nature", probably from 1676, holds that "the statement of Paracelsus that a homunculus was generated in a glass phial" is as absurd as the belief that the beaver castrates itself when hunted(11). Julius Caesar Baricellus's "Hortulus Genialus", published in 1620, dismisses the homunculus as both ridiculous and an abomination (Thorndike, 1929, vol. VIII, p. 268).

To make matters worse, other authors perceived the homunculus not only as silly but as a definitive heresy. In 1664, the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher refers to its creation as an impious act in "Mundus Subterraneus". In 1612 Joanes Bickerus published "Hermes Redivivus" and disapproved of making a homunculus to attract and avert all sorcery by magnetic force, advising the reader to turn instead to prayers to God if he wants to seek aid against incantations (Thorndike, 1929, vol VII, p. 136). At this point, the little man is apparently in the process of gaining the imaginary powers of a voodoo doll.

Among the spermist's contemporaries who expressed disgust or distrust over the entire homuncular concept, Henry More stands out for his vibrant warning. More might have been sympathetic. As one of the most mystical Cambridge Platonists, he believed in ghosts, witches, and pacts with the devil. But he still considered reason to be "a participation of the Divine Reason in God" and certainly tried to distance himself as much as possible from those dissenting sects that would abandon reason for the easy certitude of "inner light". This preoccupation resulted in the writing of "Enthusiasmus Triumphatus", arguably the best seventeenth centuryattack on Enthusiasm and clearly the work of a man with a mission. Like many liberal Anglicans of his day, he sought to see all Christians reunited once again, and viewed Enthusiasm, with its an emphasis on the private and divisive in men, as a dangerous civilizational trend: carried to its logical extreme, it might end up in a cry for "one man, one religion". More claimed to have no desire "to incense the Minds of any against Enthusiasts as to persecute them", perceiving them as victims of a mental disorder, madmen suffering from a "misconceit of being inspired", wishing only to dissuade others from following their teachings(12). And one of his main targets, was, inevitably, Paracelsus.

Arguing that "Paracelsus has given occasion to the wildest Philosophick Enthusiasms that ever were yet on foot", and that "Paracelsus and his Philosophy, though he himself intended it or not, is one of the latest sanctuaries for the Atheist and the very prop of ancien Paganism" he attacks Paracelsus' beliefs "that the Gnomi, Nymphs, Lemures and Penates, Spirits endued with Understanding as much as Men, and yet wholly mortal, not having so much as an immortal Soul in them"; "that Giants, Nymphs, Gnomi and Pygmies were the conceptions and births of the Imagination power of the influence of the Stars upon Matter prepared by them, and that they have no souls; as it is most likely the Inhabitants of the more remote parts of the world have not, as not being the offspring of Adam"; and mostly "that there is an artificial way of making an Homunculus, and that the Fairies of the woods, Nymphs and Giants themselves had some such original, and that Homunculi thus made will know all manner of secrets and mysteries of art, themselves receiving their lives, bodies, flesh, bone and blood from an artificial principle".

When writing his "A demonstration of the Existence and Providence of God", first printed in 1696, the Bachelor of Divinity John Edwards, fellow of S. John's College in Cambridge, tookthe task to an even broader level, if necessarily less balanced. In the preface to his two-volume effort , he states that his goal is to illustrate the derision of the atheists. Although he is not really expecting to convince them, since this is "perhaps next to blanching an Ethiopian" in its ultimate impossibility, he still hopes that "I shall do something towards preventing the spreading of this infectious disease they are the authors of".

In order to do so, Edwards proceeds to argue for the unmistakable imprimatur of God in all of the known natural facts of his time, which leads him to dedicate Book II entirely to the "coming forth of the Foetus", and its "owing to marvellous Care of the Almighty, to the particular Midwifery of Heaven". From this midwifery is born "the exact symmetry of all parts when taken together", so perfect that, as other "Writers of the Church" previously noted, "there were the same Proportions in the Fabrik of the Ark that there are in the Body of a Man... that is, his Longitude was sixfold to its Latitude, and tenfold to its Profundity" so that "there is such a Harmony and Symmetry of the Members, that they all have an exact Reference to each other", the proof that "there is something divine in the Disposition of the Parts of Man's Body". From this he unleashes his most flamboyant bit of rhetoric, in a direct derivation from the Vetrurian figures, popular in our times mainly through the drawings of Leonardo.

"...The Height of a Man is the same with his Bredth, i.e. the Space between Head and Feet, and between the Hand stretched out is alike... So Man is a quadrate Figure; and yet, if you place him thus with his Arms and Hands stretched out, you'll find that the figure of the Body makes a perfect Circle, the center whereof is his Navel. Here, we may say, we have found the Quadrature of a Circle. This is no Workmanship of Humane Skill, here is no Automaton made by Art, no Daedalu's walking Venus, no Archytas' Dove, no Regiomontamus' Eagle and Fly.Here is no Albertus Magnus or Frier Bacon's Speaking Head, or Paracelsus' Artificial Homuncle".

If the fury of the religious men should have been enough to make the spermists proceed with caution when choosing a name for their encapsuled creature, the irritation of their own peers would have been the icing on the cake. For the same attack on the homunculus is repeated by Francesco Redi himself, in the very same "Experiments on the Generation of Insects" which, in 1688, emerged as a milestone in the dismissal of spontaneous generation. In Redi's words, Paracelsus is nothing but "a charlatan", who "impiously would have us believe that there is a way to create manikins in the retorts of alchemists". He then goes on to add that "I am still more scandalized at the assertion of others, who make these lies a foundation for conjecture concerning the greatest mystery of the Christian faith, namely, the resurrection of the body at the end of the world". Although Redi aimed most of his anger against those "others", with the aforementioned passage the damage was definitely done: a link had been tightly established between challenging "the greatest mystery of Christian faith" and the homunculus (13).

The original writings

3.1-A strange choice

Considering all this vivid criticism, by the time the spermists first starting drawing their tentative little men inside the sperm head, it should have been more than obvious that branding a theory with such a word would not provide the best of public relations. Which brings us back to the original question— why would these pioneer microscopists choose the term "homunculus"to refer to the little man inside the sperm head? The "Lexicom Medicum Graeco-Latinum" of 1713— in other words, the medical dictionary circulating half a century after the dates of Hartsoecker's and Leuweenhoek's first drawings— has only a very short entry for "homunculus", equating it to alchemic experiments and diabolical doings. And in a 1720 treatise dedicated to spermatology, "Seminis Humani Consideratio", the only association between sperm and homunculi again refers solely to the dangerous undertakings of Paracelsus. Given such a background, the men who first aimed their lenses at the human sperm, and admitted the possibility of having seen a little man cuddled inside the head of each one of those newly found "animals", should have anticipated that certain choices of terms would amount to shooting themselves in the foot. If they really wanted to sell their idea successfully to the learned world, they should have known better than to christen their little man with a name so loaded with negative and derogatory connotations.

And, apparently, they knew. Nicolas Hartsoeker, the man who drew the well known illustration first published in 1694, wrote his "Essay de Dioptrique" in French and called his little person either "le petit animal" or "l'enfant". Leeuwenhoek sticks to the term "animalcules" for the spermatozoa and to "small man" for the presumed person-to-be encased inside. True, it can be claimed that "homunculus" is nothing but the Latin term for "small man". And Leeuwenhoek published the official form of all of his letters in Latin. But you can read through all of them, in their original version, as carefully as you please. Just like Hartsoeker, he never once makes use of the problematic word. Apparently, Hartsoeker was not fluent in French, and Leeuwenoek did not have a good mastery of Latin, which made them both resort to the help of friends for the completion of their published works (Cole, 1930, p. 3, 8). This could have added an extrafactor of confusion to the translations, resulting in unfortunate phrases. However, to the contrary, everybody's choice of terms seems to have been quite careful— and "homunculus" never appeared, even in Latin texts, as a designation for the preformed little man in the sperm.

3.2-A careful terminology

It is uncertain when Leeuweenoek first referred to the famous drawings of little people with tails. We know that these drawings were not of his own doing. History has it that they were presented to him by Dalenpatius, a pseudonym of the French aristocrat François de Plantade. The appearance of those figures in the literature has been debated with excruciating detail, from the real date of their first publication (1678 or 1699) to the possibility that Plantade's plate was bound by mistake with a wrong letter by Leeuwenhoek (Cole, 1930, p.56); but the question of whether anybody, at that time, talked of "homunculi" has never even been raised. Apparently, Leeuwenhoek himself was, at first, rather suspicious about these miniatures with hats and tails; moreover, supposedly misled by the translation of the letter provided by a Dutch medical friend, he accused Dalenpatius of ascribing a blood system and circulation to the spermatozoa, immediately proceeding to write about the errors of observation that can occur in microscopic work (Cole, 1930, p. 55-56). But, whatever twists of plot really occurred in the seventeenth century, it is unquestionable that Leeuwenhoek, in the version of his letters that has reached us, only goes as far as saying that those figures represent "generis animalcula, at mortua"(14). Yet the footnote to the same figures in today's secondary sources frequently reads something like "Leeuwenhoek's drawings of the imaginary homunculus".

In all of his other letters, the Dutch microscopist consistently sticks to "animalia", "figura animalculorum", "animalcula seminalia", "corpore animalculi", or "interiores corporis partes". In the most respected English translation of his letters ("The Collected Letters of Antoni van Leeuwenhoek", 1952, p.11) we find him claiming that "in a certain book it is laid to my charge that I proclaimed that a human being will originate from an animalcule in the sperm, although I have on the contrary never expressed an opinion on this subject". In other passages the translation reads "the figure of a human being", "living creatures", or "Man ... already furnished with all of his members"; contained in the "little animals" or "animalcules". Yet the word "homunculus" now crops up through numerous modern accounts of his work.

3.3-The man in the egg

It is also intriguing that, according to the reports presented to us by modern writers, nobody in the egg camp had produced similar terminology. On this side of the barricades, the closest we come to any homuncular suggestion are the bizarre drawings of Theodore Kerckring, dated from 1670 and destined to support Harvey's postulate "all that is alive comes from the egg"(15). Now, if flights of imagination went forth during this period, this example should definitely be the one to remember (Figure 1). After producing several drawings of eggs in different states of development that reveal a profound ignorance of morphological features in mammalian development, "Dr. Kerkringius" illustrates "the little embryon" in an egg, supposedely "3 or 4 days after it was fallen into the Matrix of a woman". The "little embryon", sitting in the upper left side of a large circle, in the place where the site of sperm entry would appear in the then much better known egg of the chicken, has a head, a body, and a small tail. Anybody could have called it a "homunculus", but nobody ever did. The resemblance betweenthis image and the early stages of bird development is even sharper in the following figure, "a bigger egg, opened a fortnight after conception", where limb buds seem to be present, the tail is extended to look like an umbilical cord and a network of blood vessels surrounds the whole structure, now positioned at the center of the egg. Nothing could be more different from the real morphology of early human development. And certainly nothing that the spermists ever drew comes closer to wishful thinking than the three following figures, representing "the sceletons of Infants 3 weeks, 4 weeks and 6 weeks after conception". These "sceletons", as reduced copies of the skeleton of a newborn, could easily have fallen prey to modern perception as caricaturing an eerie homuncular osteology; yet, authough Kerckring's credibility was often questioned even during his own days (Cole, 1930, p. 45) no historian has referred to these drawings as a sketch of the homunculus' bones.

Figure 1
Figure 1   Theodore Kerckring's drawings of the "little man inside the egg"—whom nobody ever called a "homunculus".

In the face of this evidence, it is not reasonable to sustain that the spermists used the term "homunculus" because they let their imagination run wilder than that of the ovists. We have verified that the founding fathers of spermism consistently shied away from any association with the homunculus. It is impossible to evaluate exactly how conscious they could have been about the potential danger hidden in the word itself. But we can definetely establish that they never used the word at all!

3.4-A consistent absence

Who else, then, could have begun the association of the homunculus with the spermist theory? A smart ovist trying to discredit the enemy? Or perhaps an epigeneticist with the same goal in mind? Or even a careless writer of the following century, when the debate overpreformation had clearly shifted towards the egg and invoked much more sophisticated explanatory models? None of these hypothesis can be backed by reviewing the original sources. Moreover, even those writers who overtly sought to satirize preformation did not employ the perilous term when they had a chance to do so. A good example is Sir John Hill's "Lucina Sine Concubitu", in which he mockingly addresses the Royal Society by pretending to have invented a machine for trapping the seminal animalcules borne on the West wind(16). The text is obviously a joke on the idea, advanced by some early spermists, that human seed floated everywhere in the air.

"Accordingly after much Exercise of my Invention", it reads, "I contrived a wonderful cylindrical, caloptrical, rotundo-concavo-convex Machine... which, being hermetically sealed at one End, and electrified according to the nicest Laws of Electricity, I erected in a convenient Attitude to the West, as a kind of Trap to intercept the floating Animalculae in that prolific quarter of the Heavens... When I had caught a sufficient number of these small original unexpanded Minims of Existence, I spread them out carefully... and then applying my best Microscope plainly discerned them to be little Men and Women, exact in all their Lineaments and Limbs, and ready to offer themselves little Candidates for Life, whenever they should happen to be imbibed with Air or Nutriment, and conveyed down into the Vessels of Generation".

Here we have an eighteenth-century detractor of preformation castigating it with maximal irony. Still, when talking about the encapsuled generations, he offers a broad variety of terms— "Animalculae", "Minims of Existence", "little Men and Women", "little Candidates for Life", indeed a colorful repertoire. But the word "homunculus" never appears. As for other enemiesof preformation from the same period, Needham attacked "the numerous absurdities which exist in the opinion of pre-existing germs"(17), Maupertuis reasoned "that the foetus was formed by the male and female prolific liquors in the mass... by elective atraction" (Cole, 1930, p. 93, 205), and the less prominent Parsons added that "it would be extreme nosense to imagine that the insignificant animals, commonly called spermatic animals, can contribute anything towards propagation... But such low conjectures deserve not to be confuted by argument" (Cole, 1930, p. 108). "Pre-existing germs", "the system of the egg", "male and female prolific liquors" and "spermatic animals" never spelled "homunculus".

4-The fateful 1930s

4.1-In search of an origin

We seem to be left but with one conclusion. The perpetrator of this misunderstanding must have done so very recently, and had to be either strongly respected by the scientific community or part of a very assertive revisionistic episode. Since a large corpus of works on embryology and on the history of embryology, written mainly by embryologists, appeared around the 1930s, the origin of the trouble may be located here; for, thereafter, the term "homunculus" enters general use whenever spermism is discussed. Conciously or not, the scientists involved in these publications could have falsified their own history.

William Locy's "The Story of Biology", published in 1925, does not use the word. Neither does Erik Nordenskiold's "The History of Biology" in 1928, nor Singer's "A Short History of Biology", nor Aute Richards' "Outline of Comparative Embryology", both from 1931. The association is still absent from Wells, Huxley and Wells' "The Science of Life", and from Joseph Needham's "A History of Embryology", both from 1934; and remains absent as late as 1949, in the first edition of Lester Barth's "Embryology", and also in C. H. Waddington's "Principles of Embryology", published in 1956.

But something happened in the meantime. When writing his "Early Theories of Sexual Generation", published in 1930, F. J. Cole had a very precise goal in mind. "I have attempted to put the complete story of the Preformation Doctrine before the reader", he claims in the preface, "and to avoid the common mistake of ignoring all but the more salient features". He certainly pursued this goal to its most painstaking limit; but, while doing so, consciously or not, he also paved the way for the ensuing confusion. In the very first page, he mentions Paracelsus. He gives us once again an abridged version of the sixteenth-century recipe. He traces the origin of the word back to Cicero, and mentions its use in "Tristam Shandy". After that, the use of "homunculus" or of derived terms appears at least sixteen more times— almost always in the author's words, only once in a quote from an original writing(18). We have seen above that Francesco Redi was a strong detractor of Paracelsus' homunculus— but, in Cole's book, Redi's drawings of two intestinal parasites are presented as homuncular visions because they seem to have human faces, and receive the additional blame of having paved the way for the ensuing drawings of homunculi inside sperm cells.

Also, don't some of us have a feeling that somewhere, sometime, we have seen a drawing of a really funny homunculus with a moustache? To all those who have this recollection, it istime to announce that we are again thinking under Cole's influence. In the middle of his detailed account of people defending and attacking spermism at the onset of the eighteenth century, all of a sudden he refers to the drawing of an unidentified organism that Joblot produced in 1718. It is a mean-looking mask, with a moustache, six "legs" and a "tail". In Joblot's own time, secondary sources would refer o this drawing with words such as Abbé Regley's, in the introduction to Spallanzani's "Nouvelles recherches sur les découvertes microscopiques, et la géneration des corps organizés": "[Joblot] observed under his microscope infusions of roses, anemones, jasmines, basels, teas and mushrooms. The infusion of lemon gave him an animal which had in the back the face of s satyr". But, in Cole's book, the caption reads "Homunculus in an aquatic animal, after Joblot".

After his opening paragraphs on Paracelsus and Tristam Shandy, does it make sense to claim that Cole was just thinking of "small men" whenever he wrote "homunculi"? The analogy may have been an unconscious one, but it surely was effective. Even more so since the use of the term appears curiously biased against spermism, consistently sparing the fabrications of the ovists. A clear example of this bias appears when Cole mentions that, 1671, William Croone produced a manuscript paper on the development of the chick, containing an illustration claiming to represent the preformed embryo, although it seems clear that he only drew a fragment of vitelline membrane accidentally resembling the features of a bird. In the author's opinion, Croone's paper is important "not on account of its merits, which are negligible, but because it is the first reasoned attempt, based on observation and illustration, to established the existence of a preformed foetus in the unincubated egg" (p. 47). Even when dealing with such a gross misinterpretation, the dangerous homuncular label is avoided, with the much smoother expression"preformed foetus" used instead.

1930 was an ill-fated year for the reputation of spermism, for E. S. Russell, the prolific Lamarckist who later gave us, in "Form and Function", one of the best and most comprehensive accounts of the history of comparative animal morphology, also first published during this year "The Interpretation of Development and Heredity". The book opens with a revealing quote from Jonathan Swift:

"He said that new systems of nature were but new fashions, which would vary in every age; and even those who pretend to demonstrate them from mathematical principles would flourish but a short period of time, and be out of vogue when that was determined".

Announcing, in his introductory chapter, "I propose in this book to discuss the general interpretation of development, heredity, and reproduction, considered as essential and fundamental functions of all living things", he reminds us that "it will be necessary to treat of the matter in some extent historically, in order to be able to envisage modern theories in their proper perspective, to understand their mode of origin, and generally to follow the filiation of ideas. We shall find that, in spite of the vast accumulation of detailed knowledge... there is much less difference than one would expect between the fundamental hypothesis or modes of explanation adopted, say, by the Greeks and those in vogue at the present day. This is because there are— apparently— only one or two possible ways of interpreting development open to the human intelligence, and these few alternative methods tend to recur again and again throughout the whole history of biological science".

Russell is absolutely right— and he himself falls prey to this binary condition of the human mind a couple of chapters later, when stating that epigenesis and preformation are theperfect expression of such recurrent dichotomy. "The epigenetic view is dynamic, vitalistic, physiological; the preformationist is static, deterministic, morphological. The one stresses time or process, the other space and momentary state— the one emphasizes function, the other concentrates on form". From the author's point of view, there is no doubt about which one is doomed to interpretation as one of those "systems of nature" that in the end "were but new fashions", as in his warning quote from Swift: "The preformationists", he concludes, "contributed nothing of value to the understanding of our problems". Maybe it is just a coincidence, but three paragraphs later, in a section dedicated to rescuing Bonnet from the rest of the preformationist bunch, we read that "...Some earlier preformationists thought of the germ as an adult in miniature, and imaginative souls saw in the spermatozoon a tiny homunculus with head and arms and feet".

From this point on, there is no going back. Although, as we have seen, the homunculus still took a couple of decades more to invade all of the embryological texts, the seeds planted in 1930 eventually came to blossom all over the field. "The Elements of Experimental Embryology", first published in 1934 by Julian Huxley and G. R. de Beer, opens with a chapter dedicated to the "Historical Introduction to the Problem of Differentiation". And here we are told once more about "the crude idea" that "the preformation in the egg was spatially identical with the arrangement of parts in the adult and fully developed animal, or that the 'homunculus' in the sperm, with the head, trunk, arms and legs which it was supposed to have (and which certain over-enthusiastic observers claimed to have seen through their microscopes...) only required to increase in size, as if inflated by a pump, in order to produce development". Here, as in other modern works discussed earlier in this section, the term "homunculus" appearsbetween quotation marks. These, like the use of italics adopted by some authors, are perhaps meant to suggest that this is not the exact word, only an approximate abbreviation of the concept. But do we ever stop to ponder such subtleties?

4.2-Closing the circle

Final proof for an unrestrained correspondence established in the middle of our century between the creatures of magic and the observations of the spermists appears inside a small rectangular box, containing the eighty cards of the Thot Tarot Deck, created in the 1940's by Aleister Crowley and illustrated by Lady Frieda Harris, though unpublished until 1969. We do not need to look further than card IX, "The Hermit" (Figure 2). The description of the drawing reads as follows: "Here we have, in the hand of the Hermit, the Lamp of Sacred Wisdom. It contains the Sun, which is hidden beneath the surrounding darkness to fructify the earth. The Hermit is looking at the Egg (Universe) which is surrounded by a snake, a symbol of life. The hounds of hell endeavour to snatch the sacred light and the little Homunculus. The wheat is in the masonic tradition".

Figure 2
Figure 2   Tarot card IX, "The Hermit", where "the homunculus" is represented by a reproduction of Hartsoeker's drawing of the sperm cell.

It is perturbing enough to encounter the Egg and the Homunculus reunited in the same figure of a tarot card. But more amazing yet is the form assumed by the Homunculus. Escaping from the three-headed black dog that represent the "hounds of hell" it is no less than... an exact reproduction of Hartsoeker's drawing of the spermatozoon! The circle has been closed.


Were Cole and Russell doing this on purpose? But why would they? None of them thought highly of the seventeenth-century preformationists, but then again such ideas had fallen from grace long before these two learned men wrote their books. In 1930, there was no need to beat a dead horse. It was the strange fate of emboitement to rise from Swammerdam's misunderstanding of the meaning behind his observations on the imaginal disks of insects only to expire in our global misunderstanding of the meaning behind our observations of the little man inside the sperm. Cole and Russel, most likely, did what any one of us would have done. By equating preformation with nonsense, and spermism with a cute anecdote in the path of knowledge, we may just as well, without even noticing, have come to equate the man inside the sperm with all those other tales of occult beliefs and bizarre experiments to be regarded as nothing but follies of the unenlightened past. The homunculus may have entered the secondary literature on reproduction without being part of anybody's explicit agenda. We just came to regard preformationism as so silly that we no longer bothered to verify the sources. And, in so doing, we stamped the verdict "to be dismissed" all over spermism, with the rest of preformation in tow.


1. According to Daniel C. Dennett in "Conciousness explained" (1991), "homuncularism" as a vice in the method of thinking can be noted ever since Descartes: understanding that the eye functions as a "darkroom" where the perceptive image is projected, the philosopher wonders what entity "sees" this virtual image, invoking, most likely for the first time, a rough notion of "recursiveness" in mental processes. The cognitive homunculus is therefore an ideal entity bestowed with a psychological "ability" by pure analogy with a human subject. In contemporary AI language, homunculi are referred to as "modules" (Fodor) or "agencies" (Minsky). A more modern version of AI (conectionism) criticises these attempts and proposes a version simultaneously more "atomistic" and more physiological, based on synaptic potentials agregated in neuronal networks. This model would be, a priori, free from homunculi. But both concepts are debatable— and highly debated, namely on the Internet newsgroup comp.ai.philosophy, where one can find such sharp soundbites as "if you are DEFINING 'sensorimotor transduction' as whatever is required in order for a system to be grouped you make the whole discussion VOID!" or "a brain with ALL of its sensorimotor transducer ablated would be DEAD (or just a hapless hunk of cytoplasm) rather than a computer running a program that implements a sophisticated mind". It is interesting to note that, once again, these notions are starting to permeate the realm of fiction. The short story "Influenza", by Daniel Menaker, published in The New Yorker of January 16, 1995, has a paragraph in which the narrator refers to his analyst in the following terms: "It's true that life improved for me as I went to him, but whether if I could do it all over again I would actually choose to have the homunculus of an insane, bodybuilding, black-bearded Cuban Catholic Freudian shouting at me from inside my own head I am not sure".

2. According to Lynn Thorndike in "A history of magic and experimental science" (1929), the "Liber vaccae" is ascribed to Galen, who in turn says he revised and abbreviated it from Plato, and is possibly related to Albertus Magnus' "De mirabilius mundi". It has also appeared under the titles "Liber angenis", "The book of active institutes", and "The book of aggregations of divers philosophers", together with being cited under "Liber de prophetiis" by Pedro Alfonso in his "Disciplina clericalis" written at the close of the eleventh century, possibly from an Arabic or Hebrew translation of the original. As Thorndike advises in the introduction to the chapter on the "Liber Vaccae", this work is just about impossible to read for the scholars not trained in deciphering hermetic texts. I owe thanks for help in understanding of the recipe for "rational beings" to Prof. William Newman.

3. For more information on Jâbir's philosophy, see Kraus, "Jâbir Ibn Hayân, Contribuition à l'histoire des idées scientifiques dans l'Islam", 1943; and "Jâbir Ibn Hayân, Dix traités d'alchimie", with introduction and notes by Pierre Lory, 1983.

4. The Golem is called a "magical homunculus" by Gershom Scholem in "Major trends in Jewish mysticism", 1941. Other experts of the same field, most notably Moshe Idel, later rebunked Scholem's connection between the Golem and the homunculus. It is nevertheless remarkable how promptly the term surfaces whenever the issue is the artificial creation of humanbeings. For more information on the Golem legends see Sherwin, "The Golem Legend— Origins and Implications", 1985. For aditional discussion of the Medieval hasidim see Chaim Potok's foreword to Martin Buber's "Tales of the Hasidim", 1991. An interesting account of modern uses of the Golem in literature, movies and video games is given by Collins and Pinch in "The golem— What everybody should know about science", 1993.

5. The authenticity of this source is still the object of much academic debate. Even the title of Paracelsus' book, "The nature of things", is but a reprisal of Lucretius' work published in the first century BC, which was in turn a simple translation of the Peri physeos which the pre-Socratics had used as a common name for their treatises. To add further confusion to its real origins, the recipe was repeated with slight variations in a number of other books. Actually, it is not even clear that Paracelsus was the real author of the book containing the first version.

6. This text, mentioned by Thorndike in "A history of magic and experimental science", vol. VIII, p. 421, is available in a German version from 1855, "Drei Bucher der magnetischen Heidunke". I thank Dr. Christianne Anderson for help with the translation.

7. According to Thorndike, op. cit. vol. VIII, p. 12, Castelan is particularly skeptical about the belief that "witches and rustics" transform the root of the plant into a human form. He also expresses doubts on a related belief, that the plant grows from soil fertilized by the urine emitted in the last agony of an innocent man hanged for the crime of theft, developing roots with the shape of a man, including the sexual organs. Samuel Becket mentions the same phenomenomin "Waiting for Godot", but here it is the sperm of the hanged man, rather than its urine, that causes the growth of the plant.

8. This claim, however, is highly debatable. Although Rolfink insists that procedures such as the transmutation of metals are "chemical non-entities", metal transmutation is only one of the several interests of alchemy. Besides, he seems to think of chemistry solely in the apothecary sense, thus reducing the discipline (rather than elevating it) to a mere subsidiary to medicine.

9. in Thorndike, op. cit. vol VIII, p. 135. This book had six different editions, both by Rolfink and under the form of "disquisitiones" by some of his students. The same claims can be find in "Zachariae Brendelii Chimia in artis formam redacta...: disquisitio curata de famosissima praeparatione", 1671.

10. Idem, vol VII, p. 197. Another version of the same document, attributed to Johann Sigismund and published in 1677, is available in English with the title "The curious distillatory, or, The art of dislilling coloured liquors, spritits, oyls, etc".

11. Ibidem, vol VIII, p. 290. Thorndike states here that although the original manusacript is supposed to be from 1676, he could only find a copy from 1681.

12. Mentioned in p. iii of M.V. DePorte's foreword to the 1966 edition of More's"Enthusiasmus triumphatus". For more information on the Cambridge Platonists, More's theosophical doctrines and the Enthusiasts see also Mackinnon, 1969; and Hutin, 1966.

13. Ironically, Redi's earlier drawings of two parasites from the gut of a female octopus were reproduced in the twentieth century with the caption "parasites exhibiting homuncular form" and pointed out as a case study of "the tendency to detect the human form in similar animals— a tendency which was responsible for the seminal homunculi of later authors" (Cole, 1930, p. 58-59).

14. in "Epistolae ad Societatem Regiam Anglicam", 1719. The spelling is a reproduction ipsis verbis from the original.

15. in "Anthropogeniae ichnographia", 1671. The English translation used here is by Joseph Needham, in "A history of embryology", 1934.

16. Thanks to its ironic brilliance, this work became vastly popular and had several reprints. The version consulted here is "Lucine sine concubitu: a letter humbly addressed to the Royal Society", 1885.

17. in Needham, "Observations on the generation, composition and decomposition of animal and vegetable substances", 1749.

18. Some examples are: "It was in fact believed the he [Leeuwenhoek] had discovered the homunculus of Paracelsus and of the older anatomists" (p. 13); "Hartsoeker's work was reviewed in the Journal des Sçavants for Feb. 7th 1695, and the figure of the homunculus was reproduced" (p. 63); "Plantade, writing under the name of Dalenpatius, described and figured homunculi in the male semen" (p. 68); "Homunculus in an aquatic animal, after Joblot" (p. 77); "All hope that microscopic observation would reveal the existence of homunculi in the seminal animalcula had been abandoned" (p. 86); or "Therefore, the father provides the foetus— but not as a homunculus in a spermatozoon" (P. 106).

Literature Cited

Barth, Lester George (1953) "Embryology". The Dryen Press publications in the biological sciences. Rev. and enl. ed. Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York, NY.

Bilsky, Emily D., Idel, Moshe & Ledig, Elfriede (1988) "Golem! Danger, deliverance and art". Jewish Museum, New York, NY.

Brendel, Zacharias (1671) "Zachariae Brendelli Chimia in artis formam redacta...; disquisitio curata de famosissima praeparatione, auri potabilis instituitur...", p. 419-438. Lugduni Batavorum: Ex officina Arnoldi Doude.

Buber, Martin (1991) "Tales of the Hasidim". Schocken Books, New York, NY.

Bynum, William F.; Browne, E. Janet & Porter, Roy (1984) "Dictionary of the history of science", p. 331. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

Carlson, Bruce M. (1981) "Patten's foundations of embryology", p. 2. McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, NY.

Castelli, Bartholomaei (1713) "Lexicom medicum graeco-latinum", p. 662-663. Lipsiae, apud. Thoman Fritsch. Cattaui, Georges; Hutin, Serge & Whitheside, Béatrice (1966) "Paracelse, l'homme, le médecin, l'alchimiste", p. 56. Éditions de la Table Ronde, Paris, France.

Cole, F.J. (1930) "Early theories of sexual reproduction". Claredon Press, Oxford, UK.

Collins, Harry & Pinch, Trevor (1993) "The Golem— What everybody should know about science". Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Dennett, Daniel Clament (1991), "Consciousness explained". Little Brown & Co., Boston, MA.

Edwards, John (1696) "A demonstration of the existence and providence of God, from the contemplation of the visible structure of the greater and lesser world, in two parts, the first, shewing the Excellent Contrivance of the Heavens, Earth, Sea, etc; the second, the Wonderful Formation of the Body of Man", p. vii, 110-113, 122-124. Printed by J. D. for Jonathan Robinson at the Golden Lion, and John Wyat at the Rofe in St. Paul's Church-Yard, London, UK.

Elsholtz, Johann Sigismund (1677) "The curious distillatory, or, The art of ditilling coloured liquors, spirits, oyls, etc, from vegitables, animals, minerals and metals... containing many experiments... relating to the production of colours, consistence and heat...: together with several experiments upon the blood (and its serum) of diseased persons, with divers other collateral experiments", vol VII, p. 197. Printed by J. D. for Robert Boulter, London, UK. Farley, John (1982) "Gametes and spores— Ideas about sexual reproduction, 1750-1914", p. 20. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD.

Fodor, Jerry A. (1981) "Representations: philosophical essays on the foundations of cognitive science". Massachussets Institute of Technology Press, Cambridge, MA.

Gilbert, Scott F. (1995) "Developmental Biology", 4th ed., p. 122. Sinauer Press, Sunderland, MA.

Hill, John (1885) "Lucina sine concubitu: a letter humbly addressed to the Royal Society, in which it is proved, by most incontestable evidence, drawn from reason and practise, that a woman may conceive and be brought to bed, without any commerce with man", p. 12. Collectanea adamantea; VII, Edinburgh, UK.

Hutin, Serge (1966) "Henry More— éssai sur les doctrines théosophiques chez les Platoniciens de Cambridge". Georg Olms Verlagsbuchhandlung Hildesheim, Germany.

Huxley, Julian S. & de Beer, G.R. (1963) "The elements of experimental embryology", p. 2. Cambridge University Press, London, UK.

Idel, Moshe (1992) "Le Golem". Cerf, Paris, France.

Jâbir Ibn Hayân (1983) "Dix traités d'alchimie", trans. and pres. by Pierre Lory. La Bibliotéque de l'Islam, Paris, France.

Kircher, Athanasius (1678) "Athanasii Kircheri & Soc. Jesu mundus subterraneus, in XII libros digestus". Joannem Janssonium a Waesberge & fillios, Amsterdam, Holland.

Kraus, Paul (1943) "Contribuition à l'histoire des idées scientifiques dans l'Islam", vol. 1. Imprimerie de l'Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale, Cairo, Egypt.

Leeuwenhoek, Antonii (1719) "Epistolae ad Societatem Regiam Anglicam, et alios illuistres viros seu Continuatio mirandorum Arcanorum Naturae detectorum", quadraginta Epistolis contentorum, p. 65, 66, 68, 283, 285, 287. Lugduni Batavorum Apud. Joh. Arnold. Langerak.

Leeuwenhoek, Antoni van (1952) "The Collected letters of Antoni van Leeuwenhoek", ed. ,ill. and annotated by a Comittee of Dutch scientists. Swets & Zeitlinger, Ltd, Amsterdam, Holland.

Locy, William Albert (1925) "The story of biology". Garden City Publishing Company, inc, Garden City, NY.

Mackinnon, Flora Isabel (1969) "Philosophical Writtings of Henry More". AMC Press, New York, NY.

Maxwell, William (1855) "Drei Bucher der magnetischen Heilkunde; worin sowohl die Teorie als Praxis dieser Wissencschaft enthalten ist, viele geheime Naturwunder geoffenbart, die bisher unbekannten Wirkumgen des Lebensgeistes enthullt und die Fundamente dieser ganzen verborgenen Kunst mit der starksten, auf Erfahrung gestutzten Beweingrunden dargestellt werden". Kleiner Wunder-Schauplatz, Th. 3, Stuttgart, Scheible.

Minsky, Marvin Lee (1967) "Computation: finite and infinite machines". Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

Moore, Henry (1966) "Enthusiasmus Triumphatus", p. 32-33. The Augustan Reprint Society 118, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, University of California, LA, CA.

Needham, Joseph (1934) "A history of embryology", p. 164. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Needham, T. J. (1749) "Observations on the generation, composition and decomposition, of animal and vegetable substances". London, UK (summary in Phil. Trans. vol. XLV, p. 615, 1750).

Nordenskiold, Erik (1928) "The history of biology; a survey", Tudor Publishing Co, New York, NY.

Oppenheimer, Steven B. & Lefevre Jr., George (1984) "Introduction to embryonic development", p. 2-3. Albyn and Bacon, inc., Boston, MA.

Porta, Giambattista della (1957) "Natural Magik", p. 37. The Collector's series in science, Basic Books, New York, NY.

Redi, Francesco (1909) "Experiments on the generation of insects", translated from the italian edition by Mab Bigelow, p. 36. The Open Court Publishing Company, Chicago, IL.

Richards, Aute (1931) "Outline of comparative embryology". J. Willey & sons, inc, New York, NY.

Russell, E. S. (1930) "The interpretation of development and heredity— a study in biological method", p. 29-30. Claredon Press, Oxford, UK.

Schurigio, Martino (1720) "Spermatologia historico-medica, h. e. Seminis Humani Consideratio, Physico-Mecido-Legalis, qua Ejus natura et. usus, infilmulque Opus generationes et varia de coitu aliaque huc pertinentia, v. g. De Castratione Herniotomia, Phimiosi, Circumcisione, Rectutitione, & Infibulatione, item De Hermaphroditis & sexum mutatibus, raris & selectis Observationibus, annexo Indice lucupletissimo", p. 330-331. Johannis Beckii, Francofurti ad Moenum.

Scholem, Gershom (1941) "Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism". Schocken Books, New York,NY.

Sherwin, Byron L. (1985) "The golem legend— origins and implications". University Press of America, New York, NY.

Sterne, Lawrence (1899) "The life and opinions of Tristam Shandy, gentleman". The Temple Classics, J. M. Dent., London, UK.

Thorndike, Lynn (1929) "A history of magic and experimental science", 2nd ed. with corrections. The Macmillan Co, New York, NY.

Waddington, C. H. (1956) "Principles of embryology". George Allen and Unwin Ltd., Bristol, UK.

Waite, Arthur Edward (1976) "The hermetical and alchemical writings of Aureolus Philippus Theophrastus Bombast, of Hohenheim, called Paracelsus the Great, now for the first time faithfully translated into English", vol I, Hermetic chemistry, p. 124, 125. Shambala, Berkeley, CA.

Wells, Herbert George (1934) "Patterns of life", Science of Life Series, v. 2. Cassel, London, UK.

© All the material on this website is protected by copyright. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission from the copyright holder.



Home Link