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a biological theory, prevalent until the 18th century, according to which the sexual cells of an organism contain a fully formed embryo or parts of an embryo. Its supporters mistakenly rejected the idea that the parts of an embryo were formed during the embryo’s development.
J. Swammerdam, M. Malpighi, and A. Leeuwenhoek were among the first 17th-century microscopists who believed that the embryo was preformed. Ovists believed that preformation occurred in the ovum and animalculists believed it occurred in the sperm. The only changes that would occur during the organisms’ development would be an increase in size and a consolidation of its transparent, formerly invisible parts. In its extreme, preformation was based on creationism, or the dogma of the primordial creation of living beings that contained within themselves the rudiments of the embryos of all future generations. Opponents of spontaneous generation and other mechanistic theories of development, such as C. Bonnet, A. Haller, and L. Spallanzani, continued to substantiate preformation.
The concept that organisms develop as successive neoformations (epigenesis) gained prevalence in the second half of the 18th century. Preformation tended to be disproved by studies on sharp deviations from normal development, on the transmission of individual hereditary characteristics from both the mother as well as the father, and on the ability of the organism to regenerate.
The more primitive concept of preformation should be distinguished from preformism, which arose in the second half of the 19th century.
REFERENCESGaisinovich, A. E. K. F. Vol’fi uchenie o razvitii organizmov (V sviazi s obshchei evoliutsiei nauchnogo mirovozzreniia). Moscow, 1961.
Roger, J. Les Sciences de la vie dans la pensée française du XVIII siècle: La Generation des animaux de Descartes à l’Encyclopédie, 2nd ed. Paris, 1971.
A. E. GAISINOVICH