Essai sur la formation des corps organises.

Berlin (i.e., Paris): np, 1754.

First edition in French, the earliest obtainable, and very rare, of Maupertuis’ remarkable original work on the nature of heredity and evolution, which marks him out, in the words of evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr (The Growth of Biological Thought, p. 328), as “one of the pioneers of genetics”. “Buffon saw clearly that both father and mother made a genetic contribution, but it was P. M. de Maupertuis, more than anyone else, who developed a theory of inheritance that can be considered as foreshadowing later developments. Maupertuis espoused a theory of pangenesis, based on the thought of Anaxagoras and Hippocrates, postulating particles (‘elements’) from both father and mother as responsible for the characters of the offspring. Most components of his theory can be found in the later theories of Naudin, Darwin and Galton” (ibid., p. 646). This is “one of his most significant works, later called Système de la nature. A sequel to the Vénus physique, it was a theoretical speculation on the nature of biparental heredity that included, as evidence, an account of a study of polydactyly in the family of a Berlin barber-surgeon, Jacob Ruhe, and the first careful and explicit analysis of the transmission of a dominant hereditary trait in man. Not only did Maupertuis demonstrate that polydactyly is transmitted through either the male or the female parent, but he also made a complete record of all normal as well as abnormal members of the family. He furthermore calculated the mathematical probability that the trait would occur coincidentally in the three successive generations of the Ruhe family had it not been inherited. On the basis of this study, Maupertuis founded a theory of the formation of the fetus and the nature of heredity that was at least a century ahead of its time. He postulated the existence of hereditary particles present in the semen of the male and female parents and corresponding to the parts of the fetus to be produced. They would come together by chemical attraction, each particle from the male parent joining a corresponding particle from the female parent; chemical affinity would also account for the proper formation of adjacent parts, since particles representing adjacent parts would be more alike than those of remote parts. At certain times the maternal character would dominate, at others the paternal character. The theory was applied to explain the nature of hybrids between species and their well-known sterility; and it was extended to account for aberrations with extra structures as well as to those characterized by a missing part. The origin of new sorts of particles, as well as the presence of those representing ancestral types, was envisaged. Finally, Maupertuis thought it possible that new species might originate through the geographical isolation of such variations” (DSB). The book was first published in Latin at Erlangen in 1751 or 1752, and then in a bilingual Latin-French edition, under the pseudonym ‘Dr. Baumann,’ but it is probable that no copy of either of these has survived. This French translation is also very rare. OCLC lists Harvard and Linda Hall only in US; not on ABPC/RBH.

“In the early 1750s, Maupertuis rejoined the debate about generation, although he continued to keep his work on generation quite distinct from his academic contributions, as he had in Paris … His engagement with this issue was a matter of passionate personal interest, as well as a means of leaving his mark on philosophical questions of crucial concern to his contemporaries. In 1750, a new edition of Vénus physique was being printed in Paris; at the same time, Maupertuis ‘avidly’ read Buffon’s first two volumes in Berlin …

“The same summer Maupertuis read another new book, a translation of Needham’s work on the generation and composition of living things. Needham reported on his experiments with Buffon on organic particles, and on many other microscopic observations of various organic infusions. His descriptions stunned Maupertuis, who wrote to La Condamine,

‘Have you read Needham’s book? What are we to think? What a new universe! What a shame that a man who observes so well reasons so poorly! After reading his book, my mind was so dizzy from all the ideas it presented to me that I had to go to bed like an invalid, and I have not yet completely recovered from the upheaval that this reading put me in. I hope when this tumult calms down a bit to take up again the thread of some meditations that I have begun some time since on this subject, and see if it is possible to pull out something reasonable from it.’

“Needham’s book described experiments with infusions of seeds and meat gravy, all of which produced microscopic ‘moving Globules’ after sitting for a few days. Based on many observations, he decided that ‘vegetative Powers’ belonged to all organic substances, animal and plant alike … Maupertuis was not convinced by Needham’s talk of epigenesis through vegetation, but the array of new observations roused him to declare, ‘Here we can say that the structure of the tiniest insect is more marvelous than that of the whole planetary system.’ Overcome with amazement and confusion at the ‘marvels’ revealed by Needham’s microscope, he revisited his theory of active matter and thought about how to develop it further. Needham and Buffon had produced a new kind of empirical evidence from the boundary land between life and death. Not only did these observations of infusoria open up novel explanatory possibilities, but the community of natural historians did not adequately appreciate these possibilities …

“The excitement at the prospect of a ‘new world’ was tempered by frustration at how to make sense of it. These letters from the early 1750s reveal an intense struggle with confusing bits of evidence, about a question with the widest possible ramifications. Not since the years of searching for a way to shed light on the obscurity of Newton’s physics had Maupertuis engaged so fiercely with a recalcitrant intellectual problem.

“Where Buffon argued that animals formed from ‘organized and living’ particles, Maupertuis presumed that the organic elements were not themselves alive. These invisible elements had to be smaller than the ‘spermatic animals’ in seminal fluids … This combination of speculation and experience/experiment would characterize Maupertuis’s subsequent published writings on generation … As was his habit, he pursued a variety of tactics for introducing his reflections on this evidence to the public. Different versions of several texts appeared over a period of about two years. The most adventurous of these, leaning heavily toward materialism, was published anonymously, its origins strategically shrouded in secrecy.

“Maupertuis wrote up a version of his ‘meditations’ on generation and had it printed pseudonymously in Latin to obscure his identity. The edition was sufficiently small that no modern commentator has found a copy, although surviving correspondence indicates that some contemporary readers had seen the Latin text … Maupertuis’s little Latin book, obscurely titled Dissertatio inauguralis metaphysica de universali naturae systemate, purported to be a thesis by one Dr. Baumann of the University of Erlangen. The ‘dissertation’ opened the door to materialism by recasting the inherent forces of organization in psychological terms, giving matter ‘some principle of intelligence.’ Although he later claimed that it first appeared in Germany in 1751, there is no corroborating evidence for this date, and it seems more likely that it was not printed until 1752. The first mention of the text occurs in December 1752 when Maupertuis asked La Condamine for his opinion … he had recently sent copies to La Condamine, Buffon, and possibly Réaumur as well. The use of the first person made his authorship clear to La Condamine, although Maupertuis also referred to the book as the work of Baumann. La Condamine found the ‘thesis’ reminiscent of Spinoza, a shorthand way of equating the theory of self-organizing matter with atheistic materialism. The other relevant feature of Spinoza’s philosophy, as it was understood in the Enlightenment, would have been the sensibility of matter, the only substance in the universe. Mention of Spinoza raised just the kind of risk that Maupertuis implicitly courted but openly abjured. ‘I am happy that the Erlangen thesis pleased you: I judge it as you do, except that I do not find in it any Spinozism at all. Our friend Buffon never replied to me about the one I sent to him, maybe it is the shadow of Spinozism that displeased him. As for me, I tell you that I do not believe that there has been anything yet written on the production of organized bodies that compares with this thesis.’ At some point, he must have had a small edition printed with both French and Latin versions of the text, still anonymously, and still not widely distributed; no copies of this edition, however, are known today.

“By this time, Maupertuis had gone public as the author of Vénus physique by including it in the 1752 edition of his collected works. His maneuvers for managing the release of the potentially controversial new work on generation coincided with his attempt to recover from Voltaire’s attack. Fréron, a sworn enemy of Voltaire and the author of the journal Année littéraire, was an obvious ally in this campaign Maupertuis wrote to him and also asked La Condamine to lobby the journalist for a favorable review of his Oeuvres.  Fréron agreed willingly. In his review, he mentioned Dr. Baumann while discussing Vénus physique, without betraying any suspicion that the two texts were the work of the same author. He noted that Baumann had resolved the difficult question, unanswered in Vénus physique, of how to conceive of the ‘principle of union’ guiding the combination of parts of the fetus.

‘I learn that in September 1751, M. Baumann defended at Erlangen in Germany a thesis in which he supposes that all particles of matter, and especially the organic particles revealed by the latest experiments, are animated by a sort of instinct more or less perfect, much like that ordinarily ascribed to animals, and that these same particles preserve the memory of their former situation that they tend to take up again. From this, he explains quite convincingly a great number of phenomena, and in particular those of generation.’

“With this, Baumann gained a wider, if still obscure, visibility and legitimacy; only a few readers would have recognized the sleight of hand by which Fréron introduced Baumann to solve Vénus physique’s conceptual problems.

“Maupertuis arrived in Paris in May 1753 for a stay of several months; shortly thereafter the ‘Erlangen thesis’ was circulating around Paris. From correspondence with Nicolas Trublet we can see how the book was discussed, as well as the widespread public interest in its provenance. Trublet was a cleric and man of letters, as well as a royal censor and an enemy of Voltaire, and a longtime associate of Maupertuis. In October 1753, he reported a conversation about a new book he had not yet seen, called ‘something like System of the Universe.’ Maupertuis’s old friend Pierre Le Monnier, the astronomer who had accompanied him to Lapland, had mentioned to Trublet a book ‘in your style, which he had loaned to the duchesse d’Ayen and then to M. Quesnay with whom he had left it at Fontainebleau; . . . in this book it is said that matter can think, etc.’ La Condamine had cleared up some of Trublet’s confusion by telling him that this was Baumann’s Erlangen thesis and noting that Fréron had discussed it in his journal. Furthermore, La Condamine reported rumors that Maupertuis had had something to do with it. Maupertuis was a popular subject of literary gossip at this time because of his recent battle with Voltaire in Prussia. As we learn from Trublet’s comment, a single copy of the little book made the rounds of the overlapping circles of court ladies (the duchesse d’Ayen) and men of letters (Quesnay, Le Monnier), fueling talk about its authorship as well as its ties to materialism and Spinozism. Trublet was fishing for direct confirmation from the suspected author, but Maupertuis adamantly refused to give it; he also claimed to have no copy of the book to give to Trublet. He had evidently given away a few copies of what he knew to be a risky text, to see what people would say. Certainly, the book’s scarcity and its anonymity contributed to its notoriety, but there is no indication that Maupertuis was planning to publish it more widely.

“In November, Trublet told Maupertuis, who had left Paris for Saint-Malo, about a new book by Diderot that cited Baumann at some length. ‘This is the work that M. Le Monnier attributed to you, according to what M. l’Abbé de Pontbriant told me,’ Trublet noted. In effect, Diderot’s discussion of ‘a little Latin work’ published in Erlangen and ‘brought to France by M. de M. . . . in 1753’ linked the Baumann thesis to Maupertuis’s name, albeit in conventionally elliptical form. Diderot’s book, Thoughts on the Interpretation of Nature, was itself controversial and brought Maupertuis’s potentially scandalous claims about thinking matter into public view, at a time when very few people had read them directly. This exposure may well have forced Maupertuis’s hand and pushed him toward publishing a more accessible French edition.

“By December 1753, Trublet had finally gotten his hands on a copy of the Baumann thesis, ‘but in the original, that is to say in the French, as I submit that the Latin is only a translation and that the French is by you. It is one of the most beautiful things you have written. . . Durand [the Paris printer] must reprint this excellent work.’ By this time two versions were circulating, in extremely limited numbers, one in Latin and one with the French text alongside the Latin … Trublet took it upon himself, apparently with Maupertuis’s acquiescence, to shepherd the French version through the printing process. He wrote a preface reviewing the publication history and reminded readers about Fréron’s review and Diderot’s contentious remarks. Maupertuis quibbled about how visible his name should be (the book was formally anonymous), but eventually he let Trublet drop an elliptical hint about his identity in the preface. Trublet recognized that Maupertuis’s authorship would give the book added interest: ‘If I consented to neither name nor indicate you, I would be harming the book, and besides . . . it would be pointless since a thousand people know it is your work.’ Trublet showed the text to Malesherbes, director of the book trade, and obtained a tacit permission to publish. Printing commenced in March, ‘in small format, just like that of the Lettres de M. de Maupertuis [1752].’ A thousand copies were printed, and the book appeared as Essai sur la formation des corps organisés (Essay on the formation of organized bodies), with a fictitious Berlin imprint. Just two years later, Maupertuis included the Essai in his four-volume collected works, under a bland title reminiscent of Baumann’s thesis, Systême de la nature” (Terrall, pp. 317-327).

Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought, 1982. Terrall, The man who flattened the earth. Maupertuis and the sciences in the Enlightenment, 2002.

12mo (135 x 80 mm), pp. [iv], xii, 67 [1]. Contemporary green morrocco, spine and boarders git, edges gilt. A very fine and unrestored copy.

Item #5233

Price: $32,500.00