The Renaissance and Preformation

This is a tale of woes, and oh, what a tale. And it all begins with some introspection as to whether we, as human beings, are “preformed.” If we venture back a mere 350 years or so, to the time of Italian biomedical scientist and microscopist, Marcello Malpighi, we can find the origins of a rather intriguing (if not somewhat childish) scientific theory known as ‘Preformation.’

1978_miniature of sperm

The concept of Preformation

According to Preformation theory, adult organisms are the result of growth of preformed (body) parts contained either within the sperm or egg. With the advances in microscopic resolution, however, Preformation was largely abandoned in the 18th century, and scientific inquiry ultimately provided the more accurate concept of fertilization and embryonic growth that is predominant today.

Certain recent experiences, however, have led me to question whether the concept of Preformation may actually have some merit—if not regarding the growth of embryos, at least with regard to the morality and behavior of human beings. Allow me to explain:

The Renaissance in 21st century technology, including computers, cell phones and communications, has had an enormous impact on society as a whole. But here I would like to focus on a personal story, one that relates to the massive globalization effects that computers and the internet have wrought—for better, or for worse.

First the good! In a remarkable coincidence that would be fit for the cliché that ‘truth is stranger than fiction,’ I came across a photo of a woman who went to elementary school with me from 1st grade through 6th grade, and who I last saw about 41 years ago. Yes, 41 years, and still easily recognizable. And despite the fact that we almost never talked to one another during those school years, when I contacted her (98% certain that it was the same person), over the last 3 years we have become great friends, had a wonderful visit together last summer at my home in Omaha and are planning a second visit together at her family residence in Toronto. Truly a Renaissance!

However, as I have learned, sometimes the expression ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ should be adhered to. In this story, the anti-hero is someone who we will call G.H. When I served in the Israeli army back in 1983, one evening while in basic training I was dismayed to find that my duffel bag had been cut open and my winter jacket was missing. As I stood freezing and shivering in formation, I couldn’t help but notice that the soldier lined up directly in front of me, one G.H., happened to have the name “STEVE” emblazoned on the back of his green parka in huge, bold black marker. With my handwriting of course. A “giveaway?” It didn’t seem to bother G.H., to whom stealing appeared to be second nature. And all of this has been chronicled by yours truly in Chapter 30 of my second novel, “Welcome Home, Sir.”

In the course of the 3 months of basic training, G.H. proved to be a terrible person—the type who would lie and cheat his own grandmother. Indeed, in the final forced stretcher march—an activity which often highlighted the character of the people in the platoon, G.H., stumbled at the back, complaining that he had had enough and couldn’t go on. Along with another soldier, I was assigned to help support/carry/drag G.H. across the finish line, which was still 20 km away. It was no easy task, since G.H. was uncooperative, and cursed and resisted us the whole time—until he lost his temper and tried to take a swing at me with his rifle. He was subsequently court martialed and sent off to military prison, never to heard of again. Almost.

Which brings me to philosophize as to whether an 18 year-old can change—or whether he is predestined/preformed to a degree that his life trajectory has already been predetermined by that age. Or perhaps even much earlier.

Given my favorable experiences in unearthing persons from my past, it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps I might find traces of G.H. online. Perhaps he had turned his life around after the army, become a professor of history, or CEO of a start-up company? Gone to law school and become a supreme court judge? Become mayor of a city? A teacher at school? Anything productive?

A quick Google search turned up a single article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, about a man named G.H. (an uncommon name, by the way) who was exactly my age, and had just rammed the truck he drove into a bus stop full of people and killed two of them, and was awaiting trial for murder (or to see if he was deemed fit for trial). Why? Apparently, he maintained that the police and government had killed his children—who were alive. And in the end, with all the sadness at the futile loss of life in this story, does anything really surprise me? The truth is no—it does not. And unfortunately, perhaps Malpighi and his 17th century scientific colleagues had a point about Preformation—although perhaps the notion would have been more accurate at the conceptual/metaphoric level rather than scientifically.

As for me? I think I will now take a hiatus from my digging into the past—while it can bring intense pleasure, and while knowledge is power, it can sometimes be better not to know…

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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One Response to The Renaissance and Preformation

  1. Laurence Cox says:


    As both a scientist and an author, I think you will find Tom McLeish’s latest book interesting. Here is the link:

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