Book - Russian Embryology (1750 - 1850) 8

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Blyakher L. History of embryology in Russia from the middle of the eighteenth to the middle of the nineteenth century (istoryia embriologii v Rossii s serediny XVIII do serediny XIX veka) (1955) Academy of Sciences USSR. Institute of the History of Science and Technology. Translation Smithsonian Institution (1982).

Historic Russian Embryology TOC: 1. Beginning of Embryological Investigations Lomonosov's Epoch | 2. Preformation or New Formation? | 3. Kaspar Friedrich Wolff - Theory of Epigenesis | 4. Wolff: "Theory Of Generation" | 5. Wolff: "Formation of the Intestine" | 6. Wolff's Teratological Works | 7. Wolff: "On the Special Essential Tower" | 8. Ideology of Wolff | Chapter 9. Theory of Epigenesis End of 18th Century | 10. Embryology in the Struggle of Russian Empirical Science Against Naturphilosophie | 11. Louis Tredern - Forgotten Embryologist Beginning of 19th Century | 12. Embryonic Membranes of Mammals - Ludwig Heinrich Bojanus | 13. Embryonic Layers - Kh. I. Pander | 14. Karl Maksimovich Baer | 15. Baer's - De Ovi Mammalium Et Hominis Genesi | 16. Baer's Ober Entw I Cklungsgesch I Chte Der Thiere | 17. Baer Part 1 - Chicken Development | 18. Baer Part 2 - History of Chicken Development | 19. Baer Vol 2 | 20. Third Part of the Bird Egg and Embryo Development | 21. Third Part - Development of Reptiles, Mammals, and Animals Deprived of Amnion and Yolk Sac | 22. Fourth Part - Development of Man | 23. Baer's Teratological Works and Embryological Reports in Petersburg | Chapter 24. Baer's Theoretical Views | 25. Invertebrate Embryology - A. Grube, A. D. Nordmann, N. A. Warnek, and A. Krohn
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This historic textbook by Bliakher translated from Russian, describes historic embryology in Russia between 1750 - 1850.



Publishing House of the Academy of Science USSR

Moscow 1955

Translated from Russian

Translated and Edited by:

Dr. Hosni Ibrahim Youssef # Faculty of Veterinary Medicine Cairo University

Dr. Boulos Abdel Malek

Head of Veterinary Research Division

NAMRU-3, Cairo

Arab Republic of Egypt

Published for

The Smithsonian Institution and the National Science Foundation, Washington, D.C, by The Al Ahram Center for Scientific Translations 1982


Published for

The Smithsonian Institution and the National Science Foundation, Washington, D.C by The Al Ahram Center for Scientific Translations (1982)


Also available online Internet Archive


Historic Embryology Textbooks

Historic Disclaimer - information about historic embryology pages 
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Pages where the terms "Historic Textbook" and "Historic Embryology" appear on this site, and sections within pages where this disclaimer appears, indicate that the content and scientific understanding are specific to the time of publication. This means that while some scientific descriptions are still accurate, the terminology and interpretation of the developmental mechanisms reflect the understanding at the time of original publication and those of the preceding periods, these terms and interpretations may not reflect our current scientific understanding.     (More? Embryology History | Historic Embryology Papers)

Chapter 8. The Ideology of Wolff

The comparison of Wolff's thoughts about the essential force, which he stated throughout a thirty-year period from the time of his dissertation up to the work which has just been discussed, with his other principal reports >could serve as material for conclusions about Wolff's theoretical ideas.

To formulate a conclusive opinion is not easy, as evidenced by the diversity of the opinions in literature. Apparently, the first methodical evaluation of Wolff's opinions was given by Kirchhoff,* in whose article there was a special section under the title of "Wolff's Materialism." Comparing Wolff to Haller, Kirchhoff wrote that the latter extracted the "mystery of the invisible existence" of preformed rudiments "from the mystery of the act of creation in Adam's time." In contrast, "Wolff's epigenesis transferred the miracle of development of the organism from the provisional subjects of the world and gave it to the authority of the rational science. By means of exhausting investigations and by means of the sharpness of logic, Wolff made the development of organisms an unquestioned truth." However, in Kirchhoff s opinion another important service also belongs to Wolff: "He established the route for the only possible explanation of life, namely for the mechanical or materialistic explanation, which is based on the solid, rock-like foundation that life phenomena can be explained as originating from material and the power which is not separated from it."^ Reviewing the contents of Wolff's article, "About the special essential force," Kirchhoff extracted from it the following conditions. Organic life, according to Wolff, is situated under the control of universal natural laws which do not know exceptions. The law of organic life is the effect of the power of attraction and repulsion, which does not, however, correspond identically to the manifestations of the inorganic world. The organic power of attraction is the particular nourishing power of living creatures which Wolff called the essential force or power. In it, the existence of the organism is expressed; it is inherent to each of its particles which is capable of attracting some substances and repulsing others, as in the magnet where each point acts in an attracting and repulsing manner simultaneously. The nourishing of organisms is similar to the development or growth of crystals, because in this case only certain substances are attracted; however, there are differences because the crystal acquires new material from the surface while the organism swallows it internally. The selective property of nourishing substances could be comparable to the activities of the soul, but, it is impossible in any case to mix it with the properties of the animal soul as Stahl did. On stating these opinions, in a fairly simple rewording of Wolff's own, expression, Kirchhoff exclaimed: "How clearly without base are these views about nature...!" 3 Kirchhoff later developed his own view as follows: "There is a solid line for the mechanical biology of our and all times: the movement of material, by the eternal law of physics and chemistry, promotes the circulation of substances through air, water and earth and also through living bodies; hence their birth, life and death represent a surrender to the natural law of the link in this wonderful complex... Wolff says that to accept Blumenbach's educational type of force means to agree with his incapacity to relate life to its reasons, i.e. to interpret in accordance with the laws of nature. Whoever behaves like that tries to help himself by a big voluminous word which gives a cheap explanation to all existence." Kirchhoff concluded Wolff's critique of Bluraenbach by citing Goethe's words: "Where comprehension is lacking, there a word fills in at the right time." 4 E. Haeckel similarly praised Wolff's methodology, labelling him a "great natural -philosophy scientist in the best and highest understanding of this word. "5


1. However, much earlier Haeckel remarked that "vis essentialis" represented to Wolff not something mythical but simply a suitable name for the identification of two real phenomena, namely the autonomic movement of the nourishing solution in the organism and the independent development of the typical forms and structures (BRITISH AND FOREIGN MEDICO-CHIRURGICAL REVIEW, v. 12 C1853) pp. 285 - 314).

2. A. Kirchhoff, "C. F. Wolff: Sein Leben und seine Bedeutung fiir die Lehre von der organischen Entwicklung , " JENAISCHE ZEITSCHRIFT FUR MEDIZIN UND NATURWISSENSCHAFT, Leipzig, 4 (1868), p. 214.

3. Ibid ., p. 216.


Kirchhoff evaluated Wolff's ideology as materialistic, naturally identifying it with the "mechanical" understanding of nature. This conclusion is not understandable, if we remember how definitely Wolff, as early as 1759, had objected to the principles of "the mechanical medicine," which he called an "imagined system." Contrary to Kirchhoff, the majority of authors who have written about Wolff and who were interested in his ideology have characterized him as a vitalist. This was manifest when (Emile) Radl, in his first edition of HISTORY OF BIOLOGICAL THEORIES, 6 wrote that Wolff, following J(ohn) T(urberville) Needham, had borrowed Leibnitz's idea of the monad which, by the effect of a specially developed force, is turned into an organism. Hence, Radl concluded, Wolff had added this conception to Stahl's idea about the soul as a continuing superphysical power in nature. And although Radl, in the second edition of his book, considered Wolff's evaluation as incorrect, such an opinion has appeared in recent literature without any reservation, for example by J. Needham in HISTORY OF EMBRYOLOGY (p. 256). It is entirely natural, of course, that (Hans) Driesch^ considered Wolff to be a complete vitalist because in his HISTORY OF VITALISM Driesch had joined the vitalists, and for the most part, although without sufficient basis, so had almost all the leading biologists.


4. "Faust," fourth scene, translation of N. A. Kholdokovskogo .

5. E(rnst) Haeckel, ANTHROPOGENIE ; ODER ENTWICKLUNGSGESCHICHTE DES MENSCHEN. (Leipzig: Engelman, 1874), p. 36.

6. E(mile) Radl, GESCHICHTE DER BIOLOGISCHEN THEORIEN, v. I, 1905.

7. Ibid ., 2nd ed., 1913, p. 243.

8. [Ed.: Joseph Needham, A HISTORY OF EMBRYOLOGY (2nd ed., • 1959), pp. 207 - 208. This claim represents a misreading of Needham.)

9. H. Driesch, DER VITALISM ALS GESCHICHTE UND ALS LEHRE (Leipzig: Johann Ambrosius Barth, 1905), pp. 50 - 55.


Referring to Radl, P. A. Novikov-^ also considered Wolff an idealist, calling his system of opinions physiological vitalism. Novikov said that Wolff's opinions, from the philosophical viewpoint, oppose Cartesian ideology and are related to Leibnitz's teachings about monads. At the same time they are in opposition with other conditions of the latter, particularly with the teachings about pre-established harmony. Somewhat later, Novikov remarked that Wolff's theory is vitalistic only from the formal point of view and undoubtedly could have been favorably accepted in France where "materialism, at that time, was becoming a popular philosophy and where Diderot, applying the epigenesis of Maupertuis, has placed the materialistic foundation under it." In another place in his book, Novikov placed the vitalistic epigenesis of Stahl and van Helmont against the ideas of Wolff and Blumenbach, which he characterized by the absence of animism.


B. E. Raikov, in the book repeatedly cited here, has made an attempt to review Wolff's theoretical ideology. Translating the corresponding parts from Wolff's different works, especially from both books devoted to the theory of generation, and from the article "On the special essential force," Raikov concluded that Wolff's scientific method is materialistic, that his "essential force" is contrary to Stahl 's "soul" and does not have a mystical supernatural character. Raikov referred also to Wolff's handwritten work, "First outline of the theory of the soul," in which Wolff confirmed that the soul does not precede the body; Wolff acknowledged what is expressed in modern language as the primacy of the material over the soul. "Therefore," Raikov wrote, "Wolff cannot by any means be listed in the category of the vitalists — he has many idealistic ideas."! 1 Wolff's opinion against "The mechanical medicine" Raikov considered as Wolff's opposition to "This diverse materialism, which has got the name of mechanism. "12 This conclusion, in agreement with Wolff's opinions about the eighteenth century, represents, to a certain extent, a modernization of his ideology which distorts the historical perspective.


10. P. A. Novikov, THEORY OF EPIGENESIS IN BIOLOGY (1926), pp. 18 - 19, and 62.

11. B. E. Raikov, OUTLINES OF THE HISTORY OF EVOLUTIONARY IDEAS IN RUSSIA BEFORE DARWIN, 1947, p. 72.

12. Ibid., p. 73.



The connection of Wolff's opinions with philosophical presentations undoubtedly have had an effect on modern science. It has already been noted above that some of his ideology was dependent upon Leibnitz's ideas which were predominant in the eighteenth century. It must be remembered that with Leibnitz's philosophical presentations, the persons opposing Wolff — those who were supporting the idea of preformation — had a greater basis to attack Wolff, because Leibnitz was himself inclined to the idea which he expressed as his idealistic doctrine about the pre-established harmony. In the literature, it was repeatedly noted that K. F. Wolff had learned Leibnitz's ideas from his teacher Christian Wolff, who had tried to reject the most idealistic aspects of the doctrines, in particular the existence of preestablished harmony. As mentioned above, K. F. Wolff himself considered these teachings about the pre-established harmony a philosophical source of the idea of preformation. No, strictly speaking there is no basis to assume that Wolff had accepted Leibnitz's doctrines about monads. In his theory of development, Wolff followed only Leibnitz's ideas on the understanding of the forces or powers as the source of life processes in general, and development or growth in particular, which are central for Leibnitz and his independent successors.

Apparently, it is not an exaggeration to say that Wolff had made an attempt to establish a special system guided by a concrete study of the manifestations of nature and, above all, the manifestations of life. He could not put his system in order. If Wolff's materialistic tendency in his opinions about the possibility of knowing the world, about the subordination of all its manifestations including all the features of life to natural law, about the subordination of psychical processes to materialistic features and so on are unquestionable, so his fluctuations between materialism and idealism on the question about the moving force of vital processes (2^) are without doubt. In an analogous context, he hurried to make the reservation that the essential force is entirely distinctive and inherent only to the organic body. With his opinions, he sometimes moved close to Stahl's presentations and sometimes decisively shut himself off from them.


In his fluctuations between materialism and idealism, Wolff was undoubtedly closer to the former. In any case, he repeatedly urged strict and careful investigations of nature. It is not his fault that the general level of philosophy and knowledge of nature at that time did not allow him to develop his efforts into materialistic judgments. It is not his fault that he sometimes was obliged to argue theologically, which, judging from his letters to Haller, did not satisfy him deeply. Now it is impossible to know accurately why Wolff behaved as he did, either because he hoped to convince his opponents with such arguments, or because he was obliged as a result of external circumstances to give his thoughts a form that did not correspond to theirs. In any case it is clear that Wolff never retreated from his scientific beliefs.

Unrecognized in Germany where he was born and where he spent his youth, Wolff was acknowledged in Russia which can be fairly considered his second motherland. On Wolff's sudden and early death, the Petersburg Academy of Science praised him in a short but condensed obituary, which clearly stated the outstanding services of the late Russian academician. *â– *


13. An obituary in French is published in NOVA ACTA ACAD. SCIENT. PETROPOL., XII (1794), 1801 . A translation of a significant part of this document is given in A. E. Gaissinovich, "K. F. Wolff and teachings about development," pp. 472 - 473.



Historic Russian Embryology TOC: 1. Beginning of Embryological Investigations Lomonosov's Epoch | 2. Preformation or New Formation? | 3. Kaspar Friedrich Wolff - Theory of Epigenesis | 4. Wolff: "Theory Of Generation" | 5. Wolff: "Formation of the Intestine" | 6. Wolff's Teratological Works | 7. Wolff: "On the Special Essential Tower" | 8. Ideology of Wolff | Chapter 9. Theory of Epigenesis End of 18th Century | 10. Embryology in the Struggle of Russian Empirical Science Against Naturphilosophie | 11. Louis Tredern - Forgotten Embryologist Beginning of 19th Century | 12. Embryonic Membranes of Mammals - Ludwig Heinrich Bojanus | 13. Embryonic Layers - Kh. I. Pander | 14. Karl Maksimovich Baer | 15. Baer's - De Ovi Mammalium Et Hominis Genesi | 16. Baer's Ober Entw I Cklungsgesch I Chte Der Thiere | 17. Baer Part 1 - Chicken Development | 18. Baer Part 2 - History of Chicken Development | 19. Baer Vol 2 | 20. Third Part of the Bird Egg and Embryo Development | 21. Third Part - Development of Reptiles, Mammals, and Animals Deprived of Amnion and Yolk Sac | 22. Fourth Part - Development of Man | 23. Baer's Teratological Works and Embryological Reports in Petersburg | Chapter 24. Baer's Theoretical Views | 25. Invertebrate Embryology - A. Grube, A. D. Nordmann, N. A. Warnek, and A. Krohn

Cite this page: Hill, M.A. (2019, September 21) Embryology Book - Russian Embryology (1750 - 1850) 8. Retrieved from https://embryology.med.unsw.edu.au/embryology/index.php/Book_-_Russian_Embryology_(1750_-_1850)_8

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