Classics of Modern Science, Copernicus to Pasteur

Author: August Weismann

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When we see that, in the higher organisms, the smallest structural details, and the most minute peculiarities of bodily and mental disposition, are transmitted from one generation to another; when we find in all species of plants and animals a thousand characteristic peculiarities of structure continued unchanged through long series of generations; when we even see them in many cases unchanged throughout whole geological periods; we very naturally ask for the causes of such a striking phenomenon: and inquire how it is that such facts become possible, how it is that the individual is able to transmit its structural features to its offspring with such precision. And the immediate answer to such a question must be given in the following terms:—"A single cell out of the millions of diversely differentiated cells which compose the body, becomes specialized as a sexual cell; it is thrown off from the organism and is capable of reproducing all the peculiarities of the parent body, in the new individual which springs from it by cell-division and the complex process of differentiation." Then the more precise question follows: "How is it that such a single cell can reproduce the tout ensemble of the parent with all the faithfulness of a portrait?"

The answer is extremely difficult; and no one of the many attempts to solve the problem can be looked upon as satisfactory; no one of them can be regarded as even the beginning of a solution or as a secure foundation from which a complete solution may be expected in the future. Neither Häeckel’s "Perigenesis of the Plastidule," nor Darwin’s "Pangenesis," can be regarded as such a beginning. The former hypothesis does not really treat of that part of the problem which is here placed in the foreground, viz., the explanation of the fact that the tendencies of heredity are present in single cells, but it is rather concerned with the question as to the manner in which it is possible to conceive the transmission of a certain tendency of development into the sexual cell, and ultimately into the organism arising from it. The same may be said of the hypothesis of His, who, like Häeckel regards heredity as the transmission of certain kinds of motion. On the other hand, it must be conceded that Darwin’s hypothesis goes to the very root of the question, but he is content to give, as it were, a provisional or purely formal solution, which, as he himself says, does not claim to afford insight into the real phenomena, but only to give us the opportunity of looking at all the facts of heredity from a common standpoint. It has achieved this end, and I believe it has unconsciously done more, in that the thoroughly logical application of its principles has shown that the real causes of heredity cannot lie in the formation of gemmules or in any allied phenomena. The improbabilities to which any such theory would lead are so great that we can affirm with certainty that its details cannot accord with existing facts. Furthermore, Brooks’ well-considered and brilliant attempt to modify the theory of Pangenesis cannot escape the reproach that it is based upon possibilites, which one might certainly describe as improbabilities. But although I am of the opinion that the whole foundation of the theory of Pangenesis, however it may be modified, must be abandoned, I think, nevertheless, its author deserves great credit, and that its production has been one of those indirect roads along which science has been compelled to travel in order to arrive at the truth. Pangenesis is a modern revival of the oldest theory of heredity, that of Democritus, according to which the sperm is secreted from all parts of the body of both sexes during copulation, and is animated by a bodily force; according to this theory also, the sperm from each part of the body reproduces the same part.

If, according to the received physiological and morphological ideas of the day, it is impossible to imagine that gemmules produced by each cell of the organism are at all times to be found in all parts of the body, and furthermore that these gemmules are collected in the sexual cells, which are then able to reproduce again in a certain order each separate cell of the organism, so that each sexual cell is capable of developing into the likeness of the parent body; if all this is inconceivable, we must inquire for some other way in which we can arrive at a foundation for the true understanding of heredity. My present task is not to deal with the whole question of heredity, but only with the single although fundamental question—"How is it that a single cell of the body can contain within itself all the hereditary tendencies of the whole organism?" I am here leaving out of account the further question as to the forces and the mechanism by which these tendencies are developed in the building-up of the organism. On this account I abstain from considering at present the views of Nägeli, for as will be shown later on, they only slightly touch this fundamental question, although they may certainly claim to be of the highest importance with respect to the further question alluded to above.

Now if it is impossible for the germ-cell to be, as it were, an extract of the whole body, and for all the cells of the organism to dispatch small particles to the germ-cells, from which the latter derive their power of heredity; then there remain, as it seems to me, only two other possible, physiologically conceivable, theories as to the origin of germ-cells, manifesting such powers as we know they possess. Either the substance of the parent germ-cell is capable of undergoing a series of changes which, after the building-up of a new individual leads back again to identical germ-cells; or the germ-cells are not derived at all, as far as their essential and characteristic substance is concerned, from the body of the individual, but they are derived directly from the parent germ-cell.

I believe that the latter view is the true one: I have expounded it for a number of years, and have attempted to defend it, and to work out its further details in various publications. I propose to call it the theory of "The Continuity of the Germ-plasm," for it is founded upon the idea that heredity is brought about by the transference from one generation to another of a substance with a definite chemical, and above all, molecular constitution. I have called this substance "germplasm," and have assumed that it possesses a highly complex structure, conferring upon it the power of developing into a complex organism. I have attempted to explain heredity by supposing that in each ontogeny a part of the specific germ-plasm contained in the parent eggcell is not used up in the construction of the body of the offspring, but is reserved unchanged for the formation of the germ-cells of the following generation.

It is clear that this view of the origin of germ-cells explains the phenomena of heredity very simply, inasmuch as heredity becomes thus a question of growth and of assimilation,—the most fundamental of all vital phenomena. If the germ-cells of successive generations are directly continuous, and thus only form, as it were, different parts of the same substance, it follows that these cells must, or at any rate may, possess the same molecular constitution, and that they would therefore pass through exactly the same stages under certain conditions of development, and would form the same final product. The hypothesis of the continuity of the germ-plasm gives an identical starting point to each successive generation, and thus explains how it is that an identical product arises from all of them. In other words, the hypothesis explains heredity as part of the underlying problems of assimilation and of the causes which act directly during ontogeny; it therefore builds a foundation from which the explanation of these phenomena can be attempted.

It is true that this theory also meets with difficulties, for it seems to be unable to do justice to a certain class of phenomena, viz., the transmission of so-called acquired characters. I therefore gave immediate and special attention to this point in my first publication on heredity, and I believe that I have shown that the hypothesis of the transmission of acquired characters—up to that time generally accepted—is, to say the least, very far from being proved, and that entire classes of facts which have been interpreted under this hypothesis may be quite as well interpreted otherwise, while in many cases they must be explained differently. I have shown that there is no ascertained fact which, at least up to the present time, remains in irrevocable conflict with the hypothesis of the continuity of the germ-plasm; and I do not know any reason why I should modify this opinion to-day, for I have not heard of any objection which appears to be feasible. E. Roth has objected that in pathology we everywhere meet with the fact that acquired local disease may be transmitted to the offspring as a predisposition; but all such cases are exposed to the serious criticism that the very point that first needs to be placed on a secure footing is incapable of proof, viz., the hypothesis that the causes which in each particular case led to the predisposition were really acquired. It is not my intention, on the present occasion, to enter fully into the question of acquired characters; I hope to be able to consider the subject in greater detail at a future date. But in the meantime I should wish to point out that we ought, above all, to be clear as to what we really mean by the expression "acquired character." An organism cannot acquire anything unless it already possesses the predisposition to acquire it: acquired characters are therefore no more than local or sometimes general variations which arise under the stimulus provided by certain external influences. If by the long-continued handling of a rifle, the so-called "Exercierknochen" (a bony growth caused by the pressure of the weapon in drilling) is developed, such a result depends upon the fact that the bone in question, like every other bone, contains within itself a predisposition to react upon certain mechanical stimuli, by growth in a certain direction and to a certain extent. The predisposition towards an "Exercierknochen" is therefore already present, or else the growth could not be formed; and the same reasoning applies to all other "acquired characters."

Nothing can arise in an organism unless the predisposition to it is pre-existent, for every acquired character is simply the reaction of the organism upon a certain stimulus. Hence I should never have thought of asserting that predispositions cannot be transmitted, as E. Roth appears to believe. For instance, I freely admit that the predisposition to an "Exercierknochen" varies, and that a strongly marked predisposition may be transmitted from father to son, in the form of bony tissue with a more susceptible constitution. But I should deny that the son could develop an "Exercierknochen" without having drilled, or that, after having drilled, he could develop it more easily than his father, on account of the drilling through which the latter first acquired it. I believe that this is as impossible as that the leaf of an oak should produce a gall without having been pierced by a gall-producing insect, as a result of the thousands of antecedent generations of oaks which have been pierced by such insects, and have thus "acquired" the power of producing galls. I am also far from asserting that the germ-plasm—which, as I hold, is transmitted as the basis of heredity from one generation to another—is absolutely unchangeable or totally uninfluenced by forces residing in the organism within which it is transformed into germ-cells. I am also compelled to admit that it is conceivable that organisms may exert a modifying influence upon their germ-cells, and even that such a process is to a certain extent inevitable. The nutrition and growth of the individual must exercise some influence upon its germ-cells; but in the first place this influence must be extremely slight, and in the second place it cannot act in the manner in which it is usually assumed that it takes place. A change of growth at the periphery of an organism, as in the case of an "Exercierknochen," can never cause such a change in the molecular structure of the germ-plasm as would augment the predisposition to an "Exercierknochen," so that the son would inherit an increased susceptibility of the bony tissue or even of the particular bone in question. But any change produced will result from the reaction of the germ-cell upon changes of nutrition caused by alteration in growth at the periphery, leading to some change in the size, number, or arran gement of its molecular units. In the present state of our knowledge there is reason for doubting whether such reaction can occur at all; but, if it can take place, at all events the quality of the change in the germ-plasm can have nothing to do with the quality of the acquired character, but only with the way in which the general nutrition is influenced by the latter. In the case of the "Exercierknochen" there would be practically no change in the general nutrition, but if such a bony growth could reach the size of a carcinoma, it is conceivable that a disturbance of the general nutrition of the body might ensue. Certain experiments on plants—on which Nägeli showed that they can be submitted to strongly varied conditions of nutrition for several generations, without the production of any visible hereditary change—show that the influence of nutrition upon the germ-cells must be very slight, and that it may possibly leave the molecular structure of the germ-plasm altogether untouched. This conclusion is also supported by comparing the uncertainty of these results with the remarkable precision with which heredity acts in the case of those characters which are known to be transmitted. In fact, up to the present time, it has never been proved that any changes in general nutrition can modify the molecular structure of the germ-plasm, and far less has it been rendered by any means probable that the germ-cells can be affected by acquired changes which have no influence on general nutrition. If we consider that each so-called predisposition (that is, a power of reacting upon a certain stimulus in a certain way, possessed by any organism or by one of its parts) must be innate, and further that each acquired character is only the predisposed reaction of some part of an organism upon some external influence; then we must admit that only one of the causes which produce any acquired character can be transmitted, the one which was present before the character itself appeared, viz., the predisposition; and we must further admit that the latter arises from the germ, and that it is quite immaterial to the following generation whether such predisposition comes into operation or not. The continuity of the germ-plasm is amply sufficient to account for such a phenomenon, and I do not believe that any objection to my hypothesis, founded upon the actually observed phenomena of heredity, will be found to hold. If it be accepted, many facts will appear in a light different from that which has been cast upon them by the hypothesis which has been hitherto received,—a hypothesis which assumes that the organism produces germ-cells afresh, again and again, and that it produces them entirely from its own substance. Under the former theory the germ-cells are no longer looked upon as the product of the parent’s body, at least as far as their essential part—the specific germ-plasm—is concerned: they are rather considered as something which is to be placed in contrast with the tout ensemble of the cells which make up the parent’s body, and the germ-cells of succeeding generations stand in a similar relation to one another as a series of generations of unicellular organisms, arising by a continued process of cell-division. It is true that in most cases the generations of germcells do not arise immediately from one another as complete cells, but only as minute particles of germ-plasm. This latter substance, however forms the foundation of the germ-cells of the next generation, and stamps them with their specific character. Previous to the publication of my theory, C. Jäger, and later M. Nussbaum, have expressed ideas upon heredity which come very near to my own. Both of these writers started with the hypothesis that there must be a direct connection between the germ-cells of succeeding generations, and they tried to establish such a continuity by supposing that the germ-cells of the offspring are separated from the parent germ-cell before the beginning of embryonic development, or at least before any histological differentiation has taken place. In this form their suggestion cannot be maintained, for it is in conflict with numerous facts. A continuity of the germ-cells does not now take place, except in very rare instances; but this fact does not prevent us from adopting a theory of the continuity of the germ-plasm, in favour of which much weighty evidence can be brought forward. In the following pages I shall attempt to develop further the theory of which I have just given a short account, to defend it against any objections which have been brought forward, and to draw from it new conclusions which may perhaps enable us more thoroughly to appreciate facts which are known, but imperfectly understood. It seems to me that this theory of continuity of the germ-plasm deserves at least to be examined in all its details, for it is the simplest theory upon the subject, and the one which is most obviously suggested by the facts of the case, and we shall not be justified in forsaking it for a more complex theory until proof that it can be no longer maintained is forthcoming. It does not presuppose anything except facts which can be observed at any moment, although they may not be understood,—such as assimilation, or the development of like organisms from like germs; while every other theory of heredity is founded on hypotheses which cannot be proved. It is nevertheless possible that continuity of the germ-plasm does not exist in the manner in which I imagine that it takes place, for no one can at present decide whether all the ascertained facts agree with and can be explained by it. Moreover, the ceaseless activity of research brings to light new facts every day, and I am far from maintaining that my theory may not be disproved by some of these. But even if it should have to be abandoned at a later period, it seems to me that, at the present time, it is a necessary stage in the advancement of our knowledge, and one which must be brought forward and passed through, whether it prove right or wrong, in the future. In this spirit I offer the following considerations, and it is in this spirit that I should wish them to be received.


I entirely agree with Strasburger when he says, "The specific qualities of organisms are based upon nuclei"; and I further agree with him in many of his ideas as to the relation between the nucleus and cell-body: "Molecular stimuli proceed from the nucleus into the surrounding cytoplasm; stimuli which, on the one hand, control the phenomena of assimilation in the cell, and, on the other hand, give to the growth of the cytoplasm, which depends upon nutrition, a certain character peculiar to the species." "The nutritive cytoplasm assimilates, while the nucleus controls the assimilation, and hence the substances assimilated possess a certain constitution and nourish in a certain manner the cyto-idioplasm and the nuclear idioplasm. In this way the cytoplasm takes part in the phenomena of construction, upon which the specific form of the organism depends. This constructive activity of the cyto-idioplasm depends upon the regulative influence of the nuclei." The nuclei therefore "determine the specific direction in which an organism develops."

The opinion—derived from the recent study of the phenomena of fertilization—that the nucleus impresses its specific character upon the cell, has received conclusive and important confirmation in the experiments upon the regeneration of Infusoria, conducted simultaneously by M. Nussbaum at Bonn, and by A. Gruber at Freiburg. Nussbaum’s statement that an artificially separated portion of a Paramaecium, which does not contain any nuclear substance, immediately dies, must not be accepted as of general application, for Gruber has kept similar fragments of other Infusoria alive for several days. Moreover, Gruber had previously shown that individual Protozoa occur, which live in a normal manner, and are yet without a nucleus, although this structure is present in other individuals of the same species. But the meaning of the nucleus is made clear by the fact, published by Gruber, that such artificially separated fragments of Infusoria are incapable of regeneration, while on the other hand those fragments which contain nuclei always regenerate. It is therefore only under the influence of the nucleus that the cell substance re-develops into the full type of the species. In adopting the view that the nucleus is the factor which determines the specific nature of the cell, we stand on a firm foundation upon which we can build with security.

If therefore the first segmentation nucleus contains, in its molecular structure, the whole of the inherited tendencies of development, it must follow that during segmentation and subsequent cell-division, the nucleoplasm will enter upon definite and varied changes which must cause the differences appearing in the cells which are produced; for identical cell-bodies depend, ceteris paribus, upon identical nucleoplasm, and conversely different cells depend upon differences in the nucleoplasm. The fact that the embryo grows more strongly in one direction than in another, that its cell-layers are of different nature and are ultimately differentiated into various organs and tissues,—forces us to accept the conclusion that the nuclear substance has also been changed in nature, and that such changes take place during ontogenetic development in a regular and definite manner. This view is also held by Strasburger, and it must be the opinion of all who seek to derive the development of inherited tendencies from the molecular structure of the germ-plasm, instead of from preformed gemmules.

We are thus led to the important question as to the forces by which the determining substance or nucleoplasm is changed, and as to the manner in which it changes during the course of ontogeny, and on the answer to this question our further conclusions must depend. The simplest hypothesis would be to suppose that, at each division of the nucleus, its specific substance divides into two halves of unequal quality, so that the cell-bodies would also be transformed; for we have seen that the character of a cell is determined by that of its nucleus. Thus in any Metazoon the first two segmentation spheres would be transformed in such a manner that one only contained the hereditary tendencies of the endoderm and the other those of the ectoderm, and therefore, at a later stage, the cells of the endoderm would arise from the one and those of the ectoderm from the other; and this is actually known to occur. In the course of further division the nucleoplasm of the first ectoderm cell would again divide unequally, e. g., into the nucleoplasm containing the hereditary tendencies of the nervous system, and into that containing the tendencies of the external skin. But even then, the end of the unequal division of nuclei would not have been nearly reached; for, in the formation of the nervous system, the nuclear substance which contains the hereditary tendencies of the sense-organs would, in the course of further cell-division, be separated from that which contains the tendencies of the central organs, and the same process would continue in the formation of all single organs, and in the final development of the most minute histological elements. This process would take place in a definitely ordered course, exactly as it has taken place throughout a very long series of ancestors; and the determining and directing factor is simply and solely the nuclear substance, the nucleoplasm, which possesses such a molecular structure in the germ-cell that all such succeeding stages of its molecular structure in future nuclei must necessarily arise from it, as soon as the requisite external conditions are present. This is almost the same conception of ontogenetic development as that which has been held by embryologists who have not accepted the doctrine of evolution: for we have only to transfer the primary cause of development, from an unknown source within the organism, into the nuclear substance, in order to make the views identical.

I believe I have shown that theoretically hardly any objection can be raised against the view that the nuclear substance of somatic cells may contain unchanged germ-plasm, or that this germ-plasm may be transmitted along certain lines. It is true that we might imagine a priori that all somatic nuclei contain a small amount of unchanged germ-plasm. In Hydroids such an assumption cannot be made, because only certain cells in a certain succession possess the power of developing into germ-cells; but it might well be imagined that in some organisms it would be a great advantage if every part possessed the power of growing up into the whole organism and of producing sexual cells under appropriate circumstances. Such cases might exist if it were possible for all somatic nuclei to contain a minute fraction of unchanged germ-plasm. For this reason, Strasburger’s other objection against my theory also fails to hold; viz., that certain plants can be propagated by pieces of rhizomes, roots, or even by means of leaves, and that plants produced in this manner may finally give rise to flowers, fruit and seeds, from which new plants arise. "It is easy to grow new plants from the leaves of begonia which have been cut off and merely laid upon moist sand, and yet in the normal course of ontogeny the molecules of germ-plasm would not have been compelled to pass through the leaf; and they ought therefore to be absent from its tissue. Since it is possible to raise from the leaf a plant which produces flower and fruit, it is perfectly certain that special cells containing the germ-substance cannot exist in the plant." But I think that this fact only proves that in begonia and similar plants all the cells of the leaves or perhaps only certain cells contain a small amount of germ-plasm, and that consequently these plants are specially adapted for propagation by leaves. How is it then that all plants cannot be reproduced in this way? No one has ever grown a tree from the leaf of the lime or oak, or a flowering plant from the leaf of the tulip or convolvulus. It is insufficient to reply that in the last mentioned cases the leaves are more strongly specialized, and have thus become unable to produce germ-substance; for the leaf-cells in these different plants have hardly undergone histological differentiation in different degrees. If, notwithstanding, the one can produce a flowering plant, while the others have not this power, it is of course clear that reasons other than the degree of histological differentiation must exist; and, according to my opinion, such a reason is to be found in the admixture of a minute quantity of unchanged germ-plasm with some of their nuclei.

In Sach’s excellent lectures on the physiology of plants, we read on page 723—"In the true mosses almost any cell of the roots, leaves and shoot-axes, and even of the immature sporogonium, may grow out under favourable conditions, become rooted, form new shoots, and give rise to an independent living plant." Since such plants produce germ-cells at a later period, we have here a case which requires the assumption that all or nearly all cells must contain germ-plasm.

The theory of the continuity of the germ-plasm seems to me to be still less disproved or even rendered improbable by the facts of the alternation of generations. If the germ-plasm may pass on from the egg into certain somatic cells of an individual, and if it can be further transmitted along certain lines, there is no difficulty in supposing that it may be transmitted through a second, third, or through any number of individuals produced from the former by budding. In fact, in the Hydroids, on which my theory of the continuity of the germ-plasm has been chiefly based, alternation of generations is the most important means of propagation.


We have already seen that the specific nature of a cell depends upon the molecular structure of its nucleus; and it follows from this conclusion that my theory is further, and as I believe strongly, supported, by the phenomenon of the expulsion of polar bodies, which has remained inexplicable for so long a time.

For if the specific molecular structure of a cell-body is caused and determined by the structure of the nucleoplasm, every kind of cell which is histologically differentiated must have a specific nucleoplasm. But the egg-cell of most animals, at any rate during the period of growth, is by no means an indifferent cell of the most primitive type. At such a period its cell-body has to perform quite peculiar and specific functions; it has to secrete nutritive substances of a certain chemical nature and physical constitution, and to store up this food material in such a manner that it may be at the disposal of the embryo during its development. In most cases the egg-cell also forms membranes which are often characteristic of particular species of animals. The growing egg-cell is therefore histologically differentiated: and in this respect resembles a somatic cell. It may perhaps be compared to a gland-cell, which does not expel its secretion, but deposits it within its own substance. To perform such specific functions it requires a specific cell-body, and the latter depends upon a specific nucleus. It therefore follows that the growing egg-cell must possess nucleoplasm of specific molecular structure, which directs the above mentioned secretory functions of the cell. The nucleoplasm of histologically differentiated cells may be called histogenetic nucleoplasm, and the growing egg-cell must contain such a substance, and even a certain specific modification of it. This nucleoplasm cannot possibly be the same as that which, at a later period, causes embryonic development. Such development can only be produced by the true germ-plasm of immensely complex constitution, such as I have previously attempted to describe. It therefore follows that the nucleus of the egg-cell contains two kinds of nucleoplasm:—germ and a peculiar modification of histogenetic nucleoplasm, which may be called ovogenetic nucleoplasm. This substance must greatly preponderate in the young egg-cell, for, as we have already seen, it controls the growth of the latter. The germ-plasm, on the other hand, can only be present in minute quantity at first, but it must undergo considerable increase during the growth of the cell. But in order that the germ-plasm may control the cell-body, or, in other words, in order that embryonic development may begin, the still preponderating ovogenetic nucleo-plasm must be removed from the cell. This removal takes place in the same manner as that in which differing nuclear substances are separated during the ontogeny of the embryo: viz., by nuclear division, leading to cell-division. The expulsion of the polar bodies is nothing more than the removal of ovogenetic nucleoplasm from the egg-cell. That the ovogenetic nucleoplasm continues greatly to preponderate in the nucleus up to the very last, may be concluded from the fact that two successive divisions of the latter and the expulsion of two polar bodies appear to be the rule. If in this way a small part of the cell-body is expelled from the egg, the extrusion must in all probability be considered as an inevitable loss, without which the removal of the ovogenetic nucleoplasm cannot be effected.


It is well known that the formation of polar bodies has been repeatedly connected with the sexuality of germ-cells, and that it has been employed to explain the phenomena of parthenogenesis. I may now perhaps be allowed to develop the views as to the nature of parthenogenesis at which I have arrived under the influence of my explanation of polar bodies.

The theory of parthenogenesis adopted by Minot and Balfour is distinguished by its simplicity and clearness, among all other interpretations which had been hitherto offered. Indeed, their explanation follows naturally and almost as a matter of course, if the assumption made by these observers be correct, that the polar body is the male part of the hermaphrodite egg-cell. An egg which has lost its male part cannot develop into an embryo until it has received a new male part in fertilization. On the other hand, an egg which does not expel its male part may develop without fertilization, and thus we are led to the obvious conclusion that parthenogenesis is based upon the non-expulsion of polar bodies. Balfour distinctly states "that the function of forming polar cells has been acquired by the ovum for the express purpose of preventing parthenogenesis."

It is obvious that I cannot share this opinion, for I regard the expulsion of polar bodies as merely the removal of the ovogenetic nucleoplasm, on which depended the development of the specific histological structure of the egg-cell. I must assume that the phenomena of maturation in the parthenogenetic egg and in the sexual egg are precisely identical, and that in both, the ovogenetic nucleoplasm must in some way be removed before embryonic development can begin.

Unfortunately the actual proof of this assumption is not so complete as might be desired. In the first place, we are as yet uncertain whether polar bodies are or are not expelled by parthenogenetic eggs; for in no single instance has such expulsion been established beyond doubt. It is true that this deficiency does not afford any support to the explanation of Minot and Balfour, for in all cases in which polar bodies have not been found in parthenogenetic eggs, these structures are also absent from the eggs which require fertilization in the same species. But although the expulsion of polar bodies in parthenogenesis has not yet been proved to occur, we must assume it to be nearly certain that the phenomena of maturation, whether connected or unconnected with the expulsion of polar bodies, are the same in the eggs which develop parthenogenetically and in those which are capable of fertilization, in one and the same species. This conclusion depends, above all, upon the phenomena of reproduction in bees, in which, as a matter of fact, the same egg may be fertilized or may develop parthenogenetically, as I shall have occasion to describe in greater detail at a later period.

Hence when we see that the eggs of many animals are capable of developing without fertilization, while in other animals such development is impossible, the difference between the two kinds of eggs must rest upon something more than the mode of transformation of the nucleus of the germ-cell into the first segmentation nucleus. There are, indeed, facts which distinctly point to the conclusion that the difference is based upon quantitative and not qualitative relations. A large number of insects are exceptionally reproduced by the parthenogenetic method, e. g., in Lepidoptera. Such development does not take place in all the eggs laid by an unfertilized female, but only in part, and generally a small fraction of the whole, while the rest die. But among the latter there are some which enter upon embryonic development without being able to complete it, and the stage at which development may cease also varies. It is also known that the eggs of higher animals may pass through the first stages of segmentation without having been fertilized. This was shown to be the case in the egg of the frog by Leuckart, in that of the fowl by Oellacher, and even in the egg of mammals by Hensen.

Hence in such cases it is not the impulse to development, but the power to complete it, which is absent. We know that force is always bound up with matter, and it seems to me that such instances are best explained by the supposition that too small an amount of that form of matter is present, which, by its controlling agency, effects the building up of the embryo by the transformation of mere nutritive material. This substance is the germ-plasm of the segmentation nucleus, and I have assumed above that it is altered in the course of ontogeny by changes which arise from within, so that when sufficient nourishment is afforded by the cell-body, each succeeding stage necessarily results from the preceding one. I believe that changes arise in the constitution of the nucleoplasm at each cell-division which takes place during the building up of the embryo, changes which either correspond or differ in the two halves of each nucleus. If, for the present, we neglect the minute amount of unchanged germ-plasm which is reserved for the formation of the germ-cells, it is clear that a great many different stages in the development of somatic nucleoplasm are thus formed, which may be denominated as stages 1, 2, 3, 4, etc., up to n. In each of these stages the cells differ more as development proceeds, and as the number by which the stage is denominated becomes higher. Thus, for instance, the two first segmentation spheres would represent the first stage of somatic nucleoplasm, a stage which may be considered as but slightly different in its molecular structure from the nucleoplasm of the segmentation nucleus; the first four segmentation spheres would represent the second stage; the succeeding eight spheres the third, and so on. It is clear that at each successive stage the molecular structure of the nucleoplasm must be further removed from that of the germ-plasm, and that, at the same time, the cells of each successive stage must also diverge more widely among themselves in the molecular structure of their nucleoplasm. Early in development each cell must possess its own peculiar nucleo-plasm, for the further course of development is peculiar to each cell. It is only in the later stages that equivalent or nearly equivalent cells are formed in large numbers, cells in which we must also suppose the existence of equivalent nucleoplasm.

If we may assume that a certain amount of germ-plasm must be contained in the segmentation nucleus in order to complete the whole process of the ontogenetic differentiation of this substance; if we may further assume that the quantity of germ-plasm in the segmentation nucleus varies in different cases; then we should be able to understand why one egg can only develop after fertilization, while another can begin its development without fertilization, but cannot finish it, and why a third is even able to complete its development. We should also understand why one egg only passes through the first stages of segmentation and is then arrested, while another reaches a few more stages in advance, and a third develops so far that the embryo is nearly completely formed. These differences would depend upon the extent to which the germ-plasm, originally present in the egg, was sufficient for the development of the latter; development will be arrested as soon as the nucleoplasm is no longer capable of producing the succeeding stage, and is thus unable to enter upon the following nuclear division.

From a general point of view such a theory would explain many difficulties, and it would render possible an explanation of the phyletic origin of parthenogenesis, and an adequate understanding of the strange and often apparently abrupt and arbitrary manner of its occurrence. In my works on Daphnidae I have already laid especial stress upon the proposition that parthenogenesis in insects and Crustacea certainly cannot be an ancestral condition which has been transmitted by heredity, but that it has been derived from a sexual condition. In what other way can we explain the fact that parthenogenesis is present in certain species or genera, but absent in others closely allied to them; or the fact that males are entirely wanting in species of which the females possess a complete apparatus for fertilization? I will not repeat all the arguments with which I attempted to support this conclusion. Such a conclusion may be almost certainly accepted for the Daphnidae, because parthenogenesis does not occur in their still living ancestors, the Phyllopods, and especially the Estheridae. In Daphnidae the cause and object of the phyletic development of parthenogenesis may be traced more clearly than in any other group of animals. In Daphnidae we can accept the conclusion with greater certainty than in all other groups, except perhaps the Aphidae, that parthenogenesis is extremely advantageous to species in certain conditions of life; and that it has only been adopted when, and as far as, it has been beneficial; and further, that at least in this group parthenogenesis became possible and was adopted in each species as soon as it became useful. Such a result can be easily understood if it is only the presence of more or less germ-plasm which decides whether an egg is or is not capable of development without fertilization.

If we now examine the foundations of this hypothesis we shall find that we may at once accept one of its assumptions, viz., that fluctuations occur in the quantity of germ-plasm in the segmentation nucleus; for there can never be absolute equality in any single part of different individuals. As soon therefore as these fluctuations become so great that parthenogenesis is produced, it may become, by the operation of natural selection, the chief mode of reproduction of the species or of certain generations of the species. In order to place this theory upon a firm basis, we have simply to decide whether the quantity of germ-plasm contained in the segmentation nucleus is the factor which determines development; although for the present it will be sufficient if we can render this view to some extent probable, and show that it is not a contradiction of established facts.

At first sight this hypothesis seems to encounter serious difficulties. It will be objected that neither the beginning nor the end of embryonic development can possibly depend upon the quantity of nucleoplasm in the segmentation nucleus, since the amount may be continually increased by growth; for it is well known that during embryonic development the nuclear substance increases with astonishing rapidity. By an approximate calculation I found that in the egg of a Cynips the quantity of nuclear substance present at the time when the blastoderm was about to be formed, and when there were twenty-six nuclei, was even then seven times as great as the quantity which had been contained in the segmentation nucleus. How then can we imagine that embryonic development would ever be arrested from want of nuclear substance, and if such deficiency really acted as an arresting force, how then could development begin at all? We might suppose that when germ-plasm is present in sufficient quantity to start segmentation, it must also be sufficient to complete the development; for it grows continuously, and must presumably always possess a power equal to that which it possessed at the beginning, and which was just sufficient to start the process of segmentation. If at each ontogenetic stage the quantity of nucleoplasm is just sufficient to produce the following stage, we might well imagine that the whole ontogeny would necessarily be completed.

The flaw in this argument lies in the erroneous assumption that the growth of nuclear substance is, when the quality of the nucleus and the conditions of nutrition are equal, unlimited and uncontrolled. The intensity of growth must depend upon the quantity of nuclear substance with which growth and the phenomena of segmentation commenced. There must be an optimum quantity of nucleoplasm with which the growth of the nucleus proceeds most favourably and rapidly, and this optimum will be represented in the normal size of the segmentation nucleus. Such a size is just sufficient to produce, in a certain time and under certain external conditions, the nuclear substance necessary for the construction of the embryo, and to start the long series of cell-divisions. When the segmentation nucleus is smaller, but large enough to enter upon segmentation, the nuclei of the two first embryonic cells will fall rather more below the normal size, because the growth of the segmentation nucleus, during and after division will be less rapid on account of its unusually small size. The succeeding generations of nuclei will depart more and more from the normal size in each respective stage, because they do not pass into a resting stage during embryonic development, but divide again immediately after their formation. Hence nuclear growth would become less vigorous as the nuclei fell more and more below the optimum size, and at last a moment would arrive when they would be unable to divide, or would be at least unable to control the cell-body in such a manner as to lead to its division.

The first event of importance for embryonic development is the maturation of the egg, i. e., the transformation of the nucleus of the germ-cell into a nuclear spindle and the removal of the ovogenetic nucleoplasm by the separation of polar bodies, or by some analogous process. There must be some cause for this separation, and I have already tried to show that it may lie in the quantitative relations which obtain between the two kinds of nucleoplasm contained in the nucleus of the egg. I have suggested that the germ-plasm, at first small in quantity, undergoes a gradual increase, so that it can finally oppose the ovogenetic nucleoplasm. I will not further elaborate this suggestion, for the ascertained facts are insufficient for the purpose. But the appearances witnessed in nuclear division indicate that there are opposing forces, and that such a contest is the motive cause of division; and Roux may be right in referring the opposition to electrical forces. However this may be, it is perfectly certain that the development of this opposition is based upon internal conditions arising during growth in the nucleus itself. The quantity of nuclear thread cannot by itself determine whether the nucleus can or cannot enter upon division; if so, it would be impossible for two divisions to follow each other in rapid succession, as is actually the case in the separation of the two polar bodies, and also in their subsequent division. In addition to the effects of quantity, the internal conditions of the nucleus must also play an important part in these phenomena. Quantity alone does not necessarily produce nuclear division, or the nucleus of the egg would divide long before maturation is complete, for it contains much more nucleoplasm than the female pronucleus, which remains in the egg after the expulsion of the polar bodies, and which is in most cases capable of further division. But the fact that segmentation begins immediately after the conjugation of male and female pronuclei, also shows that quantity is an essential requisite. The effect of fertilization has been represented as analogous to that of the spark which kindles the gunpowder. In the latter case an explosion ensues, in the former segmentation begins. Even now many authorities are inclined to refer the polar repulsion manifested in the nuclear division which immediately follows fertilization, to the antagonism between male and female elements. But, according to the important discoveries of Flemming and van Beneden, the polar repulsion in each nuclear division is not based on the antagonism between male and female loops, but depends upon the antagonism and mutual repulsion between the two halves of the same loop. The loops of the father and those of the mother remain together and divide together throughout the whole ontogeny.

What can be the explanation of the fact that nuclear division follows immediately after fertilization, but that without fertilization it does not occur in most cases? There is only one possible explanation, viz., the fact that the quantity of the nucleus has been suddenly doubled, as the result of conjugation. The difference between the male and female pronuclei cannot serve as an explanation, even though the nature of this difference is entirely unknown, because polar repulsion is not developed between the male and female halves of the nucleus, but within each male and each female half. We are thus forced to conclude that increase in the quantity of the nucleus affords an impulse for division, the disposition towards it being already present. It seems to me that this view does not encounter any theoretical difficulties, and that it is an entirely feasible hypothesis to suppose that, besides the internal conditions of the nucleus, its quantitative relation to the cell-body must be taken into especial account. It is imaginable, or perhaps even probable, that the nucleus enters upon division as soon as its idioplasm has attained a certain strength, quite apart from the supposition that certain internal conditions are necessary for this end. As above stated, such conditions may be present, but division may not occur because the right quantitative relation between nucleus and cell-body, or between the different kinds of nuclear idioplasm has not been established. I imagine that such a quantitative deficiency exists in an egg which, after the expulsion of the ovogenetic nucleoplasm in the polar bodies, requires fertilization in order to begin segmentation. The fact that the polar bodies were expelled proves that the quantity of the nucleus was sufficient to cause division, while afterwards it was no longer sufficient to produce such a result.

This suggestion will be made still clearer by an example. In Ascaris megalocephala the nuclear substance of the female pronucleus forms two loops, and the male pronucleus does the same; hence the segmentation nucleus contains four loops, and this is also the case with the first segmentation spheres. If we suppose that in embryonic development the first nuclear division requires such an amount of nuclear substance as is necessary for the formation of four loops,—it follows that an egg, which can only form two or three loops from its nuclear reticulum, would not be able to develop parthenogenetically, and that not even the first division would take place. If we further suppose that, while four loops are sufficient to start nuclear division, these loops must be of a certain size and quantity in order to complete the whole ontogeny (in a certain species), it follows that eggs possessing a reticulum which contains barely enough nuclear substance to divide into four segments, would be able to produce the first division and perhaps also the second and third, or some later division, but that at a certain point during ontogeny, the nuclear substance would become insufficient, and development would be arrested. This will occur in eggs which enter upon development without fertilization, but are arrested before its completion. One might compare this retardation leading to the final arrest of development, to a railway train which is intended to meet a number of other trains at various junctions, and which can only travel slowly because of some defect in the engine. It will be a little behind time at the first junction, but it may just catch the train, and it may also catch the second or even the third; but it will be later at each successive junction, and will finally arrive too late for a certain train; and after that it will miss all the trains at the remaining junctions. The nuclear substance grows continuously during development, but the rate at which it increases depends upon the nutritive conditions together with its initial quantity. The nutritive changes during the development of an egg depend upon the quantity of the cell-body which was present at the outset, and which cannot be increased. If the quantity of the nuclear substance is rather too small at the beginning, it will become more and more insufficient in succeeding stages, as its growth becomes less vigorous, and differs more from the standard it would have reached if the original quantity had been normal. Consequently it will gradually fall more and more short of the normal quantity, like the train which arrives later and later at each successive junction, because its engine, although with the full pressure of steam, is unable to attain the normal speed.

It will be objected that four loops cannot be necessary for nuclear division in Ascaris, since such division takes place in the formation of the polar bodies, resulting in the appearance of the female pronucleus with only two loops. But this fact only shows that the quantity of nuclear substance necessary for the formation of four loops is not necessary for all nuclear divisions; it does not disprove the assumption that such a quantity is required for the division of the segmentation nucleus. In addition to these considerations we must not leave the substance of the cell-body altogether out of account, for, although it is not the bearer of the tendencies of heredity, it must be necessary for every change undergone by the nucleus, and it surely also possesses the power of influencing changes to a large extent. There must be some reason for the fact that in all animal eggs with which we are acquainted, the nucleus moves to the surface of the egg at the time of maturation, and there passes through its well known transformation. It is obvious that it is there subjected to different influences from those which would have acted upon it in the center of the cell-body, and it is clear that such an unequal cell-division as takes place in the separation of the polar bodies could not occur if the nucleus remained in the center of the egg.

This explanation of the necessity for fertilization does not exclude the possibility that, under certain circumstances, the substance of the egg-nucleus may be larger, so that it is capable of forming four loops. Eggs which thus possess sufficient nucleoplasm, viz., germ-plasm, for the formation of the requisite four loops of normal size (namely, of the size which would have been produced by fertilization), can and must develop by the parthenogenetic method.

Of course the assumption that four loops must be formed has only been made for the sake of illustration. We do not yet know whether there are always exactly four loops in the segmentation nucleus. I may add that, although the details by which these considerations are illustrated are based on arbitrary assumptions, the fundamental view that the development of the egg depends, ceteris paribus, upon the quantity of nuclear substance, is certainly right, and follows as a necessary conclusion from the ascertained facts. It is not unlikely that such a view may receive direct proof in the results of future investigations. Such proof might, for instance, be forthcoming if we were to ascertain, in the same species, the number of loops present in the segmentation nucleus of fertilization, as compared with those present in the segmentation nucleus of parthenogenesis.

The reproductive process in bees will perhaps be used as an argument against my theory. In these insects the same egg will develop into a female or male individual, according as fertilization has or has not taken place, respectively. Hence one and the same egg is capable of fertilization, and also of parthenogenetic development, if it does not receive a spermatozoon. It is in the power of the queen-bee to produce male or female individuals: by an act of will she decides whether the egg she is laying is to be fertilized or unfertilized. She "knows beforehand" whether an egg will develop into a male or a female animal, and deposits the latter kind in the cells of queens and workers, the former in the cells of drones. It has been shown by the discoveries of Leuckart and von Siebold that all the eggs are capable of developing into male individuals, and that they are only transformed into "female eggs" by fertilization. This fact seems to be incompatible with my theory as to the cause of parthenogenesis, for if the same egg, possessing exactly the same contents, and above all the same segmentation nucleus, may develop sexually or parthenogenetically, it appears that the power of parthenogenetic development must depend on some factor other than the quantity of germ-plasm.

Although this appears to be the case, I believe that my theory encounters no real difficulty. I have no doubt whatever that the same egg may develop with or without fertilization. From a careful study of the numerous excellent investigations upon this point which have been conducted in a particularly striking manner by Bessels (in addition to the observers quoted above), I have come to the conclusion that the fact is absolutely certain. It must be candidly admitted that the same egg will develop into a drone when not fertilized, or into a worker or queen when fertilized. One of Bessels’ experiments is sufficient to prove this assertion. He cut off the wings of a young queen and thus rendered her incapable of taking "the nuptial flight." He then observed that all the eggs which she laid developed into male individuals. This experiment was made in order to prove that drones are produced by unfertilized eggs; but it also proves that the assertion mentioned above is correct, for the eggs which ripen first and are therefore first laid, would have been fertilized had the queen been impregnated. The supposition that, at certain times, the queen produces eggs requiring fertilization, while at other times her eggs develop parthenogenetically, is quite excluded by this experiment; for it follows from it that the eggs must all be of precisely the same kind, and that there is no difference between the eggs which require fertilization and those which do not.

But does it therefore follow that the quantity of germ-plasm in the segmentation nucleus is not the factor which determines the beginning of embryonic development? I believe not. It can be very well imagined that the nucleus of the egg, having expelled the ovogenetic nucleoplasm, may be increased to the size requisite for the segmentation nucleus in one of two ways: either by conjugation with a sperm-nucleus, or by simply growing to double its size. There is nothing improbable in this latter assumption, and one is even inclined to inquire why such growth does not take place in all unfertilized eggs. The true answer to this question must be that nature pursues the sexual method of reproduction, and that the only way in which the general occurrence of parthenogenesis could be prevented was by the production of eggs which remained sterile unless they were fertilized. This was effected by a loss of the capability of growth on the part of the egg-nucleus after it had expelled the ovogenetic nucleoplasm.

The case of the bee proves in a very striking manner that the difference between eggs which require fertilization, and those which do not, is not produced until after the maturation of the egg and the removal of the ovogenetic nucleoplasm. The increase in the quantity of the germ-plasm cannot have taken place at any earlier period, or else the nucleus of the egg would always start embryonic development by itself, and the egg would probably be incapable of fertilization. For the relation between egg-nucleus and sperm-nucleus is obviously based upon the fact that each of them is insufficient by itself, and requires completion. If such completion had taken place at an early stage the egg-nucleus would either cease to exercise any attractive force upon the sperm-nucleus, or else conjugation would be effected, as in Fol’s interesting experiments upon fertilization by many spermatozoa; and, as in these experiments, malformation of the embryo would result. In Daphnidae I believe I have shown that the summer eggs are not only developed parthenogenetically, but also that they are never fertilized; and the explanation of this incapacity for fertilization may perhaps be found in the fact that their segmentation nucleus is already formed.

We may therefore conclude that, in bees, the nucleus of the egg, formed during maturation, may either conjugate with the sperm-nucleus, or else if no spermatozoon reaches it the egg may, under the stimulus of internal causes, grow to double its size, thus attaining the dimensions of the segmentation nucleus. For our present purpose we may leave out of consideration the fact that in the latter case the individual produced is a male, and in the former case a female.

* From Essays upon Heredity and Kindred Biological Problems, Vol. I (1889).


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Chicago: August Weismann, "The Continuity of the Germ-Plasm as the Foundation of a Theory of Heredity," Classics of Modern Science, Copernicus to Pasteur in Classics of Modern Science, Copernicus to Pasteur, ed. William S. Knickerbocker (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1927), 334–348. Original Sources, accessed March 18, 2019,

MLA: Weismann, August. "The Continuity of the Germ-Plasm as the Foundation of a Theory of Heredity." Classics of Modern Science, Copernicus to Pasteur, in Classics of Modern Science, Copernicus to Pasteur, edited by William S. Knickerbocker, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1927, pp. 334–348. Original Sources. 18 Mar. 2019.

Harvard: Weismann, A, 'The Continuity of the Germ-Plasm as the Foundation of a Theory of Heredity' in Classics of Modern Science, Copernicus to Pasteur. cited in 1927, Classics of Modern Science, Copernicus to Pasteur, ed. , Alfred A. Knopf, New York, pp.334–348. Original Sources, retrieved 18 March 2019, from