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"Petrus Camper's Protean Performances:
The Metamorphoses"

by Miriam Claude Meijer, Ph.D.

To understand the laws of morphology, Camper demonstrated the principle of correlation in all organisms by the mechanical exercise he called a metamorphosis. In his 1778 lecture, "On the Points of Similarity between the Human Species, Quadrupeds, Birds, and Fish; with Rules for Drawing, founded on this Similarity," Camper metamorphized a horse into a human being. The concept that animals or groups of animals were all variations on one and the same basic plan has been called the "Unity of Plan," a phrase not used by Camper. The word "metamorphosis," which he favored, came from the Greek, meta or "over" and morphe or "form," refers to a change of form. The underlying similarity between all vertebrates had imporessed many observers for centuries. Plato had his theory of universal Ideas or Forms and Aristotle recognized that the parts were the same in all the animals belonging to the same class, only they differed in "excess or defect" (later known as the "Principle of Correlation"). After the Renaissance, the Unity of Type was recognized by Pierre Belon de Mans, Marco Aurelio Severino, Claude Perrault, Jan Swammerdam, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Camper was preceded by several colleagues in his century. Maupertuis in 1751, Buffon in 1753, Diderot in 1754, Kant in 1763, Robinet in 1766, and Vicq-d'Azyr in 1774 discussed in various fashions the concept of basic anatomical similarity among the vertebrates. Camper's contribution to the concept of vertebrate uniformity were his graphic metamorphoses, which greatly impressed Denis Diderot and Johann Wolfgang Goethe. In 1923 and 1939 some Dutch authors suggested that Camper foreshadowed Goethe's famous idea of "type" — a common structural pattern in some manner. This is confirmed by Peter Hanns Reill who argues convincingly that the practitioners in the life sciences switched from pure mechanism to "vitalism" in the second half of the eighteenth century. Whereas mechanical natural philosophy focused on two types of force, imparted force and conserved force, Georges de Buffon and his followers added an active or self-activating force, which had a teleological character. The teleological principle reintroduced both development and contingency as explanatory concepts. Progressive development was not continuous, but proceeded through a series of drastic changes, "revolutions," in which the outward form was changed drastically, followed by a gradual development in the newly formed shape. The image often used for these revolutions was "metamorphosis." The goal of mediation between regular development and free creation was to find the similar tendencies between dissimilar things; this hidden organizer was the ground on which all reality rested. In eighteenth-century language, this hidden, informing agent was called by terms such as "internal mold" (Buffon), "prototype" (Robinet), "Mittelkraft" (Schiller), "Urtype" (Goethe), "schemata" (Kant), or "Haupttypus" (Herder). As a comparative anatomist and skilled draftsman, Petrus Camper could demonstrate the hidden prototype "with a few strokes of the pencil" by progressively tracing one animal into another, "like another Proteus" (the sea god in Greek mythology who assumed different shapes at will). I will reproduce what he did with computer animated graphics that I will create from his original drawings.

metamorphoses
pile of 18th-c. books

Petrus Camper. "Two Lessons on the Analogy that exists between the quadrupeds, birds, and fish."
(13-14 October, 1778).

Camper demonstrates in his first lesson the real analogy that exists between the quadrupeds, and, in his second lesson, how, thanks to this analogy, all animals can be drawn correctly.

Having a personal collection of skeletons, he was able to discover that all animals, even fish and birds, are like quadrupeds from comparative anatomy.

He derived five general rules:

  1. Animals that are not low enough to the ground to scoop up their food are compensated by a long neck. Fish and snakes don't have necks because they don't need necks; they feed directly. The forequarters of animals, whose high legs require a long neck, are always lower than in other animals, i.e. sheep, deer, and camels have back spines and haunches that slant diagonally.
  2. The stomach area is much larger among herbivorous animals than among carnivores, and much, much larger among those that chew the cud than animals who aren't ruminants. Intestines do not need as large a volume to convert flesh into flesh as they do to change grass into flesh. The cow eats once to fill his belly and then chews the cud, whereas the horse eats continually. Therefore the cow has a bigger stomach than the horse; the horse than the dog, and etc.
  3. Animals are as long as they have number of vertebrae in their loins (the elephant has three, the horse 5, the cow 6, the lion, cat, and camel 7).
  4. Among animals like the elephant, horse, bull, deer, camel and all ruminants (also the pig), the feet have solid horn or clefts so that they can stand the necessary long time it takes for them to feed themselves. In all the other species, the foot ends in toes. More than 5 is never found among the quadrupeds.
  5. Among the birds, wings end in fingers too. All have a thumb, most have in addition two fingers, and several species have nails, e.g. the ostrich.

This first lesson is illustrated by Camper with five examples:

The second lesson:
  • Plate V, Fig. 8 horse again
  • Plate VI, Fig. 6 horse by Chrispyn van de Pas
  • Plate VI, Fig. 7 cow by Chrispyn van de Pas
  • Plate VI, Fig. 9 crane
  • Plate VI, Fig. 10 frog
  • Plate VI, Fig. 11 rowboat
  • Plate VI, Fig. 11 fish
  • Plate VII, Fig. 12 cow-crane metamorphosis
  • Plate VII, Fig. 13 horse-human metamorphosis

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Miriam Claude Meijer, Ph.D.
03/01/05
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