Man in Evolution by G. de Purucker

Copyright © 1977 by Theosophical University Press. All rights reserved.

Chapter 17

The Weismann Theory

Every human being — and we are speaking now of the physical body — was in its origin a little cell, a living cell of microscopic size. As we all know, a cell is composed of two main parts, both formed of protoplasm, but differing in function: the general or larger body of the cell, the cytoplasm, and the smaller corpuscle within the cytoplasm, which is, so to say, its heart, called the nucleus, in which resides more particularly the plasm that initiates growth and development, and which August Weismann, of the University of Freiburg in Germany, called the germ plasm.

Weismann's theories had great vogue for some thirty or thirty-five years. When his doctrines are properly understood, we have some approximation to what the theosophical philosophy teaches insofar as the origination of evolutionary stocks is concerned, as well as of the origin of specific variation, which our modern biologists say is the real method or mechanical procedure, if we can use that term, of the working of evolution. Dr. Peter Chalmers Mitchell of Oxford, Cambridge, and London, considers Weismann's theory of the continuity of the germ plasm to be "among the most luminous and most fertile contributions of the 19th century to biological thought, . . ." (Encyclopaedia Britannica, XIth ed., p. 350.) (1)

I am going to take Weismann's theory and supplement it with a very important factor which he has omitted because he knew nothing about it, and with this factor added we will have a fairly accurate picture of what theosophy teaches on this subject.

A cell is a house of life. Everything that you now are was, physically speaking, in that original cell. Your physical body is the growth of that cell. It has grown into being you, each such cell into one of you. How did it grow? It grew by division, by self-multiplication and, above everything else, by cell specialization. It is precisely and especially on this ground of cell specialization that rests the main foundation of what I am going to say.

Weismann taught that the vital portion of the nucleus of a cell resided in what the cytologists or cell specialists call chromatin. This substance, said Weismann, was the vital fountain of the nucleus of a cell, and given favorable circumstances starts its course of developmental growth after a particular manner.

Please understand that the cell which we are now discussing is the microscopic fertilized human ovum. When the ovum is fertilized then the cell begins to grow. This growth proceeds in the following manner: a cell divides into two cells, following the initial proceeding of the division of its nucleus. These two cells then proceed to follow precisely the same course that the original cell did, each one of the two divides into two; and this course of division and self-multiplication continues indefinitely, at least until full growth of the entity to be has been attained.

Thus then, we have the original ovum, which is one cell, the original cell; then two cells; then four, eight, sixteen cells, and so forth — the division and self-multiplication proceeding coincidentally with cell specializations, until the body has reached its full growth, containing cells to the number of many trillions.

It would seem to be likewise the truth that even after the body has attained full growth, the cells continue their divisions and self-multiplications in order to keep the body around a certain normal of form and weight, circumstances being propitious; but this division after full maturity would seem to be somewhat different in results from those divisions which took place when the body was in process of developing into adulthood.

As already said, in each such cell lie all the potentialities of the human to be in the future; yet what is it which governs or controls the labor of the protoplasmic substance of the entire aggregate of cells as it grows into the various organs of the body to be? What is it in that original cell which makes it divide itself in particular ways as growth proceeds; that makes it specialize itself, so that of the trillions of daughter cells some become the cells of the heart, some the cells of the brain, some the cells of the spleen, or the skin, the bones, the muscles, or whatnot? To this wonderful question no confident answer has ever been returned. Biologists know only this: that we are built of cells and that these cells always follow the same course, given favorable circumstances.

The human species produces children of the human species; the cells belonging to the body of any particular beast produce offspring identic with that particular variety or species of beast. In each case, there is the same amazing division of the cell life of the daughter cells into separate organs; there is the same marvelous specializing of the cell life into this, that, or the other part of the body. What is the directing power behind all this that guides the working out of such a marvel as we see the human body to be?

Weismann observed that the chromatin granules which form the vital part of a cell resolve themselves during cellular division into what he called idants, which he identified with the chromosomes; and of these chromosomes it is now well known that there are a definite number for each species. In this connection, he further taught that the idants are in turn a collection or aggregate of what he called ids, and each of these ids again is a veritable microcosm, determining the characters both specific and generic, as well as individual, of the entity to be. The class, the order, the family, the genus, the species, the variety, the individual, were all wrapped up in potency, as potentialities, in each one of these ids.

Further, these ids in their turn had each one a particular "historic architecture," he said; or, what amounts to the same thing, a particular biologic group of impulses or urges or characteristics which were the fruitage of past evolutionary activity. That is to say, its powers and function had been built into the form and type that they possess by the vast numbers of generations preceding the individual cell of the present day, in which these ids live.

Next, taught Weismann, each such id or microcosm in its turn consisted of minor or subordinate vital units, which he called determinants, because these are the particular parts of the id or microcosm which determine all parts of the body subject to variation — determining, indeed, or perhaps evolving or governing, the evolution of the specific organs of the future body, i.e., all the organs which in their turn are subject to variation, such as the heart, liver, spleen, etc. These determinants again, he said, were built up of hypothetical corpuscles still more minute which he called biophores, a Greek compound word meaning "life carriers."

Now, as is well known, each individual to be begins its career as a nucleated fertilized cell, a portion of the germ plasm of one parent — or of the two parents in the case of the present method of reproduction among humans and most of the lower creatures as well. The nucleus of this cell contains the essential germ plasm, composed of chromatin, which in turn is formed into idants (chromosomes), which are collections of ids, the ids in their turn formed of determinants and the determinants of biophores. As growth by food absorption and other means takes place, as multiplication proceeds, each one of the energies resident in and forming the particular characteristic of each one of these things, ids, determinants, and biophores, springs into action and begins its own particular labor.

As the body grows, it is the determinants that from the beginning outline and finally form the various organs, each such determinant assembling or marshaling to its appropriate organ, or organs, of the entity into which the cell is growing, the appropriate portion of the germ plasm which is itself.

Weismann further taught that man's body is composed of two kinds or varieties of living plasm: a somatic plasm or body plasm, and a germ plasm. A part of the germ plasm which originates all the activities which follow its fertilization, is passed on unchanged and undeveloped from parent to offspring, lying latent, as it were, until the call for a similar activity of entities to be. This amounts to saying that a certain portion of the germ plasm is passed from the parent to offspring in a state of latency, and is not used in the building of the body of the parent nor of the offspring to be, which in turn transmits it to its offspring. Otherwise stated, we have in our body as germ plasm the identical substance that was in the bodies of our remotest ancestors, which has come down to us in this fashion and which provides the material for the growth of each generation, as called for according to the theoretic outline of cellular activity which Weismann has set forth.

This carrying on of the germ plasm from parent to offspring through numberless generations is a most interesting and fertile subject of thought. It means that in our bodies exists the very germ plasm that existed in the most distant of our progenitors; so that, for instance, our first race, physically speaking, even yet lives in us, because the plasm of its body has come down through the vast multitudes of our progenitors to our own bodies. We carry in our bodies today the very germ plasm which first came into being from the astral realms, and which lived in that first race, and which has been transmitted down to our own time through all the races to the fifth, our present one.

This immortality of the germ plasm, as it has been frequently called, descends through the ages from parent to offspring, the determinants in each generation marshaling to each appropriate organ of the body that part of the living plasm which goes to form it. The germinal or reproductive part of the germ plasm is assembled or marshaled to the reproductive organs of the new individual. A portion of this plasm is unutilized in each generation, and is marshaled as the body grows to the proper organs of the new generation; and a portion of this springs into activity when the time comes for it so to do — the portion thus springing into activity originating anew the same cycle of activities already described.

That portion of the germ plasm of the cell, that portion of the nucleus, which is not carried over to the offspring in a state of dormancy — i.e., all the rest of the germ plasm remaining in the cell — springs into activity and proceeds to build by multiplication and specialization the body of the individual to be. We see here two portions of the cell: the sleeping or dormant portion of the germ plasm carried over through generation to generation; and the kinetic or active part of the germ plasm which proceeds to form the body of the individual into whom the cell will develop.

So far we have been speaking of the nucleus or the germ plasm; but the protoplasm of the other part of the cell, which Weismann calls the somatic plasm, is used in part as food by the reproductive germ, and in part for the building up of the general body. This constructive work of the somatic plasm proceeds coincidently with the disintegration of the ids which are left over and are not used in the manner aforesaid. Each one of the other ids of the kinetic portion of the germ plasm, as the cell proceeds in its division, no longer forms an aggregated reproductive corpuscle, but disintegrates in that respect. This does not mean that they disintegrate in the sense of going to pieces, or becoming inferior, or in the sense of decay or death; but in the sense of their breaking up their unity and losing the particular faculty of self-development. Instead of that line of labor, they become a simpler protoplasm, the somatic plasm, and their energies are turned to building the body.

To restate the principal points: each id is an aggregate of determinants, and when any such id disintegrates in the manner outlined above, the individual development or reproductive faculty of it is thereby lost; the individual determinants then spring into activity and, as growth proceeds, the particular determinants in each id are marshaled to their proper place and organ of the growing body. The heart receives all the heart-determinants, the liver all the liver-determinants, the brain all the brain-determinants, and so forth; each receives the aggregate of determinants from all the daughter cells which belong to it. Thus is the physical body built.

This explains more explicitly than the general remarks made earlier (ch. 12, "Man the Repertory of All Types") why it is that a part amputated from the body of the higher creatures will no longer grow into a new individual, as happens in the cases of certain of the lower creatures. The respective ids in the human body as at present developed have lost their individual reproductive faculty of self-development and remain, as it were, but a collection of determinants.

As another eminent German biologist points out, we should not believe that it is the mere aggregation or collection of cells which, through their absorption of food and by their division and growth and multiplication, originate and make the body. It is rather the individual body which forms and makes the cells; and this is precisely the teaching of theosophy.

The first or originating cell is the root of the body. As it grows, the latent powers and potencies of the entity seeking incarnation begin to work upon the plasmic substances, and it is that inner entity which governs and controls the growth of the cells which form its body to be.

This teaching of Weismann is in some sense a partial reversion to the biological thought of the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries, but it is so much more comprehensive, it appeals so much more to our logical faculties, that we see it as a truly constructive theory of growth. And although we cannot accept it in all details, the general principles that he enunciated are singularly close to the theosophic doctrine.

Let me point out further that while Weismann's theory is a returning, in some respects, to the biologic thought of the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries, this does not mean that the extravagances which those earlier theories involved and which were taught by Charles Bonnet and Robinet, otherwise great men, are endorsed in any manner, either by Weismann or by theosophists.

These men taught the doctrine of encasement or incapsulation, meaning that all future offspring were carried in the reproductive plasm of man's earliest ancestor or ancestors. Those who taught that all future generations were carried in the substance of the ovum of the mother were called Ovulists; while those who thought on the contrary that all the future generations were carried in the cells of the male parent, called themselves Animalculists. These theories are all more or less extravagant, and in some instances took rather curious forms.

Hartsoeker taught that there was a mannikin seated in the head of the male cell, and that when it fertilized the ovum, the mannikin gradually grew to human size. This of course is wrong, in some respects truly grotesque; but incorrect as the conception is, it is a very remarkable intuition of the fact of the inner incarnating being striving to incarnate through its overshadowing of the cellular potencies, striving to express itself — not a mannikin sitting in the head of the cell, and growing to human size, which is absurd, but the outward flowing of the inner life forces derived from the reincarnating entity, through the cell substance.

To return to the Weismann theory: why is it that one portion of the cell should lie dormant and be carried over to the offspring, and another portion of the cell should proceed to build from its protoplasmic contents the body of the individual which it is destined to form? So far as I know, biologic science has no answer at all to this; but theosophy offers as reason the action of the law of acceleration and retardation, which means that when any dominant power appears, all subordinate parts become subservient to it, or sleeping. The dominant or active parts move into accelerated action; while the dormant parts are retarded.

The reason again why the X-portion of the germ plasm should be carried over dormant, and the Y-portion should proceed to form the body, lies in the great fact — unknown to Weismann — of the activity of the astral fluid of the dhyan-chohan. The actual truth is that any cell, although destined to grow into one individual, is, like that individual, composite of a host of inferior lives, and that particular unit-life of the host which is the dominant in the aggregate, due to the influence of the incarnating astral fluid, is the one which controls the nuclear protoplasmic portion of the cell, and governs the building of the body.

At this point let me quote part of an extremely able resume from the Encyclopaedia Britannica contributed by the British zoologist, Dr. Peter C. Mitchell. After he outlines the general scheme of idants, ids, determinants, and biophores, which last, by the way, he says "become active by leaving the nucleus of the cell in which they lie, passing out into the general protoplasm of the cell and ruling its activities," he further elucidates Weismann's theory:

The reproductive cell gives rise to the new individual by continued absorption of food, by growth, cell-divisions and cell-specializations. . . . The germ-plasm has grown in bulk without altering its character in any respect, and, when it divides, each resulting mass is precisely alike. From these first divisions a chain of similar doubling divisions stretches along the "germ-tracks," so marshalling unaltered germ-plasm to the generative organs of the new individual, to be ready to form the germ-cells of the next generation. In this mode the continuity of the germ-plasm from individual to individual is maintained. This also is the immortality of the germ-cells, or rather of the germ-plasm, the part of the theory which has laid so large a hold on the popular imagination, . . .

With this also is connected the celebrated denial of the inheritance of acquired characters. It seemed a clear inference that, if the hereditary mass for the daughters were separated off from the hereditary mass that was to form the mother, at the very first, before the body of the mother was formed, the daughters were in all essentials the sisters of their mother, and could take from her nothing of any characters that might be impressed on her body in subsequent development. In the later elaboration of his theory Weismann has admitted the possibility of some direct modification of the germ-plasm within the body of the individual acting as its host.

The mass of germ-plasm which is not retained in unaltered form to provide for the generative cells is supposed to be employed for the elaboration of the individual body. It grows, dividing and multiplying, and forms the nuclear matter of the tissues of the individual, but the theory supposes this process to occur in a peculiar fashion. — Article on "Heredity," XIth ed., vol. 13, p. 351

The writer then proceeds to show that the disintegration of this part of the germ plasm takes place according to the historical or biological architecture of the plasm:

each division differentiating among the determinants and marshalling one set into one portion, another into another portion. . . . The theoretical conception is, that when the whole body is formed, the cells contain only their own kind of determinants, and it would follow from this that the cells of the tissues cannot give rise to structures containing germ-plasm less disintegrated than their own nuclear material, and least of all to reproductive cells which must contain the undisintegrated microcosms of the germ-plasm. Cases of bud-formation and of reconstructions of lost parts are regarded as special adaptations made possible by the provision of latent groups of accessory determinants, to become active only on emergency.

It is to be noticed that Weismann's conception of the processes of ontogeny is strictly evolutionary, . . . and from the theoretical point of view his theory remains strictly an unfolding, a becoming manifest of hidden complexity.

You have seen from what I have said previously that, whereas this theory may seem in some respects no different from that of the old materialism, it is different in one very significant way: the conception of the particular drive and urge behind each one of these inner faculties or powers of the cell which Weismann places in the idants, and individually and particularly in the ids. And to complete the doctrine, theosophy adds to the innate life working in the cell, which Weismann has outlined, what is called the astral fluid of the incarnating entity.

Each cell is a vital organ. It is connected with heaven knows how many possibilities of becoming the initial step in the growth of some entity seeking reincarnation. In former periods of geological time, when the human stock was still young and unsettled in its courses, each of the cells of the then physical body of a human entity could under certain circumstances produce not solely a human being, but if detached from the human dominant influence, might readily grow into some inferior creature. And here is the hint of the truth of what I have formerly spoken of when suggesting the manner in which the entire stocks of the beast world were produced from the human stock.

In our days this procedure can no longer take place. The cells are too tightly held in the dominant grip of the human astral fluid, and hence it is that a human cell will produce a human being, and a human being only. The reproductive cells of the various beasts will produce each one after its own kind, and only after its own kind; while in the vegetable kingdom the reproductive cells of a rose, for instance, will produce a rose and only a rose; and those of a lily will produce only lilies, and so forth.

It amounts to this: the reproductive germ or cell of any stock is the physical expression of an entity preparing or rather seeking reimbodiment, and the astral fluid of this incarnating entity, mixing with the vital activities of the cell, becomes the directing power. I have used the words "astral fluid," but in view of force and matter being fundamentally one, I might as readily and as accurately have said astral forces. They are forces to us on our plane; but on the plane of the reincarnating entity they are a fluid or fluids.

Therefore, this astral fluid mixing with the vital activity of the cells, becomes the dominant or directing power, carrying with it into the cell activity its own larger urge, and thus becoming, as it were, the directing intelligent power in each one of the many divisions in the multiplication of the cell as it grows in bulk and as it specializes. The resultant of these combined activities is that the astral fluid, working through and in conjunction with the vital capacities and potentialities of the cell, produces the body of man.

The building of the body of man is a mystery to the unthinking, and a wonder to the thoughtful; and yet, as already said, marvelous engine as our body is from the physical standpoint, it is as nothing in comparison with the supernal wonders belonging to the real man within and above that body, belonging to man's astral and emotional, and psychic, and intellectual natures. And still more sublime is the splendor of the spirit. Man links himself in his present life mostly with the astral and emotional and psychic parts of his nature, because his higher faculties, his higher powers, the intellectual and the spiritual, are not yet able fully to self-express themselves through more perfect vehicles than those he has up to the present evolved; but those more perfect vehicles will be formed in due time.

As time, that resistless river of events, flows on, our bodies will become more refined, more fit, more capable of self-expressing what is within; all our hopes and aspirations will then find fit and appropriate vehicles through which they may work. All this will come to pass, for the destiny of man on earth is a noble and beautiful one. So far as his physical body is concerned, he never was a beast, nor did he ever come from the beasts. On the contrary, they came from him as a primitive human physical form.

In his origin man was an unself-conscious god-spark, a spark, as it were, of the central Fire; but that spark, through its own inner drive and urge, seeking self-unfoldment in aeon following upon aeon, originated at various times bodies for itself through which it worked, in which it lived, learning life's lessons and thus training its powers for perfecting a better vehicle in the next and succeeding imbodiments.

Thus we are all children of the universe. Every one of us is an incarnate divinity in our inmost parts, having powers and faculties, potentialities seeking expression. How can we help ourselves in this most noble of adventures? What hinders us from doing this instinctively? Two things mainly. The first is selfishness which beclouds our vision; and thus we fail to cultivate the universal sympathy inherent in our souls. The second hindrance is self-identification with the lower vehicles — the psychic, emotional, and physical bodies in which we live and work. This latter defect of ours is perhaps the worse of the two, though the former, selfishness, is the root of the latter. The latter is the worse mistake in the sense that by identifying ourselves with our bodies, and by false emotional identification of the divine spiritual fire within us with the passional flames in which our physical bodies so often burn, we actually for the time being become one with these bodies.

This identification of our consciousness with the mortal vehicle causes the temporary loss of our self-consciousness at death, when that mortal vehicle disintegrates, and we fail to keep that consciousness from birth to birth or from death to death, as we could if we had trained ourselves to live wholly in our higher natures with their universal fields of thought. Instead, we live in our lower natures, and therefore falsely identify ourselves with those lower natures. Hence of necessity we participate in the vibrational rates of the emotions and of the feelings and of the lower physical fires that belong there.

This truth is so simple that a child can understand it: the choice between an alliance with the god within, or with the beast that the body is.

Chapter 18

Table of Contents


1. Weismann was at one time a fervent Darwinist. Later he became an equally fervent anti-Darwinist. He had learned more than he knew in his younger days when he elaborated his germ plasm theory, and as he was an honest and courageous man, he risked even the ridicule and the derision and obloquy that scientific men of necessity have to face if they dare to take any stand different in large degree from the popular theories — in his case, of biological or evolutionary development — of the times in which they live. (return to text)