Abraham Trembley and the Hydra
Published in Creation Research Society Quarterly, March 2001
Abraham Trembley studied and experimented with the hydra, a
small, fresh water animal, in the eighteenth century.
The methods of locomotion used by this simple animal are
complex, giving evidence for an intelligent Designer.
An overview of Trembley's discoveries and experiments is
presented. Also included is a discussion of his outstanding
methodology, as a result of which he is today regarded as the
"father of experimental zoology." Trembley's role as an educator
is also considered, as well as the influence of his religion on his work.
Hydras are small (about .5 to 10 mm. in length) fresh water animals.
They can be found in ponds, attached to plant stems and the under side of leaves.
They are assigned to phylum Cnidaria (Coelenterata), a
group of very simple animals characterized by possessing
stinging cells on tentacles. Cnidarians also include the well-known jellyfish,
corals, sea anemones, and the Portuguese Man-of-War.
The hydra was discovered in 1702 by Anton von Leeuwenhoek,
the "father of microbiology." The genus name, Hydra,
was assigned to this animal in 1758 by Carolus Linnaeus,
the scientist who devised our system of classifying organisms.
The name hydra has as its source a monster from Greek mythology.
This imaginary beast had nine extremely poisonous serpent-like heads.
If one of the heads was cut off then two more would grow back!
Hercules killed the monster by burning the beast where he had cut off each
of its heads, so that they would not grow back. Once we understand more about
the real hydra, we can appreciate how appropriate its name is.
One remarkable behavior of the hydra is how it moves about.
Our Creator has made animals with a great variety of methods of locomotion
(moving the whole body from one place to
another). Hydras use a number of different strategies to accomplish this.
These were studied by Abraham Trembley in the eighteenth century.
His care and patience enabled him to observe these behaviors.
In his book, Memoirs Concerning the Natural History of a Type
of Freshwater Polyp with Arms Shaped Like Horns (published in 1744 before the
animals were named hydras), he described and illustrated some of
these methods (Lenhoff and Lenhoff, 1986, p.44).
The first method consists of bending down the "head"
end to the surface, attaching the tentacles, then detaching the
base and drawing it to the head end, like an inch worm.
Then it detaches the tentacle end and assumes the original position.
This is accomplished extremely slowly.
The second method consists of bending down the "head"
to the surface, attaching the tentacles, then detaching the base and
lifting it above the head so that the animal is upside down, and then
lowering the base to the opposite side of the "head" from which it started,
attaching the base, detaching the head and moving it into its normal position
above the base. The animal actually moves by somersaulting! Quite
a feat for an animal which does not even have a brain.
The credit for this acrobatic performance must rightly go to the Creator.
Trembley also describes how the hydra can move itself into position
to hang upside down from the surface of the water and then use some of its
tentacles to attach itself to the sides of the jar like anchors.
Abraham Trembley of Geneva, Switzerland, lived from 1710 to 1784. Because of his
work with hydras, he has been called the "father of experimental zoology."
He studied samples of water from local ditches. He kept the water
samples in jars which enabled him to observe the hydras in their natural environment.
This proved to be a relaxing past time from his occupation as a tutor for Count
William Bentinck's children at the estate near The Hague, Holland.
Since the hydras were green (from the presence of algae) and were
attached to objects by their base, Trembley assumed that they were plants.
Then in June, 1740, he noticed them contract and extend.
Several days later he actually observed them move from one place to another -
very strange behavior for a plant! He decided that they must be animals.
After noticing that they seemed to move toward light,
he decided to conduct some experiments with them. These experiments confirmed
his suspicion that these eyeless creatures actually move toward light.
This was the first animal that had ever been seen to behave this way.
After noticing that some hydras had more tentacles that others he was puzzled
since this made the organism seem more like a plant than an animal.
He decided to see if the hydra could regrow parts that had been cut off.
If it could do so to a great degree, this would be strong evidence that it was
a plant, since animals are very limited in this ability (e.g. - a lizard can regrow its tail).
His first such experiment was to cut the hydra completely in half - separating
its top from its base. Each half actually grew back the missing other
half! Was this organism a plant or an animal?
Trembley soon saw a behavior which definitely established that
hydras are animals - he observed one use its tentacles to capture a prey and then
proceed to eat it by stuffing it down a mouth located at the base of its tentacles.
So Trembley became the first person to show that some animals can be made
to reproduce by dividing them in two. This ability is called regeneration.
He even split the tentacle end of a hydra only part-way down and each half
regenerated the other half, resulting in a two-headed monster. He continued
to split the heads and let them regenerate until he had a seven-headed hydra!
Abraham Trembley continued to do more experiments with hydras.
He observed a small hydra growing on the side of a larger one.
It continued to grow and develop until it finally detached to become an
independent organism. He conducted experiments to prove that this type of
reproduction did not start from an egg. This is called budding.
Trembley succeeded in turning a hydra inside-out and found
that it could still live! He also experimented with grafting.
In grafting, scientists remove a branch from one individual plant
and attach it to another individual. It then grows out and becomes part of the other plant.
But, could this work with an animal as well? Trembley demonstrated that it
could with the hydra. He placed one hydra into the mouth of another and observed it
attach and become part of the other's body!
John Baker, in his biography of Abraham Trembley, listed his
chief discoveries. These were (1) his discoveries about budding in animals;
(2) his discoveries about animal regeneration and grafting; (3) his discoveries about
protozoan reproduction and his being the first person to observe true cell-division;
(4) his descriptions of protoplasm; (5) his discoveries about bryozoans.
Baker also mentions a "large number of lesser discoveries..."
including work with rotifers and parthenogenesis (Baker,1952, p.170).
Abraham Trembley - Scientist
Sylvia and Howard Lenhoff, in the preface to their book about Trembley,
tell us that "In recognition of his accomplishments, he was elected to the Royal
society of London and in 1743 was awarded its prestigious Copley Medal,
considered then to be one of the highest accolades in science"(Lenhoff and Lenhoff, 1986, p.ix).
What attributes made Trembley such an outstanding scientist? Baker
mentions several. First, Trembley described processes, rather than
merely describing structures. Second, he was flexible; "...when he
saw that chance had presented him with a problem of particular
interest, he switched over to its investigation, and planned the
necessary observations and experiments with thoroughness"(Baker,
1952, p.171). Third, "the accuracy of his observations is perhaps the
most striking feature of Trembley's work"( p.174). Fourth, his desire
for his results to be confirmed by others. He "...took every opportunity to
show them to others, and to get others to repeat them"(p.179). Fifth, his
logical mind. Sixth, giving detailed explanations of how he obtained his results.
Baker quotes Trembley as saying, "It is therefore insufficient to say that
one has seen a certain thing. That conveys nothing, if one does not at the same
time indicate how one saw it and does not put readers in a position to judge
the method by which the facts that are related have been observed"(p.180). Seventh,
his clear, unequivocal writing. In addition, Howard and Sylvia Lenhoff extol
Trembley's persistence. They quote him as stating, "One should not become disheartened
by want of success, but should try anew whatever has failed. It
is even good to repeat successful experiments a number of times. All that
is possible to see is not discovered, and often cannot be discovered, the
first time"(Lenhoff and Lenhoff, 1988, p.113).
Abraham Trembley - Educator
Abraham Trembley was the father of five children which were all
born within a seven year time-span. The first was born when Trembley
was 49 years old. From their birth until his death at the age of 74 they were the
"...absorbing passion of his life..."(Baker, 1952, p.188).
Trembley actually wrote much more on education than on science.
He thought much about educational methods and developed an original system.
He also included moral principles in the education of his children.
He used living things in teaching and felt there was much benefit
in doing so since they were effective in exciting the children's
curiosity, which he thought was very important. "He also strove
to inculcate a sense of wonder or awe at the immense complexity of
the universe"(Baker, 1952, p.194).
Trembley was far from wanting merely to stock his pupils' minds with
knowledge. He tried to provide them with opportunities
for distinguishing truth from falsehood and certainty from uncertainty;
he taught them to weigh the degrees of probability, to suspend judgment,
even to moderate their impatience for knowledge; for he regarded it as
very important that children should realize the limitations of the
human mind, and thought that this realization of man's ignorance
and mental imperfection could become a source of true knowledge.(Baker, 1952, p.193).
Abraham Trembley - Christian
The following information regarding Abraham Trembley's religion
is gleaned from Baker's biography (Baker, 1952). Trembley
professed to be a Christian and "...accepted as genuine the prophecies of
the Old Testament and the miracles of both Old and New"(p.224). In 1779
he published "Instructions from a Father to His Children Concerning
Natural and Revealed Religion." This large book included a straightforward
account of the biblical record. However, it should be mentioned that
he was not a member of any sect of Christianity and some of his beliefs
would not be considered orthodox.
When he began to undertake the education of his children,
Trembley devoted less of his time to science and became progressively
more and more absorbed in religion; and this was his dominant interest
during the latter part of his life. It permeates all his educational works.
"The Instructions from a Father to his Children, Concerning Nature and Religion"
(1775) begins and ends with religious teaching, and in the
intervening scientific part he turns repeatedly to the same theme (Baker, 1952, p.218).
Trembley taught his children science "...largely because he thought it would
direct their minds toward religion"(p.219). He emphasized in his
teaching to his children that design in nature requires there to be a God.
In addition, he used reason to appeal to his children to accept the Bible as true.
Was Trembley's religion a hindrance to his science? Baker stated that
Trembley's religion was the very basis of his science (Baker, 1952, p.218).
Lenhoff and Lenhoff agree, declaring that, "We suspect that Trembley's
admirable scientific objectivity stemmed in part from his piety.
He believed all marvels were possible in God's magnificent universe"(Lenhoff and Lenhoff,
Here is how Abraham Trembley concluded his remarkable scientific book on the hydra:
"We still know too few parts of the admirable Whole which is the Work of a Being infinite in all respects. What little we know of the parts is not enough for us to be able to explain all the facts presented to us.
In order to extend our knowledge of natural history, we must put our efforts into discovering as many facts as possible. If we knew all the facts that Nature holds, we would have the explanation of them, and we would see the Whole which these assembled facts fashion. The more we know of them, the more we will be in a position to delve deeply into some parts of this Whole. Thus we cannot work better to explain the facts we know than by trying to discover new ones. Nature must be explained by Nature and not by our own views. These are too limited to envision so grand a Design in all its immensity. The beauty of Nature certainly shines forth all the more when what we know about it is not mixed with our fancies. Seen clearly, Nature inspires within us ideas more worthy of the infinite wisdom of its Author and thereby more suitable for shaping our spirits and our hearts. This thought is what we should keep before us in all our researches." (Lenhoff and Lenhoff, 1986, pp.187-188).
So to those who would declare that religion and science should be divorced - that it is impossible for a true scientist to be religious - we must direct your attention to the "father of experimental zoology", an extraordinary experimental scientist of the first degree, as an outstanding counterexample, more than sufficient to refute such a notion.
Baker, J. 1952. Abraham Trembley of Geneva. Edward Arnold and Co., London.
Lenhoff, H. and S. Lenhoff . 1988. Trembley's polyps. Scientific American 258(4):108-113.
Lenhoff, S. and H. Lenhoff . 1986. Hydra and the birth of experimental biology - 1744. (This work includes a translation of Trembley's book on hydras).Boxwood Press. Pacific Grove, CA.
© 2001 Arthur Manning
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