Charles Bonnet

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Charles Bonnet
Born(1720-03-13)13 March 1720
Died20 May 1793(1793-05-20) (aged 73)
CitizenshipCitizen of the Republic of Geneva
Scientific career
Fields Naturalist
Influences Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz

Charles Bonnet (French:  [bɔnɛ] ; 13 March 1720 – 20 May 1793) was a Genevan [1] naturalist and philosophical writer. He is responsible for coining the term phyllotaxis to describe the arrangement of leaves on a plant. [2]

Natural history Study of organisms including plants or animals in their environment

Natural history is a domain of inquiry involving organisms including animals, fungi and plants in their environment; leaning more towards observational than experimental methods of study. A person who studies natural history is called a naturalist or natural historian.

Phyllotaxis Arrangement of leaves on the stem of a plant

In botany, phyllotaxis or phyllotaxy is the arrangement of leaves on a plant stem. Phyllotactic spirals form a distinctive class of patterns in nature.


Bonnet was from a French family driven into the Geneva region by the religious persecution in the 16th century.

Persecution is the systematic mistreatment of an individual or group by another individual or group. The most common forms are religious persecution, racism and political persecution, though there is naturally some overlap between these terms. The inflicting of suffering, harassment, imprisonment, internment, fear, or pain are all factors that may establish persecution, but not all suffering will necessarily establish persecution. The suffering experienced by the victim must be sufficiently severe. The threshold level of severity has been a source of much debate.

Chain of being from Traite d'insectologie, 1745 BonnetChain.jpg
Chain of being from Traité d'insectologie, 1745

Life and work

Bonnet's seems never to have left the Geneva region, and does not appear to have taken any part in public affairs except for the period between 1752 and 1768, during which he was a member of the council of the republic. The last twenty five years of his life he spent quietly in the country, at Genthod, near Geneva, where he died after a long and painful illness on 20 May 1793. His wife was a lady of the family of De la Rive. They had no children, but Madame Bonnet's nephew, the celebrated Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, was brought up as their son.

Genthod Place in Geneva, Switzerland

Genthod is a municipality of the Canton of Geneva, Switzerland.

He made law his profession, but his favourite pursuit was the study of natural science. The account of the ant-lion in Noël-Antoine Pluche's Spectacle de la nature, which he read in his sixteenth year, turned his attention to insect life. He procured RAF de Réaumur's work on insects, and with the help of live specimens succeeded in adding many observations to those of Réaumur and Pluche. In 1740, Bonnet communicated to the Academy of Sciences a paper containing a series of experiments establishing what is now termed parthenogenesis in aphids or tree-lice, which obtained for him the honour of being admitted a corresponding member of the academy. During that year he had been in correspondence with his uncle Abraham Trembley who had recently discovered the hydra. This little creature became the hit of all the salons across Europe once philosophers and natural scientists saw its amazing regenerative capabilities. [3] In 1741, Bonnet began to study reproduction by fusion and the regeneration of lost parts in the freshwater hydra and other animals; and in the following year he discovered that the respiration of caterpillars and butterflies is performed by pores, to which the name of stigmata (or spiracles) has since been given. In 1743, he was admitted a fellow of the Royal Society; and in the same year he became a doctor of laws—his last act in connection with a profession which had ever been distasteful to him. In 1753, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and on 15 December 1769 a foreign member of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters. [4]

Law System of rules and guidelines, generally backed by governmental authority

Law is a system of rules that are created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. It has been defined both as "the Science of Justice" and "the Art of Justice". Law is a system that regulates and ensures that individuals or a community adhere to the will of the state. State-enforced laws can be made by a collective legislature or by a single legislator, resulting in statutes, by the executive through decrees and regulations, or established by judges through precedent, normally in common law jurisdictions. Private individuals can create legally binding contracts, including arbitration agreements that may elect to accept alternative arbitration to the normal court process. The formation of laws themselves may be influenced by a constitution, written or tacit, and the rights encoded therein. The law shapes politics, economics, history and society in various ways and serves as a mediator of relations between people.

Noël-Antoine Pluche French naturalist

Noël-Antoine Pluche, known as the abbé Pluche, was a French priest. He is now known for his Spectacle de la nature, a most popular work of natural history.

Parthenogenesis natural form of asexual reproduction in which growth and development of embryos occur without fertilization

Parthenogenesis is a natural form of asexual reproduction in which growth and development of embryos occur without fertilization. In animals, parthenogenesis means development of an embryo from an unfertilized egg cell. In plants parthenogenesis is a component process of apomixis.

His first published work appeared in 1745, entitled Traité d'insectologie, in which were collected his various discoveries regarding insects, along with a preface on the development of germs and the scale of organized beings. Botany, particularly the leaves of plants, next attracted his attention; and after several years of diligent study, rendered irksome by the increasing weakness of his eyesight, he published in 1754 one of the most original and interesting of his works, Recherches sur l'usage des feuilles dans les plantes. In this book, he observes that gas bubbles form on plant leaves that have been submerged in water, indicating gas exchange; and among other things he advances many considerations tending to show (as was later done by Francis Darwin) that plants are endowed with powers of sensation and discernment. But Bonnet's eyesight, which threatened to fail altogether, caused him to turn to philosophy. In 1754 his Essai de psychologie was published anonymously in London. This was followed by the Essai analytique sur les facultés de l'âme (Copenhagen, 1760), in which he develops his views regarding the physiological conditions of mental activity. He returned to physical science, but to the speculative side of it, in his Considerations sur les corps organisées (Amsterdam, 1762), designed to refute the theory of epigenesis, and to explain and defend the doctrine of pre-existent germs. In his Contemplation de la nature (Amsterdam, 1764–1765; translated into Italian, German, English and Dutch), one of his most popular and delightful works, he sets forth, in eloquent language, the theory that all the beings in nature form a gradual scale rising from lowest to highest, without any break in its continuity. His last important work was the Palingénésie philosophique (Geneva, 1769–1770); in it he treats of the past and future of living beings, and supports the idea of the survival of all animals, and the perfecting of their faculties in a future state.

Microorganism Microscopic living organism

A microorganism, or microbe, is a microscopic organism, which may exist in its single-celled form or in a colony of cells.

Botany science of plant life

Botany, also called plant science(s), plant biology or phytology, is the science of plant life and a branch of biology. A botanist, plant scientist or phytologist is a scientist who specialises in this field. The term "botany" comes from the Ancient Greek word βοτάνη (botanē) meaning "pasture", "grass", or "fodder"; βοτάνη is in turn derived from βόσκειν (boskein), "to feed" or "to graze". Traditionally, botany has also included the study of fungi and algae by mycologists and phycologists respectively, with the study of these three groups of organisms remaining within the sphere of interest of the International Botanical Congress. Nowadays, botanists study approximately 410,000 species of land plants of which some 391,000 species are vascular plants, and approximately 20,000 are bryophytes.

Francis Darwin British naturalist and son of Charles Darwin

Sir Francis "Frank" Darwin was a British botanist. He was a son of the naturalist and scientist Charles Darwin, and brother of George Howard Darwin, Horace Darwin, and Leonard Darwin.

In 1760 he described a condition now called Charles Bonnet Syndrome, [5] in which vivid, complex visual hallucinations (fictive visual percepts) occur in psychologically normal people. (He documented it in his 87-year-old grandfather, [6] who was nearly blind from cataracts in both eyes but perceived men, women, birds, carriages, buildings, tapestries and scaffolding patterns.) Most people affected are elderly with visual impairments, however the phenomenon does not occur only in the elderly or in those with visual impairments; it can also be caused by damage elsewhere in their optic pathway or brain.

Bonnet's philosophical system may be outlined as follows. Man is a compound of two distinct substances, mind and body, the one immaterial and the other material. All knowledge originates in sensations; sensations follow (whether as physical effects or merely as sequents Bonnet will not say) vibrations in the nerves appropriate to each; and lastly, the nerves are made to vibrate by external physical stimulus. A nerve once set in motion by a particular object tends to reproduce that motion; so that when it a second time receives an impression from the same object it vibrates with less resistance. The sensation accompanying this increased flexibility in the nerve is, according to Bonnet, the condition of memory. When reflection—that is, the active element in mind—is applied to the acquisition and combination of sensations, those abstract ideas are formed which, though generally distinguished from, are thus merely sensations in combination only. That which puts the mind into activity is pleasure or pain; happiness is the end of human existence.

Bonnet's metaphysical theory is based on two principles borrowed from Leibniz: first, that there are not successive acts of creation, but that the universe is completed by the single original act of the divine will, and thereafter moves on by its own inherent force; and secondly, that there is no break in the continuity of existence. The divine Being originally created a multitude of germs in a graduated scale, each with an inherent power of self-development. At every successive step in the progress of the universe, these germs, as progressively modified, advance nearer to perfection; if some advanced and others did not there would be a gap in the continuity of the chain. Thus not man only but all other forms of existence are immortal. Nor is man's mind alone immortal; his body also will pass into the higher stage, not, indeed, the body he now possesses, but a finer one of which the germ at present exists within him. It is impossible, however, to reach absolute perfection, because the distance is infinite.

In this final proposition, Bonnet violates his own principle of continuity, by postulating an interval between the highest created being and the Divine. It is also difficult to understand whether the constant advance to perfection is performed by each individual, or only by each race of beings as a whole. There seems, in fact, to be an oscillation between two distinct but analogous doctrines—that of the constantly increasing advancement of the individual in future stages of existence, and that of the constantly increasing advancement of the race as a whole according to the successive evolutions of the globe. In Philosophical Palingesis, or Ideas on the Past and Future States of Living Beings (1770), Bonnet argued that females carry within them all future generations in a miniature form. He believed these miniature beings, sometimes called homonculi, would be able to survive even great cataclysms such as the biblical Flood; he predicted, moreover, that these catastrophes brought about evolutionary change, and that after the next disaster, men would become angels, mammals would gain intelligence, and so on.

Bonnet had an influence on other philosophers and pre-evolutionary thinkers; James Burnett, Lord Monboddo is known to have studied his publications on insects and to have been influenced as he developed concepts on progression of species (evolution). [7]

Bonnet's complete works appeared at Neuchâtel in 1779–1783, partly revised by himself. An English translation of certain portions of the Palingénésie philosophique was published in 1787, under the title Philosophical and Critical Inquiries concerning Christianity. See also A Lemoine, Charles Bonnet (Paris, 1850); the duc de Caraman, Charles Bonnet, philosophe et naturaliste (Paris, 1859); Max Offner, Die Psychologie C. B. (Leipzig, 1893); Joh. Speck, in Arch. f. Gesch. d. Philos x. (1897), xi. (1897), pp. 58 foIl., Xi. (1898) pp. 1–211; J Trembley, Vie privée et littéraire de C. B. (Bern, 1794).

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Bust of Charles Bonnet by James Pradier, on display on the grounds of the Conservatory and Botanical Garden of the City of Geneva. Charles Bonnet by James Pradier-jardin botanique-IMG 0128-gradient.jpg
Bust of Charles Bonnet by James Pradier, on display on the grounds of the Conservatory and Botanical Garden of the City of Geneva.
  1. Bonnet is sometimes held to be Swiss (see e.g. his entry in the Encyclopædia Britannica ), but the independent Republic of Geneva, of which he was a citizen, only joined the Swiss Confederacy on 19 May 1815. In this respect, his citizenship status is the same as that of his close contemporary Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
  2. Livio, Mario (2003) [2002]. The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, the World's Most Astonishing Number (First trade paperback ed.). New York City: Broadway Books. p. 109. ISBN   0-7679-0816-3.
  3. Stott, Rebecca (2012). Darwin's Ghosts. New-York: Spiegel & Grau. pp. 89–92, 96–98. ISBN   978-1-4000-6937-8.
  4. Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab 1742–1942 – Samlinger til Selskabets Historie, vol. 1, Copenhagen, 1942, p. 386.
  5. Berrios G E & Brook P (1982) The Charles Bonnet Syndrome and the problem of visual perceptual disorders in the elderly. Age and Ageing 11: 17–23
  6. Bonnet Charles (1760) Essai Analytique sur les facultés de l’âme. Copenhagen: Philibert, pp 426–428
  7. William Knight, Lord Monboddo and some of his contemporaries, Thoemmes Press, Bristol, England (1900) ISBN   1-85506-207-0