Pierre Louis Maupertuis

From Academic Kids

Missing image
Pierre Louis Maupertuis, here wearing "lapmudes" or a fur coat from his Lapland expedition.

Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (July 17, 1698July 27, 1759) was a French mathematician and astronomer. He is often credited with having invented the principle of least action.



He was born at Saint-Malo, France. At the age of twenty he entered the army, becoming a lieutenant in a cavalry regiment, and studying mathematics in his spare time. After five years he left the army and was admitted in 1723 a member of the Académie des Sciences. In 1728 he visited London, and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. In 1736 he acted as chief of the expedition sent by King Louis XV to Lapland to measure the length of a degree of the meridian. Maupertuis is credited with obtaining the direct evidence indicating that the earth is an oblate spheroid (a sphere, flattened at the poles). On his return home he became a member of almost all the scientific societies of Europe. (C.p. Käymäjärvi Inscriptions)

In 1740 Maupertuis went to Berlin at the invitation of Frederick II of Prussia, and took part in the Battle of Mollwitz, where he was taken prisoner by the Austrians. On his release he returned to Berlin, and thence to Paris, where he was elected director of the Academy of Sciences in 1742, and in the following year was admitted into the Académie française. Returning to Berlin in 1744, again at the desire of Frederick II, he was chosen president of the Royal Academy of Sciences in 1746. Finding his health declining, he repaired in 1757 to the south of France, but went in 1758 to Basel, where he died a year later. Maupertuis' difficult disposition involved him in constant quarrels, of which his controversies with Samuel König and Voltaire during the latter part of his life are examples.


Some historians of science point to his important works in biology as significant precursors in the development of evolutionary theories, specifically the theory of natural selection. Other writers contend that his remarks are cursory, vague, or incidental to that particular argument. See "Venus Physique" (1745), or its English translation, Boas (1966), for details. Other valuable references include Stephen Jay Gould's The Flamingo's Smile (1987), Desmond King-Hele's Erasmus Darwin (1963),Peter Bowler's Evolution: The History of an Idea (1983), and Bentley Glass' Forerunners of Darwin (1959).

Below is a translation from Venus Physique, followed by the original French passage:

"Could one not say that, in the fortuitous combinations of the productions of nature, as there must be some characterized by a certain relation of fitness which are able to subsist, it is not to be wondered at that this fitness is present in all the species that are currently in existence? Chance, one would say, produced an innumerable multitude of individuals; a small number found themselves constructed in such a manner that the parts of the animal were able to satisfy its needs; in another infinitely greater number, there was neither fitness nor order: all of these latter have perished. Animals lacking a mouth could not live; others lacking reproductive organs could not perpetuate themselves... The species we see today are but the smallest part of what blind destiny has produced..." [1] (http://cogweb.ucla.edu/EarlyModern/Maupertuis_1745.html).

"Ne pourrait-on pas dire que, dans la combinaison fortuite des productions de la nature, comme il n'y avait que celles où se trouvaient certain rapport de convenance qui puissent subsister, il n'est pas marveilleux que cette convenance se trouve dans toutes les espèces qui existent actuellement? Le hasard, dirait-on, avait produit une multitude innombrable d'individus; un petit nombre se trouvait construit de manière que les parties de l'animal pouvaient satisfaire à ses besoins; dans un autre infiniment plus grand, il n'y avait ni covenance, ni ordre: tous ces derniers ont péri; des animaux sans bouche ne pouvaient pas vivre, d'autres qui manquaient d'organes pour la génération ne pouvaient se perpétuer... les espèces que nous voyons aujourd'hui ne sont que la plus petite partie de ce qu'un destin aveugle avait produit..."

Desmond King-Hele (1963) points to similar, though not identical, ideas expounded by David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1777).

The question of who deserves priority for the discovery of the principle of natural selection has always been of particular interest to the historian and biologist. This may be due to the delayed publishing by Charles Darwin and to the peculiar circumstances of the theory's simultaneous discovery by Alfred Russell Wallace. Further, the tantalizing facts surrounding Darwin's unique social and family circumstances, particularly his family's reputation for liberal, deist, and evolutionist predilections, have always been cause for some skepticism about Darwin's originality.

With regard to Maupertuis the question is whether or not Maupertuis had (1) an internally coherent, yet externally robust, theoretical system, (2) an atheistic system or, at a minimum, a non-mystical and thus, scientific system, and/or (3) a broad, overarching theory that tied together all of the available evidence. The chief debate that Maupertuis was engaged in was one that treated the competing theories of generation (i.e. preformationism and epigenesis) indicating that, if Maupertuis was indeed involved in evolutionary speculations, then natural selection may have followed intuitively from clear thinking about the mechanism of biological generation and propogation.

The date of these speculations, 1745, being concurrent with Linnaeus's own work, predate any firm notion of species. Also, the work on genealogy, coupled with the tracing of phenotypic characters through lineages, foreshadows the later work done by Gregor Mendel. The juxtaposition of these subjects suggests that the Modern evolutionary synthesis, while certainly more quantitative, rigorous, and scientific, may have been a rather late addition to a philosophical framework that could already be considered "discovered". In summary, Maupertuis' text is suggestive and deserving of closer scrutiny by scientists and historians, as well as the general public.


The following are his most important works:

  • Sur la figure de la terre (Paris, 1738)
  • Discours sur la parallaxe de la lune (Paris, 1741)
  • Discours sur la figure des astres (Paris, 1742)
  • Eléments de la géographie (Paris, 1742)
  • Lettre sur la comète de 1742 (Paris, 1742)
  • Astronomie nautique (Paris, 1745 and 1746)
  • Vénus physique (Paris, 1745)
  • Essai de cosmologie (Amsterdam, 1750).

His Œuvres were published in 1752 at Dresden and in 1756 at Lyons.


The Maupertuis crater on the Moon is named after him.

Preceded by:
Charles-Irénée Castel de Saint-Pierre
Seat 8
Académie française
Succeeded by:
Jean-Jacques Lefranc, marquis de Pompignan

See also

fr:Pierre Louis Maupertuis pl:Pierre Louis Maupertuis sl:Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis fi:Pierre Louis Maupertuis


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