Montessori and Genetics

I’ve been reading The Secret of Childhood, this time cover to cover rather than merely the passages that were required reading for my training.

Last night I was struck by what I will boastfully call a revelation, (in actuality I finally realized something painfully obvious) while reading passages such as this…

“It thus becomes clear to us that psychic development does not come about by hazard or does not originate in stimuli from the outer world; it is guided by transient sensibilities, temporary instincts connected with the acquisition of certain characteristics”(Montessori 1996).

“There is, in fine, an animating human spirit that must become incarnate in order to act, to express itself in the world”(Montessori 1996).

I’ve always been uncomfortable with phrases such as those highlighted in blue.  Perhaps because those phrases sound like unscientific, new age, quasi-mystical fumbling.  Please don’t get me wrong, I love Dr. Montessori, and my sense of historical writings is that these phrases would have been more credible and accepted in her time, but to me, reading in 2008, the phrases are… uncomfortable.

Last night my revelation was that Dr. Montessori was a scientist during the infancy of genetics, and she died before science realized the significance of DNA.

  • 1859 – Charles Darwin publishes The Origin of Species
  • 1866 – Gregor Mendel publishes his findings on the laws of inheritance based on experiments, begun in 1857, with pea plants.
  • 1870 – Birth of Maria Montessori
  • 1882 – Walter Fleming discovers chromosomes
  • 1906 – Dr. Montessori opens the first Casa dei Bambini – The term “Genetics” is used for the first time
  • 1915 – Thomas Hunt Morgan publishes The Mechanism of Mendelian Heredity, presenting proof that genes line up along chromosomes.
  • 1944 – Avery, MacLeod, and McCarty report that in bacteria, the molecule that carries genetic information is deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).
  • 1952 – Dr. Montessori dies – Martha Chase and Alfred Hershey provide final proof that DNA transmits inherited traits from one generation to the next.

Dr. Montessori made extensive use of biological metaphors to describe the inner forces she saw working in children.  Especially the way that germ cells, operating under hidden instructions, would divide, replicate, and differentiate to create a fully functional human body.  She saw this as analogous to the way in which the child’s psyche operated under hidden instructions, or driven by hidden forces (such as the horme, mneme, absorbent mind, and sensitive periods) to build the adult human psyche (Montessori 1996).

What metaphors might Dr. Montessori have created if she had known about DNA and modern genetics?  What scientific terms might she have used rather than “transient sensibilities” or “an animating human spirit”.  I also wonder what direction genetic research might take in the future if the Montessori community can make its voice heard.  Maybe the sensitive periods are waiting to be found in DNA.

Timeline of Genetics. (n.d.). Retrieved April 27, 2008, from

Montessori, M. (1996). The Secret of Childhood. Mumbai, India: Orient Longman Private Limited.


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