A theory popular in the 18th century that all parts of an organism exist completely formed in the germ cell and develop only by increasing in size.

Robert stared at the foam, remembering the doctrine of preformation that Master Trevelyan had drilled into them: all living things had been created at the same time, long ago, and births today were merely enlargements of the previously imperceptible. Although they appeared newly created, these homunculi were countless years old; for all of human history they had lain nested within generations of their ancestors, waiting for their turn to be born.

Definition from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition (via Wordnik)

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