History of Developmental Biology


Developmental biology – or ‘embryology’ – is a subject with a long and distinguished, but uneven, history. It is remarkable for the list of leading scientists and philosophers who have contributed to it from antiquity up to the present era. Because embryos are typically minute and inaccessible direct study and understanding has been slow and relatively recent: before the mid‐nineteenth century theories of reproduction and the origin of living forms were largely speculative. Since then embryology has varied greatly in its importance within mainline biological thinking. At one time it provided key evidence for evolution; later for early theories of genetics. Recently, and even now it can be argued, biologists are divided and unclear about how best to demarcate the subject because it overlaps with many other biological themes as diverse as reproduction, malformation, aging and cancer. Today it tends to be approached through the techniques of molecular biology and molecular genetics, and has acquired renewed interest in the context of fertility enhancement, stem cells and genetic engineering.

Key Concepts:

  • Historically, developmental biology has at times been central to biological thinking: for example as key evidence for change and succession in body forms during evolution.

  • The historical theme of whether, in part, ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’ remains an open question to this day.

  • Investigative embryology created some of the most elegant and decisive experimental designs in the history of biology.

  • Developmental biology remains the repository of some of the greatest remaining challenges within biology: for example how to account for the complexity and dynamic properties of living systems.

  • The concepts of allometry and heterochrony have their origins in the study of embryos.

  • Developmental biology remains a crucial challenge to the currently dominant explanation of biological systems in terms of molecular genetics: it demonstrates the equal importance of frequently overlooked ‘epigenetic’ considerations in accounting for biological form.

  • IVF, the stem cells concept and the potential of regenerative medicine have their theoretical base in the standard concepts derived from developmental biology

Keywords: developmental biology; embryology; recapitulation; experimentalism; reductionism; organiser; genetic engineering

Figure 1.

The frontispiece of Harvey's book on the Generation of Animals (1651). It depicts Zeus liberating living beings from an egg (shown in detail on the right). The picture symbolises his view of the uniformity of the principles of development across species.

Figure 2.

Illustration of the concept of preformation. On the left Hartsoeker's drawing (1695) of a spermatozoon and on the right Malpighi (1673) of a fertilised but unincubated hen's egg, showing what was taken to be an already formed embryo (but was probably a misinterpretation of the deceptive inhomogeneities that can occur in the early blastodisc). Both illustrate the idea that future structure is already present at the first stage of development.

Figure 3.

The concept of recapitulation. Haeckel's summary diagram of (three) developmental stages in eight different vertebrate groups, a fish on the left and a human on the right. The remarkable similarities of the earliest stages support his claim that they correspond to a common, ancestral form; each species seems to recapitulate ancestral morphologies during its own development.

Figure 4.

Spemann's discovery of the ‘organiser’. A small region of tissue (at the dorsal lip of the blastopore, shown blue) has a unique, organising property; when transplanted to a noncorresponding site in a host embryo it causes the formation of a complete, secondary embryo by nearby host cells (shown below). Elsewhere the host embryo develops normally (shown above).

Figure 5.

A cautionary comment on changing perspectives in embryological research methods. Although classically the whole intact embryo was the focus (on the left), now attention is increasingly biochemical (a homogenate of an embryo, middle frame); or molecular (an isolate of selected molecular components; right). (From Weiss PA (1968) Dynamics of Development: Academic Press.)

Figure 6.

An illustration of the concept of epigenesis. This flow diagram shows the cumulatively elaborate sequence of events in embryogenesis (as illustrated in a typical recent textbook). Starting from the ovum (top, centre) the branching paths show steps in the development of the range of body organs. Each involves multiple stages. Most of the arrows indicate experimentally proven (inductive) cause and effect embryonic tissue interactions.


Further Reading

Allen G (1975) Life Science in the Twentieth Century. New York: Wiley.

Cole FJ (1930) Early Theories of Sexual Generation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Deech R and Smajdoe A (2007) From IVF to Immortality. Controversy in the Era of Reproductive Technology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gould SJ (1977) Ontogeny and Phylogeny. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hopwood N (2009) Embryology. In: Bowler PJ and Pickstone JV (eds) Cambridge History of Science. Vol. 6. Modern Life and Earth Sciences, pp. 285–315. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Horder TJ (2001) The organizer concept and modern embryology: Anglo‐American perspectives. International Journal of Developmental Biology 45: 97–132.

Horder TJ (2008) A history of evo‐devo in Britain. Annals of History and Philosophy of Biology 13: 101–174.

Horder TJ, Witkowski JA and Wylie CC (1986) A History of Embryology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Laublichler MD and Maienschein J (eds) (2007) From Embryology to Evo‐Devo: A History of Developmental Evolution. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lovejoy AO (1936) The Great Chain of Being. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Meyer AW (1939) The Rise of Embryology. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Needham J (1959) A History of Embryology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

O'Dowd MJ and Philipp EE (1994) The History of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. New York: Parthenon Publishing Group.

Oppenheimer JM (1967) Essays in the History of Embryology and Biology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Russell ES (1917) Form and Function. London: John Murray.

Singer C (1931) A Short History of Biology. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Willier BH, Weiss PA and Hamburger V (eds) (1955) Analysis of Development. Philadelphia: Saunders.

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

How to Cite close
Horder, Tim(Nov 2010) History of Developmental Biology. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003080.pub2]