History of Comparative Anatomy


Comparative anatomy was first developed by Greek natural philosophers and physicians. It has had a rich interplay with Western culture since that time until the present. Our understanding of how the anatomy of plants and animals varies reflects the view we have of nature and the world. Comparative anatomy can be traced back to the ancient Greeks who made scattered anatomical observations. Aristotle, the student of Plato, made the first systematic dissections. Researchers made more detailed anatomical observations throughout antiquity, while thinkers of the Middle Ages incorporated anatomical ideas within a deeply religious culture. The Renaissance began around 1400 as an interest in early texts, including those on comparative anatomy, increased. The knowledge from ancient texts, fed by the advent of printing, led to the Scientific Revolution. Since the turn of the nineteenth century, much discussion of comparative anatomy has focused on the theory of evolution.

Key Concepts

  • Animal is a major kind of life form that has been distinguished from plants by virtue of possessing a sensorimotor system that gives it an ability to move around.
  • Antiquity in classical western European history is the time period from about 800 bc to 450 ad when the oldest approaches to thought emerged and the oldest texts, mostly in Greek and Latin, were written.
  • Classification is the procedure of comparing different living things and assigning them to abstract groups such as species and genera according to specific anatomical or behavioural criteria.
  • Dissection is the procedure of intentionally cutting open a dead plant or animal in order to discern how its parts are interconnected and organised.
  • Evolution is the process by which one species changes into other species during long periods of time.
  • History is the process by which the ideas, beliefs, language, cultural practices and institutions of a people change over time, often in response to events, social interactions and technological inventions.
  • Middle Ages is the historical period from about ad 450 to 1400 which saw the rise and dominance of Christian religion and culture within the boundaries of the classical Roman Empire.
  • Nature encompasses those aspects of the world and the cosmos that exist independent of human institutions and technological contrivances, including such things as the developmental processes of plants and animal and the way bodies are.
  • Renaissance is the historical period in Western civilisation that succeeds the Middle Ages and precedes the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, in which there is an intense desire to retrieve ancient Greco‚ÄźRoman knowledge and learning, which was accelerated by printing, the publication of books and the influx of Greek scholars after Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire.
  • Scientific change is the process by which scientific accounts are modified as investigators consider new texts, ideas, observations and experimental methods.

Keywords: anatomy; classification; dissection; evolution; history; Aristotle

Figure 1. The vagus nerve of a pig descending along the oesophagus and trachea to the heart. Galen did extensive experiments on recurrent laryngeal branch of this nerve in a pig to demonstrate its general role in vocalisation not just in pigs but in all mammals including humans.
Figure 2. In the 1860s, Richard Owen and Thomas Huxley engaged in a debate over whether humans and apes had brains that were very similar because of their structure (Huxley) or were different in virtue of their size (Owen). Both men agreed, however, that humans had emerged though evolution. (a) Huxley's 1863 drawings of a chimpanzee (below) and human brain drawn the same length. (b) A photograph of a chimpanzee (left) and human brain in actual scale.


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Further Reading

Boylan M (2007) Galen: on blood, the pulse, and the arteries. Journal of the History of Biology 40: 207–230.

Boylan M Forthcoming in (2015) The Origins of Ancient Greek Science: Blood–A Philosophical Study. London, UK: Routledge.

Gotthelf A and Lennox JG (eds) (1987) Philosophical Issues in Aristotle's Biology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Richards R (2004) The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

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Cosans, Christopher E, and Frampton, Michael(Mar 2015) History of Comparative Anatomy. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003085.pub2]