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History of Developmental Biology

  1. Tim Horder

Published Online: 15 NOV 2010

DOI: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003080.pub2



How to Cite

Horder, T. 2010. History of Developmental Biology. eLS. .

Author Information

  1. University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 15 NOV 2010


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


  • developmental biology;
  • embryology;
  • recapitulation;
  • experimentalism;
  • reductionism;
  • organiser;
  • genetic engineering