Russian comparative embryology takes form: a conceptual metamorphosis toward “evo-devo”


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This essay recapitulates major paths followed by the Russian tradition of what we refer to today as evolutionary developmental biology (“evo-devo”). The article addresses several questions regarding the conceptual history of evolutionary embryological thought in its particularly Russian perspective: (1) the assertion by the St. Petersburg academician Wolff regarding the possible connections between environmental modifications during morphogenesis and the “transformation” of species, (2) the discovery of shared “principles” underlying animal development by von Baer, (3) the experimental expression of Baer's principles by Kowalevsky and Mechnikoff, (4) Severtsov's theory of phylembryogenesis, (5) Filatov's approach to the study of evolution using comparative “developmental mechanics”, and (6) Shmalgausen's concept of “stabilizing” selection as an attempt to elucidate the evolution of developmental mechanisms. The focus on comparative evolutionary embryology, which was established by Kowalevsky and Mechnikoff, still continues to be popular in present-day “evo-devo” research in Russia.