Embryos and Entelechy


Among the many features of organisms that inspire our sense of wonder, the emergence of new life stands at the pinnacle. No one can witness the birth of a baby without a feeling of awe, and that feeling extends to non-human species. The germination of seeds and the growth of plants are commonplace events but they are still marvels. Every spring, a hawthorn hedge bears thousands of identical flowers and tens of thousands of new leaves, each a miniature jewel of complex form. Similar examples abound in the natural world. Where do these new manifestations of life come from, and what brings them into being in such profusion and with such seemingly mechanical regularity? ‘Miracle’ is the wrong word for these occurrences; ‘miracles’ are one-off events that flout laws and therefore lie beyond the purview of science (unless and until a rational explanation is found), while the development and maturation of embryos are aspects of the uniformity of nature and follow law-like, regular patterns. But how are they to be explained scientifically?

Aristotle proposed an epigenetic account (Chapter 7), which was inherently teleological and could not be reconciled with the spirit of the Scientific Revolution. In consequence, many mechanists after Descartes took a radically different view of embryo development, preformationism, which appeared to be wholly non- teleological. Meanwhile, anti-mechanists, following Harvey, continued to consider epigenesis more plausible. The ensuing debate between these two traditions was long and complex, raising deep philosophical issues with implications for biology as a whole. This aspect of history is central to the ‘war of attrition’ that freed biology of Aristotle’s influence.


Embryo Development Daughter Cell Scientific Revolution Mammalian Ovum Daughter Chromosome 
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