Looking at Embryos: The Visual and Conceptual Aesthetics of Emerging Form

  • Scott F. Gilbert
  • Marion Faber
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 182)


The title of this essay implies that there is an aesthetic of living organisms and that the aesthetic of embryology differs from those of other areas of biology. First, we believe that one can seriously discuss the aesthetics of the embryo much as one would discuss the aesthetics of an artist’s creation. Terms such as symmetry, balance, pattern, rhythm, form, and integration are crucial in both disciplines and are used in similar fashions.2 The scientist observing the embryo can act analogously to a critic, and the different sub-disciplines of biology are not unlike different schools of literary or art criticism. Indeed, all our knowledge of cells is based on interpretations of visual abstractions. Different stains and lenses emphasize different structures in the cell, and autoradiograms are used to imply functional relationships. Centrifugation analysis of cell components also gives us radioactive and enzymological data that are then placed back onto a map of the cell. As Oscar Schotte pointed out, the embryologist’s visualization of the cell differs from the geneticist’s visualization of the cell. Thus, there are different “schools” of biology. Some (such as physiology) seek the “meaning” of a structure; while others (such as cell and molecular biology) regard the animal’s general structure as relatively unimportant and look for unifying concepts and mechanisms underlying the apparent diversity of structures.


Developmental Biologist Experimental Embryology Functional Biology Phylotypic Stage Conceptual Aesthetics 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Scott F. Gilbert
    • 1
  • Marion Faber
    • 1
  1. 1.Swarthmore ClollegeSwarthmoreUSA

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