To Lynn M. Morgan, the Mary E. Woolley Professor of Anthropology at Mt. Holyoke College, nothing says life more than a dead embryo. In her easily readable book, Icons of Life: A Cultural History of Human Embryos, Morgan brings together cultural phenomena, ethics, and embryology to show that even dead embryos and fetuses have their own stories to tell. As an anthropologist, Morgan is interested in many things, including the science of embryology and its history. But she also wants to know how culture influences our views on embryos and the material practices that accompany their study. Her intent is to establish a relationship between specimens collected in the remote past and the contemporary cultural politics of abortion (p. xiii). The eight chapters in Icons of Life do not provide an exhaustive historical look at early American embryology, but they do weave together the Carnegie Institute of Washington Embryology Department (CIWED), its major human embryo collector Franklin Paine Mall, and how early twentieth-century science worked. Morgan ably describes the CIWEDÕs early foray into embryo collecting, but she wants to do more than just describe how embryos made their way to the laboratory. She wants us to ask why it was even possible for such a thing to happen without so much as a fuss being made from the public. This involves looking at culture.
In 1830, a dispute erupted in the halls of lÕAcad mie des Sciences in Paris between the two most prominent anatomists of the nineteenth century. Georges Cuvier and tienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, once friends and colleagues at the Paris Museum, became arch rivals after this historical episode. Like many important disputes in the history of science, this debate echoes several points of contrasts between the two thinkers. The two French Ânaturalists not only disagreed about what sorts of comparisons between vertebrates were acceptable, but also about which principles ought to underlie a rational system of animal taxonomy and guide the study of animal anatomy. Digging deeper into their differences, their particular disagreements over specific issues within zoology and anatomy culminated in the articulation of two competing and divergent philosophical views on the aims and methods of the life sciences. The emergence of these two distinct positions has had a lasting impact in the development of evolutionary and developmental biology. This essay will provide an overview of the conceptual themes of the debate, its implications for the development of the life sciences, and its role in the history of embryology and developmental biology.