Johann Friedrich Meckel and Antoine Etienne Reynaud Augustin Serres developed in the early 1800s the basic principles of what later became called the Meckel-Serres Law. Meckel and Serres both argued that fetal deformities result when development prematurely stops, and they argued that these arrests characterized lower life forms, through which higher order organisms progress during normal development. The concept that the embryos of higher order organisms progress through successive stages in which they resemble lower level forms is called recapitulation. Meckel, a professor of anatomy at the University of Halle in Halle, Germany, and Serres, a physician at Hotel-Dieu de Paris in Paris, France, did not work together. Rather, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, their similar approaches, in which they compared the anatomy and embryos of different species so as to relate stages of embryonic development to the scala naturae, led oher scientists to generalize their individual concepts into one general theory. The recapitulation ideas of Meckel and Serres became part of the mid-eighteenth century debate about how to explain morphological similarities between species.
Ontogeny and Phylogeny is a book published in 1977, in which the author Stephen J. Gould, who worked in the US, tells a history of the theory of recapitulation. A theory of recapitulation aims to explain the relationship between the embryonic development of an organism (ontogeny) and the evolution of that organism's species (phylogeny). Although there are several variations of recapitulationist theories, most claim that during embryonic development an organism repeats the adult stages of organisms from those species in it's evolutionary history. Gould suggests that, although fewer biologists invoked recapitulation theories in the twentieth century compared to those in the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries, some aspects of the theory of recapitulation remained important for understanding evolution. Gould notes that the concepts of acceleration and retardation during development entail that changes in developmental timing (heterochrony) can result in a trait appearing either earlier or later than normal in developmental processes. Gould argues that these changes in the timing of embryonic development provide the raw materials or novelties upon which natural selection acts.
In humans, sex determination is the process that determines the biological sex of an offspring and, as a result, the sexual characteristics that they will develop. Humans typically develop as either male or female, primarily depending on the combination of sex chromosomes that they inherit from their parents. The human sex chromosomes, called X and Y, are structures in human cells made up of tightly bound deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, and proteins. Those are molecules that contain the instructions for the development and functioning of all life forms, including the development of physical traits and body parts that correspond with each biological sex. Humans who inherit two X chromosomes typically develop as females, while humans with one X and one Y chromosome typically develop as males. Sex determination is the beginning of the development of many characteristics that influence how a human looks and functions as well as the societal expectations that other humans have for each other.
Aristotle studied developing organisms, among other things, in ancient Greece, and his writings shaped Western philosophy and natural science for greater than two thousand years. He spent much of his life in Greece and studied with Plato at Plato's Academy in Athens, where he later established his own school called the Lyceum. Aristotle wrote greater than 150 treatises on subjects ranging from aesthetics, politics, ethics, and natural philosophy, which include physics and biology. Less than fifty of Aristotle's treatises persisted into the twenty-first century. In natural philosophy, later called natural science, Aristotle established methods for investigation and reasoning and provided a theory on how embryos generate and develop. He originated the theory that an organism develops gradually from undifferentiated material, later called epigenesis.
Aristotle's On the Generation of Animals is referred to in Latin as De Generatione animalium. As with many of Aristotle's writings, the exact date of authorship is unknown, but it was produced in the latter part of the fourth century B.C. This book is the second recorded work on embryology that is treated as a subject of philosophy, being preceded by contributions in the Hippocratic corpus by about a century. It was, however, the first work to provide a comprehensive theory of how generation works and an exhaustive explanation of how reproduction works in a variety of different animals. As such, De Generatione was the first scientific work on embryology. Its influence on embryologists, naturalists, and philosophers in later years was profound. Among these were Hieronymus Fabricius, William Harvey, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Charles Darwin.