In eighteenth century Germany, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach studied how individuals within a species vary, and to explain such variations, he proposed that a force operates on organisms as they develop. Blumenbach used metrical methods to study the history of humans, but he was also a natural historian and theorist. Blumenbach argued for theories of the transformation of species, or the claim that new species can develop from existing forms. His theory of Bildungstrieb (formative drive), a developmental force within all organisms, influenced the conceptual debates among many late nineteenth and early twentieth century embryologists and naturalists.

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.

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.

Matthias Jacob Schleiden helped develop the cell theory in Germany during the nineteenth century. Schleiden studied cells as the common element among all plants and animals. Schleiden contributed to the field of embryology through his introduction of the Zeiss microscope lens and via his work with cells and cell theory as an organizing principle of biology.

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