First published in 1930 and reprinted in 1972, Edward Stuart Russell's The Interpretation of Development and Heredity is a work of philosophical and theoretical biology. In this book Russell outlines a methodological and philosophical program aimed at reorienting the biological understanding of development and heredity. He argues that the mechanistic perspective on development and heredity ignores aspects of biological phenomena that can only be analyzed if biologists view organisms as whole entities, rather than breaking down developmental and hereditary processes into small causal units. This book is representative of Russell's broad philosophical approach to biology, called "organicism".
During the 1870s and early 1880s, the British morphologist Francis Maitland Balfour contributed in important ways to the budding field of evolutionary embryology, especially through his comparative embryological approach to uncovering ancestral relationships between groups. As developmental biologist and historian Brian Hall has observed, the field of evolutionary embryology in the nineteenth century was the historical ancestor of modern-day evolutionary developmental biology. Balfour's work was notably inspired by Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and Ernst Haeckel's account of the relationships between embryology and evolution. Only a decade after Balfour's program of research began, an alpine climbing accident robbed Britain of its most promising embryologist.
Of Sir D'Arcy Thompson's nearly 300 publications, the theoretical treatise On Growth and Form, first published in 1917, remains the principal work for which he is remembered. This substantial book is still in print today, and merited an editorial review and introductory essays by two important twentieth century biologists, John Tyler Bonner and Stephen Jay Gould. Growth and Form was immediately well-received for both its literary style and its scientific significance, as discussed by the biologist Sir Peter Medawar. Despite being almost continuously in print since its first publication, the exact influence of Growth and Form on the biological sciences, although widely acknowledged, is yet difficult to characterize. In this work Thompson aimed to unite physics and biology through an analysis of the physical limitations to the growth and structure of organisms. For developmental biologists in particular, Thompson's theory on the transformation of biological forms, presented in the final chapter of Growth and Form, was thought provoking.
Edward Stuart Russell was born 23 March 1887 to Helen Cockburn Young and the Reverend John N. Russell in Port Glasgow, Scotland. Friends and co-workers alike knew Russell as a quiet and focused, though always kind and helpful person. Trained in classics and biology, Russell's interests drew him to the study of historical and philosophical issues in the biological sciences, particularly morphology and animal behavior. According to Nils Roll-Hansen, Russell was one of the most influential philosophers of biology in the second third of the twentieth century. It was through history and philosophy, rather than his equally important work as a fisheries biologist, Russell argued that developmental and embryological studies deserve a central role in the biological sciences.
In 1962 the journal Acta Biotheoretica published the final work of the biologist Edward Stuart Russell, a full eight years after his death. Entitled The Diversity of Animals: an Evolutionary Study, this short, unfinished manuscript on evolution received little recognition in the scientific presses despite both its technical discussion of adaptations in decapods (crabs, shrimp, etc.) and its different approach to evolutionary theory. The precise reason for this neglect is unclear. This book is a continuation of Russell's philosophical perspective, organicism, an interpretation that focuses on the organism as the primary unit of analysis for the biological sciences. Russell first argued for this position in several of his earlier works, such as The Interpretation of Development and Heredity (1930) and The Directiveness of Organic Activities (1946). What was new in The Diversity of Animals lies in Russell's orthogenetic theory of evolution. By "orthogenetic" he means evolutionary change in definite directions. The overall thesis of this work is that transformations in evolution that occur in early ontogenesis, or development, are the best explanation for most diversity in nature. The consequence of Russell's argument is that an understanding of development is fundamental to an explanation of the major transformations in the evolutionary history of life.
In 1916, at the age of twenty-nine, Edward Stuart Russell published his first major work, Form and Function: a Contribution to the History of Animal Morphology. This book has maintained wide readership among scientists and historians since its initial publication, and today is generally recognized as the first modern, sustained study of the history of morphology. In particular, Form and Function incorporates an extensive theoretical analysis of the relationship between embryological studies and comparative morphology in the nineteenth century. Russell employs a history-of-ideas approach in this book, describing the most significant morphologists and their theories. The first chapters of Form and Function discuss early investigators into morphology, such as Hippocrates and Aristotle. The book concludes with a discussion of the opening decade of the twentieth century and the works of Russell’s contemporaries, such as Ernst Mehnert, Hans Driesch, Oscar Hertwig, and Albert Oppel. The broad structure of these chapters, and thus Russell’s overall history, is organized into three main “currents”: a functionalist approach, which includes evolutionary morphologists; a transcendental or idealistic morphology; and finally a focus on experimental embryology or “causal morphology,” to use Russell’s terminology. Consequently the overall framework of Form and Function explains the emerging importance of embryology for an understanding of biological form.
Known by many for his wide-reaching interests and keen thinking, D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson was one of Britain's leading scientific academics in the first few decades of the twentieth century. A prodigious author, Thompson published some 300 papers, books, and articles in the biological sciences, classics, oceanography, and mathematics. He was a famous lecturer and conversationalist-a true "scholar-naturalist," as his daughter wrote in her biography of her father. Of his numerous publications, the acclaimed On Growth and Form (1917, 1945) is generally considered to be his most influential. Many highly respected biologists-like John Tyler Bonner, Joseph Woodger, Sir Peter Medawar, and Stephen Jay Gould-have argued for the importance of On Growth and Form for the history of twentieth century biology. In this work Thompson integrates a causal understanding of biological growth and structure with the mathematics of physical laws. Many developmental biologists have drawn inspiration from reading Thompson's magnum opus, by focusing on this approach to understanding the physical limitations and mathematical processes of developmental growth and morphological form.