To study human evolution, researchers sometimes use microstructures found in human teeth and their knowledge of the processes by which those structures grow. Human fetusus begin to develop teeth in utero. As teeth grow, they form a hard outer substance, called enamel, through a process called amelogenesis. During amelogenesis, incremental layers of enamel form in a Circadian rhythm. This rhythmic deposition leaves the enamel with microstructures, called cross-striations and striae of Retzius, which have a regular periodicity. Because enamel is not renewed throughout life like other tissues, teeth preserve the timing and details of a person's growth and development. Thus, enamel microstructures, from living people and from fossilized teeth, can be used to reconstruct the growth, development, and life histories of current and past humans. Researchers can also compare current and fossilized microstructures to trace changes in those traits over the course of human evolution.

Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, commonly known as Geoffroy, studied animals, their anatomy and their embryos, and teratogens at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, France in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Geoffroy also helped develop several specialized fields in the life sciences, including experimental embryology. In his efforts to experimentally demonstrate the theory of recapitulation, Geoffroy developed techniques to intervene in the growth of embryos to see whether they would develop into different kinds of organisms. Moreover, Geoffroy emphasized the concept of l'unite de composition (the unity of plan). Geoffroy disputed in 1830 with Georges Cuvier over whether form or function matters most for the study of anatomy and whether the transformation of organic forms can occur over time. Geoffroy's conceptual contributions, as well as his experimental research, influenced embryological research on animal morphology and teratogens, and later the field of evolutionary paleontology.

Homology is a central concept of comparative and evolutionary biology, referring to the presence of the same bodily parts (e.g., morphological structures) in different species. The existence of homologies is explained by common ancestry, and according to modern definitions of homology, two structures in different species are homologous if they are derived from the same structure in the common ancestor. Homology has traditionally been contrasted with analogy, the presence of similar traits in different species not necessarily due to common ancestry but due to a similar function or convergent evolution resulting from similar selective pressure in different species. (A more recent contrastive notion is homoplasy, the presence of similar traits in different species without common ancestry, i.e., as an instance of parallel evolution.) This sounds straightforward, but in fact the homology concept has a rich history and currently is the subject of extensive theoretical reflection, resulting in different contemporary approaches to homology.

Turtle morphology is unlike that of any other vertebrate. The uniqueness of the turtle's bodyplan is attributed to the manner in which the turtle's ribs are ensnared within its hard upper shell. The exact embryological and genetic mechanisms underpinning this peculiar anatomical structure are still a matter of debate, but biologists agree that the evolution of the turtle shell lies in the embryonic development of the turtle.

Charles Otis Whitman was an extremely curious and driven researcher who was not content to limit himself to one field of expertise. Among the fields of study to which he made significant contributions were: embryology; morphology, or the form of living organisms and the relationships between their structures; natural history; and behavior. Whitman served as director of several programs and institutions, including the Biology Department at the University of Chicago, where he helped establish a new style of biology and influenced the work of many researchers of his generation, as well as future ones. He also served as first director of the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, MA. Besides his considerable achievements with his own scientific research, Whitman was a tireless mentor who had many students who went on to achieve great success in the field of embryology.

Lennart Nilsson is a world-renowned photojournalist recognized for his exploratory images of the inside of the human body. Throughout his career, Nilsson has received a great deal of publicity for his images documenting the human reproductive system and the morphology of viruses. His photography was the first to capture early human development and the developmental stages of embryos and fetuses. These images have helped shape the way the public visualizes development.

Richard Woltereck was a German zoologist and hydrobiologist who studied aquatic animals and extended the concept of Reaktionsnorm (norm of reaction) to the study of genetics. He also provided some of the first experimental evidence for the early twentieth-century embryological theory of heredity known as cytoplasmic inheritance. Through experiments on the water flea, Daphnia, Woltereck investigated whether variation produced by environmental impacts on development could play a role in heredity and evolution. Woltereck's research emphasized the importance of environment and development in Wilhelm Johannsen's concepts of genotype and phenotype. Biologists throughout the twentieth century used Woltereck's concept of Reaktionsnorm to develop theories and experiments to explain the evolution of adaptive developmental responses to environmental conditions. Later in his career, Woltereck developed a theory of heredity that sought to reconcile embryological concepts, such as regulation and body plans, with Mendelian heredity and Darwinian evolution by natural selection.

Richard Woltereck first described the concept of Reaktionsnorm (norm of reaction) in his 1909 paper 'Weitere experimentelle Untersuchungen uber Art-veranderung, speziell uber das Wesen quantitativer Artunterschiede bei Daphniden' ('Further investigations of type variation, specifically concerning the nature of quantitative differences between varieties of Daphnia'). This concept refers to the ways in which the environment can alter the development of an organism, and its adult characteristics. Woltereck conceived of the Reaktionsnorm as the full range of potentialities latent in a single genotype, evocable by the environmental circumstances of a developing organism. Biologists used variants of Woltereck's concept of Reaktionsnorm, often called the reaction norm or norm of reaction, throughout the twentieth century in attempts to explain how developmental responses to the environment can evolve, and even alter the tempo and direction of evolutionary change.

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 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.

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