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.

Stephen Jay Gould studied snail fossils and worked at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts during the latter half of the twentieth century. He contributed to philosophical, historical, and scientific ideas in paleontology, evolutionary theory, and developmental biology. Gould, with Niles Eldredge, proposed the theory of punctuated equilibrium, a view of evolution by which species undergo long periods of stasis followed by rapid changes over relatively short periods instead of continually accumulating slow changes over millions of years. In his 1977 book, Ontogeny and Phylogeny, Gould reconstructed a history of developmental biology and stressed the importance of development to evolutionary biology. In a 1979 paper coauthored with Richard Lewontin, Gould and Lewonitn criticized many evolutionary bioligists for relying solely on adaptive evolution as an explanation for morphological change, and for failing to consider other explanations, such as developmental constraints.

The review article “Cell Deaths in Normal Vertebrate Ontogeny” (abbreviated as “Cell Deaths”) was published in Biological Reviews of the Cambridge Philosophy Society in 1951. The author, Alfred Glücksmann, was a German developmental biologist then working at the Strangeways Research Laboratory, Cambridge, England. In “Cell Deaths,” Glücksmann summarizes observations about cell death in normal vertebrate development that he had compiled from literature published during the first half of the twentieth century. “Cell Deaths” emphasizes the frequent occurrence of cell death in various locations and stages of development, and suggests that cell death functions as a crucial mechanism in integrating cells into tissues and organs in normal vertebrate ontogeny.

All sexually reproducing, multicellular diploid eukaryotes begin life as embryos. Understanding the stages of embryonic development is vital to explaining how eukaryotes form and how they are related on the tree of life. This understanding can also help answer questions related to morphology, ethics, medicine, and other pertinent fields of study. In particular, the field of comparative embryology is concerned with documenting the stages of ontogeny. In the nineteenth century, embryologist Karl Ernst von Baer famously noted that embryos of different species generally start out with very similar structure and diverge as they progress through development. This similarity allows for the construction of a series of detailed stages exhibited by a range of different organisms (though in reality embryonic development is a continuous, not staggered, process) describing the progression of events that begin with conception.

In nineteenth century Great Britain, Thomas Henry Huxley proposed connections between the development of organisms and their evolutionary histories, critiqued previously held concepts of homology, and promoted Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Many called him Darwin's Bulldog. Huxley helped professionalize and redefine British science. He wrote about philosophy, religion, and social issues, and researched and theorized in many biological fields. Huxley made several methodological contributions to both invertebrate and vertebrate embryology and development, and he helped shape the extra-scientific discourse for these fields.

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