Technology and Human Responsibility

Issue # 171            December 13, 2007
A Publication of The Nature Institute
Editor: Stephen L. Talbott (

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Can the New Science of Evo-Devo Explain the Form of Organisms? (Stephen L. Talbott)
      No -- form is what does the explaining
About this newsletter

Stephen L. Talbott

What is so frightening about the form of living things? Nothing, it might seem. Much of our biological science is a science of form, a science whose task is to understand why proteins and cells, tissues and organs, plants and animals have the form they do, and how they get that way.

But what is so frightening about the form of living things? Everything, it might seem. For the treatment of form in biology is continually "hushed up" in explanations that are as devoid of form, as silent about form, as we can possibly make them.

Today in particular we find powerful urges to engage the problem of organic form with scientific understanding, and yet an equally powerful reticence to reckon with or even acknowledge the forms we can so readily see, as if every such form somehow masked a shameful or threatening countenance.

The problem of form has long been central in the life sciences, where each creature so notably reproduces after its own kind - according to its own form. "It is hardly too much to say", wrote geneticist C. H. Waddington, "that the whole science of biology has its origin in the study of form". The description of plants and animals, the identification of separate and discrete organs, the comparison of related types in evolutionary theory - through activities like these, Waddington notes, biologists "have been immersed in a lore of form and spatial configuration" (1968, p. 43).

And yet that great student of animal form, Adolf Portmann, could already write in 1952 that the pursuit of invisible causes was alienating biologists from the living appearances available to their senses. "More and more laboratory work is becoming restricted to the skillful selection of just a few animal species, those which might be called the domestic animals of science. What opportunity is left for observing that countless number of different living forms which is part of the earth's riches?" (1967, pp. 17-18). Today, moreover, we can hardly say that attention is focused in any full sense on even a few animal species. Rather, our impressive technical skill is brought intensively to bear on this or that tissue and, ultimately, on a set of molecules extracted from those tissues. The organisms themselves -