Looking At Embryos: The Visual And Conceptual Aesthetics Of Emerging Form

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date


Published In

Elusive Synthesis: Aesthetics And Science


The title of this essay implies that there is an aesthetic of living organisms and that the aesthetic of embryology differs from those of other areas of biology. First, we believe that one can seriously discuss the aesthetics of the embryo much as one would discuss the aesthetics of an artist’s creation. Terms such as symmetry, balance, pattern, rhythm, form, and integration are crucial in both disciplines and are used in similar fashions.2 The scientist observing the embryo can act analogously to a critic, and the different sub-disciplines of biology are not unlike different schools of literary or art criticism. Indeed, all our knowledge of cells is based on interpretations of visual abstractions. Different stains and lenses emphasize different structures in the cell, and autoradiograms are used to imply functional relationships. Centrifugation analysis of cell components also gives us radioactive and enzymological data that are then placed back onto a map of the cell. As Oscar Schotte pointed out, the embryologist’s visualization of the cell differs from the geneticist’s visualization of the cell. Thus, there are different “schools” of biology. Some (such as physiology) seek the “meaning” of a structure; while others (such as cell and molecular biology) regard the animal’s general structure as relatively unimportant and look for unifying concepts and mechanisms underlying the apparent diversity of structures. This paper is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Hans Holtfreter, embryologist and artist, who died, November 13, 1992, and to Dr. N. J. Berrill who celebrated his 90th birthday in April, 1993. Our thanks to Fred Tauber for encouraging these reflections, Michael Somers for his copy of Russell, Rick Eldridge and Alex Juhasz for discussing art and film criticism, respectively, Michael Marrissen for demonstrating the remarkable differences in interpreting the notes of Pachelbel’s Canon, and Colin Hecht and Eileen Crist for pointing out some textual ambiguities. "The greatest progressive minds of embryology have not searched for hypotheses; they have looked at embryos." - Jane Oppenheimer

Published By

Kluwer Academic Press


A. I. Tauber

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