The Power of the Picture Book : Fritz Müller's Comparative Embryology (2005.8.1[Mon])


Although Fritz Müller's Facts and Arguments for Darwin (1863) was originally written and published in German, the CDB Library collection includes a copy of the English edition published in London in 1869. An abridged version titled simply Für Darwin (For Darwin) was written by Müller in 1864, a year after the publication of the original. The Darwin of the title refers of course to Charles Darwin, the renowned naturalist and father of the theory of natural selection. Interestingly, it was Darwin himself who had it translated into English. This book holds interest for me for a number of reasons.

 During my childhood in the 1960's, I liked to collect insects in the suburbs of Osaka where I grew up, and I remember how pictorial atlases and wildlife guides were like Bibles to me and other kids who shared the same hobby. It isn't just the photos and illustrations that made an impact, though. The essays by scientists featured at the end of many of the books also captured my imagination. I still remember learning from one of those picture books that Although shrimp and crabs are both crustaceans, the developmental basis for their distinct adult forms can be traced back to differences in their larval stages. The shrimp develops from a nauplius to a zoea before becoming an adult, but crabs go through an additional larval stage, called the megalopa, that shrimp do not. Even as a student in the first years of elementary school, I was learning something like comparative developmental biology. And the scientist in the pages of that same picture book introducing the crustaceans was none other than Müller himself.

 Looking back, this was probably my first exposure to the theory of recapitulation, even though at the time the concept was too difficult for me to understand. The first time I really became aware of recapitulation was much later, in high school, learning about Ernst Haeckel's doctrine. Haeckel believed that the evolution of species could be viewed as branching lineages, and that embryonic development is essentially a recapitulation of the same branching order in a condensed form (ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny). If we put this theory into a modern perspective, we cannot avoid recognizing the centrality of Haeckel's thought. But we should also recognize that the first to tackle the question from the angle of life history strategies was Fritz Müller himself. Haeckel, leading the revolution in evolutionary zoology in Jena, and Müller, spending his days in the relative isolation of remote locales such as South America, maintaining his youthful fascination with the natural world to the last; two German scientists, both zoologists to the core, but each with a character distinct unto himself. And when I reflect on them of late, I can't help but wonder whether those differences might not hold some subtler implications for us as well.

Reference : ”Facts and Arguments for Darwin”