Forgotten anatomy (2007.2.1[Thu])


An acquaintance of mine, Hideki Endo, recently published a book titled Kaibo Otoko (Mr. Anatomy, Kodansha Gendai Shinsho) which I read with great interest, as it described how the study of morphology (in all of the senses of the word) has somehow fallen through the cracks in the curriculum taught to students of biology in Japan. It seems that the problem has its roots in the way people think about the teaching of anatomy, which is seen as just one of the basic prerequisites for med students, when in fact morphology is one of the cornerstones of all biology. And the morphology in this context includes, of course, the embryology as part of developmental biology today.

 Japanese biology is confronted by the great divide that universities have traditionally separated medicine and the natural sciences into two faculties, and I can't help but think that this has contributed to the problem. Doubtless the only place that anatomy can be taught under the current educational system (as in the past) is in medical and dental schools; unfortunately, this leaves students enrolled in the faculty of science utterly in the dark. This is a serious problem for the field of developmental biology, in which the morphological and anatomical patterns of organisms are now being described and explained using a lexicon borrowed from molecular biology. In the Faculty of Science classroom, morphology stands as no more than an appendix to the taxonomy syllabus, and students are subtly urged to spend their time pondering functions over forms thereafter. But what's being forgotten is that it is impossible to develop a solid understanding of function without detailed knowledge of the forms involved. This is true not only for zoology, but biology as a whole - everything rides on the twin wheels of physiology and structure.

 Only a handful of universities have given meaningful instruction in animal morphology. In the end of 19th century, Kakichi Mitsukuri, who returned from the U.S. to teach at Tokyo Imperial University, took only two students, one of whom was Chiyomatsu Ishikawa, who played an important role in the earliest days of the Zoological Society of Japan, to his legendary lectures. (The period is described in more detail in the book, Dobutsugakusha Mitsukuri Kakichi to sono jidai, San-ichi Shobo, 1998). The science of the day, firmly rooted in animal phylogeny and the study of morphological changes, was in fact comparative developmental biology done at a very high level, which makes perfect sense considering Mitsukuri's own experiences ; during a studentship in Naples he met Balfour (discussed in a previous column), and in fact the director of that marine biology station was Anton Dohrn, himself a student of Ernst Haeckel's. It's still said today that had Mitsukuri not died at a young age, Japanese zoological science would have followed a very different trajectory. The Meiji Era is often looked back on as the good old days for many fields of study in Japan, but for this field, Mitsukuri's lectures at the end of the 19th century in the third decade of the Meiji reign were perhaps the sole instance when that light shone in.

 As for Europe, in Germany at least, there was a period when the issues of human medicine and animal evolution were approach in concert. Both before and after Mitsukuri, Japanese students flocked to Germany in droves, and many returned home boasting impressive records of achievement, but on their return the medical students and science students inevitably went their separate ways, and the evolutionary philosophy based on an anatomical approach to embryology never took root in this country. I'm not going make any more of the old analogies between Germany and Japan, only note that this integration of fields (or the absence thereof) lies at the heart of the differences between the two countries in this discipline. It's all well and good to talk about the autonomy of academic fields, but for essential components of a single field claim independence is damaging and ludicrous. Ever since Darwin, biology has seen subdivisions spring up like weeds and only now at the beginning of the 21st century are we beginning to see signs of a reunification, but the compartmentalization imposed by the university system still stands in the way. It may sound a bit like I'm complaining, and I suppose I am - a number of books in the CDB library support that view. If I had to choose only two, they would be Carl Gegenbaur's Vergleichende Anatomie der Wirbelthiere mit Berücksichtung der Wirbellosen (Verlag von Wilhelm Engelman, 1898) and the Handbuch der vergleichenden Anatomie der Wirbeltiere (Urban Schwarzenberg, 1931) edited by Luis Bolk, Ernst Göppert, Erich Kallius and Wilhelm Lubosch.

 The first of these two lays out clear views on both the philosophy of science and methodologies, while the second stands as a magnum opus in the field even today. Gegenbaur was appointed Professor of Anatomy at Jena in 1865 and over the next seven years worked with his friend and colleague Haeckel on the ambitious goal of observing the developmental patterns of animals of every sort, and through comparative study, determining the history of evolution. Needless to say, Darwin's The Origin of Species left its imprint on that undertaking. It was also during these days that Haeckel developed the theory of recapitulation to its final manifestation originally created by von Baer, realizing the existence of phyla from animal morphological patterns, and Gegenbaur laid bare the essence of vertebrate form with his dissections of the shark. These men welded together anatomy and embryology under the rubric of evolutionary zoology, achieving the finest and most dynamic realization of the morphological science first set in motion by Goethe. But even Germany was not immune to the 20th tendency to circumscribe anatomy within the medical bailiwick, an outcome perhaps of mistrust among physicians for comparative developmental anatomy. And it seems that the anatomist Gegenbaur himself, who was fundamentally a zoologist, disliked medical teaching.

 Comparative morphology as championed by Gegenbaur had already begun to wane when Bolk published his great work in the 1930s. It was a wonderfully fertile time for works on morphology in both Europe and America, with invertebrate biology and neuroscience being no exception. As is often the case, the appearance of textbooks either signals the maturation of the field, or its slow and quiet death. Japanese zoologists contributed a few works during this period as well, including Hikaku-kaibogaku (Comparative Anatomy ; Iwanami Shoten, 1935) by Seiho Nishi (who had dealt with cutaneous muscles in Bolk's textbook), Tetsuo Inukai's Dobutsu hasseigaku (Animal Development ; Iwanami Shoten, 1935), and Sekitsuidobutsu keitohasseigaku (Phylogenetic vertebrate development ; Yokendo, 1932). The great encyclopedic texts written in the 1930s following the example set by German science also somehow by their very existence helped bring the era to a close. Some have asserted that the waning of the study of morphology was due to Germany's defeat in World War II, but that is not the case. This science, born of idealist philosophy, grew more and more fragmented and specialized, leading to its isolation from the broader biological remit, until eventually it became a massive but arid compendium of knowledge for its own sake and, unable to keep pace with advances in the field, sank under the weight of all those details. The finest Japanese works on morphology arrived unfortunately after the time when they were most needed. And Japanese zoology whose good old days can only be seen in retrospect, also was driven soon thereafter, into the dark clouds gathering on the horizon...

Reference : "Vergleichende Anatomie der Wirbelthiere : mit Berücksichtung der Wirbellosen Handbuch der vergleichenden Anatomie der Wirbeltiere"