Ontogeny, anatomy, and the problem of homology: Carl Gegenbaur and the American tradition of cell lineage studies

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9 Scopus citations


In this paper we analyze Carl Gegenbaur's conception of the relationship between embryology ("Ontogenie") and comparative anatomy and his related ideas about homology. We argue that Gegenbaur's conviction of the primacy of comparative anatomy and his careful consideration of caenogenesis led him to a more balanced view about the relationship between ontogeny and phylogeny than his good friend Ernst Haeckel. We also argue that Gegenbaur's ideas about the centrality of comparative anatomy and his definitions of homology actually laid the conceptual foundations for Hans Spemann's (1915) later analysis of homology. We also analyze Gegenbaur's reception in the United States and how the discussions between E.B. Wilson and Edwin Conklin about the role of the "embryological criterion of homology" and the latter's argument for an even earlier concept of cellular homology reflect the recurring theme of preformism in ontogeny, a theme that finds its modern equivalent in various genetic definitions of homology, only recently challenged by the emerging synthesis of evolutionary developmental biology. Finally, we conclude that Gegenbaur's own careful methodological principles can serve as an important model for proponents of present day "evo-devo", especially with respect to the integration of ontogeny with phylogeny embedded in comparative anatomy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)194-203
Number of pages10
JournalTheory in Biosciences
Issue number2-3
StatePublished - Jun 2003


  • Carl Gegenbaur
  • Cell lineage studies
  • Comparative anatomy
  • Evolutionary developmental biology
  • Homology
  • Ontogeny

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Statistics and Probability
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Applied Mathematics


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