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Dev Dyn. 2000 Sep;219(1):1-9.

Embracing complexity: organicism for the 21st century.

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  • 1Department of Biology, Martin Laboratories of Biology, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania 19081, USA.


Organicism (materialistic holism) has provided the philosophical underpinnings for embryology since the time of Kant. It had influenced the founders of developmental mechanics, and the importance of organicism to embryology was explicitly recognized by such figures as O. Hertwig, H. Spemann, R. Harrison, A. M. Dalq, J. Needham, and C. H. Waddington. Many of the principles of organicism remain in contemporary developmental biology, but they are rarely defined as such. A combination of genetic reductionism and the adoption of holism by unscientific communities has led to the devaluation of organicism as a fruitful heuristic for research. This essay attempts to define organicism, provide a brief history of its importance to experimental embryology, outline some sociologically based reasons for its decline, and document its value in contemporary developmental biology. Based on principles or organicism, developmental biology should become a science of emerging complexity. However, this does mean that some of us will have to learn calculus.

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