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Lessons from embryos: Haeckel's embryo drawings, evolution, and secondary biology textbooks

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In 1997, developmental biologist Michael Richardson compared his research team's embryo photographs to Ernst Haeckel's 1874 embryo drawings and called Haeckel's work noncredible.Science soon published <“>Haeckel's Embryos: Fraud Rediscovered,<”> and Richardson's comments further reinvigorated criticism of Haeckel by others with

In 1997, developmental biologist Michael Richardson compared his research team's embryo photographs to Ernst Haeckel's 1874 embryo drawings and called Haeckel's work noncredible.Science soon published <“>Haeckel's Embryos: Fraud Rediscovered,<”> and Richardson's comments further reinvigorated criticism of Haeckel by others with articles in The American Biology Teacher, <“>Haeckel's Embryos and Evolution: Setting the Record Straight <”> and the New York Times, <“>Biology Text Illustrations more Fiction than Fact.<”> Meanwhile, others emphatically stated that the goal of comparative embryology was not to resurrect Haeckel's work. At the center of the controversy was Haeckel's no-longer-accepted idea of recapitulation. Haeckel believed that the development of an embryo revealed the adult stages of the organism's ancestors. Haeckel represented this idea with drawings of vertebrate embryos at similar developmental stages. This is Haeckel's embryo grid, the most common of all illustrations in biology textbooks. Yet, Haeckel's embryo grids are much more complex than any textbook explanation. I examined 240 high school biology textbooks, from 1907 to 2010, for embryo grids. I coded and categorized the grids according to accompanying discussion of (a) embryonic similarities (b) recapitulation, (c) common ancestors, and (d) evolution. The textbooks show changing narratives. Embryo grids gained prominence in the 1940s, and the trend continued until criticisms of Haeckel reemerged in the late 1990s, resulting in (a) grids with fewer organisms and developmental stages or (b) no grid at all. Discussion about embryos and evolution dropped significantly.

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2014

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The Aims and Structures of Research Projects That Use Gene Regulatory Information with Evolutionary Genetic Models

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At the interface of developmental biology and evolutionary biology, the very

criteria of scientific knowledge are up for grabs. A central issue is the status of evolutionary genetics models, which some argue cannot coherently be used with complex gene regulatory network

At the interface of developmental biology and evolutionary biology, the very

criteria of scientific knowledge are up for grabs. A central issue is the status of evolutionary genetics models, which some argue cannot coherently be used with complex gene regulatory network (GRN) models to explain the same evolutionary phenomena. Despite those claims, many researchers use evolutionary genetics models jointly with GRN models to study evolutionary phenomena.

How do those researchers deploy those two kinds of models so that they are consistent and compatible with each other? To address that question, this dissertation closely examines, dissects, and compares two recent research projects in which researchers jointly use the two kinds of models. To identify, select, reconstruct, describe, and compare those cases, I use methods from the empirical social sciences, such as digital corpus analysis, content analysis, and structured case analysis.

From those analyses, I infer three primary conclusions about projects of the kind studied. First, they employ an implicit concept of gene that enables the joint use of both kinds of models. Second, they pursue more epistemic aims besides mechanistic explanation of phenomena. Third, they don’t work to create and export broad synthesized theories. Rather, they focus on phenomena too complex to be understood by a common general theory, they distinguish parts of the phenomena, and they apply models from different theories to the different parts. For such projects, seemingly incompatible models are synthesized largely through mediated representations of complex phenomena.

The dissertation closes by proposing how developmental evolution, a field traditionally focused on macroevolution, might fruitfully expand its research agenda to include projects that study microevolution.

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2017