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History of evolution and medicine
The relationship between evolution and medicine has been fraught from its beginning. Evolution was seen as knowledge that threatened the political and religious order, yet well into the nineteenth century medical schools—the bastions of conservativism but also the chief home to natural sciences—were the first sites to offer education in evolution to students and, occasionally, non-university audiences. Yet from around the turn of the twentieth century evolution has been by and large absent from medical schools and medicine, only to begin to forge a closer relationship in the 1990s. The project studies the reasons behind the long-standing divide and the current rapprochement, and uses the historical study to ask what role could evolutionary knowledge play in modern medicine.
In the late nineteenth century, embryology was a leading science of evolution. At zoological and anatomical departments of medical schools, professors used embryological textbooks and courses to communicate their views of evolution to medical and general audiences. The German zoologist and prophet of Darwinism, Ernst Haeckel, used schematic comparative depictions of human and animal embryos to claim that individuals repeat in the course of development the most important evolutionary steps. In contrast, Wilhelm His, a prominent German anatomist and the author of the authoritative standard of human development, deployed detailed images of human and other mammalian embryos to discredit Haeckel’s views and argue for a new orientation of embryology, which would focus on the development itself rather than the evolutionary past.
This picture of a human embryo (eight times enlarged) was first published in Wilhelm His, Unsere Körperform und das physiologische Problem ihrer Entstehung. Briefe an einen befreundeten Naturforscher, Leipzig: Vogel, 1874, pp. 194–5.