Three Outsider Approaches

by Richard Grossinger on March 18, 2010

Three Outsider Approaches to Embryology

Embryogenesis: Species, Gender, and Identity by Richard Grossinger

Embryos, Galaxies, and Sentient Beings: How the Universe Makes Life by Richard Grossinger

Crystals, Fabrics, and Fields: Metaphors That Shape Embryos by Donna Haraway.


While a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Michigan in the late sixties, Richard Grossinger learned in his required course in the Physical Anthropology series that the field consisted of three parts, two of which would be studied: primate archaeology and population genetics.  When a student asked after the missing topic, the teacher said offhandedly, “Embryology.  But no one ever studies it.”

Embryology is, in fact, the only link between, on the one hand, the fossil record leading from the first cell to the first hominids and, on the other, the transmission of traits and genes within populations.  Yet anthropological embryology remains an esoteric topic, as there is no way to conceptualize the bridge between ontogeny and phylogeny.  On the one hand, ontogeny does not recapitulate phylogeny—a modern embryo does not go through the entire evolutionary sequence from the first cell through aquatic creatures to amphibians, mammals, and humans but readapts in utero.  On the other, phylogeny alone makes ontogeny possible.  This paradox contains an entire untapped science of meanings, many of them arising from a critique of science itself, particularly of genetic determinism and its cultural dominance and industrial applications.

Ultimately Grossinger decided to explore this neglected topic.  Funded originally by Avon Books in the mid-1980s, he wrote the first edition of Embryogenesis, subtitled From Cosmos to Creature. The second edition, subtitled Species, Gender, and Identity, was written in the late nineties and published in 2000

Embryogenesis is an authentic and thorough text from a classic Darwinian perspective, but it puts that perspective into the context of others theories and world-views.  The book covers a wide range of topics of potential interest to biologists and anthropologists:

•A thorough discussion of the relation between ontogeny and phylogeny, including a deconstruction of the scientific and metaphysical reasoning behind the conceit;

•Complete narratives of both embryogenesis and phylogenesis from the molecular level to the human organism and mindedness;

•A crosscultural comparison of indigenous myths about the creation and origin of the human body, a kind of ethnoembryology;

•A symbolic and phenomenological view of the development of primates, humans, the family, language, and cultural gender;

•The biological origin of sex organs and their relationship to transsexuality and intersexuality;

•The somaticization of time;

•The role of non-genetic morphological gradients in creating embryogenic layers;

•Derrida and the deconstruction of biological space;

•Anthroposophical, Buddhist, and other psychospiritual views of life, death, and incarnation;

•Subtexts of the genetic code;

•The role of embryogenic forces in healing and shamanic practices;

The basic premise behind this book and its sequel is that, if you look at embryological processes, you begin to decipher the primary link between nature and culture and between matter in its Newtonian, Darwinian state and consciousness in its phenomenological mode.  Bodies are constructed on many levels—biological, cultural, psychospiritual, symbolic—and it is valuable to understand these different layers and their meanings, both discretely and in terms of one another.  In addition, biology is only one of the languages in which the meaning of biological development is written.

Early chapters through the middle of the book include: The Original Earth; The Materials of Life; The First Beings; The Cell; The Genetic Code; Sperm and Egg; Fertilization; The Blastula; Gastrulation; Morphogenesis; Biological Fields; Chaos, Fractals, and Deep Structure; Ontogeny and Phylogeny; and Biotechnology.  A middle section includes: The Origin of the Nervous System; The Evolution of Intelligence; Neurulation and the Human Brain; Organogenesis; The Musculoskeletal and Hematopoietic Systems; Mind; and The Origin of Sexuality and Gender.

The book also has sections that are cultural, psychological, and spiritual.  While strongly refuting creationism, Embryogenesis nonetheless offers the alternative logic and framework of nonscientific systems in understanding the phenomenology of existence and linking Darwinian thought to very different concepts like gender and karma.

The final chapters are: Birth Trauma; Healing; Transsexuality, Intersexuality, and the Cultural Basis of Gender; Self and Desire; Spiritual Embryogenesis; Cosmogenesis and Mortality; and Death and Reincarnation.  These are nonideological and do not require belief in the overriding viewpoints, yet link embryology and the fact of our bodies to concepts of life and death.

There are 24 color plates, many of them commissioned for this particular volume, and several hundred black and white illustrations.  The book itself is 950 pages hardcover, 8 ½ by 10.

Embryos, Galaxies, and Sentient Beings

Embryos, Galaxies, and Sentient Beings: How the Universe Makes Life deals with theoretical issues arising out of Embryogenesis, including: the relationship between thermodynamics/entropy and the emergence of life; a general set of embryogenic principles for life on planets and moons in the cosmos; an explanation and critique of Intelligent Design and the proposal for a more dynamic psychospiritual theory of creature development; a series of alternatives to genetic determinism; a discussion of the relationship between consciousness and matter; and an interjection of 9/11 (which occurred during the writing of this book).

Chapters include:
What is Life?: Evolution, Thermodynamics, and Complexity;

Is There a Plan?: Creationism, Cultural Relativism, and Paraphysics; Biogenesis and Cosmogenesis: Cells, Genes, and Planets;

The Principles of Biological Design: Physical Forces in Nature;

The Dynamics of the Biosphere: Deep Time and Space;

The Limits of Genetic Determinism: Dimensionless Epigenetic Landscapes;

Topokinesis: Physical Forces in Development;

Tissue Motifs and Body Plans: Coordinating Form;

The Primordial Field: Metabiology and The Molecular Apparatus;

Meaning and Destiny: The Relation of Consciousness to Matter.

Crystals, Fabrics, and Fields

Crystals, Fabrics, and Fields: Metaphors That Shape Embryos by feminist cultural historian Donna Haraway examines how scientists thought about and worked in the laboratory with animal embryos in the first half of the twentieth century. The dance of form and function of developing organisms inspired potent visual and verbal metaphors that guided experiments and helped make sense of the layered complexity of living embryos.  In an age before information technologies and figures, the pivotal researchers studied here—the American Ross Harrison, Englishman Joseph Needham, and Austrian Paul Weiss—shaped experimentally-grounded, organic systems- theoretical approaches to the emergence of active biological form.  In the process, differing philosophical commitments, relations to the flesh of language, political alignments, knowledge of Chinese scientific traditions, approaches to beauty, technical instrumentation, and hands-on procedures all helped shape the laboratory encounters of embryos and biologists in both flesh and word.  The result is a powerful organicist approach to developmental biology as an inter-actionist, materialist, non-reductionist science that slid from favor in the early years of the molecular genetic revolution’s fascination with determination by linear codes—only to remerge with great strength in the present.

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