, Volume 41, Issue 1, pp 81-118
Date: 02 Jun 2007

Evolutionary Morphology in Belgium

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In historical literature, Edouard van Beneden (1846–1910) is mostly remembered for his cytological discoveries. Less well known, however, is that he also introduced evolutionary morphology – and indeed evolutionary theory as such – in the Belgian academic world. The introduction of this research programme cannot be understood without taking both the international and the national context into account. It was clearly the German example of the Jena University that inspired van Beneden in his research interests. The actual launch of evolutionary morphology at his University of Liège was, however, also connected with the dynamic of Belgian university reforms and the local rationale of creating a research “school.” Thanks to his networks, his mastering of the rhetoric of the “new” biology, his low ideological profile and his capitalising on the new academic élan in late-19th century Belgium, van Beneden managed to turn his programme into a local success from the 1870s onwards. Two decades later, however, the conceptual underpinnings of evolutionary morphology came under attack and the “Van Beneden School” lost much of its vitality. Despite this, van Beneden’s evolutionary morphology was prototypical for the research that was to come. He was one of the first scientific heavyweights in Belgium to turn the university laboratory into a centre of scientific practice and the hub of a research school.