, Volume 97, Issue 11, pp 951–969 | Cite as

Evolutionary developmental biology: its concepts and history with a focus on Russian and German contributions

  • Lennart Olsson
  • Georgy S. Levit
  • Uwe Hoßfeld


Evolutionary theory has been likened to a “universal acid” (Dennett 1995) that eats its way into more and more areas of science. Recently, developmental biology has been infused by evolutionary concepts and perspectives, and a new field of research—evolutionary developmental biology—has been created and is often called EvoDevo for short. However, this is not the first attempt to make a synthesis between these two areas of biology. In contrast, beginning right after the publication of Darwin’s Origin in 1859, Ernst Haeckel formulated his biogenetic law in 1872, famously stating that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. Haeckel was in his turn influenced by pre-Darwinian thinkers such as Karl Ernst von Baer, who had noted that earlier developmental stages show similarities not seen in the adults. In this review, written for an audience of non-specialists, we first give an overview of the history of EvoDevo, especially the tradition emanating from Haeckel and other comparative embryologists and morphologists, which has often been neglected in discussions about the history of EvoDevo and evolutionary biology. Here we emphasize contributions from Russian and German scientists to compensate for the Anglo-American bias in the literature. In Germany, the direct influence of Ernst Haeckel was felt particularly in Jena, where he spent his entire career as a professor, and we give an overview of the “Jena school” of evolutionary morphology, with protagonists such as Oscar Hertwig, Ludwig Plate, and Victor Franz, who all developed ideas that we would nowadays think of as belonging to EvoDevo. Franz ideas about “biometabolic modi” are similar to those of a Russian comparative morphologist that visited Jena repeatedly, A. N. Sewertzoff, who made important contributions to what we now call heterochrony research—heterochrony meaning changes in the relative timing of developmental events. His student I. I. Schmalhausen became an important contributor to the synthetic theory of evolution in Russia and is only partly known outside of the Russian-reading world because only one of his many books was translated into English early on. He made many important contributions to evolutionary theory and we point out the important parallels between Schmalhausen’s ideas (stabilizing selection, autonomization) and C. H. Waddington’s (canalization, genetic assimilation). This is one of the many parallels that have contributed to an increased appreciation of the internationality of progress in evolutionary thinking in the first half of the twentieth century. A direct link between German and Russian evolutionary biology is provided by N. V. Timoféeff-Ressovsky, whose work on, e.g., fly genetics in Berlin is a crucial part of the history of evo-devo. To emphasize the international nature of heterochrony research as predecessor to the modern era of EvoDevo, we include Sir G. R. de Beer’s work in the UK. This historical part is followed by a short review of the discovery and importance of homeobox genes and of some of the major concepts that form the core of modern EvoDevo, such as modularity, constraints, and evolutionary novelties. Major trends in contemporary EvoDevo are then outlined, such as increased use of genomics and molecular genetics, computational and bioinformatics approaches, ecological developmental biology (eco-devo), and phylogenetically informed comparative embryology. Based on our survey, we end the review with an outlook on future trends and important issues in EvoDevo.


Modularity Innovations Constraints Heterochrony Atavisms Homeobox Modularity 



We thank the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (grant no. HO 2143, 9-1) for generous support of our research into the history of EvoDevo and several anonymous reviewers for very helpful comments that improved the paper substantially. LO’s empirical EvoDevo research is funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (grants no. OL 134/2-4 and 138/1). Work in Swedish archives by LO and UH was supported by The Center for History of Science at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. This paper was written when LO was a short-term visiting scientist at NESCent at Duke University in Durham, NC, USA, and at the KLI (Konrad-Lorenz-Institut) in Altenberg, Austria. The Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena is thanked for granting LO a sabbatical leave in the summer semester of 2010 and the people at NESCent and KLI for very fruitful discussions.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lennart Olsson
    • 1
  • Georgy S. Levit
    • 2
    • 3
  • Uwe Hoßfeld
    • 3
  1. 1.Institut für Spezielle Zoologie und Evolutionsbiologie mit Phyletischem MuseumFriedrich-Schiller-UniversitätJenaGermany
  2. 2.History of Science & Technology Prog.University of King’s CollegeHalifaxCanada
  3. 3.AG BiologiedidaktikFriedrich-Schiller-UniversitätJenaGermany

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