Goethe's bone and the beginnings of morphology.Am J Med Genet A. 2004 Apr 01; 126A(1):1-8.AJ
Biology as a discipline per se and its agenda, seems not to have been burdened from its beginnings as heavily with neo-Platonism as its subspecialty morphology, conceptualized at the same time by Goethe and Burdach. One of the reasons may have been that biologists were then regarded as "mere" naturalists, "doing" anatomy and embryology, breeding, and field work (as did Darwin, Wallace, Bateson and a legion of others during the 19th century), whereas the, perhaps more elitist, morphologists, ab initio devoted themselves to the origin, even to the Kantian analysis of causes of development and its variability within and between species. Since Goethe included abnormal plant development in his studies, his definition of morphology as the science of the form, formation and transformation of living organisms may be modified to include the concept of malformation, although the embryological and comparative analysis of vertebrate/mammalian malformation had its real inception somewhat later with the younger Meckel. In view of the meaning attached by his French contemporaries to the term transformisme (eventually defined as evolution) one would err considering Goethe as a prophet of "descent;" he was not, referring primarily to the continuous state of flux of living beings. Nonetheless, Goethe and Burdach independently coined the concept of morphology and set its agenda, increasingly freed of Naturphilosophie, an agenda that dominated 19th century biology but which did not come to fruition in its causal analysis of form and its formation until the 20th century, after Mendel, Darwin and the pioneers of experimental embryology (a.o., Roux, Driesch, Spemann, Vogt). In his discovery of the intermaxillary bone in humans (Goethe's bone), he had a startling insight, against conventional wisdom, into the anatomical, hence developmental, similarity of primate/mammals. During his lifetime, this was still called analogie by his great French contemporary Etienne Geoffroy St-Hilaire who actually meant what Owen later called homology which became one of Darwin's most powerful arguments for descent. A case of a pearl found by a blind chicken? Definitely not; Goethe had his nose far too close to the ground to have missed any of the major intellectual trends in the "life-sciences" in the late 18th/early 19th century; but, he was too much of an amateur to have had the kind of insights of grand plans granted to von Baer, Mendel and Darwin.