The concept of development: historical perspectives (child development)



The concept of development is rooted in the biology of the individual life cycle. It encompasses the subsidiary ideas of growth, differentiation from homogeneous to heterogeneous matter, and morphogenesis (the assumption of ordered form, an idea included as part of differentiation for most of history). Development also comprises the concept of reproduction, in which the origin of an individual from parents is related both to the resemblance of offspring and parents (heredity) and to the observation that species breed true to type. The history of developmental psychology has been fed by many streams, but developmental biology was the wellspring for its origin during the closing decades ofthe 19 th century.

The ancient legacy

Aristotle (384-322 BP) presented the first detailed conception of development, along with a vivid natural history of embryology in diverse life forms, in On the Generation of Animals. He replaced the atomistic preformationism of earlier thinkers with an epigenetic conception in which the embryo differentiates progressively from a homogeneous origin, with parts such as heart, lungs, and limbs and their spatial arrangement only gradually taking shape. Both epigenesis (Fig. 1) and preformationism were destined to endure as the two grand synthesizing images that have competed in the minds of developmentalists throughout history.

The three central features of Aristotelian epigenesis derived from his material, efficient, and final causes. These included a distinction between the material cause from which the embryo is produced and nutrients to support the growth and maintenance of the embryo; an explanation of differentiation as the action of a non-material generative principle in the semen of males (the efficient cause) on the formative material from females (menstrual blood of humans, the white of a bird egg, etc.); and an explanation of the particular form taken by an organism and its parts in terms of final causes (purpose or plan). The central epigenetic idea was that there was a male principle that acts on generative material secreted by females, setting developmental processes in motion that progressively actualize potentials inherent in the material. Although his theory of generation mixed metaphysics with science, including as it did both vitalistic and teleological elements, Aristotle nevertheless defined the major developmental questions and led the way for empirically minded successors to continue the inquiry some two millennia later.

Concepts from 17th- and 18th-century embryology

The modern history of developmental science can be started with the 17th-century scientists who resumed the work of the ancients (Needham, 1959). Of these, William Harvey (1578-1657), most celebrated for his discovery of the circulation of blood, stands as an important transitional figure in the history of developmental thought. His work on generation, as it was then still called, took Aristotle’s epigenesis as a starting point. Harvey believed that all life begins from an egg. One of the major developmental issues of Harvey’s time centered on the nature of embryonic nutrition and the distinction between nutrients and formative matter in the egg. Harvey demonstrated that the distinction was meaningless: nutrients were assimilated by the embryo as it took form. He reconceived epigenesis as the entwined, synchronous processes of growth (increase in mass) and differentiation. This contrasts with Aristotle’s equation of epigenesis simply with differentiation of a finite mass of formative material. It also contrasts with the preformationism of Harvey’s contemporaries.

Preformation was developed in part out of dissatisfaction with the vitalistic leanings of epigenesis and in part out of the enthusiasm that attends a major technological advance. The newly invented microscope was revealing a previously invisible world and opening the possibility of even smaller worlds awaiting technical improvements in lenses. It prepared a way around the problem of differentiation by making it plausible to deny its necessity. Turning the microscope on eggs revealed a high degree of organization in the tiniest of embryos, giving rise to the ovists; turning it on semen revealed a swarm of active animalcules (spermatozoa), giving rise to the spermists. If such organization was present so early, why not from the very beginning? Although most preformationists were ovists who thought that life was preformed in eggs, the enduring icon of preformation is Nicholas Hartsoecker’s 18th-century drawing of what such a human animalcule would look like if only it could be seen clearly. This was not, however, the clearer vision that was to come with improved microscopy. Anatomists such as Caspar Friedrich Wolff (1733-94) saw such things as tubular structures growing out of the folding of two-dimensional sheets, and not from the swelling of miniature tubular structures. The 18th-century debates ended with embryos that were epigenetic in Harvey’s sense: simultaneously growing and taking shape. These debates, however, left the problem of heredity unsolved.

As use of the term ‘generation’ suggests, the concept of development through the 18th century included reproduction along with growth and differentiation. The most salient feature of reproduction in this context is what we would now call heredity. Offspring are of the same type as parents: chickens invariably come from chicken eggs, and ducks from duck eggs. These and similar regularities in nature were taken to reflect the over-arching plan behind the whole of existence. The preformationist concept of emboitement (encasement), which was promoted by Wolff s adversary Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777), was an attempt to eliminate the problem of heredity. In this conception, progressively smaller embryos were stacked inside one another such that all generations were present from one original creation. This was a plausible idea at the time because of the generally shared presumption of a short history of life on earth.

Qualitative change was established as a central fact of development by the end of the 18th century. However, it is possible to read too much into that victory for epigenesis. Firstly, developmental thought during this formative period was focused on the embryo, which is an early stage of life. By pushing back the time of differentiation far enough, the difference between a preformed and an emergent embryo becomes negligible (Needham, 1959). This is particularly true for developmental psychology, which is concerned with post-embryonic life. Secondly, the conceptions of heredity that came to dominate in the 19th and 20th centuries have more in common with the preformationist concept of preexistence than with the epigenetic concept of emergence. Of all the concepts comprised by the ancient idea of generation, heredity was the one that has dominated biology during most of the history of child development.

A 16th-century conceptual illustration of what Aristotle's epigenesis might look like if observed.

Figure 1. A 16th-century conceptual illustration of what Aristotle’s epigenesis might look like if observed.  

Development beyond the embryo

Embryology thrived during the early 19th century as a comparative, descriptive science of anatomical development. Its dominance in biology fitted well with the general intellectual climate of the time. The concept of progress was in the air, shaping new ideas in cultural anthropology, sociology, and philosophy as well as those in the natural sciences. This led in natural science to a reconception of the grand plan of nature, that great chain of being, from a static structure to a work in progress and, eventually, to the theory of evolution as the foundation of the life sciences.

 A 19th-century illustration of the relation between ontogeny and phylogeny. From E. Haeckel, 1897. The Evolution of Man. New York: D. Appleton and Co. Haeckel's illustrations are presented as empirical, but exaggerate the similarity across species.

Figure 2. A 19th-century illustration of the relation between ontogeny and phylogeny. From E. Haeckel, 1897. The Evolution of Man. New York: D. Appleton and Co. Haeckel’s illustrations are presented as empirical, but exaggerate the similarity across species. 

Karl Ernst von Baer (1792-1876) synthesized the growing field of anatomical embryology in a set of generalizations that extended the concept of epigenesis beyond the embryo, through the adult stage of a life cycle. This connected embryology with comparative anatomy and taxonomy, allowing von Baer also to extend the concept of development to include diversity of life forms. From this broad array of data, von Baer observed that shared traits in a group of embryos appear earlier than special traits; that more general structural relations in traits appear before the more specific; that embryos of different forms in the same group gradually separate from one another without passing through states of other differentiated forms; and that embryos of higher forms never resemble adults of lower forms, only their embryos. These observations and ideas left a deep mark on Charles Darwin’s mid-century theory of evolution. They were seen to support the idea of evolution as descent with modification from ancestral forms.

In the first text topic of the field, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) presented psychology as a division of biology, new in its subject matter of the conscious mind, but otherwise using methods and concepts general to the life sciences. Spencer had an abstract concept of development as progress, which he applied across many disciplines. He saw progress as related to the epigenetic tradition of Aristotle, Harvey, Wolff, and von Baer in embryology. This viewpoint was adopted by the influential James Mark Baldwin (1861-1934), who brought the organic tradition of the embryologists into 20th-century developmental psychology. Concepts of assimilation, growth, and differentiation that were first articulated for nutrients and anatomy were re-worked to accommodate experience and the mind. These ideas, in concert with the powerful influence of Darwinian evolutionary theory and the subsequent rise of functionalism, shaped the emergence of developmental psychology and its history well into the 20th century (Kessen, 1983).

It would have been a logical next step for a developmental theory to grow out of von Baer’s embryology to explain how evolution works, but efforts in this direction did not flourish (Gould, 1977). Instead, first evolution and then genetics took on the task of explaining development while embryology declined to a marginal field. Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) popularized the parallel between embryology and evolution (Fig. 2), giving these concepts new names and proposing their relationship in the Biogenetic Law: ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. Haeckel’s recapitulation concept reverted to the old idea of the linear progression of life from monad to man, ignoring von Baer’s evidence of the ramified nature of biological diversity and the emergence of diversity in embryonic stages. However retrograde, the idea was very influential for a time. Development came to be seen as pushed by evolution, with adult forms of ‘lower’ animals as stages in the ontogenetic progression of’higher’ species. This stage conception retained epigenesis of form during ontogeny, but placed the cause of change in a preexistent phylogeny.

In Weismann's theory, heredity is sequestered in a separate line of germ cells (filled dots) that cross generations. Somatic cells (open dots) originate from inherited germ cells but cannot cross generations.

Figure 3. In Weismann’s theory, heredity is sequestered in a separate line of germ cells (filled dots) that cross generations. Somatic cells (open dots) originate from inherited germ cells but cannot cross generations.

The schools of developmental psychology that arose early in the 20th century derived core conceptions from 19th-century embryology and evolutionary biology, but each took something different from these sources. The stage conceptions of development elaborated by G. Stanley Hall and Sigmund Freud built on Haeckel’s flawed concept. These theorists proposed that human development recapitulated the history of human evolution and that healthy development required support of this predetermined sequence through childhood. Heinz Werner’s orthogenetic principle of development as progress from a global, undifferentiated state to an articulated, hierarchically integrated state was an abstract statement meant to distinguish development from other temporal change. It was Spencerian in the breadth of its application and Aristotelian in its view of epigenesis.

William Preyer (1841-1897) was a physiological embryologist in the epigenetic tradition of von Baer who brought both concepts and methods from this field to the study of behavioral development. His 1882 topic (The Mind of the Child), often used to date the birth of developmental psychology, demonstrated a way to transform empirical approaches from embryology for use in postnatal mental development. Preyer’s concept of development, shaped by his physiological work, included an active organism contributing to its own development and the idea that achievements from early stages provide substrates for later stages. This concept had a major influence on James Mark Baldwin, who integrated Preyer’s ideas with von Baer’s principles and Darwin’s natural selection into a developmental theory that served as a foundation for many schools of 20th-century developmental psychology, including those associated with Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget, Heinz Werner, Leonard Carmichael, and T. C. Schneirla.

Baldwin’s concept of development focused on the relationship between the active organism and its socialmilieu as the source of developmental transformation. Applied to the mind of the child, this led him to notions of circular reaction and genetic epistemology that were later to be extensively elaborated by Piaget. Vygotsky and Werner applied the ideas broadly, including cultural and phyletic evolution in their conceptions, along with ontogenetic development that served as their primary focus. Comparative developmentalists, such as Carmichael and Schneirla who used experimental methods to study behavioral development in diverse animals, remained closest to their roots in physiological embryology. They mirrored early 20th-century experimental embryology with experimental approaches to behavioral development.

Heredity and development

The fact of organic evolution and Darwin’s theory of natural selection to explain how it works were widely accepted by the end of the 19th century. This made a mechanism of heredity the most important missing link in biology. Evidence for Lamarckian inheritance had been found wanting, which was disappointing in the light of the adaptability of organisms through use and disuse. The search for a genetic mechanism took a decisive turn away from the organism with the introduction by August Weismann (1834-1914) of the germ plasm concept at the close of the century (Fig. 3). The cell had been established as the basic unit of life by 1838. Egg and sperm were subsequently identified as cells, and the first step in ontogeny was reconceived as their fusion. Weismann demonstrated that the cell divisions giving rise to egg and sperm occurred in a specialized population of cells sequestered from the rest of the body. This had the effect of separating the concepts of reproduction and heredity from that of development, and making the hereditary material preexistent to development.

If the 19th century was the age of progress, the 20th century was the age of information. The metaphors used to discuss development were drawn from the cultural well of cybernetics and computers (Keller, 1995). In keeping with this new orientation, the concept of plan was reintroduced to guide the progressive emergence of form during epigenesis. However, the 20th-century plan was written in a digital code inherited from a line of ancestors, not an idea carried on the informing breath of an agent in semen as it was for Aristotle.

The search for a hereditary mechanism led to the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s non-blending hereditary particles, the location of these particles on chromosomes in the cell nucleus, the discovery of the DNA molecule, and the definition of a gene as a code that specifies phenotype. In 1957, Francis Crick (1916-2004) stated the central dogma of biology as the one-way flow of information from gene to product. The central dogma had taken its place alongside Darwinian evolution as one of the twin pillars of biology. The study of development thus became incidental to the major biological agenda. Indeed, molecular geneticists adopted single-celled bacteria as their organism of choice, in part because they do not undergo the irrelevant complications of metazoan development. The term ‘developmental biology’ came into wide use as a replacement for embryology by the middle of the 20th century to describe a field that was now largely focused on cytoplasm in cells rather than on either organisms or the hereditary molecules found in cell nuclei.


The success of genetics fostered a new generation of predeterminists who conceived development as differentiation under the control of plans inherited in genes. They took a biologically differentiated organism as their starting point, using mainstream genetic ideas to explain biological development. Predeterminists and environmentalists debated developmental theory in terms of the nature-nurture dichotomy. The predeterminists claimed a major informative role for nature, which they equated with inherited plans; the environmentalists claimed a major informative role for nurture acting on a tabula rasa organism. The ascendancy of the central dogma had the effect of putting constructivists in the Baldwinian tradition outside mainstream biological thought for most of the 20th century. Constructivists have an organic conception of epigenesis as emergent differentiation entwined with growth, achieved through organism-environment transactions. This conception is not compatible with either preexistent plans or the nature-nurture dichotomy.

There are signs that the long reign of the central dogma is coming to an end in biology. Developmental genetics has focused attention on the activation of genes and made cytoplasmic elements at least equal in importance to an increasingly passive DNA molecule. The embryo has re-emerged as a central figure in both development and evolution. With some irony, the age of information that gave us simplifying genetic codes has now given us the science of complexity, making it not only possible but fashionable to study complex, developing organisms with new tools. It remains to be seen what lasting changes in the concept of development will follow these current trends.

Understanding ontogenetic development: debates about the nature of the epigenetic process; Constructivist theories; Dynamical systems approaches; Conceptions and misconceptions about embryonic development; Behavioral embryology; Behavior genetics; Developmental genetics; James Mark Baldwin; Jean Piaget; Wilhelm T. Preyer; Lev S. Vygotsky; Heinz Werner

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