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The Struggle of Parts

The Struggle of Parts

Wilhelm Roux

Edited and translated by David Haig and Richard Bondi

ISBN 9780674290648

Publication date: 05/21/2024

A landmark work of nineteenth-century developmental and evolutionary biology that takes the Darwinian struggle for existence into the organism itself.

Though he is remembered primarily as a pioneer of experimental embryology, Wilhelm Roux was also a groundbreaking evolutionary theorist. Years before his research on chicken and frog embryos cemented his legacy as an experimentalist, Roux endorsed the radical idea that a “struggle for existence” within organisms—between organs, tissues, cells, and even subcellular components—drives individual development.

Convinced that external competition between individuals is inadequate to explain the exquisite functionality of bodily parts, Roux aimed to uncover the mechanistic principles underlying self-organization. The Struggle of Parts was his attempt to provide such a theory. Combining elements of Darwinian selection and Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics, the work advanced a materialist explanation of how “purposiveness” within the organism arises as the body’s components compete for space and nourishment. The result, according to Charles Darwin, was “the most important book on evolution which has appeared for some time.”

Translated into English for the first time by evolutionary biologist David Haig and Richard Bondi, The Struggle of Parts represents an important forgotten chapter in the history of developmental and evolutionary theory.


  • This careful, elegant, scholarly translation of Roux’s The Struggle of Parts is fascinating. Roux’s insufficiently appreciated insights were more than one hundred years ahead of their time and are especially worth reading for anyone interested in the history of fundamental ideas in evolutionary biology, functional adaptation, levels of selection, and what we today call phenotypic plasticity and epigenetics.

    —Daniel E. Lieberman, author of Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding


  • Wilhelm Roux (1850–1924) was a German zoologist and pioneer of experimental embryology.
  • David Haig is the author of From Darwin to Derrida: Selfish Genes, Social Selves, and the Meanings of Life. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he is George Putnam Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University.
  • Richard Bondi is a translator and software engineer based in Mountain View, California.

Book Details

  • 288 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press