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Embryos under the Microscope

Embryos under the Microscope

The Diverging Meanings of Life

Jane Maienschein

ISBN 9780674725553

Publication date: 05/20/2014

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Too tiny to see with the naked eye, the human embryo was just a hypothesis until the microscope made observation of embryonic development possible. This changed forever our view of the minuscule cluster of cells that looms large in questions about the meaning of life. Embryos under the Microscope examines how our scientific understanding of the embryo has evolved from the earliest speculations of natural philosophers to today’s biological engineering, with its many prospects for life-enhancing therapies. Jane Maienschein shows that research on embryos has always revealed possibilities that appear promising to some but deeply frightening to others, and she makes a persuasive case that public understanding must be informed by up-to-date scientific findings.

Direct observation of embryos greatly expanded knowledge but also led to disagreements over what investigators were seeing. Biologists confirmed that embryos are living organisms undergoing rapid change and are not in any sense functioning persons. They do not feel pain or have any capacity to think until very late stages of fetal development. New information about DNA led to discoveries about embryonic regulation of genetic inheritance, as well as evolutionary relationships among species. Scientists have learned how to manipulate embryos in the lab, taking them apart, reconstructing them, and even synthesizing—practically from scratch—cells, body parts, and maybe someday entire embryos. Showing how we have learned what we now know about the biology of embryos, Maienschein changes our view of what it means to be alive.


  • A balanced combination of history and science. We track the thoughts of philosophers Aristotle and Descartes; follow the development of modern experimental embryology by scientists such as Frank Lillie; and examine the twentieth- and twenty-first-century focus on understanding the molecular and genetic contribution of the sperm, egg and embryo to the offspring. Through this, Maienschein…interweaves the science of embryology and the many controversies that it continues to spark… Maienschein covers broad territory with surprising depth and concision. It seems unlikely that a more readable text will soon emerge to illuminate the journey from theory to observation to ethical considerations in this exciting science.

    —Renee Reijo Pera, Nature


  • Jane Maienschein is Regents' Professor, President's Professor, and Parents Association Professor at the School of Life Sciences and Director of the Center for Biology and Society at Arizona State University. She is also Adjunct Scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Book Details

  • 352 pages
  • 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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