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17 - What Is an ‘Embryo’ and How Do We Know?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 April 2008

David L. Hull
Affiliation:
Northwestern University, Illinois
Michael Ruse
Affiliation:
Florida State University
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Summary

Because of recent public excitement about cloning and embryonic stem cell research, more people than just developmental biologists are busily talking about embryos. Human embryos are central players in proposed legislation at state, federal, and international levels. But what is meant by an embryo? Rarely is the term defined or defined clearly. Yet the term is used in quite different ways and has evolved over time.

How have meanings changed, and for what reasons? What is the relationship between public and scientific understandings of embryos? Here, the focus is most directly on evolving understandings of the biological embryo, including recent shifting public meanings. In each case, both metaphysical and epistemological considerations are important. Yet only after the emergence of in vitro fertilization did the embryo become an object of significant ethical concern, and only with cloning and human embryonic stem stem cell research was it widely seen as an object of social concern. This essay considers the changing understandings of embryos.

Since at least 1771, with the appearance of the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the embryo has been seen as the earliest - and undifferentiated - stage of an individual organism's development. The embryonic stage was clearly separated from the fetal stage, with the first giving way to the second as form gradually emerged from unformed matter.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2007

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