Where in the embryo does the person reside? Morphogenesis – the formation of the body from an embryo – once seemed so mystifying that scholars presumed the body must somehow already exist in tiny form at conception. In the 17th century, the Dutch microscopist Nicolaas Hartsoeker illustrated this ‘preformationist’ theory by drawing a foetal homunculus tucked into the head of a sperm.
This idea finds modern expression in the notion that the body plan is encoded in our DNA. But the more we come to understand how cells produce shape and form, the more inadequate the idea of a genomic blueprint looks, too. What cells follow is not a blueprint; if they can be considered programmed at all, it’s not with a plan of what to make, but with a set of rules to guide construction. One implication is that humans and other complex organisms are not the unique result of cells’ behaviour, but only one of many possible outcomes.
This view of the cell as a contingent, constructional entity challenges our traditional idea of what a body is, and what it can be. It also opens up some remarkable and even disconcerting possibilities about the prospects of redirecting biology into new shapes and structures. Life suddenly seems more plastic and amenable to being reconfigured by design. Understanding the contingency and malleability of multicellular form also connects us to our deep evolutionary past, when single-celled organisms first discovered the potential benefits of becoming multicellular. ‘The cell may be the focus of evolution, more than genes or even than the organism,’ says Iñaki Ruiz-Trillo of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona. Far from the pinnacle of the tree of life, humans become just one of the many things our cells are capable of doing. [Continue reading…]