Protozoa as precursors of metazoa: German cell theory and its critics at the turn of the century

Journal of the History of Biology 22 (2):243-276 (1989)
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With historical hindsight, it can be little questioned that the view of protozoa as unicellular organisms was important for the development of the discipline of protozoology. In the early years of this century, the assumption of unicellularity provided a sound justification for the study of protists: it linked them to the metazoa and supported the claim that the study of these “simple” unicellular organisms could shed light on the organization of the metazoan cell. This prospect was significant, given the state of cytology circa 1910. In the wake of the major gains made in understanding nuclear division in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, cytology was suddenly confronted with many, seemingly less penetrable, problems. Several aspects of nuclear organization still remained unexplained, and recent research had revealed the presence in the cytoplasm of structures whose functions in cell life were unknown. Classical methods of cytology, relying on descriptive, morphological analysis, seemed ill equipped to resolve these questions.Hertwig's program for protozoology, grounded in the assumption of the fundamental unity of organization in protozoa and metazoa, offered a potential means for investigating these and other problems of cell theory. Linked to mainstream cytology, protozoology was advocated as a means of experimentally investigating key biolobical processes — reproduction, metabolism, and organelle morphology and physiology — less accessible in higher organisms. Protozoa were hailed as prime experimental organisms, in which cell structure and function could be more easily studied. Unlike the metazoan cell, they could be subjected to controlled experiments in which the external environment was modified and the effects monitored. Protozoa offered, in other words, a promising experimental means by which to investigate the cell — its structures and its processes.The success of this program within Germany was soon apparent. In contrast to the rather neglected state of the discipline in 1900, protozoology began to be recognized as more than a somewhat obscure area of study for specialists. In practical terms, this translated into greater numbers of students attracted to the field, increased institutional support for the discipline, and its elevation in status within the biological sciences as new developments, particularly in connection with medical applications, began to draw attention to the field.64The unicellular hypothesis also promoted the internal development of the science. It provided a rationale for introducing the various techniques used in cytology, embryology, physiology, and the new field of biochemistry as suitable research tools for protozoology as well. This vastly extended the research possibilities and facilitated the understanding of, among other things, protozoan organization, modes of reproduction, and evolutionary relationships. The new experimental grounding of the discipline in turn fitted in well with developments in biology at large: in contrast to the descriptive methodology that had predominated in the nineteenth century, this new experimental program placed protozoology at the forefront of the early twentieth-century movement to make biology an experimental science comparable to physics and chemistry.Yet the criticism of the unicellular hypothesis can also be seen as having served a valuable function within the development of the discipline. It focused attention on the study of protists as organisms in their own right, not simply as models for metazoan cells. More generally, it helped to remind biologists of the particular evolutionary assumptions that supported this conception. Dobell and other British critics pointed out, among other things, the association between the theory of recapitulation and the interpretation of protozoa as unicellular organisms. At the time when the recapitulation theory and the germ-layer doctrine were in decline, it was important to stress how these evolutionary ideas also entered into the contemporary concepts of subsidiary specialties. This was as true for protozoology as it was for cell theory itself. The chromidial theory, in its various guises, and the binuclearity hypothesis did in fact contain elements of recapitulationist reasoning, and they were open to criticism for the same kind of overly speculative theorizing that characterized this evolution theory. Dobell's critique forced protozoologists and cell theorists alike to review the theoretical postulates guiding their investigations.In the absence of further historical studies, it is hard to evaluate the consequences of this debate in later years. The issue was not whether protozoa were the precursors of metazoa — both sides accepted this. They disagreed over which particular protozoon had served as the ancestral form, and this, in turn, influenced their stance on the question of unicellularity. The situation is little changed today. Because the former question is still an open one, the latter remains so too. Both of the models for the origin of multicellular organisms — colonies of ciliates versus multinucleate protists — are still presented as possible mechanisms in modern textbooks of evolution. Unable to judge the dispute in terms of the ultimate validity of the competing conceptions, the historian requires other criteria. It perhaps becomes more important to evaluate the issues in the context of the internal and external stimulus they provided the discipline.65 In these terms, and from the present historical vantage point, Hertwig's research program for protozoology, based upon the unicellular hypothesis, appears to have been a successful one



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Marsha Richmond
Wayne State University

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