Sir Gavin Ryland de Beer - British Biologist and Embryologist

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Scientific Research and Evolution

Sir Gavin Rylands de Beer was a British evolutionary biologist and embryologist. He conducted important research work in embryology and developmental biology, and many of the issues he raised, such as questioning the genetic concept of homology, have helped researchers in more modern times.

De Beer introduced the concept of paedomorphosis in his book Embryos and Ancestors in 1940. In paedomorphosis, juvenile characteristics are retained in the adult form. De Beer considered this important in the evolutionary context, as juvenile or non-differentiated tissues are capable of development; differentiated, specialized tissue, on the other hand, are not capable of any drastic changes.

He put forward the idea of ‘clandestine evolution’ to fit the Darwinian gradual evolution theory with the sudden changes found in fossils.

He supported the concept of mosaic evolution. According to this concept, evolutionary changes happen in stages.

He raised some interesting questions about homology (evolutionary biology term used to describe similarity between characteristics arising from a shared genetic ancestry). Like Hans Spemann, de Beer questioned the genetic concept of homology. He explained that homologous structures did not necessarily have the same ancestry, did not always develop in the same fashion and were not always induced by the same organizers. Another important aspect is that non-similar genes can control similar characteristics and similar genes can control non-similar characteristics. In short, similarity in genes does not always lead to formation of similar characteristics. Since genetic similarities do not always point to structural similarities, Gavin Rylands de Beer proposed that homology be understood by methods of comparative analysis.

His views on homology can be found in the following of his writings -

  • Embryology and Evolution (1938)
  • Embryos and Ancestors (1958)
  • Homology, An Unsolved Problem (1971)

Sir Gavin Rylands de Beer

He was born on 1 November 1899 in Malden, Surrey. His father worked for a telegraph company in France and de Beer spent a large part of his childhood there. He was educated at the Ecole Pascal in Paris and made trips to Switzerland. On returning to England, he was educated first at Harrow School and then Magdalen College, Oxford. The First World War broke out about the time he went up to Oxford and he left his studies to enlist in the Grenadier Guards and the Army Education Corps. He graduated from Oxford after the war in 1922.

Right after graduation, de Beer was made a Fellow of Merton College and invited to teach in its zoology department. He did research work in experimental embryology and was influenced by his teachers Julian Huxley and E.S. Goodrich as well as by J.B.S. Haldane.

In 1926, he wrote Introduction to Experimental Embryology, in 1930, he wrote The Embryos and Evolution and in 1934, together with Huxley, he wrote The Elements of Experimental Embryology. He remained at Oxford until 1938 when he went to University College, London, to teach embryology. His career was then interrupted by the Second World War and he went back to serve with the Grenadier Guards.

De Beer returned to teaching zoology after the war. He had been elected a Royal Society Fellow in 1940 and now more honors followed. He became the Linnean Society President (1946-1949), held the Directorship of the British Museum (1950-1960), received a Knighthood (1954) and the Royal Society’s Darwin Medal (1958).

After his retirement in 1960, he went live in Switzerland and worked there on a series of scientific books for many years. He returned to England in 1971 and died on 21 June 1972 in Alfriston, Sussex.