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Amoebae as Exemplary Cells: The Protean Nature of an Elementary Organism

Andrew Reynolds
Journal of the History of Biology
Vol. 41, No. 2 (Summer, 2008), pp. 307-337
Published by: Springer
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/29737549
Page Count: 31
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Abstract

In the nineteenth century protozoology and early cell biology intersected through the nexus of Darwin's theory of evolution. As single-celled organisms, amoebae offered an attractive focus of study for researchers seeking evolutionary relationships between the cells of humans and other animals, and their primitive appearance made them a favourite model for the ancient ancestor of all living things. Their resemblance to human and other metazoan cells made them popular objects of study among morphologists, physiologists, and even those investigating animal behaviour. The amoeba became the exemplar of the new protoplasmic cell concept of mid-century and because its apparent simplicity made it widely generalizable it became a popular subject in a breadth of experimental investigations and theoretical speculations. It was able to do this because "the amoeba" denotes not a particular organism, but a general type of behaviour common to the cells of a range of protozoa, simple plants and higher animals. Its status as an exemplary cell also rested upon auxiliary philosophical assumptions about what constitutes a primitive characteristic and the thesis that evolution is a progressive development of order from chaos.

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