The Epistemology of Ancient Embryology

July 1, 2024 - July 3, 2024
Faculty of Classics, University of Cambridge

Sigdwick Avenue
Cambridge CB3 9DA
United Kingdom

This will be an accessible event, including organized related activities

This event is available both online and in-person


  • British Society for the History of Philosophy
  • Birkbeck, University of London
  • Past and Present Society
  • Mind Association


Cambridge University
Leiden University
Birkbeck, University of London
University of Vienna
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
University of Geneva
Oxford University
Princeton University


Cambridge University
Birkbeck, University of London
Cambridge University

Topic areas

Talks at this conference

Add a talk


This conference will explore the various epistemological practices and strategies used in ancient embryology. An embryo can turn into a fully-fledged human being, but it is unclear how exactly that happens, as the inner workings of a pregnant female body cannot directly be observed. What methods did ancient thinkers use to circumvent this problem and nevertheless say something about the formation of embryos? What strategies did they employ to come up with theories, corroborate general principles, adapt theories from predecessors, and communicate their own theories to their audiences?

Strategies which were employed include dissection, vivisection, empirical observation of the pregnant female body, studying miscarriages, talking to women and midwives, comparisons with artefacts or plants, inferences from the pregnancy of animals, and connecting it to cosmological views by principle of ‘microcosm-macrocosm’. The conference will focus on the Graeco-Roman world, inviting experts on a range of thinkers (the ‘Presocratics’, the Hippocratic Corpus, Aristotle, Hellenistic doctors, the Stoics, Galen, Middle- and Neoplatonism), but will also include a comparative panel on embryology in other ancient cultures: China and Egypt. Bringing together experts on the use of a range of methods, thinkers, and traditions, this conference aims to give a coherent account of the various, and often overlapping, epistemological strategies and practices employed in ancient embryology.

Anne Behnke Kinney, University of Virginia: ‘Embryology in Ancient China’

Lisa Raphals, University of California Riverside: ‘On the Character of an Unborn Child: Three Excavated Texts on Embryology’

Cathie Spieser, University of Fribourg: ‘The Embryo in Ancient Egypt’

Caterina Pello, Geneva: ‘From Parmenides to Democritus: Presocratic embryological arguments’

Nathasja Roggo-van Liujn, Mainz: ‘From Cucumbers to Wool: Analogies in Ancient Greek Embryology’

George Kazantzidis, Patras: ‘Terpsis and akribeia in Hippocratic embryology: The story of the seven-day foetus’

Vishnya Knezevic, Belgrade: ‘Philolaus’ Embryology’

Alesia Preite, University of Heidelberg: ‘The Embodiment of the Immortal Soul in the Timaeus: An Embryological Interpretation of Ti. 42e5-44c4’

Norah Woodcock, Princeton: ‘Eggs as external wombs in Aristotle’s theory of animal generation’

Mariska Leunissen, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: ‘Old wives’ tales, maternal expertise, and early medicine in Aristotle’s embryology’

Aistė Čelkytė, Leiden: ‘The Neopythagoreans and the Mathematics of the Embryo

Sophia Connell, Birkbeck University of London: ‘The Use of Empirical Claims in Galen’s Embryology’

Chiara Blanco, Newcastle: 'Greek Medical and Biological Influences on Lucretius' Embryology'

George Karamanolis, Vienna: 'Early Christians on teh Soul of the Embryo'

Supporting material

Add supporting material (slides, programs, etc.)




June 28, 2024, 9:00am BST

External Site

Who is attending?

2 people are attending:


See all

Will you attend this event?

Let us know so we can notify you of any change of plan.

RSVPing on PhilEvents is not sufficient to register for this event.