Lynn M. Morgan


On her book Icons of Life: A Cultural History of Human Embryos

Cover Interview of October 05, 2010


The Carnegie Human Embryo Collection was designed to provide basic descriptive information about human gestational development at a time when most Americans hardly knew what embryos looked like.

The embryo collectors changed all that.  With their plaster models, scientific articles, and museum exhibits, the information they produced taught us to see in embryos an image of “ourselves unborn.”

And we accepted it, because we have a cultural penchant for imbuing biological events with social significance.  The embryo collectors helped to solidify the biologically based origin story we tell ourselves about how we come to be.

It was an embryo-production project—an intensely gendered, often patronizing, and sometimes colonialist project that separated women’s lives, bodies, and futures from the embryo and fetal subjects that appear so independent today.

Human development is now construed as a natural process about the “facts of life,” rather than as the historical outcome of a scientific project to produce embryos and cast them as biological entities, while rendering pregnant women virtually invisible.

As new constituencies claim the right to tell conflicting stories about embryos, Icons of Life poses the question:  how do we know what embryos mean?

The cultural history of embryo collecting helps to explain who authored the seemingly self-standing embryos that reside at the center of so many contemporary debates.

© 2010 Lynn Morgan