“Those who have dissected or inspected many (bodies) have at least learnt to doubt; while others who are ignorant of anatomy and do not take the trouble to attend it are in no doubt at all.” – Giovanni Battista Morgagni
As part of our biology practical classes, we all have been exposed to the concept of dissection, where we take apart biological organisms to understand their structure and function. Dissection has historically proven to be a very powerful device to understand biological systems, and remains a cornerstone of biology and medical education.
Dissection gives learners an unmatched view of the structural complexity and functional logic of biological systems. By dissecting frogs, say, under the tutelage of a helpful instructor, students learn to appreciate the intricate designs that natural selection has wrought over millennia, permitting these animals to survive climatic shifts that larger reptiles couldn’t.
But dissection is not just an exercise in natural philosophy. It also provides compelling visual answers to much simpler questions. Why are the kidneys where they are? How does the small intestine work? Observing biological elements in situ creates a natural setting for studying such questions, and allows learners to figure out many such answers by the simple task of identifying and taking apart the element in question.
I remember when I started dissecting flowers as part of my biology practicals, flowers ceased to be the usual ostentatious creatures. As we dissected out the male and the female reproductive parts from the bright red Hibiscus flower, I could not help but realize, perhaps for the first time, that plants were functionally as living as Homo sapiens! It still excites and fills me with awe to think about how challenging it was to finely dissect out the various floral parts and how those tiny structures were structurally so well-connected and functionally so competent as to sustain a complex life. For instance, Fig 1 is an immense close-up of the male reproductive part of the Hibiscus flower where little filaments are grouped together to form the stamen. One could only imagine as to how thrilling it would be for young hands to separate out the individual filaments without destroying the attached pollen sacs.
But what happens after dissection? Post-dissection, the respective organism is rendered non-functional but the dissectors develop a fair sense of its anatomical dispensation. Many consider that this trade off borders on criminality because you kill the organism in process. And the crime increases manifold when the organism in question belongs to the kingdom Animalia rather than Plantae. The reasons being the reckless killings of species (like frogs) which make them endangered and it is also argued that knowledge gained by dissection is not used by students post-college.
The author is a research scholar at Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education (TIFR), Mumbai. She works on the interface of biology education and cognitive science. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.