Book Review  |   February 2009
Functional Morphology: The Dynamic Wholeness of the Human Organism
Author Affiliations
  • Camille DiLullo, PhD
    Department of Anatomy, Philadelphia (Pa) College of Osteopathic Medicine
Article Information
Book Review   |   February 2009
Functional Morphology: The Dynamic Wholeness of the Human Organism
The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, February 2009, Vol. 109, 75-102. doi:
The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, February 2009, Vol. 109, 75-102. doi:
In Functional Morphology: The Dynamic Wholeness of the Human Organism, Johannes W. Rohen, MD, develops a philosophical exposition of the form, function, and spirit of the human body. 
As pointed out in the author's preface, this narrative is a further evolution of a line of reasoning previously established by an aggregate of independent philosophers, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Rudolf Steiner. 
Dr Rohen is a distinguished medical researcher who received his doctorate degree in medicine in 1946 in Germany. He has lectured extensively on anatomy and embryology and has authored many textbooks on functional anatomy. 
In 2007, Dr Rohen and a colleague were selected by an international panel of biomedical researchers and physicians to receive the prestigious Helen Keller Prize for Vision Research in recognition of their important contributions to this field of medicine. 
The overarching theme of Functional Morphology is the “threefoldness” of the human body and the role that this morphologic organization plays in evolution. 
Multiple physical aspects of the human body are described in relation to: (1) thinking, (2) willing, and (3) feeling elements. The feeling element is proposed to mediate between the thinking and willing elements. 
Dr Rohen presents each element associated with specific regions of the body. The thinking element is associated with the upper region of the body, including the head and central nervous system, which are predominantly involved with cognition and information exchange among various physical systems. 
The willing element is associated with the lower region of the body, including the digestive organs and the limbs, which are chiefly engaged with metabolic functions and energy release. 
The feeling element is associated with the middle region of the body, or thorax, which houses the respiratory and cardiovascular systems—rhythmic systems that mediate between the processes of information exchange and metabolism. 
A threefoldness is also apparent in the discursive methods used by Dr Rohen, with philosophical reasoning linked to the thinking element, scientific accounts to the willing element, and explanative dialogue to the feeling element. Thus, the explanative dialogue mediates between the philosophical and scientific disciplines. 
A philosophy aficionado may be familiar with some or all of the scholars to whom Dr Rohen refers in his dissertation, such as Steiner and Friedrich Schiller. The text, however, is also peppered with references to a variety of eclectic sources, including allegoric and mythologic tales, Shakespeare, and even Star Wars. 
At times, the philosophical discourse can become tedious, but—as if on cue—Dr Rohen recaptures the reader's attention with a fascinating account of any number of physiologic processes. For example, as a preface to the main discussion, he reviews the processes of conception and development. This review is followed by many excellent scientific accounts of biological systems. 
The scientific accounts are divided into six main sections. The first section, “Basic Concepts and General Principles of Form,” includes introductory remarks, structural principles of form, and a discussion of phylogenetic processes. The next section, “The Metabolic-Limb System,” includes discussions of the musculoskeletal, immune, and digestive systems. 
“The Organs of the Rhythmic System” highlights the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. “The Nervous System and the Sense Organs” has descriptions of major sensorimotor elements and the autonomic nervous system. 
“Head Development and Organ Metamorphoses” details the cup formation processes of kidney and eye development and the integrative arrangement of cranial nerves. 
The final section, “Evolutionary Aspects of Human Development,” features a discourse on such evolutionary principles as adaptation and antiadaptation. More than 270 original illustrations and numerous tables are used to highlight and clarify important concepts throughout the book. 
If you are weak in—or have forgotten—your structural anatomy from first-year medical school, you may need a medical dictionary on hand when reading this book because the pedagogic dialogue in Functional Morphology is most comprehensible when the scientific language is completely understood. 
The pedagogic method used to connect the philosophical and scientific realms of the dialogue consists of explanations of the threefoldness of the human body at the developmental, cellular, cerebral, and gross levels, as well as the process of evolution. 
For aspects related to the body, each facet is broken into two elements that relate to information exchange and metabolism—as well as one element that relates to the rhythmic mediation between the first two. For example, the circulatory system is broken into the heart and blood, mediated by the blood vessels. 
One caveat for critical evaluation in the scientific discourse of the book must be proffered, however. At times, the author makes statements that are not substantiated evidentially. Not all aspects of the body could clearly be adapted to his threefold approach. In the endocrine system, the pituitary gland is designated as the thinking element based on its anatomic location, but this gland is also characterized as a major metabolic regulator, indicating it could alternatively be depicted as the willing element. In this case, Dr Rohen seems to be trying to make a square peg fit into a round hole. Despite this shortcoming, many biological systems were comfortably divisible into the three separate elements. 
The threefoldness dogma is extended in the book's concluding section to correlate with the process of evolution and our place in the cosmos. This philosophical approach includes the “empirical principle” (thinking element), used by Dr Rohen to demonstrate how lessons learned by nature from the evolution of nonhuman species have led to the physiologic progression of the human species. 
A second principle, known as orthogenesis (willing element), espouses that humans are the intended endpoint of an evolutionary “plan.” 
The final principle of antiadaptation (feeling element) is proposed to be a guiding mechanism in human physiologic evolution. Most species have been shown to adapt to a specific environment for survival. In contrast, antiadaptive human evolution has resulted in less specialization of the human form to restricted environments—allowing the human species more flexibility for continued evolution. 
As part of the antiadaptive principle, Dr Rohen gives considerable attention to evolution of the upright, rounded structure of the human head and the freedom for extraordinary evolutionary developments that uprightness provides. 
To explore this incompletely detailed phenomenon, Dr Rohen describes the skull as metamorphosed vertebrae and systematically explores the metamorphosis of various aspects of the limbs and torso as related to the development of the head. At times, the text, which describes complex concepts, is loosely written and difficult to follow. For the most part, however, the writing is very fluid and easy to read. 
There is a strong spiritual thread to the pedagogic approach used in Functional Morphology. The threefoldness of the human body is alleged to provide a pathway for the “I” (life force or human individuality) to incarnate into the body. 
Thus, Dr Rohen provides much discussion about the incarnation and “excarnation” of the “I”—as well as of other substances into and out of the body. 
Although Dr Rohen makes it clear that the human species is still considered to be evolving, he offers for consideration a view in which the endpoint of human evolution may be the achievement of a state of selflessness and pure form. In this pure form, the ultimate evolutionary possibility is resurrection. 
From the beginning of the text, Dr Rohen challenges readers to expand their observations and further evolve their perceptions of themselves, others, and our place in the universe. 
Functional Morphology is certainly an intriguing text. However, it must be read to the very last page to appreciate the full scope of Dr Rohen's philosophical treatise and to understand that this work is but a single interpretation of a very broad and complex set of data. 
 By Johannes W. Rohen. 429 pp, $75.00. ISBN: 978-0932776365. Hillsdale, NY: Adonis Press; 2007.
 Editor's Note: Corrections to this article were published in the July 2009 issue of JAOA—The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association (2009;109:388). The corrections have been incorporated in this online version of the article, which was posted December 2009. An explanation of these changes is available at: