Most vertebrate organs, once formed, continue to perform the function for which they were generated until the death of the organism. The kidney is a notable exception to this rule. Vertebrates, even those that do not undergo metamorphosis, utilize a progression of more complex kidneys as they grow and develop. This is presumably due to the changing conditions to which the organism must respond to retain what Homer Smith referred to as our physiological freedom. To quote, "Recognizing that we have the kind of blood we have because we have the kind of kidneys we have, we must acknowledge that our kidneys constitute the major foundation of our physiological freedom. Only because they work the way they do has it become possible for us to have bones, muscles, glands, and brains. Superficially, it might be said that the function of the kidneys is to make urine; but in a more considered view one can say that the kidneys make the stuff of philosophy itself" ("From Fish to Philosopher," Little, Brown and Co., Boston, 1953). Different kidneys are used to make the stuff of philosophy at different stages of development depending on the age and needs of the organism, rather than the usual approach of simply making embryonic organs larger as the animal grows. Although evolution has provided the higher vertebrates with complex adult kidneys, they continue to utilize simple kidneys in embryogenesis. In lower vertebrates with simple adult kidneys, even more simple versions are used during early developmental stages. In this review the anatomy, development, and gene expression patterns of the embryonic kidney, the pronephros, will be described and compared to the more complex kidney forms. Despite some differences in anatomy, similar developmental pathways seem to be responsible for the induction and the response to induction in both evanescent and permanent kidney forms. Gene expression patterns can, therefore, be added to the morphological and functional data indicating that all forms of the kidney are closely related structures. Given the similarities between the development of simple and complex kidneys, the embryonic kidneys may be an ideal model system in which to investigate the genesis of multicomponent organ systems.