Embryonic processes in the nematode C. elegans, the gastropod mollusc Ilyanassa, the dipteran Drosophila, the echinoid Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, the ascidian Ciona, the anuran Xenopus, the teleost Brachydanio and mouse are compared with respect to a series of parameters such as invariant or variable cleavage, the means by which the embryonic axes are set up, egg anisotropies and reliance on conditional or on autonomous specification processes. A molecular interpretation of these modes of specification of cell fate in the embryo is proposed, in terms of spatial modifications of gene regulatory factors. On this basis, classically defined phenomena such as regulative development and cytoplasmic localization can be interpreted at a mechanistic level, and the enormous differences between different forms of embryogenesis in the Animal Kingdom can be considered within a common mechanistic framework. Differential spatial expression of histospecific genes is considered in terms of the structure of the gene regulatory network that will be required in embryos that utilize cell-cell interaction, autonomous vs conditional specification and maternal spatial information to differing extents. It is concluded that the regulatory architectures according to which the programs of gene expression are organized are special to each form of development, and that common regulatory principles are to be found only at lower levels, such as those at which the control regions of histospecific structural genes operate.