The structural features which the Mollusca do possess in common with other animals belonging to other great phyla of the animal kingdom are those characteristic of the Coelomata, one of the two great grades (the other and lower being that of the Coelentera) into which the higher animals; or Metazoa as distinguished from the Protozoa, are divided.
The Metazoa all commence their individual existence as a single cell or plastid, which multiplies itself by transverse division.
The old criterion by which they and other Metazoa were once distinguished from Protozoa, namely, the differentiation of large and small sexual cells from each other and from the remaining cells of the body, has been broken down by the discovery of numerous cases of such differentiation among Protozoa.
The Coelentera may thus be briefly defined as Metazoa which exhibit two embryonic cell-layers only, - the ectoderm and endoderm, - their body-cavities being referable to a single cavity or coelenteron in the endoderm.
At the same time it is necessary to observe that it is by no means certain that the mesoderm found in various groups of Metazoa is a similar or homologous formation in all cases.
The Coelentera, as contrasted with other Metazoa (but not Parazoa), consist of two layers of cells only, an outer layer or ectoderm, an inner layer or endoderm.
Unlike the cells of Protozoa, these embryonic cells of the Metazoa do not remain each like its neighbour and capable of independent life, but proceed to arrange themselves into two layers, taking the form of a sac. The cavity of the two-cell-layered sac or diblastula thus formed is the primitive gut or arch-enteron.
The Metazoa form two main branches; one, Parazoa, is but a small unproductive stock comprising only the Phylum Porifera or Sponges; the other, the great stem of the animal series Enterozoa, gives rise to a large number of diverging Phyla which it is necessary to assign to two levels or grades - a lower, Enterocoela (often called Coelentera), and a higher, Coelomocoela (often called Coelomata).
In the remaining Metazoa certain cells are budded off at an early stage of development from one or both of the two original layers, to form later a third layer, the mesoderm, which lies between the ectoderm and endoderm; such forms have therefore received the name Triploblastica.