Recapitulation Theory

Ernst Haeckel

The theory of recapitulation [ree-kuh-pich-uh-ley-shuhn] is often known as ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.’ It was an idea of French physician Étienne Serres in 1824. In 1886 German biologist Ernst Haekel proposed that the embryonic development of an individual organism (its ontogeny) followed the same path as the evolutionary history of its species (its phylogeny). It is also called the ‘biogenetic law’ or ’embryological parallelism.’

It was a theory that tied evolution (change in organisms over time) with embryology (the way organisms develop before they are born). The theory basically stated that before they are born, organisms pass through developmental stages that look like adult animals of other species, in roughly the same order that these other species split off during evolution. Although there is something to this idea, it is no longer thought to be such a useful way to look at development.

Haeckel formulated his theory as ‘Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.’ Ontogeny is the steps an organism takes in its development before it is born, starting as a single cell and ending as a baby. Phylogeny is the steps a species takes in its development, starting as a very simple organism and evolving into the current organism. ‘Recapitulates’ is a synonym for ‘reflects’ and implies that the ontogeny of an organism is similar to the phylogeny of its species. For example, Haeckel realized that before they are born, there is a time when humans have slits in their necks. These slits look like the gills on adult fishes. Haeckel took this to mean that some time before our species became human, we were fish-like. This view is supported by the fossil record and other evidence. As the unborn human gets closer to being born, it develops a tail. In fact, some human babies are born with tails. Haeckel concluded, again correctly, that at some time in humanities more recent evolutionary past (after we had gone through our fish stage) the species that would go on to become humans had a tail.

However, not all of Haeckels evidence or conclusions were this good. Haeckel produced several embryo drawings that often overemphasized similarities between embryos of related species. These found their ways into many biology textbooks, and into popular knowledge, even though they were wrong. Furthermore, Haeckel used this ‘evidence’ to conclude that white people were evolutionary superior to people of other races. Not only is this a racist view, but we know today that it is not true. Today, scientists think that Haeckel overstated the case. For example, the ‘gills’ of a developing human do not work (though Haekel never said they did). Furthermore, as better observations were made, it was discovered that developing babies don’t look exactly like the pictures Haeckel drew. He may have exaggerated what he saw in order to support his point better. Also, Haekel’s discussion was entirely about morphology: he did not discuss the evolution and development of animal behavior.

However, this is not to say that nothing about the theory makes sense. It is true that our ontogeny gives clues about our phylogeny. However, the relationship is not nearly as direct as Haeckel said it was. In fact, Haekel’s over-emphatic claims led in due course to over-emphatic rejections. Today, scientists agree that some parts of Haeckel’s theory still make sense. For example: Before they are born, developing organisms of different species look similar; This similarity lasts longer in species which split from each other rather recently; Before they are born, developing organisms may have traits which they do not have when born, but which the organisms that they evolved from had when they were adults.

With different formulations, such ideas have been applied and extended to several fields and areas, including the origin of language, education theory, and developmental psychology. While examples of embryonic stages show that molecular features of ancestral organisms exist, the theory of recapitulation itself has been viewed within the field of developmental biology as a historical side-note rather than as dogma.

The earliest recorded trace of a recapitulation theory is from the Egyptian Pharaoh Psamtik I (664 – 610 BCE), who used it as an hypothesis on the origin of language. The concept of recapitulation was first formulated outside of the field of biology. It was a widely held idea among traditional theories of the origin of language (glottology), assumed as a premise that children’s use of language gives insights on its origin and evolution.

Although Haeckel’s specific form of recapitulation theory is now discredited among biologists, the strong influence it had on social and educational theories of the late 19th century still resonates in the 21st century. Research in the late 20th century confirmed that ‘both biological evolution and the stages in the child’s cognitive development follow much the same progression of evolutionary stages as that suggested in the archaeological record.’ English philosopher Herbert Spencer was one of the most energetic promoters of evolutionary ideas to explain many phenomena. He compactly expressed the basis for a cultural recapitulation theory of education in the following claim, published in 1861, five years before Haeckel first published on the subject: ‘If there be an order in which the human race has mastered its various kinds of knowledge, there will arise in every child an aptitude to acquire these kinds of knowledge in the same order…. Education is a repetition of civilization in little.’

Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget favored a weaker version of the formula, according to which ontogeny parallels phylogeny because the two are subject to similar external constraints. The Austrian pioneer in psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, also held a favorable position towards Haeckel’s doctrine. He was trained as a biologist under the influence of recapitulation theory at the time of its domination, and retained a Lamarckian outlook (the belief that an organism can pass on characteristics that it acquired during its lifetime to its offspring) with justification from the recapitulation theory. He also distinguished between physical and mental recapitulation, in which the differences would become an essential argument for his theory of neuroses.

More recently, several art historians, most prominently musicologist Richard Taruskin, have applied the term ‘ontogeny becomes phylogeny’ to the process of creating and recasting art history, often to assert a perspective or argument. For example, the peculiar development of the works by modernist composer Arnold Schoenberg (here an ‘ontogeny’) is generalized in many histories into a ‘phylogeny’ – a historical development (‘evolution’) of Western Music toward atonal styles of which Schoenberg is a representative. Such historiographies of the ‘collapse of traditional tonality’ are faulted by art historians as asserting a rhetorical rather than historical point about tonality’s ‘collapse.’

Taruskin also developed a variation of the motto into the pun ‘ontogeny recapitulates ontology’ to refute the concept of ‘absolute music’ advancing the socio-artistic theories of Carl Dalhaus. Ontology is the investigation of what exactly something is, and Taruskin asserts that an art object becomes that which society and succeeding generations made of it. For example, composer Johann Sebastian Bach’s ‘St. John Passion,’ composed in the 1720s, was appropriated by the Nazi regime in the 1930s for propaganda. Taruskin claims the historical development of ‘the Passion’ (its ontogeny) as a work with an anti-Semitic message does, in fact, inform the work’s identity (its ontology), even though that was an unlikely concern of the composer. Music or even an abstract visual artwork can not be truly autonomous (“absolute”) because it is defined by its historical and social reception.

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