Recapitulation theory
The theory of recapitulation, also called the biogenetic law or embryological parallelism—and often expressed as "ontogeny
Ontogeny is the origin and the development of an organism – for example: from the fertilized egg to mature form. It covers in essence, the study of an organism's lifespan...

 recapitulates phylogeny"
—is a disproven hypothesis that in developing from embryo to adult, animals go through stages resembling or representing successive stages in the evolution
Evolution is any change across successive generations in the heritable characteristics of biological populations. Evolutionary processes give rise to diversity at every level of biological organisation, including species, individual organisms and molecules such as DNA and proteins.Life on Earth...

 of their remote ancestors. With different formulations, such ideas have been applied to several fields, including biology
Biology is a natural science concerned with the study of life and living organisms, including their structure, function, growth, origin, evolution, distribution, and taxonomy. Biology is a vast subject containing many subdivisions, topics, and disciplines...

, anthropology
Anthropology is the study of humanity. It has origins in the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. The term "anthropology" is from the Greek anthrōpos , "man", understood to mean mankind or humanity, and -logia , "discourse" or "study", and was first used in 1501 by German...

, education theory
Education theory
Educational theory can refer to either speculative educational thought in general or to a theory of education as something that guides, explains, or describes educational practice....

 and developmental psychology
Developmental psychology
Developmental psychology, also known as human development, is the scientific study of systematic psychological changes, emotional changes, and perception changes that occur in human beings over the course of their life span. Originally concerned with infants and children, the field has expanded to...

. While some examples of embryonic stages showing superficial features of ancestral organisms exist, the ontological hypothesis itself has been completely disproven.


The general agreement among historians is that the concept originated in the 1790s among the German Natural philosophers. The first formal formulation was proposed by Étienne Serres
Étienne Serres
Antoine Étienne Renaud Augustin Serres was a French physician and embryologist.In 1810 Serres received his medical doctorate in Paris, and afterwards worked at the Hôtel-Dieu de Paris and the Hôpital de la Pitié. Beginning in 1839 he taught comparative anatomy at the Jardin des Plantes. In 1841 he...

 in 1824–26 as what became known as the "Meckel-Serres Law", it attempted to provide a link between comparative embryo
An embryo is a multicellular diploid eukaryote in its earliest stage of development, from the time of first cell division until birth, hatching, or germination...

logy and a "pattern of unification" in the organic world. It was supported by Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire
Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire
Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire was a French naturalist who established the principle of "unity of composition". He was a colleague of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and expanded and defended Lamarck's evolutionary theories...

 and became a prominent part of his ideas which suggested that past transformations of life could have had environmental causes working on the embryo, rather than on the adult as in Lamarckism
Lamarckism is the idea that an organism can pass on characteristics that it acquired during its lifetime to its offspring . It is named after the French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck , who incorporated the action of soft inheritance into his evolutionary theories...

. These naturalistic
Naturalism (philosophy)
Naturalism commonly refers to the philosophical viewpoint that the natural universe and its natural laws and forces operate in the universe, and that nothing exists beyond the natural universe or, if it does, it does not affect the natural universe that we know...

 ideas led to disagreements with Georges Cuvier
Georges Cuvier
Georges Chrétien Léopold Dagobert Cuvier or Jean Léopold Nicolas Frédéric Cuvier , known as Georges Cuvier, was a French naturalist and zoologist...

. It was widely supported in the Edinburgh and London schools of higher anatomy around 1830, notably by Robert Edmond Grant
Robert Edmond Grant
Robert Edmond Grant MD FRCPEd FRS was born in Edinburgh and educated at Edinburgh University as a physician. He became one of the foremost biologists of the early 19th century at Edinburgh and subsequently the first Professor of Comparative Anatomy at University College London...

, but was opposed by Karl Ernst von Baer
Karl Ernst von Baer
Karl Ernst Ritter von Baer, Edler von Huthorn also known in Russia as Karl Maksimovich Baer was an Estonian naturalist, biologist, geologist, meteorologist, geographer, a founding father of embryology, explorer of European Russia and Scandinavia, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, a...

's ideas of divergence, and attacked by Richard Owen
Richard Owen
Sir Richard Owen, FRS KCB was an English biologist, comparative anatomist and palaeontologist.Owen is probably best remembered today for coining the word Dinosauria and for his outspoken opposition to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection...

 in the 1830s.


Ernst Haeckel
Ernst Haeckel
The "European War" became known as "The Great War", and it was not until 1920, in the book "The First World War 1914-1918" by Charles à Court Repington, that the term "First World War" was used as the official name for the conflict.-Research:...

 attempted to synthesize the ideas of Lamarckism
Lamarckism is the idea that an organism can pass on characteristics that it acquired during its lifetime to its offspring . It is named after the French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck , who incorporated the action of soft inheritance into his evolutionary theories...

 and Goethe's Naturphilosophie
Naturphilosophie is a term used in English-language philosophy to identify a current in the philosophical tradition of German idealism, as applied to the study of Nature in the earlier 19th century...

with Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin
Charles Robert Darwin FRS was an English naturalist. He established that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestry, and proposed the scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection.He published his theory...

's concepts. While often seen as rejecting Darwin's theory of branching evolution for a more linear Lamarckian "biogenic law" of progressive evolution, this is not accurate: Haeckel used the Lamarckian picture to describe the ontogenic and phylogenic history of the individual species, but agreed with Darwin about the branching nature of all species from one, or a few, original ancestors. Since around the start of the twentieth century, Haeckel's "biogenetic law" has been refuted on many fronts.

Haeckel formulated his theory as "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny". The notion later became simply known as the recapitulation (OED
Oxford English Dictionary
The Oxford English Dictionary , published by the Oxford University Press, is the self-styled premier dictionary of the English language. Two fully bound print editions of the OED have been published under its current name, in 1928 and 1989. The first edition was published in twelve volumes , and...

: 'a summing up or brief repetition') theory. Ontogeny
Ontogeny is the origin and the development of an organism – for example: from the fertilized egg to mature form. It covers in essence, the study of an organism's lifespan...

 is the growth (size change) and development (shape change) of an individual organism; phylogeny
In biology, phylogenetics is the study of evolutionary relatedness among groups of organisms , which is discovered through molecular sequencing data and morphological data matrices...

 is the evolution
Evolution is any change across successive generations in the heritable characteristics of biological populations. Evolutionary processes give rise to diversity at every level of biological organisation, including species, individual organisms and molecules such as DNA and proteins.Life on Earth...

ary history of a species. Haeckel's recapitulation theory claims that the development of advanced species passes through stages represented by adult organisms of more primitive species. Otherwise put, each successive stage in the development of an individual represents one of the adult forms that appeared in its evolutionary history.

For example, Haeckel proposed that the pharyngeal slits of the pharyngeal arches in the neck of the human embryo resembled gill slits of fish, thus representing an adult "fishlike" developmental stage as well as signifying a fishlike ancestor. Embryonic pharyngeal slits, formed when the thin branchial plates separating pharyngeal pouches and ectodermal grooves perforate, open the pharynx
The human pharynx is the part of the throat situated immediately posterior to the mouth and nasal cavity, and anterior to the esophagus and larynx. The human pharynx is conventionally divided into three sections: the nasopharynx , the oropharynx , and the laryngopharynx...

 to the outside. Pharyngeal pouches appear in all tetrapod
Tetrapods are vertebrate animals having four limbs. Amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals are all tetrapods; even snakes and other limbless reptiles and amphibians are tetrapods by descent. The earliest tetrapods evolved from the lobe-finned fishes in the Devonian...

 animal embryos: in mammal
Mammals are members of a class of air-breathing vertebrate animals characterised by the possession of endothermy, hair, three middle ear bones, and mammary glands functional in mothers with young...

s, the first pharyngeal pouch develops into the lower jaw
The jaw is any opposable articulated structure at the entrance of the mouth, typically used for grasping and manipulating food. The term jaws is also broadly applied to the whole of the structures constituting the vault of the mouth and serving to open and close it and is part of the body plan of...

 (Meckel's cartilage
Meckel's cartilage
The cartilaginous bar of the mandibular arch is formed by what are known as Meckel’s cartilages also known as Meckelian cartilages; above this the incus and malleus are developed....

), the malleus
The malleus or hammer is a hammer-shaped small bone or ossicle of the middle ear which connects with the incus and is attached to the inner surface of the eardrum...

 and the stapes. At a later stage, all pharyngeal slits close, only the ear remaining open. But these embryonic pharyngeal arches, pouches, and slits could not at any stage carry out the same function as the gill
A gill is a respiratory organ found in many aquatic organisms that extracts dissolved oxygen from water, afterward excreting carbon dioxide. The gills of some species such as hermit crabs have adapted to allow respiration on land provided they are kept moist...

s of an adult fish.

Haeckel produced several embryo drawings that often overemphasized similarities between embryos of related species. The misinformation was propagated through many biology textbooks, and popular knowledge, even today. Modern biology rejects the literal and universal form of Haeckel's theory.

Haeckel's drawings were disputed by Wilhelm His
Wilhelm His, Sr.
Wilhelm His, Sr. was a Swiss anatomist and professor who invented the microtome...

, who had developed a rival theory of embryology. His developed a "casual-mechanical theory" of human embryonic development.

Darwin's view, that early embryonic stages are similar to the same embryonic stage of related species but not to the adult stages of these species, has been confirmed by modern evolutionary developmental biology
Evolutionary developmental biology
Evolutionary developmental biology is a field of biology that compares the developmental processes of different organisms to determine the ancestral relationship between them, and to discover how developmental processes evolved...


Historical influence

Although Haeckel's specific form of recapitulation theory is now discredited among biologists, it had a strong influence on social and educational theories of the late 19th century.

English philosopher Herbert Spencer
Herbert Spencer
Herbert Spencer was an English philosopher, biologist, sociologist, and prominent classical liberal political theorist of the Victorian era....

 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
Education in its broadest, general sense is the means through which the aims and habits of a group of people lives on from one generation to the next. Generally, it occurs through any experience that has a formative effect on the way one thinks, feels, or acts...

 in the following claim, published in 1861, five years before Haeckel first published on the subject:
The maturationist
Maturationism is an early childhood educational philosophy that sees the child as a growing organism and believes that the role of education is to passively support this growth rather than actively fill the child with information....

 theory of G. Stanley Hall
G. Stanley Hall
Granville Stanley Hall was a pioneering American psychologist and educator. His interests focused on childhood development and evolutionary theory...

 was based on the premise that growing children would recapitulate evolutionary stages of development as they grew up and that there was a one-to-one correspondence between childhood stages and evolutionary history, and that it was counterproductive to push a child ahead of its development stage. The whole notion fit nicely with other social Darwinist
Social Darwinism
Social Darwinism is a term commonly used for theories of society that emerged in England and the United States in the 1870s, seeking to apply the principles of Darwinian evolution to sociology and politics...

 concepts, such as the idea that "primitive" societies needed guidance by more advanced societies, i.e. Europe and North America, which were considered by social Darwinists as the pinnacle of evolution.

In Philosophy and Art Criticism

The Austrian pioneer in psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud , born Sigismund Schlomo Freud , was an Austrian neurologist who founded the discipline of psychoanalysis...

, 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 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
Richard Taruskin
Richard Taruskin is an American-Russian musicologist, music historian, and critic who has written about the theory of performance, Russian music, fifteenth-century music, twentieth-century music, nationalism, the theory of modernism, and analysis. As a choral conductor he directed the Columbia...

, 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
Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being, existence or reality as such, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations...

 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
Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach was a German composer, organist, harpsichordist, violist, and violinist whose sacred and secular works for choir, orchestra, and solo instruments drew together the strands of the Baroque period and brought it to its ultimate maturity...

's St. John Passion, composed in the 1720's, was appropriated by the Nazi regime in the 1930's 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.

External links

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