by Henry M. Morris*

Ideas have consequences, and false ideas sometimes generate bitter

consequences. One of the premier examples of this principle is

the infamous "recapitulation theory," developed by such

philosophers as Goette and Robert Chambers, and then popularized

in Darwin's day by Ernst Haeckel, the German atheist. Called by

Haeckel the "biogenetic law," this idea was spread widely by his

euphonious slogan, "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny," meaning

that embryonic growth of the fetus in the womb rapidly

recapitulates the entire evolutionary history of the species.

This bizarre notion has been cited by evolutionists for over a

hundred years as one of the main "proofs" of evolution. Darwin,

himself, made great use of it in his Origin of Species and Descent

of Man.

Nevertheless, it is completely false, and most competent

evolutionists today know this. Two leading neo-Darwinists have


"Haeckel misstated the evolutionary principle involved.

It is now firmly established that ontogeny does not repeat

phylogeny."' More recently, Dr. Keith Thompson, Professor of

Biology at Yale, said:

"Surely the biogenetic law is as dead as a doornail. It

was finally exorcised from biology textbooks in the fifties.

As a topic of serious theoretical inquiry, it was extinct in

the twenties."2

In spite of its specious character, this notion captivated

the minds of evolutionists, and is still believed by millions of

their followers even today. Four of the very important, but very

bitter fruits produced by the corrupt tree of recapitulationism

are discussed briefly below: (1) The Standard Geologic Column.

The fossil record has long been considered the definitive evidence

of evolution, vath simple life forms preserved in ancient rocks

and complex forms in younger rocks. The dating of the rocks,

however, is based on the fossils they contain-not on their

vertical position in the sedimentary sequences. Leading

evolutionists acknowledge this to be circular reasoning.

Dr. Morris is President of ICR.

"The charge that the construction of the geologic column

involves circularity has a certain amount of validity."'

"And this poses something of a problem: If we date the rocks

by their fossils, how can we then turn around and talk about

patterns of evolutionary change through time in the fossil


Thus this key "proof" of evolution is based on the assumption of

evolution. In fact, predarwinian theistic evolutionists and

progressive creationists had already worked out the desired order

of the fossils before any significant number of them had even been

discovered, so that it was essentially ready-made as an evidence

for evolution when Darwin proposed his theory. They had assumed

that there was an innate principle operating in the cosmos and in

living organisms that impelled them to proceed upward in

complexity, and that this evolutionary order must be the same

everywhere-in embryology, morphology, paleontology, and even

psychology. It was natural, therefore, to use embryological

studies as a basis for assigning order to the fossils.

"In Down's day, the theory of recapitulation embodied a

biologist's best guide for the organization of life into

sequences of higher and lower forms."'

"Another major factor keeping some sort of recapitulation alive

was the need of comparative morphologists and especially

paleontologists for a solid theoretical foundation for homology.

They had long since come to rely on comparative ontggenetic

information as a base."6 Although a number of other factors

contributed significantly to the development of the standard

stratigraphical column, (e.g., the rock sequences in Western

Europe), embryological studies were perhaps most important of all.

This standard geological column is found only in textbooks, and

all the supposed transitional forms are still missing in the

rocks themselves.

(2) Freudian Psychoanalysis. Another deadly fruit of the

recapitulation idea was the psychological system developed by

Sigmund Freud. Although much of his system is now rejected by

modern psychologists and psychiatrists, there is no question that

all have been profoundly influenced by Darwinism and the whole

concept of man's animal ancestry. Recent discovery of a hitherto

unpublished manuscript of Freud reveals how strongly he relied on


"In a 1915 paper, Freud demonstrates his preoccupation with

evolution. Immersed in the theories of Darwin, and of

Lamarck, who believed acquired traits could be inherited,

Freud concluded that mental disorders were the vestiges of

behavior that had been appropriate in earlier stages of


"The evolutionary idea that Freud relied on most heavily in

the manuscript is the maxim that 'ontogeny recapitulates

phylogeny,' that is, that the development of the individual

recapitulates the evolution of the entire species."8

All the anti-Christian impact of Freud's atheistic psychological

system, leading even to the modern sexual revolution, so-called,

can thus be traced largely back to this recapitulation notion.


(3) Modern Racism. Feelings of tribalism, nationalism, and

racism have existed ever since Babel, but racism did not reach its

most intense and virulent level until it received a

pseudo-scientific sanction from DarmAnism. This new form of

evolutionism, popularized in western Europe and America during the

19th century, with its emphasis on "survival of the fittest," lent

itself naturally to the idea of competition between races, with

the more highly evolved races eliminating the "savage races," as

Darwin called them,9 in the "struggle for existence."

Social Darwinism, with its imperialist and racist emphases,

became exceedingly strong in the 19th and early 20th centuries,

and, even though it went into partial eclipse after World War 11,

its tragic aftereffects are with us still. Racism reached its

zenith under Hitler in Nazi Germany, and the "biogenetic law" of

Ernst Haeckel was largely responsible.

"Recapitulation was Haeckel's favorite argument ... Haeckel and

his colleagues also invoked recapitulation to affirm the racial

superiority of northern European whites,. . Herbert Spencer wrote

that 'the intellectual traits of the uncivilized ... are traits

recurring in the children of the civilized.' Carl Vogt said it

more strongly in 1864: 'The grown up Negro partakes, as regards

his intellectual faculties, of the nature of the child. . .' "10

"(Haeckel) became one of Germany's major ideologists for racism,

nationalism, and imperialism.""

"In essence, Haeckel and his fellow social Darwinists advanced the

ideas that were to become the core assumptions of national

socialism."12 Lest anyone misunderstand, although all the above

authorities (as well as all those quoted previously in this paper)

are evolutionists, they do not believe in either recapitulationism

or racism. The quotations are necessarily brief, but they do not

misrepresent their authors. Much more documentation to the same

effect could be provided if space permitted. (4) The Plaque of

Abortionism. The most recent application of the recapitulation

theory has been as a pseudo-scientific justification for the

terrible holocaust of abortionism which has been sweeping the

world in recent years. Although there may be many personal

reasons why women have abortions and doctors perform them, the

only scientific or reli_qious justification that can be given for

it is that the fetus is not yet really a human being. If the

embryo is truly human, with human life and an eternal soul, then

abortion is obviously cruel, premeditated murder. Therefore,

abortionists must deny that the fetus is human.

But the only quasi-scientific rationale for such a

pronouncement must be based on recapitulationism. As a widely

syndicated columnist says, referring to an article by evolutionary

feminist Ellen Goodman:

"I think that what she imagines is that the human embryo undergoes

something like the whole process of evolution, as in the old adage

that ,ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny'. The adage has been

discredited, of course, but this does not mean it has lost its

power over the imagination of many modern people. They still

suppose that the human fetus is in the early stages of development

a 'lower' form of life, and this is probably what they mean when

they say it isn't 'fully human'."13

This type of reasoning, of course, is specious, at best, and

so is that which justifies racism, or Freudianism, or even the

standard evolutionary interpretation of the fossil record. As we

have shown, all these concepts have been largely based on the

discredited quasi-scientific notion of the 19th century that

"ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." There are still other

erroneous and harmful ideas that have sprouted from recapitula-

tionism, which space limitations preclude discussing here. For

example, much of modern criminology has developed out of this same

recapitulationist concept.

"A whole school of 'criminal anthropology'. . branded white

wrongdoers as genetically retarded- . . . Born criminals are not

simply de ranged or diseased; they are, literally throwbacks to a

previous evolutionary stage."14

Even Stephen Jay Gould himself, probably the most influential

and articulate evolutionist spokesman of the current decade, has

said, concerning the recapitulation theory:

"(Both the theory and 'ladder approach' to classification

which it encouraged are, or should be, defunct today)."15

Creationists agree, but all Christians should also be

concerned with the tragic heritage it has left in its wake. These

concepts are also false, as well as perniciously harmful in human



1. G.G. SirT)Pson arid W. Beck, An Introduction to Biology (New

York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1965), p. 241.

2. Keith S. Thompson, "Ontogeny and Phylogeny Recapitulated,"

American Scientist (Vol. 76, May/June, 1988), p. 273.

3. David M. Raup, "Geology and Creation," Bulletin of the Field

Museum of Natural History (Vol. 54, March 1983), p. 21.

4. Niles Eldredge, Time Frames: The Rethinking of Darwinian

Euolution and the Theorv of Punctuated Equilibrium (New York:

Simon and Schuster, 1985), p. 52.

5. Stephen Jay Gould, "Dr. Down's Syndrome," Natural History

(April 1980), p. 144.

6. Keith S. Thompson, op cit, p. 274.

7. Daniel Goleman, "Lost Paper Shows Freud's Effort to Link

Analysis and Evolution," New York Times (February 10, 1987),

p. 19.

8. Ibid, p. 22.

9. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (2nd Ed., New York: A.L.

Burt, Co., 1974),

p. 178.

10. Stephen Jay Gould, "Racism and Recapitulation," Chapter 27 in

Euer Since Darwin (New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1977), p.


ii. Daniel Gasman, The Scientific Origins of Notional Socialism:

Social Darwinism in Ernst Haeckel and the German Monist

Lea_que (New York, Americdn Elsevier, 1971),

P. xvii.

12. George J. Stein, "Biological Science and the Roots of

Nazism," American Scientist (Vol. 76, Jan/Feb. 1988), p. 56.

13. Joseph Sobran, "The Averted Gaze: Liberalism and Fetal Pain,"

Human Life Reuiew (Spring 1984), p. 6.

14. Stephen Jay Gould, Euer Since Darwin, pp. 218, 223. Again,

to prevent misunderstanding, Gould is merely citing-not

approving-this idea.

15. Stephen Jay Gould, "Dr. Down's Syndrome," p. 144.