No. 183 THE HERITAGE OF THE RECAPITULATION THEORY
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
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
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
(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
"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),
8. Ibid, p. 22.
9. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (2nd Ed., New York: A.L.
Burt, Co., 1974),
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),
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
15. Stephen Jay Gould, "Dr. Down's Syndrome," p. 144.