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Ontogeny recapitulates phyogeny

February 24, 2014

“Development of the thing recapitulates development of the type.” I’ve caught myself falling into this style of thinking fairly often recently; this post is an attempt to exorcise the tendency by defining it.

Consider the (false) biological instantiation of the theory: thing=embryo, type=species. Example: humans evolved from fish, therefore, human embryos (don’t) acquire gills, then replace them with lungs. Origin: Invented c. 1790 by German natural philosophers–yes, this means Johann Wolfgang von Goethe–to account for the similarities in shape across embryos of different species; synthesis with Lamarckian evolution soon followed; incorporation into Darwinian evolution was attempted, but never successfully.

ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny

Don’t believe this chart. It lies.

In a way, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” just restates the classical analogies between micro- and macrocosms (the human resembles the city, the city resembles the world, etc). But with an important difference, a Romantic difference: the focus is no longer on cosmos, that is, order/ornament, but on geny, that is, origin/history.

Of course, Romantic biology fails as science. Romantic anthropology does too; consider the linguistic instantiation of the theory: thing=childhood acquisition of language, type=species’ acquisition of language. It’s true that cognitive scientists still love doing experiments on children, but not because they think that how the individual learns language just is how the species does; rather, they think the one can help us understand the other.

So “ontology indicates phylology”? Or perhaps just “evidence supports theory.” That’s just a way of saying “there are no shortcuts.” Both the micro/macrocosm and the onto/phylogeny parallels were ways of begging the question, attempts to replace explanation with pattern-matching. Nowadays these slogans may be most useful when treated as warning signals: “was that actually a good argument, or did it assume that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny?”


If Romantic historiography is false as a theory, does that matter for the practice? Take the pedagogic instantiation: thing=education, type=civilization. No, it’s probably not the case that, as Herbert Spencer wrote, “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.” So what about schools that teach literature starting with Homer and working up to Faulkner, or that teach philosophy starting with Plato and working up to Wittgenstein, or that teach mathematics starting with Euclid and working up to Lobachevsky?

Or take the art-critical instantiation: thing=course of individual artist’s career, type=trajectory of art history. Yes, it can be dangerous to assume that Picasso’s career exactly parallels what happened in 20th century art, but still, surely Picasso, when he was making art, did so with full knowledge that what he did, he did within a particular historical context, a context informed by its past. Should that matter for our understanding of his art?

Perhaps such schools are good; and perhaps we should understand Picasso in this way. It may be the case that ontogeny should recapitulate phylogeny. But then, it may be the case that the microcosm should resemble the macrocosm. The real question is: where do these imperatives come from? The latter seems motivated by the thought, “the cosmos has a certain structure, and we’re in the cosmos, so we should try not only to understand its structure, but to participate in it”; and the former by the thought, “history follows a certain trajectory, and we’re in history, so we should try not just to understand its trajectory, but to participate in it.”

Both are worthwhile thoughts, but resemble and recapitulate seem to take for granted what such participation would look like, rather than actually asking the question. “Recapitulate” captures the insight that telling us to “resemble” our world isn’t very useful; that we need not just a goal, but also a way of getting there. But why assume that copying the history will get us anywhere better than copying its structure?


If not recapitulate, what? Given that history is the history of beings who were aware of history, perhaps reiterate; imagine a school where, instead of reading through from Plato to Wittgenstein, you read Plato seven times: a class progressing from Plato to Aristotle, then one from Plato to Cicero, then Plato to Augustine, then Plato to Aquinas, then Plato the Descartes, then Plato to Kant, then Plato to Wittgenstein…

Or reproduce; imagine a school that progressed from least self-conscious to most: begin with folk tales, move up through Homer to Shakespeare to Plato to Kierkegaard…

Or retrace; imagine a school that moved backwards in time: start with T.S. Eliot and Wittgenstein, then set out to read everything that needs to be read to understand these two, picking the next text to read based on what allusion happens to catch the eye…

Or perhaps none of these would work; perhaps there’s no formula guaranteed to produce an adequate amount of self-consciousness. (A compatible thought: perhaps there’s more than one formula capable of doing so.) I do know that my own intellectual development is better described by the above flights of fancy than by any straightforward process of “resemblance” or “recapitulation.” I’ve spent much of graduate school revisiting texts I read as an undergraduate (which I spent much of, in turn, revisiting texts I read in high school). I still feel as if I don’t really understand them.

In a way I look forward to teaching the same class, reading the same books, over and over, year after year. That may be the only real way to get an adequate education.

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