Recapitulation theory

From AnthroWiki
The initial stages of human embryogenesis
Ernst Haeckel (1908)
Haeckel's embryo drawings from his Anthropogenie (3rd ed., 1877, p. 288f)
Haeckel's drawings of various embryos, which already in his time brought him the accusation of falsification, since he had copied them from other textbooks (which, however, was quite common at that time due to the lack of corresponding embryos).

The recapitulation theory, also called embryological parallelism or the basic biogenetic law, was first formulated in 1866 by Ernst Haeckel (1834 - 1919): "Ontogenesis is the short and rapid recapitulation of phylogenesis" or for short "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny", i.e. every animal or human organism repeats the essential features of phylogenetic evolution in the course of its individual development. A precursor of this rule is Baer's rule formulated by Karl Ernst von Baer in 1828, which he himself called the law of embryo similarity.

„40. Ontogenesis or the development of organic individuals, as the series of form changes that each individual organism undergoes during the entire time of its individual existence, is directly conditioned by phylogenesis or the development of the organic phylum (phylon) to which it belongs.
41. Ontogenesis is the short and rapid recapitulation of phylogenesis, conditioned by the physiological functions of heredity (reproduction) and adaptation (nutrition).
42. The organic individual (as a morphological individual of the first to the sixth order) repeats during the rapid and short course of its individual development the most important of those changes in form which its ancestors underwent during the slow and long course of their paleontological development according to the laws of heredity and adaptation.
43. The complete and faithful repetition of the phyletic through the biontic development is blurred and shortened by secondary contraction, as ontogenesis takes an ever straighter path; therefore the longer the series of successively passed juvenile states, the more complete is the repetition.
44. The complete and faithful repetition of the phyletic by the biontic development is falsified and modified by secondary adaptation, in that the bion adapts itself to new conditions during its individual development; therefore the repetition is the more faithful, the more similar are the conditions of existence, under which the bion and its ancestors have developed.“

Ernst Haeckel: Generelle Morphologie der Organismen (General Morphology of Organisms). Published by Georg Reimer, Berlin 1866, p.

Today, the basic biogenetic law has been subjected to strong criticism among experts. One of Ernst Haeckel's harshest critics was Erich Blechschmidt, director of the Institute of Anatomy at the University of Göttingen from 1942 to 1973. He built up the Human Embryological Documentation Collection in Göttingen, named after him, and with it founded human embryology morphologically. Based on this collection of several hundred thousand sections of human embryos, he came to the conclusion that human embryonic development differs from animal embryonic development from the very first moment, so that there can never be any question of "recapitulation" in Haeckel's sense. Man is man from the very beginning and differs fundamentally from the animal. Blechschmidt even went so far as to doubt the principle of recapitulation even within the animal kingdom:

„Today we know that the so-called basic biogenetic law was one of the most serious errors of the last century in biology. This basic law is wrong. That is irrefutably certain. Nor is it correct one bit or in any other way; it has not the slightest validity in any way.“ (Lit.: Mees)

L. F. C. Mees has shown, however, that just the repetition of important developmental stages in the animal kingdom can throw a new light on evolution, and that Blechschmidt's views and the basic biogenetic law are compatible - only it must then be applied in a different sense than Haeckel did. He bases this on statements by Rudolf Steiner. Steiner certainly acknowledged the facts underlying this law, but he considered Haeckel's interpretation of these facts to be erroneous:

„Let us now take the sensory research, the sensory theory of descent, which has found its development only in recent times. There it shows us above all that an important law has been established: the biogenetic basic law, which establishes the external facts in such a way that man in his germinal state briefly passes through all those forms which remind one of certain animal shapes; in certain stages he reminds one of a little fish and so on. He repeats, you might say, the various forms of the animal kingdom. Now you all know that especially in that stage where this theory of descent had become wild, it was concluded from this world of facts that man had really gone through these forms in the previous world, which show themselves repeatedly in his germinal state. One would like to say in relation to this fact: It was truly a good fortune for mankind that this observation remained hidden by the care of the gods for so long until the time when at the same time almost - things almost always shift over each other - after it had been established in its wilder forms, it could experience its correction through spiritual science. - That which man goes through up to the time when he appears on the physical plan for the sense perception, that was wrapped up by the gods and could not be observed. For if it had been observed still earlier, man might have formed even more erroneous notions about it. The facts are of course correct, because they are observed by the senses. But if it is to be judged, then that comes into consideration which is the power of the intellectual soul. It cannot approach what cannot be seen sensually. Therefore, if it does not have the disposition for truth within, it is necessarily subject to error. And here we have a glaring example of how the power of judgment, which comes from the intellectual soul, can sail into error.

What does the fact that man at a certain stage of his germinal life looks like a little fish show? This fact shows that man cannot use that which is fish nature, that he had to expel it before he began his human existence. And the next germ form is again one that man had to expel because it does not belong to him, just as man had to expel all animal forms because they do not belong to him. Man could not have become man if he had ever appeared on earth in such a form as these animal forms are. He just had to separate them from himself, so that he could become man. If you follow these thoughts in the right way, you will also come to a right judgment. What do the facts show that man in the germ stage, for example, looks like a little fish? These facts show that he has never looked like a little fish in the course of his line of descent, that he has rejected the fish form in the very line of his development, that he could not use it because he was not allowed to look like it. Now take all the other successive forms which modern science shows you in the forms of germ life. What do these forms show? They show everything that man was not in prehistoric times, that he had to expel from himself. They show all those images which he has never resembled. Thus one can learn in truth through embryology how man never looked in the prehistoric times. All the things which man has not gone through, but which he has expelled, one can get to know through it. But if one draws the conclusion that man descends from all this, that he has gone through this in order to come to his present stage of development, then one stands on the same point of view as someone who said: Here stands the son, here the father. If I compare the two, I will never believe that the son descends from the father. I will believe that the son descends from himself, or the father from the son. - Just the reverse order of evolution has been assumed by sailing into error, by the fact that the mind has really proved quite unfit to think through these facts of reality truthfully. Certainly, these pictures of the prehistoric times are extremely important for us, because we recognize just by them how we never looked.

But this can be recognized much better by something else. It can be recognized by those realms which are offered to us by the outer sense world itself, which do not elude us. Namely, all these forms are also given to us in the outer world. They can be observed with what one can call the ordinary, correctly utilized human observation. As long as people have had only this observation, as long as they have applied their understanding not to that which is closed to sense perception, but to that which lies spread out before sense perception, so long they have not come to this wrong judgment. Of course, at that time people did not judge their descent from their intellect, but they judged from their natural, straight sense of truth. They looked at the monkey and felt that peculiar feeling which every healthy sense feels when it looks at the monkey, and which can be compared with nothing else than with a certain feeling of shame. And this feeling of shame was truer than what the erring mind said afterwards. In this feeling of shame lay the emotional judgment that the ape is actually a being that has fallen away from the human current, that it is a retarded being, that it originated from the human line and had to be separated. So there was the feeling that man could only have reached his present height by first having to separate from himself that which has become the present ape form. If he had kept it, he could never have become man. That lies in the natural, healthy feeling. Then the things were investigated by the intellect, and there the error was shown by the intellect that man said that the human form originated from the ape current! This is an error. The further you think, the more you will find how deeply justified is exactly what has just been said. That man descends from the ape is a mistake ...“ (Lit.:GA 115, p. 81ff)

The biogenetic basic law, if it is understood correctly, is based on a general spiritual principle of development, which is especially significant for the understanding of the entire human evolution:

„Everything that appears at a certain time in the evolution of mankind, in order to continue this evolution of mankind, must in a certain respect contain within itself a kind of repetition of the earlier. In every later epoch the earlier experiences of mankind must emerge again in a different form.“ (Lit.:GA 144, p. 63)


References to the work of Rudolf Steiner follow Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works (CW or GA), Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach/Switzerland, unless otherwise stated.
Email: URL:
Index to the Complete Works of Rudolf Steiner - Aelzina Books
A complete list by Volume Number and a full list of known English translations you may also find at Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works
Rudolf Steiner Archive - The largest online collection of Rudolf Steiner's books, lectures and articles in English.
Rudolf Steiner Audio - Recorded and Read by Dale Brunsvold - Anthroposophic Press Inc. (USA)
Rudolf Steiner Handbook - Christian Karl's proven standard work for orientation in Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works for free download as PDF.