Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny was Haeckel's answer--the wrong one--to the most vexing question of nineteenth-century biology: what is the relationship between individual development (ontogeny) and the evolution of species and lineages (phylogeny)? In this, the first major book on the subject in fifty years, Stephen Gould documents the history of the idea of recapitulation from its first appearance among the pre-Socratics to its fall in the early twentieth century. Mr. Gould explores recapitulation as an idea that intrigued politicians and theologians as well as scientists. He shows that Haeckel's hypothesis--that human fetuses with gill slits are, literally, tiny fish, exact replicas of their water-breathing ancestors--had an influence that extended beyond biology into education, criminology, psychoanalysis (Freud and Jung were devout recapitulationists), and racism. The theory of recapitulation, Gould argues, finally collapsed not from the weight of contrary data, but because the rise of Mendelian genetics rendered it untenable. Turning to modern concepts, Gould demonstrates that, even though the whole subject of parallels between ontogeny and phylogeny fell into disrepute, it is still one of the great themes of evolutionary biology. Heterochrony--changes in developmental timing, producing parallels between ontogeny and phylogeny--is shown to be crucial to an understanding of gene regulation, the key to any rapprochement between molecular and evolutionary biology. Gould argues that the primary evolutionary value of heterochrony may lie in immediate ecological advantages for slow or rapid maturation, rather than in long-term changes of form, as all previous theories proclaimed. Neoteny--the opposite of recapitulation--is shown to be the most important determinant of human evolution. We have evolved by retaining the juvenile characters of our ancestors and have achieved both behavioral flexibility and our characteristic morphology thereby (large brains by prolonged retention of rapid fetal growth rates, for example). Gould concludes that there may be nothing new under the sun, but permutation of the old within complex systems can do wonders. As biologists, we deal directly with the kind of material complexity that confers an unbounded potential upon simple, continuous changes in underlying processes. This is the chief joy of our science.
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The Belknap Press
Publisher: Harvard University Press
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US Kirkus Review »
Did you add a word to the title? Like a subliminal message, "recapitulates" will come reflexively to the mind of readers exposed to a biology course at one time or another. And indeed it is the point of this grand tome, a tour de force, to resurrect and revitalize - albeit with altered meaning - a concept that sent 19th-century scientists to the battlements. The argument that the German anatomist Ernst Haeckel formulated as a biogenetic law was that in embryological growth (ontogeny) organisms repeat the forms achieved by adult species which appeared earlier in evolution (phylogeny). Thus, the human embryo shows the gill slits of an adult fish at a certain stage. Developments in Mendelian genetics and biology demolished the theory. Yet the tantalizing analogy was never far from the surface, as Gould amusingly notes: when queried, colleagues would, figuratively, look both ways and whisper that they did think there was something in it. Gould's "something" has to do with the timing of development. He supports the neoteny theory that species may retain juvenile traits in maturity. Retardation in human evolution may account for the hypertrophy of the brain, erect posture, frontal copulation, and a host of other treats frequently adduced as quintessentially "us." These ideas are presented in detail and scholarly length. There is a rich historical development as well as the appeal to contemporary geneticists and molecular biologists who have traced the chromosomal similarities between apes and humans or who have studied regulatory genes and the timing of gene expression. The more sophisticated yearn for a skeleton key (for which Gould's popular writings, above, may help enormously). Nevertheless the ideas are beautifully worked out and elegantly expressed. It will be exciting to see whether once again biologists rush to the battlements. (Kirkus Reviews)
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Author Biography - Stephen Jay Gould
Stephen Jay Gould was the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology at Harvard University and Vincent Astor Visiting Professor of Biology at New York University. A MacArthur Prize Fellow, he received innumerable honors and awards and wrote many books, including Ontogeny and Phylogeny and Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle (both from Harvard).