Graeme −> Language −> Words and Wisdom −> Sayings −> Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny 

Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny

"Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" is a catchy phrase coined by Ernst Haeckel, a 19th century German biologist and philosopher to mean that the development of an organism (ontogeny) expresses all the intermediate forms of its ancestors throughout evolution (phylogeny).   His theory was later proved wrong, but the catch phrase remains.

I'm ashamed to admit that for many years, I had a page of this website that misquoted Ernst Haeckel as having said, "Ontology recapitulates phylogeny".  Then, on June 11, 2004, I received an email from Richard Cranford saying,

Ernst Haeckel most certainly did not coin the phrase "ontology recapitulates phylogeny."  Ontology is the branch of metaphysics that deals with the nature of being.  What Haeckel said is that ontogeny--the development of an individual organism from embryo to adult--recapitulates phylogeny.

Can you see the egg on my face?

I wondered where in the world I could have gotten the ridiculous idea that Ontology was the thing that recapitulated phylogeny, so I did a Google search for the phrase (in quotes), "Ontology recapitulates phylogeny" and, can you believe it?  I got results from 67 different websites (including my own!).  Some of the websites were blogs and message boards, so the website owner doesn't endorse the views expressed on it, and so there's no point in emailing him with a correction.  But I did email many of the others, pointing out the error.

Michael Anton Parker sent me an email asking why this very web page you are now reading skirted all around the fact that Willard Van Orman Quine, the American philosopher, (and not Timothy Leary) invented this corruption of Haeckel's quote.

Mike wrote: It's plain remarkable that your webpage gets so close to touching on this special topic, but gives the impression of innocent unawareness!  Talk about a convoluted affair!  For the record, now that I understand the historical context to Quine's phrase, I find the original version only moderately interesting, while finding my awe at the profundity of Quine's phrase doubled upon realizing such an insight could fit into a shape chiseled for unrelated purposes.

[Isn't that pretty?  No?  Then reread that last paragraph, you ingrate!]

I wrote,

> I think the "ontogeny" quote came first, as part of the now discredited
> theory proposed by Haeckel.

Mike replied: By all means, absolutely, yes. The "ontology" version was a clearly intentional allusion to the 19th century quote reflecting the concerns of 20th century formal philosophy.  I pointed out,

> I have seen the "ontology" quote attributed to Timothy Leary. But a quick
> google search brings up a number of pages attributing it to Quine -- I see
> another chapter [which you are now reading] of my web page on the horizon!
> Thanks for the info.

Mike replied: There's no chance whatsoever the quote is due to Leary. The chronology alone rules it out. Since writing to you, I've verified that Quine himself attributed it to James Grier Miller, but it would appear that the quote's currency owes to Quine's fame and that Quine virtually deserves to get credit for the quote, despite actually acquiring it from Miller. I have no idea who Miller is. I hope to learn more about the matter eventually though.

Here's a partial summary of the websites with this same goof [or, perhaps this intentional or unintentional tipping of the hat to Quine]:

Jerry's Quarry and Lost Pencil Areas / The Galapagos / Ontology ...
... Ontology Recapitulates Phylogeny - 5.11b A1 FA: unknown New Route: no
Number:0, ...

I posted a comment on the website's message board, asking for them to check whether this rock-climbing route is really called "Ontology recapitulates..."

FoRK Archive: BISCA-97.
... ) Still, it points out how painfully unaware of so many aspects of knowledge
representation I am... All I know is, ontology recapitulates phylogeny. ...

This message, in the Friends of Rohit Khare archive is making a joke, I think.  In any case, the message is all about ontology, and includes a fairly nifty definition of it:

The subject of ontology is the study of the categories of things that exist or may exist.  The product of such a study, called an ontology, is a catalog of the types of things that are assumed to exist in some domain of interest from the perspective of a person who uses some language (natural or artificial) for the purpose of talking about that domain.  The types in the ontology represent the predicates, word senses, or concept and relation types of the language used to discuss topics in the domain.

SENIOR EXAMINATIONS Spring, 1999 Examination Time: 2 hours Answer ...
... 1. From the claim of the romantics of the relation between the macroscopic and microscopic
worlds, to Ernst Haeckl's "ontology recapitulates phylogeny" and van ...

I sent an email to the seven professors of the philosophy department of this university suggesting they correct this misquote, and asking if they also misspelled Haeckel's name.

[PPT] The Science of Life
File Format: Microsoft Powerpoint 97
... history. The saying “ontology recapitulates phylogeny” addresses
the age old problem - which came first - the chicken or the egg. ...

This PowerPoint presentation, created by the Wilmington Area High School science teacher, Mrs. White, defines ontology incorrectly as "the study of an individual's biological history (development)".  On the next slide, the presentation misquotes a saying as "ontology recapitulates phylogeny", without attributing the saying to anyone.  Maybe Mrs. White found the error on my web page!  I sent the principal an email.

BJP -- Sims 179 (6): 558
... Man (1871). He is now perhaps best remembered for his ‘biogenetic
law’ (ie that ontology recapitulates phylogeny). For human ...

I sent in a reply to the article to try to set the record straight.  However, the reply mechanism asks for an email address, which is then posted on the Internet.  Since I'm not willing to get all the spam that would engender, I used a false email address.  Sorry.

Rocky Road: Ernst Haeckel
... Haeckel championed the notion of "ontology recapitulates phylogeny," in other words,
the development of an individual shows the evolutionary history of its ...

This very brief biography of Haeckel begins,

In a letter to her son in the 1870s, Emma Darwin, the great naturalist's wife, wrote that a recent guest was "very nice and hearty and affectionate, but he bellowed out his bad English in such a voice that he nearly deafened us."  The guest was Ernst Haeckel.  An early and ardent proponent of Darwinism, Ernst Haeckel worked for a time as a doctor before toying with the idea of becoming a scientist — or a landscape painter.  He ultimately chose science, though his brand of science was highly speculative.

It goes on to criticize Haeckel for his racist ideas, such as the idea that humans comprised 12 species, with one superior to the others.  Can you guess which species Haeckel belonged to?

The Theory Of Common Descent
... Ontology recapitulates phylogeny"; Fetal development; Biogeography; Agreement between
different kinds of evidence; Why have no new major groups appeared recently? ...

PBS's Evolution Series is Propoganda, not Science: Gilder, Josh
... embryos showing that all vertebrates pass through almost identical stages in development
(the source of the famous phrase, "ontology recapitulates phylogeny"). ...

Disguised as a harsh critique of the Public Broadcasting System's Evolution series, this article presents the "rational" argument (as opposed to the religious one) against evolution.  Cleverly written by a former Reagan speech writer, Josh Gilder, the article takes pains to distance itself from the religious right.  Instead, it points out that Darwin didn't get it exactly right, that efforts to recreate evolution in the lab have failed, and that, like a car engine, a cell has interconnecting moving parts which could not have evolved separately, and which could not have sprung into existence all at once, either.  Modern scientists have uncovered some errors in Darwin's original theory, but these modern ideas are simply not presented in the TV series.  For example, Michael Behe, a molecular biologist at Lehigh University, published a book in 1996 entitled Darwin's Black Box that raised new and interesting theoretical objections to Darwinism.  And, in 2000, U.C. Berkeley Ph.D. biologist Jonathan Wells published his groundbreaking Icons of Evolution, which dismantles the "proofs" of evolution, one by one.

Dr. Douglas O'Handley Lecture
... Ontology recapitulates phylogeny we will be able to study how life
would react in microgravity at any point in evolutionary history. ...

[PDF] 29 - 1 Lecture * µ (r) rR (r) dominated by small lobe (n ...
File Format: PDF/Adobe Acrobat
... Page 4. 29 - 4 5.73 Lecture #29 updated September 19, 4. Do all of this more rigorously:
QDT Mulliken: “ontology recapitulates phylogeny” intra-core nodal ...

This page quotes Mulliken as having said this phrase.  Maybe he did, because Haeckel sure didn't say it.  I sent "Feedback" to the MIT chemistry department.

Out of the Teeming Sea: Influences
... Biologists may know Haeckel for his statement "Ontology recapitulates phylogeny,"
but the general public is more familiar with his stunning drawings of related ...

... and throw it away. My story is a good illustration of the old saying:
"ontology recapitulates phylogeny". In my own evolutionary ...

Stephen Caesar's Articles
... To "prove" the greater myth of evolution, Haeckel invented the lesser myth known
as "ontology recapitulates phylogeny." In a nutshell, he claimed that ...

"Another Evolution Fraud Exposed" presents the argument that since Haeckel was a fraud, and he believed in evolution, then it follows that evolution is wrong.  If this "logic" holds water, then I suppose all I need to do to discredit Creationism is to find one false statement in Stephen Caesar's article!

SSSITALK Archives, June, 1999 - Present: Dreaming.
... thinking the old model, trying to integrate the theory-methods-substantive model,
maybe into a cohort model where ontology recapitulates phylogeny or something ...

This is a short but rambling plea for a deep discussion on the topic of dreaming.  It was written by Donna Darden, who exhorts us to put the fun back into dysfunctional.

One Hand Clapping: The Tao of Music - Page 29
... As ontology recapitulates phylogeny in the development of the foetus, each
successive stage in evolution is incorporated into the next stage. ...

This is an article designed to lure the reader to a web page where psychic readings can be given via email.

[PDF] Theories on the Evolution of Language I. Overview
File Format: PDF/Adobe Acrobat
... Notes: • “Ontology recapitulates phylogeny”— Evolutionarily prior stages
of an organism are frequently replicated in the development of an immature ...

Katherine Crosswhite thanked me for the email I sent her to tell her of this mistake, and went on: I do actually know both of those words, so I am embarrassed to have gotten them mixed up.  I don't know how that happened.  Have you looked for any mistakes in the opposite direction, such as philosophers mistakenly referring to Descarte's "ontogenetic argument"? ("I grow, therefore I am"? ;-)

I replied, no, I didn't search for misuse of ontogeny where the author meant ontology.  But another kind of reverse mistake would be "ontogeny recapitulates phylology".  The only trouble is "phylology" isn't a word.  The closest word is philology. "Ontogeny recapitulates philology" would mean the biological development of an organism parallels the comprehensive study of language, a mistake no sillier than the one you and I both made in our websites.  But there was not a single instance of this twist anywhere in the Land of Google.  Interestingly, there was one website containing the phrase with the non-word phylology -- a deep and pompous tome called A Frozen City of Ideas.

There you go, Here we are.
... 4. Wild Blackberries, n/a, fake swedish folk song, no data. 5. I Remember. mb, ontology
recapitulates phylogeny, no data. 6. Yoo Doo right, n/a, the Can classic, no data. ...

This website tries to sell a CD called "There", which contains a number of songs, including "I Remember", which is described on this website as "ontology recapitulates phylogeny".

File Format: PDF/Adobe Acrobat
... Yet Haeckel’s concept that “ontology recapitulates phylogeny” (that is, the
development of an individual embryo “relives” the supposed evolutionary ...

Written by a confirmed creationist, this essay describes the authors efforts to find a suitable new name for Mt. Darwin and other landmarks that have been named after evolutionists.

Einstein's God 7101
... We can organize religions in order of increasing sophistication by
using the principle that "Ontology recapitulates Phylogeny". ...

This website is a hierarchically structured book entitled Einstein's God; the Science of Zen. It is a holistic view of human behavior including science, religion and enlightenment organized around a history of social evolution. Mr. Eklund includes this warning: The contents of Einstein's God and the Science of Zen are scientific in the best sense but it contains "new paradigms" that will not be accepted by the scientific establishment for another generation. In other words, and I say this with kindness, he's a crank and he admits it. That puts him head and shoulders above most cranks. Furthermore, although the converse isn't true, most great thinkers were regarded as cranks in their time.

An index of Karl Eklund's other writings can be found at, which has a lot of good stuff, including a photo of the author.

A Starter Web Page
... support life? Chance-- guided? Ontology recapitulates phylogeny; What
is wrong with Big Bang? Why couldn't God have used it? Sludge? Is ...

Christian Evidences
... Haekel stated that "ontology recapitulates phylogeny." In other words, the stages
of the development of an embryo repeat the various stages of evolutionary ...

Phrases and clauses: A ten minute tour
... I wonder whether ontology recapitulates phylogeny. [direct object].
Whatever is lurking under the bed has started to snore. [subject]. ...

This is a lesson on English usage that just uses the phrase as an illustration of grammar.  Still, it would be nice if they got the quote right. - Responding Evolutionist Propaganda in the ...
... Yet evolutionists have still not lost faith in the idea that "ontology recapitulates
phylogeny," and are trying to resuscitate this hoary old chestnut under ...

Another proud debunker of evolution.

Science 1000 Evolution - Tutorial and Review Questions
... scientific? 12. What do the terms "ontology recapitulates phylogeny" and
"descent with modification" refer to? Who coined these terms? 13. ...

Re: [Futurework] Two sorts of evolutionary economics
File Format: Unrecognized
... environment. As the biologists say, "In the womb, ontology recapitulates
phylogeny" (or the other way round -- I can never remember!). ...

The Gilbar Story
... college career, I came to understand two things: Ontology recapitulates
Phylogeny, in the social sphere as well as the physical. ...

Med magazine
... Of organic chemistry and embryology, I remember benzene rings, the ortho-, para-
and meta-positions, that "ontology recapitulates phylogeny," and something ...

Spiral Dynamics
... Ontology recapitulates phylogeny" is an old dictum indicating that
each of us in our development relives the growth of our species. ...

[PDF] The Healing Breath
File Format: PDF/Adobe Acrobat
Page 1. The Healing Breath, Volume 2, No. 1, January 2000 1 7KH +HDOLQJ %UHDWK

GNP FAQ - References
... It has been axiomatic since Haeckel that ontology recapitulates phylogeny —that
the individual in Hir development repeats, step-by-step, the evolution of the ...

Society, Technology and Culture
... She confirms the notion of “ontology recapitulates phylogeny” when she
makes a connection to the philosophical perspective on technology. ...

[PDF] Gl obal In sp ir at io n Co nfe re nc e – 19 9 9
File Format: PDF/Adobe Acrobat
... Ontology recapitulates phylogeny” is an old dictum indicating that
each of us in our development relives the growth of our species. ...

The Extended Mind
... line. Ontology recapitulates phylogeny as the system moves through all
of the state of stability through which it once passed. Languages ...

you think it's like this, but it's really like this.
... (I have a whole theory on the evolution of dancing, and it fits nicely into the
whole "ontology recapitulates phylogeny" thing, but I think I'll save it for ...

This blog gives a high school girl's view of life, including an encounter with a fox on an over-watered suburban lawn, and her theories of the evolution of dancing.  After I brought this "ontology" error to her attention, she called me "Sir", which cut me to the quick.  She continued, "I know the difference between ontology and ontogeny.  It was a simple flub, as when somebody as miscegeny when meaning misogyny."  I replied in a way I hope was kind, saying, in part that I did enjoy reading the blog.  I pointed out that if she wants to start a pseudo-scientific journal, she'll have to compete with, which is already in existence.  By the way, I couldn't find miscegeny in any dictionary.  However, the dictionary of obscure words defines "miscegene" as a "person of mixed racial heritage".  So would I be right in guessing that miscegeny is the practice of bringing into the world persons of mixed racial heritage?

I never received a reply from the girl who wrote the blog, but John, an attorney researching miscegeny laws wrote,

I enjoyed your page on ontogeny vs. ontology ... I think you might find it interesting that I found your site with a google search involving "miscegeny."  I think that it is interesting that this page of your web site is high in the google returns for the word "miscegeny.".  I am an attorney in Louisiana and I was specifically doing a little research into out miscegeny laws ... interesting how miscegeny is indeed mistaken for misogyny.  It happen a lot!  Again, I enjoyed your web site.


I replied,

Yes, I do find it interesting (and fun) that my website is high in the ranking for this and various other obscure words.  This particular word, miscegeny, ranks me pretty high because, as near as I can tell, it's not a word.  (If it were a word, I theorize it would mean "the practice of bringing into the world persons of mixed racial heritage".  I guess there are laws against this in some states.)  Other non-words in my website, such as "hunnerd", rank me pretty high, too.  My website has been around for almost a decade now, and many of its pages are so full of "crap" that many people link to them with titles like "click here for a really uninformed opinion on gun control" and the like.  This, and the fact that the site contains way over a thousand pages, with more added weekly, tends to make me rise in the rankings.  Being linked-to is like publicity: say anything you want, but spell my name correctly!  Almost all the people who visit my site come from Google.  Three years ago, yahoo was my biggest referrer.  Three years before that, it was altavista.  (I still remember the days when altavista was, which truly dates me in the Internet age, since Digital has since been swallowed, twice, by bigger fish Compaq and then HP.)  Queries for obscure things bring thousands of people every day to my site, which makes me almost famous in an obscure sort of way.  I estimate that about 0.1% of the people who visit my site send me an email, which I always appreciate.  I appreciate this email you sent me almost as much as I appreciate the ones that say I am a [biological function deleted] [anatomical reference redacted] [lifestyle preference excised]!

Look hard at Embryology
Look hard at Embryology. Yup, that’s right, Ontology Recapitulates Phylogeny!! ...

Evolution and Morphogenesis
... If indeed "Ontology recapitulates phylogeny" is a useful descriptive principle, then
evolution and morphogenesis would be expected to have a tight relationship ...

... Some developmental theorists such as the radical branch of German Herbartianism
emphasized the "ontology recapitulates phylogeny" argument, suggesting that ...

Seymour Papert: Microworlds
... Finally, as Piaget consistently reminded us, the biologist's maxim that ontology
recapitulates phylogeny has at least a metaphorically suggestive analog here ...

... Or as they say in biology, ‘Ontology recapitulates phylogeny.’ …Warren McCulloch,
one of the fathers of neuro-computing preferred a heterarchy of values ...

Key Theorists/Theories in Psychology - G. STANLEY HALL
... Through all of this, Hall is also important for his work with the child study
movement with his emphasis that ontology recapitulates phylogeny. ...

... Timothy Leary adapted this quote to say 'ontology recapitulates phylogeny', that
is, that the development of an individual's world view (ontology) mirrors the ...

This website got the phrase right, "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny".  In other words, the website continues, the developing human fetus goes through stages of development which mirror the development of the human species, taking on various forms such as tadpole-like, to reptilian, to monkey-like and so on.  Timothy Leary adapted this quote to say 'ontology recapitulates phylogeny', that is, that the development of an individual's world view (ontology) mirrors the development of the species."

I was not aware that Timothy Leary used the word Ontology intentionally in a corruption of this famous piece of misinformation.  I must say the use of the word "ontology" to mean "world view" is really quite a stretch. According to Digital Polytheism, by Timothy Leary and Eric Gullichsen, ontology recapitulates theology, which means our understanding of knowledge parallels the study of God and his relationship to man.  Maybe Timothy Leary said both things.

21st-An NLP Primer on Spirituality
... Or as they say in biology, “Ontology recapitulates phylogeny.” Hence
we have the precedent for Robert Dilts’ Neurological Levels. ...


From: on behalf of Andrew John Farrow ...
... can find the coining of the terms "ecology", "phylogeny", and "phylum." A contemporary
of Darwin, the phrases "ontology recapitulates phylogeny" and "politics ...

Study Guide Sheets
... Do more different kinds of animals exist on land or in the ocean? 4. What
is meant by "ontology recapitulates phylogeny" (not in your text). ...

Atheists of Britain - Atheist Humour
... that during its embryological development an organism repeats its ancestral history,
or to use Haeckels own way of putting it, 'ontology recapitulates phylogeny ...

The Rude Macedon
... (an interesting thing about it all - in biology we learn that "ontology recapitulates
phylogeny" (something like that - it's late and I don't have time to ...

The Evolution of a Great-Big Headache (MushroomExpert.Com)
... For a brief diversion, notice how the Column Modifications theory here appears to
give credence to the "ontology recapitulates phylogeny" idea, first asserted ...

File Format: PDF/Adobe Acrobat
... G. Stanley Hall, an educator and anthropologist, provided the premise that ontology
recapitulates phylogeny, or in other words, the development of the ...

Rev. Leander S. Harding Ph.D.'s Journal
... the hopes of desperate people. In High School Biology class I learned
that ontology recapitulates phylogeny. That means that the ...

AW! Discussion Pages 048. From AC. Askwhy! Publications.
... ago. He was an enthusiast for evolution and saw in the growth of embryos
what he called “ontology recapitulates phylogeny". In ...

... Recapitulates phylogeny to the extent I am still scratching my head - about to step
into a crosswalk for which I had a green light to proceed, a guy in a late ...

[PDF] Arctic Village “Most Wired” On Earth
File Format: PDF/Adobe Acrobat
Page 1. Willem Barents didn’t set out to discover new land, but that’s
what he is remem- bered for. At age 45 he was one of the ...

The Desert of the Real
... In the same way that ontology recapitulates phylogeny we see that dynamics
of complex systems create similar trends in dissimilar bodies. ...

I would dearly love to have this page listed first by Google for the phrase "Ontology Recapitulates Phylogeny" so I'll repeat the phrase just one more time: Ontology Recapitulates Phylogeny.