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Re: Ontogeny and phylogeny

A Letter from Richard Bassetti
Editor's note



From: "Richard Bassetti" bass@mail.bright.net
To: publisher@naturalscience.com
Subject: Ontogeny and phylogeny
Date: Mon, 30 Nov 1998 14:26:53 -0500
Published: Mon, 7 Dec 1998


More on Haeckel's Dictum

Sir:

Haeckel's quote,"Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny," is in my opinion, more than the mere assertion of "a rather broad relationship between individual development and species evolution" (your comment in response to a request for the source of Haeckel's dictum).

Scientists, and especially evolutionists, are detectives. It is rare indeed for the detective to be present during the commission of a crime. Oftentimes, the crime has been committed long before the arrival of the detective. The job of the detective is to accumulate as much evidence as he can in order to create a picture of the crime and how it may have happened. The smart criminal does not leave behind an explanation of how things were done. The detective accumulates clues, follows some leads to dead ends and others that go on and on. Sometimes, though, the correct path is found and an arrest is made and the crime is solved.

The evolutionist is a detective who arrives on the scene a very long time after the events of interest have occurred. There are no witnesses, no answers written, just clues. There is the fossil record in the rocks from which it is possible to establish the chronological sequence of life-forms from the pre-Cambrian era to the present day. There are likenesses in form and anatomy among succeeding and contemporaneous organisms that suggest evolutionary divergence or convergence. There are DNA sequence comparisons that reveal in great detail similarities and divergences in the genetic make-up of organisms.

Other clues include the embryological ones that Haeckel referred to. Fish, reptiles and mammals look very different in their adult forms. During early development, however, there are many similarities. By studying embryonic development, one easily sees what Haeckel's rather short but to the point quote is stating.



Editor's note:

We agree with the writer concerning the importance of comparative embryology in evolutionary studies. The skepticism of our earlier comment on Haeckel's dictum reflected the doubts raised about the validity of Haeckel's particular claims, some of which, it is now believed, were fraudulent. For example, Dr. Michael K. Richardson, of the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology, St. Georges Hospital Medical School, in London, England stated in a letter to Science Magazine (1) that:

Haeckel's drawings of 1874 (2) are substantially fabricated. In support of this view, I note that his oldest "fish" image is made up of bits and pieces from different animals--some of them mythical. It is not unreasonable to characterize this as "faking." Latter editions of Haeckel's drawings were somewhat more accurate, and showed significant variations among embryos of different species. Sadly, it is the discredited 1874 drawing that are used in so many British and American biology textbooks today.

Thus, Haeckel's statement that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny should not be taken too literally; although as Richard Bassetti is correct to note, it draws attention to an important source of evidence about evolutionary history.

References

(1) Michael K. Richardson. 1998. Haeckel's embryos continued. Science 281:1289.

(2) E. Haeckel. 1874. Anthropogenie. Engelmann, Leipzig.


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