In order to supposedly prove his unscientific theory, Ernst Haeckel falsified drawings, trying to make fish and human embryos resemble each other. When this fraud was unmasked, his defense was that other evolutionists had done the same kind of thing.2
Yet the imaginary scenario that Haeckel backed up with forged drawings laid a seemingly scientific foundation for racism in a great many countries, particularly in Germany.
According to the claims of the theory of recapitulation, the features possessed by a human at the embryonic stage or in early childhood are left over from evolutionary adult ancestors. For example, Haeckel and his followers maintained that a “civilized” child possessed the same intelligence and behavioral characteristics as a “savage” adult, and used these claims to prove the superiority of the white race. In his book Ever Since Darwin, Stephen Jay Gould summarizes the support that the theory of recapitulation provided for racism:
Recapitulation was Haeckel's favorite argument… Haeckel and his colleagues also invoked recapitulation to affirm the racial superiority of northern European whites, ... Herbert Spencer wrote that “the intellectual traits of the uncivilized… are traits recurring in the children of the civilized.” Carl Vogt said it more strongly in 1864: “The grown up Negro partakes, as regards his intellectual faculties, of the nature of the child…”3
Of course, this claim put forward by Spencer, Vogt and others did not reflect the truth in any way. These claims were gradually invalidated by science itself and abandoned. In his The Panda's Thumb, Gould wrote:
This theory, often expressed by the mouthful “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” held that higher animals, in their embryonic development, pass through a series of stages representing, in proper sequence, the adult forms of ancestral, lower creatures. ... Recapitulation provided a convenient focus for the pervasive racism of white scientists...4
Professor George J. Stein, director of the International Security Studies Core at the Air War College, published an article headed “Biological Science and the Roots of Nazism” in American Scientist. “In essence,” he wrote, “Haeckel and his fellow social Darwinists advanced the ideas that were to become the core assumptions of national socialism,”5 thus summarizing the deadly relationship between Haeckel, Social Darwinism and racism.
1. Keith S. Thompson, "Ontogeny and Phylogeny Recapitulated," American Scientist, vol. 76, May/June 1988, p. 273.
2. Francis Hitching, The Neck of the Giraffe: Where Darwin Went Wrong, New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1982, p. 204.
3. Stephen Jay Gould, "Racism and Recapitulation," chapter 27 of Ever Since Darwin, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1977, p. 217.
4. Stephen Jay Gould, The Panda's Thumb, New York:W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1992, p. 163.
5. George J. Stein, "Biological Science and the Roots of Nazism," American Scientist, vol. 76, Jan/Feb. 1988, p. 56.