Reference Work Entry

Encyclopedia of Critical Psychology

pp 1280-1283

Ontogeny, Overview

  • Nicolás Robles LópezAffiliated withUniversidad de Buenos Aires Email author 


The concept of ontogeny is closely related to the concept of phylogeny. As microcosm and macrocosm, they were used by Greek philosophers, but they became scientific concepts in the beginning of modernity with the development of the capitalist society. Biology was the main field where the battle about the relationship between ontogeny and phylogeny took place. Haeckel’s biogenetic law was one of the milestones of this battle. His theory of the recapitulation of phylogeny in ontogeny was a central issue also in psychology. An extreme example of the use of this theory was the Freudian psychoanalysis, which tried to solve the problem without including a serious analysis of the society in its postulation. Development and genesis in psychology were the main concepts in this discussion. The sociogenesis, the role of the society in the individuation of the human being, and the laws of the society were the solution found by some psychologists and theorists to this problem.


Ontogeny is the individual’s life history and phylogeny is the evolutionary history of a lineage (Gould, 1977/2010). The recapitulation is one of the different relationships between these two types of histories. In Haeckel’s biogenetic law, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny; the ancestral adult stages are repeated in the embryonic stages of descendants.

The American psychologist James Mark Baldwin (1861–1934) was a pioneer in genetic psychology. Individual psychology and psychology of the race were included in his genetic psychology (Baldwin, 1895/1920). Baldwin went beyond the description of the phenomenon and used the genesis to explain the psychological functions. He was a supporter of the theory of the recapitulation of the history of the race in the individual development. But he also added some variations in this theory. The first variation was that laws of habit and accommodation and adaptation could shorten the development. So, ontogeny shortens phylogeny. The second variation was the slow development of the child. Intrauterine and extrauterine periods of the human being are longer than the same periods in instinctive animals. This was the largest exception of the recapitulation theory because the child had to adapt to the natural and artificial conditions of the intellectual and social environment of the adult.

Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) was another supporter of the recapitulation theory (Gould, 1977/2010). Freud was also a Lamarckist because he believed that the acquired characteristics were transmitted to descendants. Yet Freud did not make any exception to the analogy between the individual development and the phylogenetic development. His theory is the classic recapitulation theory transferred to the field of psychology. So the explanation of the history of the civilization and the monotheistic religion is based on the psychological facts of the development of the child and the neurotics. The concept of history in Freud is reduced to individual processes. This confusion between biological and social aspects can be seen in the factors that explain the genesis of the superego. There are two biological factors: the first one is the helplessness and the dependence of the human being during his long childhood; the second one, which is considered later by Freud as a historical factor, is the Oedipus complex, a specific human condition inherited in the development towards the culture inflicted in the Ice Age (Freud, 1923/2006).

The genetic psychology of Jean Piaget (1896–1980) was created to substantiate his genetic epistemology. Piaget was a biologist but he was interested in how science moves from a state of less knowledge to one of greater knowledge. The lack of historical documents that could be used to know the historical genesis of scientific knowledge was the reason why Piaget researched ontogenesis. In his psychogenesis of knowledge, there was a parallelism between ontogenesis and phylogenesis but he was not a supporter of the theory of recapitulation (Gould, 1977/2010). Gould argues that Piaget is framed within the theory of correspondence; ontogeny and phylogeny are parallel processes restricted by external limitations which inflict a similar order to both processes. However, Piaget (1977) also considered the behavior as the driving force of evolution. This biological aspect of Piaget’s work implies the concept of organizing evolution. Through the mechanisms of assimilation and accommodation, the organism expands its capacity for action. The action of the organism towards the environment and the reciprocal relations with the internal mechanisms of the organism are the driving force in Piaget’s theory of evolution. Nevertheless, the variational evolution, which involves the modifications of the already formed genetic and epigenetic systems, exists and is complementary to the organizing evolution.

Finally, the work of Soviet psychologist Lev Vigotski (1896–1934) was another way of thinking the relationship between ontogeny and phylogeny. In his review of all the types of relationships he considered, there were four main currents in evolutive psychology (Vigotski, 1927/1998a). The theory of recapitulation and the theory of selection were the ones which would not have place in psychology. On the other side, the theory of correspondence and the theory of sociogenesis would agree with the general laws of psychology. According to the point of view of Vigotski, these two theories should unite in one theory. This new theory could take into account the process of development of the child with its series of stages and the social conditioning of the human biology (sociogenesis). Vigotski argues that the pedagogic conclusion of the theory of recapitulation was reactionary because an educational theory based on this theory would force the child to experience the different stages of development that humankind already left behind. On the contrary, the author supports Groos’s theory which states that the biological importance of the play in the childhood is that it prepares the children for the future, rather than living a remote past.

Critical Debates

In psychology, the problem of ontogenesis and phylogenesis is crossed by the mediation of the society in the development of the child. The theory that does not understand this difference between the development of the animals and the human beings falls in the theory of the recapitulation of phylogenesis. Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of history is based on the individual. This methodological individualism implies a short conception of history, which is reduced to the individual or his family. The core of the society in Freud is the family (Oedipus complex), and this is reified as the beginning of the society, since the primitive horde until today (Gould, 1977/2010). There is little space for change and innovation in this theory because everything is reduced to an ancient past that continues to the present.

The case of Piagetian theory is more complex than the psychoanalytic theory because Piaget did not support the theory of recapitulation. Gould argues that Piaget’s theory is framed in the theory of the correspondence, the same that Vigotski posits as necessary for psychology but united with the theory of sociogenesis. Vigotski’s critique of the early Piagetian conception of language follows the same unitary direction. The speech does not follow an inner-outer direction, from individual to social forms; first it is a social type of relationship and then an interiorized individual form. Beyond this, Piaget’s theory changed since its early conceptions, including the interaction of the organism with its environment. His concept of organizing evolution is related to the dialectic relationship between the organism and the environment (Lewontin, Rose & Kamin, 1984/2009). This means that the organism determinates its own environment through its actions; the organism creates its own environment. This implies that organism and environment, individual and society, cannot be separated.

The theory of sociogenesis in Vigotski’s theory is founded in the Marxist interpretation of society. He argues that the biological laws of evolution in the human being, struggle for life and natural selection, have less relevance in the historical development of the man (Vigotski, 1930/1998b). The law of the historical development of man considers that the human beings are created by the society they live in, and the society is the determinant factor in the genesis of their personalities. The French philosopher Lucien Sève (1974), retrieving the point raised by Politzer, poses that Freud’s mistake is that he does not realize that the secret of the human facts is not psychological. The secret is that the human being is a social being who objectifies his existence, who works. The objects produced by the man are accumulated through history, and then every single biological individual has to assimilate this external heritage. Sève calls this process social decentration of the human essence. Against a vulgar conception of the genesis, he posits that, in the process of development of the human being, there is a dual specificity. First, the human being does not engage in the essential relationships, the relations of production; he engages in unessential relationships like family or school relations. Then, it takes place a biographical displacement of the essence when the human being engages in the relations of production. This implies a qualitative change in the human biography between the child structure of the psyche and the structure of the developed personality. This dialectic conception of the relations also includes the differences between the rhythms of each particular relation.

These dialectic conceptions of the relations between ontogenesis, phylogenesis, and sociogenesis are opposed to the psychological theories that support the theory of recapitulation. Organism and environment, individual and society, cannot be separated. When they are separated, there are educational and political consequences. The pedagogical consequences are that adults in charge of the education of the children will not try to guide their development because it is considered a repetition of the past stages of the humanity. The political consequences are related to the incapacity to change the environment by the organism or the society by the individual. If the developmental psychology tries to explain the innovation in ontogenesis, it has to be aware of the dialectical relationship between the individual and the society; in this case, the children and his family and school environment are also determined by the relations of production. To accomplish this aim, a systemic and dialectic approach of the development is necessary (Baquero & Castorina, 2005), where the variables are not isolated but considered in its mutual and reciprocal relations.

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