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The “Biogenetic Law” in zoology: from Ernst Haeckel’s formulation to current approaches

Abstract

150 years ago, in 1866, Ernst Haeckel published a book in two volumes called “Generelle Morphologie der Organismen” (General Morphology of Organisms) in which he formulated his biogenetic law, famously stating that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. Here we describe Haeckel’s original idea and follow its development in the thinking of two scientists inspired by Haeckel, Alexei Sewertzoff and Adolf Naef. Sewertzoff and Naef initially approached the problem of reformulating Haeckel’s law in similar ways, and formulated comparable hypotheses at a purely descriptive level. But their theoretical viewpoints were crucially different. While Sewertzoff laid the foundations for a Darwinian evolutionary morphology and is regarded as a forerunner of the Modern Synthesis, Naef was one of the most important figures in ‘idealistic morphology’, usually seen as a type of anti-Darwinism. Both Naef and Sewertzoff aimed to revise Haeckel’s biogenetic law and came to comparable conclusions at the empirical level. We end our review with a brief look at the present situation in which molecular data are used to test the “hour-glass model”, which can be seen as a modern version of the biogenetic law.

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Notes

  1. German original: „Ich acquirierte das Schwein sofort, ließ dem Niederstechen die Pfoten Abhacken u. schickte dieselben an Darwin“. Courtesy: Otto Zacharias in a letter to Ernst Haeckel, 21 May, 1877; Archive of the Ernst-Haeckel-House in Jena, correspondence Haeckel.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (Grant No. HO 2143, 9-2) and the KLI (Konrad-Lorenz-Institut) in Altenberg, Austria. for their support of our research into the history of EvoDevo. LO’s empirical EvoDevo research is funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (Grant No. OL 134/2-4). The Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena is thanked for granting LO a sabbatical leave. GSL is thankful for support from the Russian Foundation for Basic Research, Project 16-03-00555.

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Correspondence to Lennart Olsson.

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Dedicated to the memory of Olaf Breidbach.

This article forms part of a special issue of Theory in Biosciences in commemoration of Olaf Breidbach.

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Olsson, L., Levit, G.S. & Hoßfeld, U. The “Biogenetic Law” in zoology: from Ernst Haeckel’s formulation to current approaches. Theory Biosci. 136, 19–29 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12064-017-0243-4

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Keywords

  • Ontogeny
  • Phylogeny
  • Heterochrony
  • Atavisms
  • Homeobox