McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts
recapitulation, evolution, ontogeny, phylogeny, metapsychology, psychoanalysis, recapitulationism, biogenetic law, death drive, triune brain
This cross-disciplinary dissertation provides a missing intellectual history of an ostensibly dead idea. Once widely held and no less elegant for its obsolescence, the principle of biogenetic recapitulation is best remembered by its defining mantra, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” Among psychologists and sociologists as well as embryologists, the notion that the development of any individual organism repeats in compressed, miniaturized form the entire history of its species enjoyed broad (if not uncontested) acceptance through the early twentieth century. The author reexamines the origins of this theory in the work of Charles Darwin and Ernst Haeckel, and traces its influence in psychology from early psychoanalytic theory to late twentieth-century evolutionary neuroscience. It is argued that recapitulationism (or the “biogenetic law”) appealed to psychological theorists for its moral and affective implications, rather than its scientific merit or usefulness in generating testable hypotheses. Central to this study is an emphasis on the use of recapitulationism to critique doctrines of evolutionary and social progress. The dissertation concludes that for contemporary neuroscientists no less than early psychoanalysts, the ghost of phylogeny, or the evolutionary past, is most often summoned to explain worrisome and unexpected disruptions in normal human development—especially when those disruptions emerge within what is taken to be the height of modernity.
Pittenger, F. (2017). Phylogeny, Psychology, and the Vicissitudes of Human Development: The Anxiety of Atavism (Doctoral dissertation, Duquesne University). Retrieved from https://dsc.duq.edu/etd/192
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