What are We Humans Really? or, Ontogeny Does What?

One of the arcane snippets bandied about by my Dad while I was growing up was ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.  

“Do you know what that means?” He looked me directly in the eye, because an answer was expected. My reply?  Always “no.” Dad invariably followed with “Well then, go look it up.”

I would answer with an, “ok,” and hurry off to more important things like canoeing, trapezing into the river,  or cheer practice.

For reasons unknown, the phrase stuck with me. Perhaps it was the enigma, or its rhyme, or the way it rolled off my tongue when it occasionally crossed my mind. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny – mysterious words with a musical sound – became encapsulated and stored someplace along the periphery of conscious and unconscious, randomly surfacing to amuse me and, of course, remember Dad.

I went on to college, majored in psychology and anthropology, and never heard those words – ever. Time went by. Weeks became months and then years. At some point I found myself becoming ever more intrigued by psychologist Carl Jung, and his theories of the unconscious. Not in a formal sense, mind you, just curiosity.

Oddly, several years ago my son Robert gave me a book for Christmas, Pilgrim by Timothy Findley is a fictional tale of Carl Jung’s life. There within the story were those magical words – ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny – along with a detailing of Jung’s idea that we may inherit the memories of our ancestors, caching them away in our subliminal archives.

You bet I looked it up!

Haekle's model of development

Haekle's model of development

Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny is the now debunked theory posited by German zoologist Ernst Haeckel in the mid-1800s. Its premise holds that as an advanced species develops, it passes through the evolutionary stages represented by adult organisms of more primitive species. For example, a human embryo will undergo changes in utero in a specific order from fish (gill slits that become ears) to amphibian to human. Each successive stage in the development of an individual represents one of the adult forms appearing in its evolutionary history.

So what does all of this mean to my writing journey, my story? The answer is a question: Do we hold the collective memories of our ancestors filed away in that 90% of our brain we call the unconscious? If we do, are dreams, paranormal and déjà vu occurrences merely the resurfacing of our grandparents’ life experiences? Are past-life regressions not about our lives at all, but rather a prodding and poking of the primal memory bank, a stirring up of the daily lives of our ancestors? Do we have a library of our own evolutionary history stored in the deep recesses of our temporal lobes, more easily accessed by some of us than others? This is what Lillie Lisle, a curious young archaeologist living in Tucson, Arizona, seeks to know. Dance of the Hummingbirds is her search for meaning, her story of journeying into the depths of the psyche.

It is my hope that scientists who are conducting new studies on our brains reexamine their expulsion of Haeckel’s theory. Maybe ontogeny really does recapitulate phylogeny?

Yes, I looked it up. Thanks Dad.