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Encyclopedia > Ontogeny and phylogeny

In biology, ontogeny is the embryonal development process of a certain species, and phylogeny a species' evolutionary history. Observers have noted various connections between phylogeny and ontogeny, explained them with evolutionary theory and taken them as supporting evidence for that theory.


Observed connections

Generally, if a structure pre-dates another structure in evolutionary terms, then it also appears earlier than the other in the embryo. Species which have an evolutionary relationship typically share the early stages of embryonal development and differ in later stages. Examples include:

  • The backbone, the common structure among all vertebrates such as fish, reptiles and mammals, appears as one of the earliest structures laid out in all vertebrate embryos.
  • The cerebrum in humans, the most sophisticated part of the brain, develops last.

If a structure vanished in an evolutionary sequence, then one can often observe a corresponding structure appearing at one stage during embryonic development, only to disappear or become modified in a later stage. Examples include:

  • Whales, which have evolved from land mammals, don't have legs, but tiny remnant leg bones lie buried deep in their bodies. During embryonal development, leg extremities first occur, then recede. Similarly, whale embryos (like all mammalian embryos) have hair at one stage, but lose most of it later.
  • All land vertebrates, which have evolved from fish, show gill pouches at one stage of their embryonal development.
  • The common ancestor of humans and monkeys had a tail, and human embryos also have a tail at one point; it later recedes to form the coccyx.
  • The swim bladder in fish presumably evolved from a sac connected to the gut, allowing the fish to gulp air. In most modern fish, this connection to the gut has disappeared. In the embryonal development of these fish, the swim bladder originates as an outpocketing of the gut, and the connection to the gut later disappears.


One can explain connections between phylogeny and ontogeny if one assumes that one species changes into another by a sequence of small modifications to its developmental program (specified by the genome). Modifications that affect early steps of this program will usually require modifications in all later steps and are therefore less likely to succeed. Most of the successful changes will thus affect the latest stages of the program, and the program will retain the earlier steps. Occasionally however, a modification of an earlier step in the program does succeed: for this reason a strict correspondence between ontogeny and phylogeny, as expressed in Ernst Haeckel's discredited recapitulation law, fails.

See Also

External links, references, and resources

  • Division of Biology and Medicine, Brown University, Evolution and Development I: Size and shape (http://biomed.brown.edu/Courses/BIO48/30.S&S.HTML)
  • Rebecca Irwin, Ontogeny and Phylogeny (http://www.utm.edu/~rirwin/391OntogPhylog.htm)
  • Gould, Stephen J., Ontogeny and Phylogeny. Cambridge Mass., Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1977.
  • Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics second edition; Chapter IX: On Learning and Self_Reproducing Machines. MIT Press, ISBN 0-262-23007-0 (hard) and ISBN 0-262-73009-X (paper).

  Results from FactBites:
Ontogeny and Phylogeny (Stephen Jay Gould) - review (491 words)
Ontogeny and Phylogeny is a rather different kind of book (it has more in common with Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle than the essays), but it still has the characteristic Gould feel to it.
The idea that the development of individuals is a progression through adult ancestral forms, epitomised in the saying "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny", has played an important part in the history of biology.
Ontogeny and Phylogeny is divided into two roughly equal sections.
  More results at FactBites »



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