Encyclopedia > Atavism

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Atavism means a real or supposed evolutionary throwback (degeneracy), the unexpected appearance of primitive traits; a reversion, the reappearance of a trait that had been present in a lineage in the past, but which had been absent in intervening generations.

The concept was much more widely used in the pre-genetic Darwinism of Ernst Häckel, who proposed a recapitulation theory commonly summed up in the phrase that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny: the notion that a developing embryo revisits the previous evolutionary stages of the organism in the course of its development, and resembles the successively more complex organisms out of which it had evolved.

The notion of atavism was used frequently by social darwinists, who liked to claim that inferior races displayed atavistic traits, and represented more primitive traits than their own race. Both the notion of atavism, and Häckel's recapitulation theory, are saturated with bogus notions of evolution as progress, as a march towards greater complexity and superior ability, which we now know to be untenable.

See also: ontogeny, phylogeny, ontogeny and phylogeny.

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