213. Ontogeny and Philogeny

My brother Richie came home from school one afternoon and told me that ontogeny recapitulates philogeny. I was old enough not to take his word for it, but my own ontogeny hadn’t yet recapitulated enough philogeny to know what he was talking about. I had the vague impression that I’d get in big trouble if I said those words when my parents or teachers were around. I knew that there were certain words children were really not supposed to say. But I may have been thinking of some other words.
But now I think I get it. It means our own development from embryo to person is similar to the way single-celled animals evolved into human beings. Many children learn about evolution before they are ready to understand it. They’re told that people used to be apes, and they believe it, but they don’t really get it. They don’t remember being apes, and they’ve seen pictures of George Washington, who lived a long time ago, and didn’t look any more like an ape than my brother Richie (who doesn’t look at all like an ape).
But if you look at a picture of a human embryo in its early days, it looks pretty much like the embryo of a platypus, or a chicken. And if you go back a few days, the cells that get together to form the embryo look as if they could easily have grown to be eucalyptus trees, or mushroom.02]=[rfdazs. I’m glad I got to be a human being, although I doubt whether eucalyptus trees have any complaints.
I once witnessed an interesting explanation at the Museum of Science. A mother was guiding her son through an evolution exhibit. Somewhere around the Cro-Magnon fellow, the mother said, “And then God breathed a soul into him…” I was fascinated with this compromise between creationism and Darwinism. At first, I considered being appalled, but I decided not to. I decided that the ontogeny of understanding recapitulates its philogeny, and besides, who did I think I was? I wasn’t there when human life started. Darwinism is simply the myth I choose to believe in. If I believe that recorded history is bunk, how can I have greater faith in unrecorded history?
And so as far as I’m concerned, Darwinism takes its place among the great religions. I believe in it, partly because I’ve seen some of the evidence, partly because I’ve read and heard about it from some smart people, but mostly because it makes sense to me, just as the parting of the Red Sea or walking on water makes sense to some other people. And besides, it’s fun to try to imagine the ways in which I still resemble a platypus, or a eucalyptus tree.

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