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date: 27 June 2022

The Legacy of Recapitulation Theory in the History of Developmental Psychologylocked

The Legacy of Recapitulation Theory in the History of Developmental Psychologylocked

  • Donna VargaDonna VargaMount Saint Vincent University, Department of Child and Youth Study


From the late 1800s, under the auspices of G. Stanley Hall and then independently by others, investigations of children’s development were undertaken from the perspective of recapitulation theory. This application of the theory was guided by the overarching premises that (a) human evolution was a linear chronology of biological and sociocultural progress; (b) an individual’s abilities, behaviors, and biological development followed the same evolutionary stages as had the human species (i.e., Ernst Haeckel’s dictum that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny); and (c) the path of human evolution could be traced backward through identification of contemporary manifestations of development and behavior.

An assumption of the theory was that the human species is hierarchically differentiated by race, a concept defined by physical attributes and sociocultural practices. Persons of north-western European descent were believed to be of a race that had achieved the greatest evolutionary advancement; those of African descent, as belonging to that with the least evolutionary distance from ape ancestry. Evolutionary achievement was also differentiated by gender and economic status, with Caucasian bourgeois males ranked as superior over all others. Additionally, evolutionary progress was applied to individuals in relation to their proximity to ideals of appearance, heteronormativity, behavior and well-being.

Incorporation of these beliefs into the study of human development was productive of treatises and practices that had widespread influence in scientific and popular culture. Child-centred parenting advice, progressive educational reform, and youth organizations emphasized gendered behaviors that, it was believed, would ensure children’s surpassing their parent’s evolutionary attainment, resulting in continued progress toward an ideal Euro-Anglo race. The playground movement’s segregation of non-whites, the disabled, poor and unattractive from archetype white children was similarly based on the theory’s dictum that the former being seen by the latter would contaminate white evolutionary well-being. The theoretical beliefs became further rationalization for the incarceration of Indigenous children in residential facilities that through coercion and isolation from their communities were intended to abolish the ‘race’s’ genetic lineage. Even though child study regard for the theory declined by the 1920s, its regulatory prescripts endured within developmental psychology, continuing to significantly impact beliefs about women, non-whites, the economically disadvantaged, those with disabilities and those who are gender nonconforming. As example, through policies that limit access to educational funding with explanations that such opportunities fail to alter the economic trajectory of non-whites, and through educational content that presents bourgeois Euro-Anglo persons as representing developmental normality, Academic defence of the theory’s and its founding adherents includes its use to rationalize bigotry, violence and discrimination. It is a legacy that requires concerted effort to defeat.


  • History and Systems of Psychology

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