Phylogeny Recapitulates Ontogeny

Phylogeny Recapitulates Ontogeny

This week the New York Times reported that we’re one step closer to using pigs as organ donors thanks to breakthroughs in gene-editing.  I wonder what would happen if we had to choose between using pigs to save lives and using pigs for bacon.  With a carefully worded ballot question, bacon might come out on top in that contest.  (Never underestimate the power of bacon.)  The Times story reminded me of one of my favorite college courses back in the late 1980’s.  It was an interdisciplinary class combining evolutionary biology and philosophy.  Two professors. Four students.  Liberal arts education at its best and most absurd.  No study of the evolution of evolutionary biology would be complete without Ernst Haeckel, the 19th century German biologist and philosopher known as the champion of recapitulation theory.   The gist of it is this:  The evolution of our remote ancestors (phylogeny) is expressed in our own embryonic development (ontogeny).  See attached illustration.  Of course, one hundred years later we know it’s much more complicated than that, and recapitulation theory doesn’t shed any meaningful light on human evolution, but shouldn’t the Times story beg us to take a longer look at the close relationship between pigs and humans?  We’re similar enough in the grand scheme of things that I could have a pig’s heart beating in my own chest?  Is not the heart the home of compassion, empathy and love?

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