Published online by Cambridge University Press: 21 May 2021
The theory of recapitulation is best known in its evolutionary form, as it was this form that Ernst Haeckel captured with his famous biogenetisches Grundgesetz (‘ontogeny is nothing other than a succinct recapitulation of phylogeny’). It is a theory that is justifiably associated above all with the natural philosophy of the eighteenth to twentieth centuries. Yet some historians of science have raised questions about its roots in ancient thought, and this chapter aims to explore a selection of natural philosophers in antiquity (especially Empedocles, Aristotle, Plato and Plotinus) in order to determine how close they came to recapitulation theory. Certain Presocratic thinkers appear to have anticipated recapitulation theory in some evolutionary sense, but it is no longer to be found in Aristotle and the Platonic tradition. This is not simply because Aristotle and Plato rejected evolution, since there are also non-evolutionary versions of recapitulation which are founded upon hierarchical theories of transcendental morphology. It is shown that only the Neoplatonists can be credited with a clear commitment to transcendental morphology but that even they develop their transcendental morphology in a way that does not lend itself to recapitulation theory.