Creation Factsheet No. 41: The Myth of Recapitulation

Factsheet No. 41


THERE are many myths surrounding the theory of evolution, but one of the most persistent is the myth of recapitulation — the idea that embryos retrace their supposed evolutionary history during development from a single egg to birth. Charles Darwin firmly believed in the recapitulation theory, and the idea was championed by German scientist and rabid evolutionist Ernst Haeckel.


Picture Showing Some of Haeckel's Faked Drawings

Some of Haeckel's faked drawings.

Left to Right: pig, bull, rabbit, human.

Haeckel published sets of drawings showing comparisons of various embryos to demonstrate that, in the early stages, the human embryo looks almost identical to that of other animals. However, he later admitted that he faked his drawings, and was convicted of fraud by a university court. It has been known for many decades that the recapitulation theory is nonsense. Sir Gavin de Beer of the Natural History Museum wrote: 'Seldom has an assertion like that of Haeckel's 'theory of recapitulation', facile, tidy and plausible, widely accepted without critical examination, done so much harm to science.'1

One of the basic ideas underlying the recapitulation myth is that the human embryo begins as a single cell, representing the earliest life-forms, passes through a fish stage, complete with gills, and a monkey stage, with a tail, before emerging as a human at birth. This theory does not stand up to serious examination. The human embryo does not begin its existence resembling a single-celled animal, for a fertilized egg contains all the genetic information to build a complete human being. And at no stage does it possess “gill slits”. What it does have (in the early stages) are creases in the neck area, which later develop into parts of the ears and jaws. The embryo never breathes through these creases, which in fact are not perforated. As for the “tail”, the human embryo never has one! What looks like a tail is simply the coccyx, a bone at the base of the spine, which turns inward before birth, and comes an important anchoring-point for several muscles.

The recapitulation theory looks even more absurd if we apply it to other forms of life. According to evolution, the ancestors of snakes possessed legs, yet snakes never have legs in the embryonic stages. Dr. Evan Shute lists numerous examples of creatures whose embryonic development proves that the theory is plain nonsense. These include crustaceans, moths, and butterflies. He also points out that the unborn human has proportionately large brain.2 Does this mean that we evolved from ancestors with larger brains?


In 1911, three men — Dr. Williams Wilson, H. R. Bowers and Ashley Cherry-Garrard %#151; literally risked their lives to try to prove the theory that birds evolved from reptiles, and that feathers developed from scales. Penguins were believed to be more “primitive” than flying birds, and it was thought that if some penguin embryos could be obtained the theory could be tested.

If the embryos developed the scales on their feet before fathers, according to the recapitulation idea this would support evolution. Emperor penguins nest during the depths of the Antarctic winter, and the three spent several weeks baffling against blizzards, crevasses and temperatures of -70 deg. F., and eventually obtained five eggs. Cherry-Garrard later described the journey: 'The horror of the nineteen days it took us to travel from Cape Evans to Cape Crozier would have to be experienced to be appreciated, and anyone would be a fool and went again. It is not possible to describe it.'3 Two of the men later perished with Scott in the ill-fated attempt to reach the South Pole, but Cherry Garrard eventually delivered the eggs to the British Museum. Professor Cossar Ewart of Edinburgh University examined the embryos and discovered that unborn penguins develop their feathers before the scales on their feet! Professor Ewart then wondered if reptile embryos developed their body scales before the scales on their feet, but discovered that was not the case. The evolution theory, and notably the notion of recapitulation, received no support whatever from that dangerous mission.

Picture of a Penguin

A study of penguin embryos provided no support for the recapitulation theory.


The recapitulation theory is totally and utterly wrong, yet some textbooks still repeat this myth. The Oxford Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Natural World repeats the discredited idea that 'the human embryo goes through one stage when it has gills, like a fish, and another when it has a tail.' It even includes some of Haeckel's drawings for good measure!4 The Biology A-Level Course Companion includes recapitulation in its list of “evidences for evolution” and repeats the myth that mammalian embryos have gill-slits.5

Embryonic recapitulation, like many other myths of evolution, is kept alive in order to preserve the larger myth of evolution itself. The truth is that the human embryo is fully human from the time of conception, just as human beings have always been human from the moment when God created the first human pair in His own Image (Genesis 1:27)

Picture of a Human Embryo


  1. A Century of Darwin, S. A. Barnett (ed.), Heinemann, 1958, p. 159.
  2. Flaws in the Theory of Evolution, Craig Press, 1961, pp. 32-48.
  3. The Worst Journey in the World, Dial Press, 1930, p. 236.
  4. Malcolm Coe (ed.) Guild Publishing, London, 1985, p. 107.
  5. A. G. Toule & S. M. Toule, Lets Study Aids, 1982, p. 85.

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