February 17, 2008
The Rev. Robert C. Granfeldt
|667 Mount Road, Aston, PA 19014 610-459-2013
|Small Parish - Big Heart - Inclusive
Come and worship with us!
All are welcome!
To serve the
To grow the
of which most people have probably never heard, that contain a total of 30 letters in 13
syllables, and that have nothing to do with theology, the Bible, or, for that matter, the Faith!
Where else do you get that kind of bang for the buck?
Of course, the words do have something to do with the faith, really, but only after they’ve
been reworked by my sometimes rather strange mind! It’s a phrase that’s been rattling
around in my head for a few days, now, ever since I ran across it, again, in an article about
so-called Intelligent Design! I finally decided to give in and see what I can make of it for this
morning when it occurred to me it could have something to say to us on this Second Sunday
“Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny!” That’s the simple statement of an old scientific theory
from the middle of the Nineteenth Century, posed by a scientist named Ernst Haeckel,
known as the “recapitulation law!” It was shortly after Charles Darwin had published his
Origin of Species, and the early days of evolutionary theory, and Dr. Haeckel was so
enamored with Darwin’s work that he made a huge leap beyond it in coining this theory.
Ontogeny refers to the developmental history of the embryo of a species in the womb.
Phylogeny refers to the developmental history of the species, itself – that is, its evolution.
Haeckel came up with the idea that the development of a fetus actually Repeats, or
recapitulates, in great detail, the whole history of its species in its own development. He
based his theory on his own observations of fetal development in various species,
combined with Darwin’s theory of the stages of evolution of those same species, and he
was convinced his theory both demonstrated and proved Darwin’s! His theory made a big
splash and was well received.
Unfortunately, though (for him, at least) he was wrong! Wrong enough, in the details of his
theory that anti-evolutionists have ever since seized on its failure as proof that evolutionary
theory, itself, is equally flawed – hence the reference to the theory in the article about
And yet, there is enough truth in what Haeckel said to confirm and even Illustrate Evolution!
In most general terms – if one structure predates another structure in the evolution of a
species, it will tend to predate it in the development of the embryo, as well.
In vertebrates – that is, in animals with a backbone – the backbone appeared very early in
the evolution of mammals; and so, in the development of a vertebrate Embryo, the structure
of the backbone appears, likewise, early! On the other hand, in the evolution of the highest
vertebrate – the human mammal – the last major structure to develop was the most
sophisticated part of the brain – the cerebrum; and, likewise, the last structure in a human
embryo to develop is… the cerebrum!
Even more interestingly, if a structure appeared and then disappeared in the evolution of a
species, the same thing will often happen in the growth and development of the embryo of
Neat facts: Whales live in the sea – but they’re mammals, and earlier evolved as land
animals – with legs! But once they returned to the sea, they didn’t have much use for legs,
any more, so in the course of time, their legs disappeared – in the course of evolution! Yet
as the whale embryo develops, legs appear and develop – but then they recede and
atrophy, until, by birth the whale has only little tiny remnants of legs, buried deep inside its
Whales also, like all mammals, grow hair as embryos just as their ancestors did when they
lived on land – but now they lose almost all of it before birth, ‘cause hair isn’t much use in
But before land vertebrates – including mammals – emerged on the land, they lived in the
sea – and all land vertebrate embryos still develop gill pouches at some early point in their
development – including us!
The common ancestor of humans – apes and monkeys – had a tail; and human embryos, at
one point, still have a tail that later recedes to form the coccyx, at the base of the spine!
And deep, deep in all of our brains, formed very early as an embryo, as our nervous systems
developed, there is a primitive core that comes from all the way back before our ancestors
had even emerged as mammals, that still exists in all of us, and is sometimes called the
“lizard brain,” so far back does it go!
Neat stuff, isn’t it? I find it all fascinating!
So what does it prove? Nothing, of course; it proves nothing!
But it does say something about us – it does tell us something about ourselves.
It tells us, first, of course, that we are Part of God’s creation – wonderful works of art that
have risen through the countless eons from the waters that covered the earth – the
“primordial ooze,” as it’s been called – up onto the land, to the grass and the bushes and
the trees, the fields and the jungles – the Products of the earth, evolving as the world
evolved, slowly, through the millennia until, finally, the Cerebrum I mentioned appears. And
suddenly, once that happened, the animal that has been shaped, step by step, by the world,
begins, itself, to Shape the world!
And as humankind recapitulated what went before in its physical evolution, so we have,
ever since, recapitulated the cultural and social world we have created to live in – evolving
our world as the world evolved us!
We are truly unique creatures. A dog, an elephant, a snake, a worm – these are all simply
what they happen to be at any given moment – living in the moment; living moment to
moment, always aging, even learning: but really always the same!
But we are not only what we happen to be at this moment! Rather, we embody not only all
what has gone before us to make us what we are, now, but at the same time our developed
minds and imaginations allow us to embody, too, what we’ve not yet become – to anticipate
our future as we recapitulate our past, while all the time living in the present! And so, with
each tick of the clock, we become new creatures – of all that has been, all that we are, all we
Which is, I think, in the language of this morning’s Gospel, to be truly born anew!
And it is also why it’s so important that we – we human beings, we who are the Church, we
who believe that all this ontogeny and phylogeny have meaning and purpose in God’s world
– make a special effort to recapitulate the past as we move into the present; why it’s so
important that we both maintain the best of the traditions that have brought us where we
are – made us who we are – and at the same time move boldly into the future, never “hung
up” on the past, but ready to grow into the future our God calls us to!
We in the Church must always recognize that we need to remember and, yes, to recapitulate
our past and to celebrate our present – so that we can move into the future God calls us to,
and become the people God would have us be!
So it is that we have in recent years made it our practice, on this Second Sunday of Lent, to
hear proclaimed the Ten Commandments – the thirty-centuries-old Summary of the Law; it’s
why we read the Exhortation to Repentance and Communion that has been part of our
Anglican tradition for over 4 centuries; it’s why we confess our sins to God our Father and
Mother, and seek forgiveness; it’s why we celebrate in Thanksgiving the point God has
brought us to; and it’s why we pray, in the end, for grace to step out into the world to do the
work we’ve been called to do, and to become the people we are called to become!
It’s called Lent; it’s called the Faith; it’s called Mission; it’s called life.
And it’s called Ontogeny recapitulating Phylogeny – and it’s the way of God’s world!
In Christ’s Name. Amen.