Cultural Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny

In evolutionary biology, there is a now-discredited idea that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” In other words, the development of an organism follows its evolutionary history. Human embryos look like they have gills because people evolved from fish, we have tails in utero because of the same origins, and so forth.

In a recent paper in PLoS ONE, Alex Mesoudi, a professor at the University of London, discusses this briefly, but in the realm of culture. Mesoudi’s paper, entitled Variable Cultural Acquisition Costs Constrain Cumulative Cultural Evolution, explores how to model the exponential increase in cultural complexity, whether scientific knowledge, technological innovation, or other cultural products. Mesoudi argues that in order to create any new innovation that builds on previous knowledge, an individual must first learn and master all the innovations that came before it. In other words, cultural ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.

And Mesoudi demonstrates this in an elegant way, by looking at the age at which British students first learn various mathematical concepts, as compared to the year these concepts were actually discovered. Here is the resulting figure:

As can be seen, there is a clear, albeit nonlinear, relationship between these quantities (original data here). More complex concepts–those learned later in life–are in fact those that were discovered more recently. Specifically, since the function is actually a logarithmic curve, this means that newer concepts are being discovered more quickly, and learned more rapidly.

It’s unlikely that this works for all topics–if a field’s college courses don’t require prerequisites, this relationship is highly unlikely to hold–but it’s fascinating to see the regularity of this shape.


Mesoudi A (2011). Variable cultural acquisition costs constrain cumulative cultural evolution. PloS one, 6 (3) PMID: 21479170

5 Responses to “Cultural Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny”

  1. chaim May 19, 2011 at 9:51 am Permalink

    Also very popular are theories that cultural phylogeny recapitulates ontology, i.e. that different eras of human culture correspond to the developmental stages of an individual: infancy, childhood, adolescence…

  2. John S. Wilkins May 19, 2011 at 9:56 am Permalink

    I thought it was that philology recapitulates ontology: the language embeds folk ontological commitments.

  3. Samuel Arbesman May 19, 2011 at 10:41 am Permalink

    There must be tons of these theories! I guess once you create a fun phrase like “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” we’re off to the snowclone races.

  4. Simon Wybenga September 21, 2011 at 3:08 pm Permalink

    Hello! I could have sworn I’ve been to this blog before but after reading through some of the post I realized it’s new to me. Anyways, I’m definitely happy I found it and I’ll be bookmarking and checking back frequently!

  5. Wil Maddeaux October 19, 2011 at 12:26 pm Permalink

    As an elementary teacher in Merseyside, I know that set theory is being studied much earlier than logarithms or mechanics, much, much earlier than differential equations, and probably earlier than algebra.
    I taught through the Fletcher maths scheme, finding it truer to mathematics.