The biogenetic law is a theory of development and evolution proposed by Ernst Haeckel in Germany in the 1860s. It is one of several recapitulation theories, which posit that the stages of development for an animal embryo are the same as other animals' adult stages or forms. Commonly stated as ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, the biogenetic law theorizes that the stages an animal embryo undergoes during development are a chronological replay of that species' past evolutionary forms. The biogenetic law states that each embryo's developmental stage represents an adult form of an evolutionary ancestor. According to the law, by studying the stages of embryological development, one is, in effect, studying the history and diversification of life on Earth. The biogenetic law implied that researchers could study evolutionary relationships between taxa by comparing the developmental stages of embryos for organisms from those taxa. Furthermore, the evidence from embryology supported the theory that all of species on Earth share a common ancestor.
Franz Keibel studied the embryos of humans and other animals in Europe at the turn of the twentieth century. He lived and worked in several different parts of Germany and France. Keibel drew illustrations of embryos in many stages of development. Keibel used these illustrations, which he and others in the scientific community called normal plates, to describe the development of organisms in several species of vertebrates. His illustrations are published in the sixteen-volume text Normentafeln zur Entwicklungsgeschichte der Wirbelthiere (Normal Plates of the Developmental history of Vertebrates), published in 1895, and in the Manual of Human Embryology, which he edited with Franklin Paine Mall of the US, published in 1912. Keibel's plates showed human embryos in different stages of development between the twelfth day and the second month after fertilization.
Ontogeny and Phylogeny is a book published in 1977, in which the author Stephen J. Gould, who worked in the US, tells a history of the theory of recapitulation. A theory of recapitulation aims to explain the relationship between the embryonic development of an organism (ontogeny) and the evolution of that organism's species (phylogeny). Although there are several variations of recapitulationist theories, most claim that during embryonic development an organism repeats the adult stages of organisms from those species in it's evolutionary history. Gould suggests that, although fewer biologists invoked recapitulation theories in the twentieth century compared to those in the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries, some aspects of the theory of recapitulation remained important for understanding evolution. Gould notes that the concepts of acceleration and retardation during development entail that changes in developmental timing (heterochrony) can result in a trait appearing either earlier or later than normal in developmental processes. Gould argues that these changes in the timing of embryonic development provide the raw materials or novelties upon which natural selection acts.