Ontogeny and Phylogeny in Chess

When playing through some old and very old games chronologically – let’s say from 1600 up to 1900 – I can see a lot of resemblance in the global chess development and my own personal chess development.

First: attack and attack, then suddenly realizing that some attacks do not work, while others do. Next: looking for the differences and trying to employ them and so on… until you understand the Steinitz and Nimzowitch ideas on how to play good chess.


In biology this is called ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’, meaning that the development of the individual resembles the development of the whole species.

This biogenetic law is a theory of development and evolution proposed by Ernst Haeckel in Germany in the 1860s.

Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919)

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. The biogenetic law theorizes that the stages an animal embryo, from fertilization to gestation or hatching (ontogeny), goes through, resemble or represent successive adult stages in the evolution of the animal’s remote ancestors (phylogeny).

Human embryos first develop gill slits and a tail, both of which are usually resorbed as unnecessary when later human developmental programs kick in. For a time, our embryos are also anatomically difficult to discriminate from a pig (Schwein), cow (Rind) or rabbit (Kaninchen) embryo (see picture below). Nor from a turtle embryo (order Chelonia), the latter a vertebrate derived very early on from other reptiles, apparently prior to the dinosaurs.

Different embryos in development (top down)

You are more like a turtle than you might realize.

The Haeckel hypothesis had an influence that extended beyond biology into education, criminology, psychoanalysis (Freud and Jung were devout recapitulationists), and even racism.

Cognitive development

English philosopher Herbert Spencer was one of the most energetic proponents of evolutionary ideas to explain many phenomena. In 1861, five years before Haeckel first published on the subject, Spencer proposed a possible basis for a cultural recapitulation theory of education with the following claim:

‘If there be an order in which the human race has mastered its various kinds of knowledge, there will arise in every child an aptitude to acquire these kinds of knowledge in the same order… Education is a repetition of civilization in little.’

Spencer was famous for his hypothesis of social Darwinism whereby superior physical force shapes history. He also supported Lamarckism.1

The Austrian pioneer of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, also favoured Haeckel’s doctrine. He was trained as a biologist under the influence of recapitulation theory during its heyday. Freud also distinguished between physical and mental recapitulation, in which the differences would become an essential argument for his theory of neuroses.

The theory of recapitulation finally collapsed, not from the weight of contrary data, but because the rise of Mendelian genetics rendered it untenable. In the late 20th century, studies of symbolism and learning in the field of cultural anthropology suggested that “both biological evolution and the stages in the child’s cognitive development follow much the same progression of evolutionary stages as that suggested in the archaeological record.

Chess development

In the latest (2021) book of Willy Hendriks: “On the Origin of Good Moves” a similar observation, as the one in the intro of this topic, was made. It triggered me to take a closer look at Haeckel’s ideas.

Willy Hendriks’ latest book

Some great writers on chess (and chess players themselves) seem to use this theory for their look on the development of chess.
Garry Kasparov opens the first chapter of his major work My Great Predecessors with this perspective: ‘The stages in the development of chess resemble the path taken by everyone who proceeds from a beginner to a player of high standard.

Kasparov stands in a tradition at this point. For example, his predecessor Max Euwe wrote: ‘The development of a player runs parallel with the development of the game of chess itself, and that’s why the study of the history of the game of chess has great practical value.’

And, to add one more version of this idea, Richard Réti wrote: ‘We perceive after a careful consideration of the evolution of the chess mind that such evolution has gone on, in general, in a way quite similar to that in which it goes on with the individual chess player, only with the latter more rapidly’.

1 Lamarckism is the notion that an organism can pass on to its offspring physical characteristics that the parent organism acquired through use or disuse during its lifetime.

This theory was anticipated by Jean Baptiste de Lamarck.This theory was anticipated by Charles Darwin.
Individual population has identical characteristics. Individuals can make a difference.The interbreeding population of individuals always has similar characteristics with certain variability. Individuals are eternal. The population will turn itself.
Internal drive towards greater complexity, influenced by the inheritance of properties acquired. Variations are tailored to the needs of the organism.Variation does exist regardless of the condition of the organism.
Differnces between Lamarckism and Darwinism

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