Ontogeny and Phylogeny explores the relationship between embryonic development (ontogeny) and biological evolution (phylogeny). The book also discusses the role recapitulation—Ernst Haeckel's discredited idea that embryonic developmental stages replay the evolutionary transitions of adult forms of an organism's past descendants—had on biology, theology, and psychology. The second half of the book details how modern concepts such as heterochrony (changes in developmental timing) and neoteny (the retardation of developmental expression or growth rates) have in influencing macroevolution (major evolutionary transitions).
It has been said that of all the books that Gould wrote in his career, "the one with the most impact is probably Ontogeny and Phylogeny ... to say that this work is a hallmark in this area of evolutionary theory would be an understatement. It proved to be the catalyst for much of the future work in the field, and to a large degree was the inspiration for the modern field of 'evolutionary developmental biology'. Gould's hope was to show that the relationship between ontogeny and phylogeny is fundamental to evolution, and at its heart is a simple premise—that variations in the timing and rate of development provide the raw material upon which natural selection can operate."
Steve Jay Gould has given us a superb analysis of the use of ontogenetic analogy, the controversies over ontogeny and phylogeny, and the classification of the different processes observable in comparing different ontogenies. His massive book (in each chapter of which there is as much material as in whole books by other writers) is both a historical exposition of the whole subject of ontogeny and phylogeny, and ... a fascinating attempt at a functional interpretation of those phylogenetic alterations that involve changes of timing developmental processes in related organisms.
In Gould's ... new book ... Ontogeny and Phylogeny, a scholarly study of the theory of recapitulation, he not only explains scientific theory but comments on science itself, with clarity and wit, simultaneously entertaining and teaching.... [This] is a rich book.
Gould's book—pervaded, I should say, with an erudition and felicity of style that make it a delight to read—is a radical work in every sense.... It returns one's attention to the roots of our science—the questions about the great pageant of evolution, the marvelous diversity of form that our theory is meant to explain.
This [is a] fat, handsome book crammed with provocative ideas.... Ontogeny and Phylogeny is an important and thoughtful book which will be a valuable source of ideas and controversies for anyone interested in evolutionary or developmental biology.
^Gould, S.J. (1977). Ontogeny and Phylogeny. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. pp. vii–viii. ISBN0-674-63940-5.. Also ISBN 0-674-63941-3 (paperback)
^McNamara, K.J., & McKinney, M.L. (2005). "Heterochrony, disparity and macroevolution". In Vrba, E., & Eldredge, N. Macroevolution: Diversity, Disparity, Contingency. Essays in Honor of Stephen Jay Gould. Lawrence, Kansas: The Paleontological Society. pp. 17–26. ISBN1-891276-49-2. ISSN0094-8373.