Vietnam reminds me of the development of a child.
Gen. William Westmoreland
Few connections are more intimate and pervasive than that between racism and statements by scientists about human diversity (I do not say scientific statements) made before the Second World War. Consequently, we should not be surprised that the very first sustained argument for recapitulation in morphology was cast in a racist mold. Autenrieth receives traditional credit for a work published in 1797 (Kielmeyer's article of 1793 spoke only of physiology, and earlier statements are either analogistic or incidental). After arguing that the completed forms of lower animals are merely stages in the ontogeny of higher forms, Autenrieth speaks of "certain traits which seem, in the adult African, to be less changed from the embryonic condition than in the adult European" ("quaedam, quae in adulto Afro minus, quam adulto Europaeo ex reliquiis embryonis mutata videntur"— 1797, in Temkin, 1950).
For anyone who wishes to affirm the innate inequality of races, few biological arguments can have more appeal than recapitulation, with its insistence that children of higher races (invariably one's own) are passing through and beyond the permanent conditions of adults in lower races. If adults of lower races are like white children, then they may be treated as such—subdued, disciplined, and managed (or, in the paternalistic tradition, educated but equally subdued). The "primitive-as-child" argument stood second to none in the arsenal of racist arguments supplied by science to justify slavery and imperialism. (I do not think that most scientists who upheld the primitive-as- child argument consciously intended to promote racism. They merely expressed their allegiance to the prevailing views of white intellectuals and leaders of European society. Still, the arguments were used by politicians and I can find no evidence that any recapitulationist ever objected.)
Biological arguments based on innate inferiority spread rapidly after evolutionary theory permitted a literal equation of modern "lower" races with ancestral stages of higher forms. But similar arguments were far from unknown before 1859. Several of the leading pre-evolutionary recapitulationists ranked human races by the primitive-as-child argument. Schiller, a godfather of Naturphilosophie, wrote: "The discoveries which our European sailors have made in foreign seas . . . show us that different people are distributed around us ... just as children of different ages may surround a grown-up man" (in Schmidt, 1909, p. 156).