"Atavistic" redirects here. For the record label, see Atavistic Records. For the Slough Feg album, see Atavism (album). For the Otep album, see Atavist (album).
Early embryos of various species display some ancestral features, like the tail on this human foetus. These features normally disappear in later development, but it may not happen if the animal has an atavism.[1][2]

In biology, an atavism is an evolutionary throwback, such as traits reappearing that had disappeared generations before.[3] Atavisms can occur in several ways. One way is when genes for previously existing phenotypical features are preserved in DNA, and these become expressed through a mutation that either knocks out the overriding genes for the new traits or makes the old traits override the new one. A number of traits can vary as a result of shortening of the fetal development of a trait (neoteny) or by prolongation of the same. In such a case, a shift in the time a trait is allowed to develop before it is fixed can bring forth an ancestral phenotype.[4]

In the social sciences, atavism can also describe a cultural tendency of reversion—for example, people in the modern era reverting to the ways of thinking and acting of a former time. The word atavism is derived from the Latin atavus. An atavus is a great-great-great-grandfather or, more generally, an ancestor.


Evolutionarily, traits that have disappeared phenotypically do not necessarily disappear from an organism's DNA. The gene sequence often remains, but is inactive. Such an unused gene may remain in the genome for many generations.[5] As long as the gene remains intact, a fault in the genetic control suppressing the gene can lead to it being expressed again. Sometimes, the expression of dormant genes can be induced by artificial stimulation.

Atavisms have been observed in humans as well. Babies have been born with a vestigial tail, called "coccygeal process", "coccygeal projection", and "caudal appendage".[3] Atavism can also be seen in humans who possess large teeth, like those of other primates.[6] In addition, a case of "snake heart", the presence of "coronary circulation and myocardial architecture [which resemble] those of the reptilian heart", has also been reported in medical literature.[7]

Examples of observed atavisms in animals include:

Social Darwinism

During the interval between the acceptance of evolution and the rise of modern understanding of genetics (roughly mid-1800s to early 1900s), atavism was used to account for the reappearance in an individual of a trait after several generations of absence. Such an individual was sometimes called a "throwback". The notion that somehow, atavisms could be made to accumulate by selective breeding, or breeding back, led to breeds such as the Heck cattle. This had been bred from ancient landraces with selected primitive traits, in an attempt of "reviving" the extinct aurochs.

The notion of atavism was used frequently by social Darwinists, who claimed that inferior races displayed atavistic traits, and represented more primitive traits than their own race. Both the notion of atavism, and Ernst Haeckel's recapitulation theory, are related to notions of evolution as progress, as development towards greater complexity and superior ability.

In addition, the concept of atavism as part of an individualistic explanation of the causes of criminal deviance was popularised by the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso in the 1870s.[12] He attempted to identify physical characteristics common to criminals and labeled those he found as atavistic, 'throwback' traits that determined 'primitive' criminal behavior. His statistical evidence and the closely related idea of eugenics have long since been abandoned by the scientific community, but the concept that physical traits may affect the likelihood of criminal or unethical behavior in a person still has some scientific support.[13]


The term atavism is sometimes also applied in the discussion of culture.[14] Some social scientists describe the return of older, "more primitive" tendencies (e.g. warlike attitudes, "clan identity", anything suggesting the social and political atmosphere of thousands of years ago) as "atavistic". "Resurgent atavism" is a common name for the belief that people in the modern era are beginning to revert to ways of thinking and acting that are throwbacks to a former time. This is especially used by sociologists in reference to violence.

The neo-pagan subculture also uses this same terminology ("atavism" or "resurgent atavism") to describe how modern, western countries are experiencing both the decline of Christianity and the rise of religious movements inspired by the pagan religions of centuries past. Some cite the rise of environmentalism, scientific inquiry, and liberalization of society as contributing to an increasingly secular society, one in which religious sentiments are more frequently tied with an appreciation of the physical world rather than set against it. The book Lords of Chaos portrays pagan and occult atavism as an inherently destructive thing, stating that a rash of church burnings across Scandinavia is part of this trend, because many of the perpetrators were pagans seeking to overthrow the establishment they deemed to be the result of centuries of religious oppression of native European religion by Christianity.

Atavism is a key term in Joseph Schumpeter's explanation of World War I in 20th century liberal Europe. He defends the liberal international relations theory- that an international society built on commerce will avoid war because of war's destructiveness and comparative cost. His reason for World War I is termed "atavism", in which he asserts that senescent governments in Europe (those of the German Empire, Russian Empire, Ottoman Empire, and Austro-Hungarian Empire) pulled the liberal Europe into war, and that the liberal regimes of the other continental powers did not cause it. He used this idea to say that liberalism and commerce would continue to have a soothing effect in international relations, and that war would not arise between nations which are connected by commercial ties.[15]

See also

Related evolutionary concepts:


  1. Uthman, Ed (2014). "Tubal pregnancy with embryo". WikiJournal of Medicine. 1 (2). doi:10.15347/wjm/2014.007.
  2. "Multi-cell Organisms". Retrieved 2011-09-29.
  3. 1 2 3 4 TalkOrigins Archive. "29+ Evidences for Macroevolution: Part 2". Archived from the original on 29 October 2006. Retrieved 2006-11-08.
  4. Held, L. (2009). Quirks of Human Anatomy, an Evo-Devo Look at the Human Body. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-73233-8.
  5. Collin, R.; Cipriani, R. (2003). "Dollo's law and the re-evolution of shell coiling". Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 270 (1533): 2551–2555. doi:10.1098/rspb.2003.2517. PMC 1691546Freely accessible. PMID 14728776.
  6. "What our tails tell us". Los Angeles Times. 2007-02-15. Archived from the original on 12 March 2009. Retrieved 2009-03-08
  7. Walia, I.; Arora, H. S.; Barker, E. A.; Delgado Rm, 3.; Frazier, O. H. (2010). "Snake Heart: A Case of Atavism in a Human Being". Texas Heart Institute Journal. 37 (6): 687–690. PMC 3014134Freely accessible. PMID 21224948.
  8. Tyson, R.; Graham, J. P.; Colahan, P. T.; Berry, C. R. (2004). "Skeletal atavism in a miniature horse". Veterinary Radiology & Ultrasound. 45 (4): 315–317. doi:10.1111/j.1740-8261.2004.04060.x. PMID 15373256.
  9. Domes, K.; Norton, R. A.; Maraun, M.; Scheu, S. (2007). "Reevolution of sexuality breaks Dollo's law". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 104 (17): 7139–7144. doi:10.1073/pnas.0700034104. PMC 1855408Freely accessible. PMID 17438282.
  10. Gould, S.J. "Hen's Teeth and Horses' Toes" In: Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes, New York: W. W. Norton, ISBN 978-0-393-01716-8
  11. "How do things look to the color-blind?" (PDF). MIT Press. p. 24. Retrieved December 16, 2015. Most mammals are dichromats, and according to the standard account of the evolution of primate trichromacy, around thirty million years ago gene duplication transformed the single longer-wavelength photopigment of our dichromatic ancestors into two, our current L- and M- photopigments. (For reviews see Jacobs and Rowe 2004 and Surridge et al. 2003.) This added a new red-green opponent channel to the existing yellow-blue channel. On the Reduction View, human red-green dichromacy can accordingly be thought of as something of an atavistic glimpse of our distant evolutionary history. If misperception is widespread among human red-green dichromats, then presumably it also is among the many dichromatic mammals who share versions of the ancient yellow-blue system of color vision.
  12. "Lombroso and the pathological perspective can be traced back to the 19th Century following a history of demonic and classical perspectives". 2000-11-27. Archived from the original on 2013-09-23. Retrieved 2013-12-04.
  13. Haselhuhn, M. P.; Wong, E. M. (2011). "Bad to the bone: Facial structure predicts unethical behaviour". Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 279 (1728): 571–6. doi:10.1098/rspb.2011.1193. PMID 21733897.
  14. An example of this usage of the term can be found in Friedrich A. Hayek (1978). "The Atavism of Social Justice". New Studies in Philosophy, Politics, Economics and the History of Ideas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  15. Joseph Schumpeter (1969). "Imperialism and Capitalism". Imperialism and Social Classes. Cleveland: The World Publishing Company.

External links

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