Annals of morphology. Atavisms: Phylogenetic Lazarus?

Ginevra Zanni, John M. Opitz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Dedication: with highest respect and affection to Prof. Giovanni Neri on the eve of his official administrative retirement as Chair of the Institute of Medical Genetics of the Università Cattolica of Rome for leadership in medical genetics and medical science and friendship for decades. The concept "atavism," reversion, throwback, Rückschlag remains an epistemological challenge in biology; unwise or implausible over-interpretation of a given structure as such has led some to almost total skepticism as to its existence. Originating in botany in the 18th century it became applied to zoology (and humans) with increasing frequency over the last two centuries such that the very concept became widely discredited. Presently, atavisms have acquired a new life and reconsideration given certain reasonable criteria, including: Homology of structure of the postulated atavism to that of ancestral fossils or collateral species with plausible soft tissue reconstructions taking into account relationships of parts, obvious sites of origin and insertion of muscles, vascular channels, etc. Most parsimonious, plausible phylogenetic assumptions. Evident rudimentary or vestigial anatomical state in prior generations or in morphogenesis of a given organism. Developmental instability in prior generations, that is, some closely related species facultatively with or without the trait. Genetic identity or phylogenomic similarity inferred in ancestors and corroborated in more or less closely related species. Fluctuating asymmetry may be the basis for the striking evolutionary diversification and common atavisms in limbs; however, strong selection and developmental constraints would make atavisms in, for example, cardiac or CNS development less likely. Thus, purported atavisms must be examined critically in light of the above criteria.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2822-2835
Number of pages14
JournalAmerican Journal of Medical Genetics, Part A
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2013


  • Atavism
  • Inheritance
  • Multifactorial basis
  • Polygenic
  • Reversion
  • Syndromes
  • Throwback

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Genetics(clinical)
  • Genetics


Dive into the research topics of 'Annals of morphology. Atavisms: Phylogenetic Lazarus?'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this