One of the oldest and most pervasive ideas in comparative embryology is the perceived evolutionary conservation of early ontogeny relative to late ontogeny. Karl Von Baer first noted the similarity of early ontogeny across taxa, and Ernst Haeckel and Charles Darwin gave evolutionary interpretation to this phenomenon. In spite of a resurgence of interest in comparative embryology and the development of mechanistic explanations for Von Baer's law, the pattern itself has been largely untested. Here, I use statistical phylogenetic approaches to show that Von Baer's law is an unnecessarily complex explanation of the patterns of ontogenetic timing in several clades of vertebrates. Von Baer's law suggests a positive correlation between ontogenetic time and amount of evolutionary change. I compare ranked position in ontogeny to frequency of evolutionary change in rank for developmental events and find that these measures are not correlated, thus failing to support Von Baer's model. An alternative model that postulates that small changes in ontogenetic rank are evolutionarily easier than large changes is tentatively supported.
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Vol. 60 • No. 11