Meaning the reversion to an earlier type (a throwback) that has been absent during intervening generations, the concept of atavism dates from antiquity.
In modernity, the idea was applied by CESARE LOMBROSO (1835-1909), an Italian criminologist who believed that 'the criminal mind' was caused by a primitive human state. American sociologist Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) applied atavism to predatory industrialists in his The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899).
While the idea has often been used to explain 'undesirable' people, in biology it describes the appearance of structures or colours in individuals that are not evident in their parents or grandparents. It is believed that this is caused by the inheritance of a recessive or complementary gene.
The term 'atavism' is rarely used by modern biologists.
Also see: HEREDITARIANISM, MENDEL'S LAWS
P B Medawar and J S Medawar, Aristotle to Zoos: A Philosophical Dictionary of Biology (Oxford, 1983)