Ernst Haeckel's Sleight of Hand Revealed

by Bob Harsh
Origins Insights, Creation Science Felloship,
Pittsburgh, PA 15233, September, 1999

In 1891 the biologist Ernst Haeckel proposed one of the most influential arms of evolution. His "biogenetic law" has endured as evidence for evolution until very recent times. The idea continues to be perpetuated among those who learned Haeckel's "law" as fact during their formal education.

It is only because of my interest in finding out the truth about origins science that I have learned of the deceptive and unscientific nature of Haeckel's important theory. I have had the good fortune to have been exposed to several articles in procreationist literature that informed me of the inaccuracy of the "law of biogenesis." This has had positive results in that I have been able to point out to my biology students the unscientific nature of Haeckel's law and that his hypothesis is not good evidence for evolution. I was very pleased to read an excellent article in the May, 1999, issue of The American Biology Teacher (a widely read journal for secondary and college biology teachers) by Jonathan Wells who is a post-doctoral biologist in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California at Berkeley. This was a very valuable article because it exposed Haeckel's hypothesis as an invalid support for evolutionary theories. This report was even more valuable because it was published in a reputable pro-evolution journal and should provide the opportunity for many biology teachers to alter their lessons on evolution.

Haeckel's famous set of illustrations depicting ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny does not appear in the 1999 edition of Biology by Campbell, which is one of the most popular college and high school Advanced Placement Biology textbooks. This is what a leading college biology book is teaching today:

Inspired by the Darwinian principle of descent with modification, many embryologist of the nineteenth century proposed the extreme view that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." This notion holds that ontogeny, the development of an individual organism is a replay of the evolutionary history of the species, phylogeny. The theory of recapitulation is an overstatement (Biology, 1999, page 425).
I am happy this modern textbook is not teaching Haeckel's misleading hypothesis, but there are thousands of biology teachers who are teaching out of textbooks that present the "law of recapitulation" as scientific evidence for evolution. Many still also teach that vestigial organs are good evidence of evolution.

This notion holds that ontogeny, the development of an individual organism is a replay of the evolutionary history of the species, Phylogeny.

Many biology teachers still are under the impression that the following statement from 1953 World Book Encyclopedia is true.

It is supposed that each individual organism, during its development from egg to adult, repeats in an abbreviated manner the various stages in the development of its species.. In scientific language, this is summarized by the phrase "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" (World Book, 1953).
Haeckel was inspired by Darwin's words. Darwin wrote that all vertebrates "are the modified descendants of some ancient progenitor" and that "the embryonic or larval stages show us, more or less completely, the condition of the progenitor of the whole group in its adult state" (Darwin, 1859 The Origin of Species as found in Wells. J. 1999. Haeckel's Embryos & Evolution. American Biology Teacher. 61:5 May).

Wells forcefully stated that, "Haeckel's drawings misrepresent the embryos they purport to show and Haeckel entirely omitted the earliest stages of development in which the various classes of vertebrates are morphologically very different. Biology teachers should be aware that Haeckel's drawings do not fit the facts (Wells, 1999)." Wells was not the first to criticize the accuracy of Haeckel's proposal. Michael Richardson, et al., produced an article in the journal, Anatomy and Physiology that brought the truth about Haeckel's hypothesis into the light. I loved the two contrasting statements they placed at the very beginning of their article. "There is no stage of development in which the unaided eye would fail to distinguish between them (vertebrate embryos)... a blind man could distinguish between them" (Sedgewick A. 1894. On the law of development commonly known as von Baer's law and on the significance of ancestral rudiments in embryonic development. Q.J. Milcrosc. Sci. 36) So that is a sample of 1894. Let's see what more modern embryologists see through their "evolutionary naturalist rose-colored glasses." "Embryos of different species (of vertebrates) pass through identical embryonic stages before acquiring their specific features" (Butler H. Juurlink. BHJ. 1987. An atlas for staging mammalian and chick embryos. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida). Two conclusions from the same empirical evidence! How can this be? Butler and Jurrlink were evidently examining those embryos through their rose-colored evolution glasses. Sedgewick recognized the variations among embryos at all stages of development...without the benefit of the extra 93 years of embryological research. In 1951, G. de Beer wrote, "There are not grounds for the view that an organism as it develops, passes through systematic categories from organisms of other groups" (de Beer, 1951. Embryos and ancestors as quoted in Richardson, 1997). Richardson's studies have shown that Haeckel's hypothesis, which was taught as dogma for over one hundred years should have been challenged long ago.

Biology teachers should be aware that Haeckel's drawings do not fit the facts

A prevalent idea in developmental evolution is that intermediate embryonic stages are resistant to evolutionary change, and that differences among species arise through divergence at later stages of development. As a consequence, all vertebrates are often said to pass through a common Embryo stage when they look virtually identical. The conserved stage is call the phylotypic stage because it is thought to be the point in development when there is maximum resemblance among members of a phylum or comparable higher taxon. One puzzling feature of the debate in this field is that while many authors have written of a conserved embryonic stage, no one has cited any comparative data in support of the idea. It is almost as though the phylotypic stage is regarded as a biological concept for which no proof is needed. (Richardson et al. 1997)

No doubt Richardson and his colleagues were surprised and disturbed that Haeckel's hypothesis had been taught as dogma that did not need to be supported by empirical observation. I only wish that other honest evolutionary naturalists would be able to see the trees in other forest of evolutionary philosophy that are taught as dogma which does not need to be supported by facts.

It is almost as though the phylotypic stage is regarded as a biological concept for which no proof is needed.

There are two areas that stand out most in my mind where this hypocrisy is prevalent. First, in any debate between creationists and evolutionists the creationists attempt to challenge the beliefs of their opponents with scientific reasoning and the evolutionists spend most of their efforts in attempting to discredit the reasoning skills and the intellectual capacity of creationists. They rarely stay with trying to present honest scientific rebuttal of the creationist's arguments. Second, it is almost impossible for openly creationist researchers to get their studies that offer alternative, anti-evolutionist explanations of nature published in major scientific journals.

In this case of the dogmatic teaching of Haeckel's evolutionary ideas, the field of embryology has been made prone to misinformation for over a century precisely because of the insistence of the biological establishment that evolution be the central unifying dogma of all biology. What a waste!

Another pattern found throughout the early history of evolutionary theory was the continuing trail of deliberate deception. Piltdown man, a deliberate fraud, heavily influenced the discipline of anthropology for over half a century! He was even important evidence used by the ACLU in the Scopes trial.

Haeckel's deception was at least two fold. First, he purported to have discovered a general trend in comparative vertebrate embryology. Haeckel conveniently left out two of the seven classes of vertebrates. They were available for him to study and ironically they did not fit his scheme. Even in the vertebrate classes he illustrated, he chose examples that best fit his scheme. With amphibians, for example, he illustrated a salamander that showed a better fit, rather than frogs that contradict the pattern he claimed to be illustrating (see Richardson, 1997). Secondly, and more important, Ernst Haeckel committed an ethical violation that should produce severe consequences. He fudged his data. "Haeckel's drawings distort the embryos he selected" (Wells, 1999). Richardson and his colleagues studied the same embryos and their illustrations do not show any consistent pattern. They did not use any recently developed technology that was unavailable to Haeckel. R.B. Goldschmidt also observed Haeckel's questionable technique as long ago as 1956.

The present generation cannot imagine the role he played in his time, far beyond his actual performance.Haeckel's easy hand at drawing made him improve on nature and put more into the illustrations than he had the impression that he first made a sketch from nature and then drew an ideal picture as he saw it in his mind. (Goldschmidt. 1953. The Golden Age of Zoology. University of Washington Press. Seattle as reported in Richardson, 1997)

It seems like evolutionary dogma dies hard. In 1953 Goldschmidt pointed out an inaccuracy in the very basis of a major evolutionary dogma and it looks like the problem has been ignored for forty-three more years.

Hold on to your hats! Just when we get a toehold in conquering the evolutionary naturalism mountain the inertia of orthodoxy raises its ugly head! In my mind both the Richardson article and the Wells report delivered devastating blows to the historic evolutionary naturalism model. But that was not an outcome in either report, and that reinforces my belief in the importance of paradigms. Paradigms really do govern the way scientists draw their conclusions.

Both the Richardson article and the Wells report delivered devastating blows to the historic evolutionary naturalism model.

Let us first look at Richardson's conclusion:

In summary, evolution (my emphasis) has produced a number of changes in the embryonic stages of vertebrates including:

  1. Differences in body size
  2. Differences in body plan (for example, the presence or absence of paired limb buds)
  3. Changes in the number of units in repeating series such as the somites and pharyngeal arches
  4. Changes in the growth of different fields (allometry)
  5. Changes in the timing of development of different fields (heterochrony)...Embryonic stages may be key targets for macroevolutionary change (Richardson et. al. 1997).
The empirical observation was: there are many differences between embryos at their various stages of embryonic development. The necessary inference was that all of these differences were due to natural selection driven evolutionary change. It is important to segregate the direct observation part of Richardson's very informative paper from his irresistible urge to give all of the credit for the way nature is to the natural forces of blind undirected evolution.

Let us consider Well's conclusions in The American Biology Teacher:

If evolution is central to understanding biology, as many writers have argued, then it is important that we give our students reliable information about it. Clearly Haeckel's drawings are not reliable.
Students may have teachers present "evidence for evolution" and later learn that the teachers misrepresented the facts, thus feeling betrayed by their former biology teachers and develop a distrust of science in general.

Yet Haeckel's drawings are still featured prominently in some biology textbooks. Of course it would be illogical to conclude that Haeckel's distortions invalidate Darwin's theory. Although Darwin considered the embryological evidence "second to none in importance" (Darwin, 1859, page 346), he did not base his theory on that evidence alone. Given the complexities of early vertebrate development, it might be better to look elsewhere for evidence of evolution, at least in an introductory course.... "Further study of the nature and modifiability of cellular and embryonic processes will help complete the explanation offered by Darwin for evolution as a process of descent with modification" (Gerhart & Kirschner. 1997, page 614).

Two contradictory opinions cannot both be accurate.

The field of evolutionary developmental biology may provide us with many new insights. But these will surely come from facing the facts of nature, not from bending them to prop up old misconceptions (Wells, 1999, emphasis mine).

 Wells made a very valid observation in that students tend to trust their teachers to deliver truth to them. They may, in fact, feel betrayed when they find out that they have been taught error. This observation serves to reinforce the problems our young people have when they are confronted with the need to choose between the "truth" about origins that is taught by their evolutionary naturalist teachers, whom they trust, and their various biblical naturalist teachers who taught a "different truth" during their youth as they grew up. Most people finally reach a point that they realize that two contradictory opinions cannot both be accurate. They are either both wrong or only one of them is right.

I was puzzled with the advice "to look elsewhere for evidence of evolution, at least in an introductory course." Of what use is false information in any advanced course level?

The faith-like allegiance comes through loud and clear. Darwinian evolution must be supported at all costs!

As a biblical naturalist, I see the Creator's hand in providing for the orderly, intricate development of living things from zygote through adult. I do not know all that is known about developmental biology and a lot is not yet known by any scientist, but I am fascinated by what I do know. The developmental processes provided by our Creator are truly sources of wonder. Our God really is an awesome God and worthy of our sense of awe.

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