The Case for a Creator: Beating a Dead Haeckel

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 3

Ernst Haeckel died a hundred and fifty almost a hundred years ago [fixed - thanks, Alex!], but the creationists won’t let him rest in peace. In this section, Wells again exhumes these old bones and takes a few kicks at them, and imagines that by doing so he’s brought the entire edifice of modern evolutionary biology crashing down.

If you’re not familiar with Haeckel, here’s a bit of background. Ernst Haeckel was a nineteenth-century biologist, one who lived at about the same time as Charles Darwin. He’s best remembered for his dictum “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”, meaning that a developing embryo retraces the evolutionary history of its ancestors – i.e., a human fetus first passes through a fish-like stage, then an amphibian-like stage, then a reptile-like stage, and so on. Haeckel is also infamous for defending this claim by using his own drawings of developing embryos, which turned out to be faked to exaggerate the stages he claimed were there.

What makes this more than a hundred-year-old cautionary tale is that creationists claim that Haeckel’s drawings are still presented in textbooks as evidence for evolution. Here’s how Wells puts it:

“They’re still being used, even in upper-division textbooks on evolutionary biology. In fact, I analyzed and graded ten recent textbooks on how accurately they dealt with this topic. I had to give eight of them an F. Two others did only slightly better; I gave them a D.” [p.48]

Strobel chimes in, declaring that he too remembers being taught about these drawings as evidence for evolution, and that “anger was brewing inside of me” [p.48] as he realized that he had been duped.

I’ll give Strobel the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s confabulating memories. Wells, however, I don’t intend to treat so charitably: again, he is lying, making statements which he must know are false. P.Z. Myers quotes one of the books which Wells disparages by claiming that it is “resurrecting Haeckel”, Campbell’s Biology:

The theory of recapitulation is an overstatement. Although vertebrates share many features of embryonic development, it is not as though a mammal first goes through a ‘fish stage’, then an ‘amphibian stage’, and so on. Ontogeny can provide clues to phylogeny, but it is important to remember that all stages of development may become modified over the course of evolution.

Myers also cites a post listing a large number of other college textbooks that point out the problems with Haeckel’s hypothesis. Out of 15 books reviewed, only one presents recapitulation uncritically – and that one is from 1937!

All of Wells’ indignation is a smokescreen, intended to cover up an uncomfortable point: namely, vertebrate embryos do pass through a stage, called the phylotypic stage or the pharyngula, in which they all look very similar. Haeckel’s biogenetic law was a hypothesis intended to explain that observation. By criticizing one particular faulty hypothesis, Wells hopes to cast doubt on the observation itself.

Wells repeatedly attacks textbooks for making claims such as “the early embryos of most vertebrates closely resemble one another” [p.50], implying that this is an endorsement of Haeckel. In fact, this is a completely true statement, referring to the phylotypic stage. These patterns of embryological development are real, and they do not disappear just because one particular explanation of their origin is falsified.

To take the measure of Wells’ mendacity, realize that when he gives “grades” to textbooks, he lowers the grade if the book contains actual photos of embryos. He considers this a “misleading” tactic when it comes to making the case for evolution. Why, we wouldn’t want to show people what embryos actually look like, do we? It might give them the wrong idea!

This fact explains Wells’ great annoyance over the term “gill slits”, a lay term for branchial arches, which are a structure common to embryos at the phylotypic stage. Wells insists, despite the name, that these are not gills [p.51]. This is true, but unfortunately for him, he then goes on to undermine his own argument:

“In humans, the ridges become one thing; in fish, they become gills.” [p.51]

It’s correct to say that human embryos do not have gills. (That would be Haeckel’s biogenetic law.) But the more important point is one that Wells, unintentionally I’m sure, has illustrated: vertebrate embryos pass through a stage where they are very similar, and the same structures that exist in the embryonic forms of many species develop into completely different adaptations in the adult forms of those species. This is a phenomenon that evolution provides a good explanation for. How, or whether, ID can explain it is a question never raised in this book.

Other posts in this series:

Prayer Can’t Fight Ebola
Atlas Shrugged: The Craft of Not Acting
Repost: The Age of Wonder
Neil deGrasse Tyson Shows Why Small-Minded Religious Fundamentalists Are Threatened by Wonders of Universe
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Alex Weaver

    Err, according to my googling, he died in 1919.

  • AnonaMiss

    He docks points from his rating for including photos of embryos – and admits it?! (Where can we find an outline of his scoring system?)

  • TommyP

    Wow, losing points for including photos. That’s just… well, that just reminds me of when I was a good little creationist. I was under the impression that any photos offering evidence of evolution were taken by devil worshipers or they were warped by Satan’s evil power, or some equally nefarious thing. Or just outright atheist demon loving fabrications. I guess Strobel isn’t *quite* as bad as I used to be, but not by much, it would seem. Looking at photographs as a negative is just idiotic. Yes I used to be an idiot.

  • Gary

    I think it would be a worthy effort to create something similar to Haeckel’s drawing, but with recent photos of various embryos. Has anyone attempted to make such an illustration?

  • Modusoperandi

    Just a hypothesis, but I think this may come as a side effect of inerrancy. If any of the Bible is wrong, then none of it is authoritative. Ergo, if Haeckel cheated, then they all cheated. If Piltdown Man was a fraud, then they all are, etc. Since some Democrats are adulterers, they all are (wups, that one is correct).

    Plus, Haeckel lead to Darwin and Darwin lead to Hitler. True story.

  • Ebonmuse

    Err, according to my googling, he died in 1919.

    Doh. Alex is quite right; I don’t know what I was thinking there. I’ve fixed the piece to something more accurate.

    He docks points from his rating for including photos of embryos – and admits it?!

    Indeed he does, AnonaMiss. Here’s an excerpt from Wells’ Icons on Google Books. The relevant quote is on the end of p.103 and the beginning of p.104:

    Some textbooks, instead of reproducing or redrawing Haeckel’s embryos, use actual photos [italics as in original —Ebonmuse].

    …The 1999 edition of Campbell, Reece, and Mitchell’s Biology also uses photos of actual embryos that mislead students.

    Near the end of the book, on p. 255, Wells also explains that he grades books with a “D” if they use photos of embryos.

    Just a hypothesis, but I think this may come as a side effect of inerrancy. If any of the Bible is wrong, then none of it is authoritative. Ergo, if Haeckel cheated, then they all cheated. If Piltdown Man was a fraud, then they all are, etc.

    Excellent point, Modus, and I think there’s some truth to that. This probably also explains why creationists persist in believing that evolution necessarily must teach that it’s acceptable to kill the weak, practice euthanasia, and so on; since their holy book has both moral lessons and an origin story, they can’t comprehend the idea of a competing theory that doesn’t contain both.

    We also shouldn’t overlook the possibility of deliberate deceptiveness. Creationists are waging a propaganda war, not a scientific debate, and their main goal is to score points with the public. Any forgery that they can pull out and wave around “counts” for “their side” (such as Archaeoraptor, which I’ll get to shortly – another hoax that Wells flogs at length, even though it was swiftly detected and was never published in any peer-reviewed journal).

  • Modusoperandi

    Ebonmuse “…since their holy book has both moral lessons and an origin story,”
    And ToE is Darwin’s Special Revelation, making him its Moses, which may help explain why they try to tear the man down (since Joseph Smith wasn’t just wrong, he was a shyster and Mohamad wasn’t just wrong, he was a perv, Darwin mustn’t just be wrong, he must also have loved slavery, abortion, genocide, Imperialism and whatever else people have scapegoated him with for the last 150 years).

    “We also shouldn’t overlook the possibility of deliberate deceptiveness.”
    Some, yes. Guys like Phillip E. Johnson are true believers though. I’ve seen him interviewed, and I can’t see any indication that he’s being willfully dishonest.
    For the smarter ones reason is a slave to the Holy Spirit (WLC is the only example that comes quickly to mind. He’s not a Creationist Creationist like Gish, but he does go through the mental gymnastics to make sure that the answer is what it should be, not necessarily what it is…which is a pretty good definition of apologetics, actually. God is. God is good. God is the God of the Bible. Anything that casts doubt on that trinity must be wrong).
    Also, smart people are better at coming up with reasons to hold on to dumb beliefs (I skip that and just use dumb reasons for my own dumb beliefs. It’s easier and, in addition to dumb, I’ve also got a severe case of lazy).
    That means anything that contradicts the pre-drawn conclusion must be wrong. All transitional fossils must be forgeries, because life falls into “kinds” not “trees”, all methods that date something as being over 6k must be wrong since everything is younger than that, genetics is right within Man up to the point that it indicates common descent with other life (or if it does it just shows that God used the same template and it just happens to look exactly like that), chimps “simulate” thought, altruism and empathy while Man has the genuine articles because because God made only Man in His image, etc.
    It also means that any scientific conclusion stated as “is”, “did” or “definitely”, if later found to be incorrect or overstated (which happens) means that they all are, and scientists’ more common “if”, “likely” and “probably” are just admissions of weakness (especially when compared to “Genesis says…” & “And God said to…”, which are absolute and inviolate).
    Granted, I might just be reading more into it than is justified, but I’ve conversed with people who seem remarkably (if not absolutely) sure that the majority of the universe, as it presents itself, is wrong. I’m sure you know the same type of person, where any argument against ToE destroys it (no matter how distorted, evidence-lite, debunked or outright false it is), but the weakest anecdote proves the whole [insert holy book] True.
    On a side note, conversing with them has pretty much destroyed my ability to argue in good faith, to the point that I’ve actually gotten into arguments with people that for the most part I agree with (hopefully not here, but if I did that’s because you’re all wrong! Moo ha-ha!). If you can still maintain the ability to argue in good faith, you’re a better man than I (even if not, you’re still a better man. Frankly, I’m quite insufferable. I don’t even like hanging around me. I only do so to save on rent. Plus I give me a ride to work, which saves on gas).

  • Scotlyn

    Hey Modus,
    Don’t be too hard on yourself, I for one, always enjoy your offerings, especially as they often seem to come from some “lateral” side of your brain, and generally are quite illuminating. For example, I was just startled at reading

    “smart people are better at coming up with reasons to hold on to dumb beliefs”

    but you know, you are spot on, here. And, as a person who still enjoys a good-faith argument whenever possible, this is probably why I keep on niggling at people – especially when I can see that they are smarter than that!

  • Modusoperandi

    Scotlyn “…especially as they often seem to come from some “lateral” side of your brain…”
    Yes, that must be it. Lateral. (I see it more as a combination of an general inability to be reverant, and several years of writing for a humour wiki. Also, I am quite mad. Mad!)

    “…and generally are quite illuminating”
    Ah, I see now. You’re reading someone else’s comments.

    “but you know, you are spot on, here”
    That’s a simple combination of my own humble genius…and paraphrasing Shermer (see Why People Believe Weird Things, or any other number of articles he’s pen’d).

  • Scotlyn

    Well, long live irreverence and humour!

  • Modusoperandi

    Indeed. It’s the only thing that separates us from the chimps. Sure, they do stand up, but all the jokes are about poop and the throwing thereof.

  • RBH

    Gary remarked

    I think it would be a worthy effort to create something similar to Haeckel’s drawing, but with recent photos of various embryos. Has anyone attempted to make such an illustration?

    Michael K. Richardson, who has written on Haeckel’s embryo drawings, used to have a page of photographs, but it’s currently unavailable. See this abstract:

    Haeckel’s much-criticized embryo drawings are important as phylogenetic hypotheses, teaching aids, and evidence for evolution. While some criticisms of the drawings are legitimate, others are more tendentious.

    (I notice that the abstract is only intermittently available. Try a Google search on ["Michael K. Richardson" tendentious] to get other sites with the abstract.)

  • Mike Q

    Here is a link showing the embryo pictures and how they look like in reality:

    Haeckel was not just a nineteenth-century biologist, he was the most important propagator of evolution, even more influential than Darwin. It was Haeckel who popularized evolution, he reached the masses, with an incredible success. He was an artist, a philosopher but often not a strictly empirically working unbiased scientist. A strong motivation was his hatred against Christianity which he attacked heavily. His desire to prove evolution was so great that he even did not refrain from fakes.