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Darwin’s Favourite Evidence: Fraudulent!

by Richard Peachey

[Featured as an advertorial in Cascade News, University of the Fraser Valley student newspaper, Nov. 20, 2009]

During the 1994-95 school year, I took a two-semester course in molecular biology at UFV. The textbook for this course was the massive Molecular Biology of the Cell (3rd edition. New York: Garland Publishing, 1994), authored by a team of eminent scientists including National Academy of Sciences president Bruce Alberts and Nobel laureate James Watson. Our instructor, Terry Starr, referred to this volume as the "bible" of molecular biology.

Now, within this "bible," on page 33, was a set of of vertebrate embryo drawings taken from an 1874 work by the "German Darwin," Ernst Haeckel. The caption below the drawings claimed (erroneously, as it now turns out) that the early stages of these embryos were very similar, and that they were drawn roughly to scale. But about two years after I completed my molecular biology course, an article appeared in the leading North American journal Science, exposing these drawings as utterly fraudulent. Here are the key portions of that article:

"Generations of biology students may have been misled by a famous set of drawings of embryos published 123 years ago by the German biologist Ernst Haeckel. They show vertebrate embryos of different animals passing through identical stages of development. But the impression they give, that the embryos are exactly alike, is wrong, says Michael Richardson, an embryologist at St. George's Hospital Medical School in London. He hopes once and for all to discredit Haeckel's work, first found to be flawed more than a century ago.

"Richardson had long held doubts about Haeckel's drawings because they didn't square with his understanding of the rates at which fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals develop their distinctive features. So he and his colleagues did their own comparative study, reexamining and photographing embryos roughly matched by species and age with those Haeckel drew. Lo and behold, the embryos 'often looked surprisingly different,' Richardson reports in the August issue of Anatomy and Embryology [196:91-106]. . . .

"Not only did Haeckel add or omit features, Richardson and his colleagues report, but he also fudged the scale to exaggerate similarities among species, even when there were 10-fold differences in size. Haeckel further blurred differences by neglecting to name the species in most cases, as if one representative was accurate for an entire group of animals. In reality, Richardson and his colleagues note, even closely related embryos such as those of fish vary quite a bit in their appearance and developmental pathway. 'It looks like it's turning out to be one of the most famous fakes in biology,' Richardson concludes.

"This news might not have been so shocking to Haeckel's peers in Germany a century ago: They got Haeckel to admit that he relied on memory and used artistic license in preparing his drawings, says Scott Gilbert, a developmental biologist at Swarthmore Colle ge in Pennsylvania. But Haeckel's confession got lost after his drawings were subsequently used in a 1901 book called Darwin and After Darwin and reproduced widely in English-language biology texts" (Elizabeth Pennisi, "Haeckel's Embryos: Fraud Rediscovered." Science 277:1435, 1997).

(To view a sampling of Richardson's photos together with Haeckel's drawings, go to <>.)

Harvard evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould made it clear that he considered the widespread use of these fraudulent drawings in textbooks to be no trivial matter:

"Haeckel's forceful, eminently comprehensible, if not always accurate, books appeared in all major languages and surely exerted more influence than the works of any other scientist, including Darwin and Huxley (by Huxley's own frank admission), in convincing people throughout the world about the validity of evolution. . . . we do, I think, have the right to be both astonished and ashamed by the century of mindless recycling that has led to the persistence of these drawings in a large number, if not a majority, of modern textbooks!" (Natural History 109[2]:42, 45, 2000).

Michael Behe, the "Intelligent Design" advocate and author of Darwin's Black Box, told this story:

". . . the misleading drawings were used in biology texts for a hundred years because they were thought to support Darwinian evolution. In seventh grade in parochial school my wife’s science class was shown Haeckel's drawings by their teacher, a Holy Cross brother. 'Evolution is true,' the good Brother told them with a flourish, 'get used to it.' He certainly thought he was giving his students the straight facts, and he wanted them to form their views in weighty matters based on those facts. But, unknown to him, the facts were fraudulent" (In William A. Dembski [ed.], Uncommon dissent: intellectuals who find Darwinism unconvincing. Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2004, p. 147).

The year after Richardson's detailed exposé was published, his co-author James Hanken wrote:

"To some a genius, to others a bigoted zealot and fraudulent scientist, Haeckel was arguably, next to Darwin, the dominant intellectual figure of his time. . . . He treated evolutionary biology almost as a religion and believed that just as one could apply the concept of natural selection to animals and plants, one could also determine which groups of humans were superior. Offering intellectual justification and 'scientific' support for racism, anti-Semitism, and eugenics, his ideas were later a major ideological influence on the National Socialist German Workers' Party, better known as the Nazis" (Natural History 107[10]:56, 1998).

How ironic (and disturbing), then, that Haeckel's "evidence" turns out to have been a favourite of Darwin's!

"Hardly any point gave me so much satisfaction when I was at work on the Origin, as the explanation of the wide difference in many classes between the embryo and the adult animal, and of the close resemblance of the embryos within the same class. . . . Within late years several reviewers have given the whole credit to Fritz Müller and [Ernst] Häckel, who undoubtedly worked it out much more fully, and in some respects more correctly than I did" (Francis Darwin [ed.], The Autobiography of Charles Darwin and Selected Letters. New York: Dover Publications, 1958 [original: 1892], p. 46).

Richard Peachey is UFV's first science graduate (BSc, Biology and Chemistry, 1995); he is a past vice-president of the Creation Science Association of British Columbia.