Revisiting Haeckel's Drawings |

TBC Staff

Revisiting Those Pesky Embryo Drawings [Excerpts]

A few years ago, former NCSE [National Council for Science and the Environment] spokesman Nick Matzke called complaints over the use of Haeckel’s embryo drawings in textbooks a “manufactured scandal.” However, a variety of leading scientific authorities -- proponents of neo-Darwinian evolution--have also complained about the use of these drawings and the way that embryology is used to support evolution in biology textbooks. Are these authorities in on the big conspiracy to “manufacture” this “scandal” too? Here’s where things stand today:

Despite the fact that (in 2010 at least) out-dated concepts like “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” have been almost completely removed from new textbooks and that many (though not all) new textbooks use embryo photographs instead of fudged drawings, an examination of both recent textbooks and complaints from authorities within the scientific community show that there are still severe problems about how embryology is used to support evolution in biology textbooks. It’s worth noting that many of the positive textbook corrections in this area came because Dariwn-doubting scientists like Jonathan Wells exposed inaccuracies in textbooks.

In August 2008, The New York Times reprinted material from the NCSE claiming that the 19th century embryologist Ernst Haeckel’s “longdiscredited drawings” of vertebrate embryos have not been used in textbooks since “20 years ago” (10 Questions and Answers about Evolution, New York Times, August 23, 2008). That Haeckel’s drawings were fraudulent and have been used in textbooks is essentially beyond dispute, but the reality is that multiple biology textbooks have been used within the past 20 years that still Haeckel’s drawings to promote evolution (See Casey Luskin, What Do Modern Textbooks Really Say About Haeckel's Embryos?, Mar. 27, 2007, citing several examples).

In a 2000 article in Natural History, Stephen Jay Gould recognized that Haeckel’s drawings not only fraudulently obscured the differences between the early stages of vertebrate embryos, but that they were used inappropriately in textbooks: "Haeckel had exaggerated the similarities by idealizations and omissions. He also, in some cases--in a procedure that can only be called fraudulent--simply copied the same figure over and over again. At certain stages in early development, vertebrate embryos do look more alike, at least in gross anatomical features easily observed with the human eye, than do the adult tortoises, chickens, cows, and humans that will develop from them. But these early embryos also differ far more substantially, one from the other, than Haeckel’s figures show. Moreover, Haeckel’s drawings never fooled expert embryologists, who recognized his fudging right from the start.

"At this point, a relatively straightforward factual story, blessed with a simple moral story as well, becomes considerably more complex, given the foils and practices of the oddest primate of all. Haeckel’s drawings, despite their noted inaccuracies, entered into the most impenetrable and permanent of all quasi-scientific literatures: standard student textbooks of biology. . . .We should therefore not be surprised that Haeckel’s drawings entered nineteenth-century textbooks. But 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!" (Stephen Jay Gould, Abscheulich! (Atrocious!), NATURAL HISTORY, Mar. 2000, at 42, 44–45).

Gould also quotes embryologist Michael K. Richardson, acknowledging the widespread use of Haeckel’s drawings in textbooks: "If so many historians knew about the old controversy [over Haeckel’s falsified drawings], then why did they not communicate this information to numerous contemporary authors who use the Haeckel drawings in their books? I know of at least fifty recent biology textbooks which use the drawings uncritically. I think this is the most important question to come out of the whole story" (Ibid. at 45).