email - December 2004
by Do-While Jones

Embryo Corrections and Clarifications

We really do value the email we get, usually because it shows us where we have not been clear enough in explaining a concept. Occasionally, though, it is valuable because it points out where we were wrong. This month, we got both kinds about last month's feature article.


Subject: Was Darwin Wrong?
From: Lester
Date: Fri, 03 Dec 2004 22:48:07 -0600

In this article you state, "Darwin believed that embryonic stages of development echo earlier stages of evolutionary history because he had seen Hackel’s faked drawings of embryonic development." Can you cite a source for that? I read in TalkOrigin's web site that Haeckel's drawings actually came after Darwin published his work.

TalkOrigins states in part, "Darwin's Origin of Species was published in 1859, after decades of research. Haeckel's theory was first published in *1866* , and Haeckel's diagrams were published in *1874*. Haeckel did *not* have any significant input into the Origin, but Darwin (and Lamarck and a number of German philosophers, such as Goethe) did profoundly influence Haeckel."



Oops! We were wrong. Darwin did not get his idea from Haeckel. But there are two silver linings to our mistake, so let’s look at both of them.

First, where did Darwin really get his ideas about embryonic development? According to one biology professor's web site:

K. E. von Baer had noted that the general features of a large group of animals appear earlier in the embryo than do the specialized features. Indeed, von Baer wrote:

"The embryo of the mammal, bird, lizard, and snake and probably also the turtle, are in their early stages so uncommonly similar to one another that one can distinguish them only according to their size. I possess two small embryos in spirits of wine, embryos whose name I neglected to note down, and I am now in no position to determine the classes to which they belong. They could be lizards, small birds, or even very young mammals."

Darwin quoted this (it was Thomas Huxley's translation) although he misattributed the story to Agassiz rather than to von Baer (see Richards, 1992 for an analysis). 1

Many people forget (or never knew) that Darwin did not invent the theory of evolution. Many scientists predating Darwin believed in evolution. They saw the similarity in many living forms, and believed that they must have come from a common ancestor. Their problem was that they could not figure out a mechanism by which evolution could possibly occur. Darwin’s stunning contribution was that he came up with a plausible (at the time) explanation of how evolution worked. He said that characteristics acquired by diet, exercise, and climate, were inherited by the offspring, and that natural selection preserved the most favorable characteristics because more offspring were produced than would survive long enough to reproduce.

Modern scientists know acquired characteristics are not inherited. Today, evolutionists are back to where they were before Darwin. They believe evolution happens, but they don’t know how. The best explanation they have is a collection of lucky mutations. Every single bone in your body is the result of a different lucky mutation. Not only that, every hair, every fingernail, every internal organ, absolutely everything about you is a lucky mutation. That goes not only for people, but for every other living thing as well. That’s an awful lot of luck and no science.

So, the first silver lining is that it gives an excuse to point out that there has been no fundamental progress in the theory of evolution for hundreds of years. Evolutionists still believe in evolution by faith, without any scientific explanation of how it could happen, just because some creatures look a lot like other creatures. Darwin’s source of change (characteristics acquired as the results of diet, exercise, and climate) has been thoroughly discredited, so they are back to square one.

The second silver lining is that it shows how circular reasoning can reinforce wrong ideas. Darwin’s theory made Haeckel’s fake drawings more plausible. Haeckel’s fake drawings made Darwin’s theory more plausible. Just because a theory is consistent doesn’t mean it is correct. Circular logic is always consistent, regardless of the truth.

Darwin did believe in embryology, as National Geographic said, but not because of Haeckel, as we said.


Subject: November 2004 Was National Geographic Wrong?
From: Eddy
Date: Sun, 28 Nov 2004 16:57:04 -0800 (PST)


My question is in regards to your Nov 2004 page, "Was National Geographic Wrong?", in particular, the section on "Embryology". Still, recently, I see embryology examples in textbooks and in exhibits. They don't use Hackles drawing, but recent photos and such. You mention embryology as related to evolution is "an idea that evolutionists wisely rejected long ago"

What references do you have to support this notion? I don't think I have read or seen anything where an evolutionist rejects this concept. I was a little excited to see this subject in the article, however, probably because of lack of space, there was no references.

This is an excellent, exciting question! It takes us to the two questions that are at the heart of every scandal investigation from Richard Nixon to Martha Stewart. (1) What did they know? (2) When did they know it?

Let’s begin by quoting the biology professor’s web page again.

A recent paper by Michael Richardson and his colleagues (1997) has corrected a major misunderstanding among developmental biologists and evolutionary biologists which can be traced back to Ernst Haeckel. Haeckel (1874) had claimed that members of all vertebrate classes pass through an identical evolutionarily conserved "phylotypic" stage. Until this new paper appeared, it was assumed that Haeckel was correct and that there was a particular stage of development that was identical to all vertebrates. … But Haeckel's drawings are wrong. Photographing actual embryos at these stages, Richardson and colleagues show that Haeckel's drawings are oversimplified to the point of obscuring important differences between classes of vertebrates. 2

That would make it appear that evolutionists didn’t find this out until 1997, but later professor Gilbert says,

Interestingly, this knowledge [that the drawings were “oversimplified”] appears to be "old hat" among German biologists. Haeckel's drawings were not trusted (see Goldschmidt, 1956), and Haeckel was accused of scientific fraud by a university court in Jena, where he worked and by other embryologists, as well (see Hamblin, 1997; Richardson et al., 1997b). Yet, the idea that early vertebrate embryos are essentially identical has survived. I think there were two reasons for the survival. First, Haeckels' illustration was reproduced in Romanes' (1901) Darwin and After Darwin. From here, the illustration entered Anglophone biology, "sanitized" from Haeckel. Second, the picture can be used (as it has been in several developmental biology books, including my own [Gilbert, 1997, p. 254]) to illustrate von Baer's principles rather than Haeckel's biogenetic law. 3

Gilbert is still using the “oversimplified” pictures in his biology textbook, but not to prove evolution. The fake pictures are used to illustrate von Baer’s principles. That is,

The notion of development proposed by von Baer is still used as a general approximation of certain developmental phenomena. Certainly, the early embryos of certain vertebrate classes are very similar (for instance, the chick and mouse twenty-somite embryos), and the processes of somitogenesis, limb formation, axis generation, etc. are probably conserved throughout the vertebrate groups). 4

In other words, the order in which the body parts (limbs, heart, brain, etc.) form is (sometimes) similar. Consequently (sometimes) the shapes of embryos of different creatures are similar.

The fact that the developmental order is the same (except when it is different ) is significant only in that it helps us to understand how the developmental process works. That is, it helps us understand which parts of the DNA instructions are executed first, and what causes the execution order. This is real science, which has absolutely nothing to do with creation or evolution.

An evolutionist would say that the developmental process is largely the same because all things evolved from a common ancestor. A creationist would say that the developmental process is largely the same because all things were designed by the same creator. It is circular logic in both cases.

Creationist Jonathan Wells wrote about Haeckel in Chapter 5 of his book Icons of Evolution. P.Z. Myers, writing for the militantly evolutionary web site, Talk.Origins, has very little good to say about Jonathan Wells. But, when it comes to Wells’ discussion of Haeckel, he says:

In the case of Haeckel, though, I have to begin by admitting that Wells has got the core of the story right. Haeckel was wrong. His theory was invalid, some of his drawings were faked, and he willfully over-interpreted the data to prop up a false thesis. Furthermore, he was influential, both in the sciences and the popular press; his theory still gets echoed in the latter today. Wells is also correct in criticizing textbook authors for perpetuating Haeckel's infamous diagram without commenting on its inaccuracies or the way it was misused to support a falsified theory.

Furthermore, Haeckel's theory was rotten at the core. It was wrong both in principle and in the set of biased and manipulated observations used to prop it up. This was a tragedy for science, because it set evolutionary biologists and developmental biologists down a dead-end, leading to an unfortunate divorce between the fields of development and evolution that has only recently been corrected. 5

So, Meyers is in violent agreement with creationists when it comes to the falsehood of Haeckel’s data. Therefore, the answer to the first question, “What do they know?”, is “They know the drawings were wrong.” That still leaves the second question, “When did they know it?

As Eddy points out in his email, we said that embryology is "an idea that evolutionists wisely rejected long ago". He wanted references. Here’s what Meyers had to say:

Unfortunately, what Wells tries to do in this chapter is to take this invalid, discredited theory and tar modern (and even not so modern) evolutionary biology with it. The biogenetic law is not Darwinism or neo-Darwinism, however. It is not part of any modern evolutionary theory. Wells is carrying out a bait-and-switch here, marshalling the evidence and citations that properly demolish the Haeckelian dogma, and then claiming that this is part of "our best evidence for Darwin's theory."


  • The biogenetic law is not Darwinism. Poking holes in the biogenetic law is easy to do, it's been done repeatedly in the scientific literature, and it does not damage modern evolutionary biology at all.
  • This observation isn't news. Von Baer pointed out in the 1820's that the earliest tissues to differentiate in the mammalian embryo are the extraembryonic membranes, which also happen to be among the more recent features in the mammalian lineage to evolve. The figure Wells uses to make this point (Figure 5-3) is a redrawn version of a similar figure published by Elinson in 1987.

One premise that Wells brings up with regularity in this chapter is that evolutionary biologists have relied on the false doctrines of Haeckel to prop up Darwinian dogma. He claims that Haeckelian theories "have periodically risen, phoenix-like, from the ashes of empirical disconfirmation" throughout the 20th century.  He uses section headings like "Resurrecting recapitulation" and "Haeckel is dead. Long live Haeckel." He accuses biologists of a conspiracy of silence, hiding the flaws in Haeckel's work on one hand, and using it as evidence for evolution on the other.

None of this is true.

This is so patently obvious that we only need to use Wells' own scholarship to show it. He cites a number of authors who discuss Haeckel or the biogenetic law:

  • Adam Sedgwick, 1894
  • William Garstang, 1922
  • Gavin de Beer, 1958
  • William Ballard, 1976
  • Stephen J. Gould, 1977
  • Richard Elinson, 1987
  • Jane Oppenheimer, 1987
  • Michael Richardson, 1995
  • Stephen J. Gould, 2000

However, here is the surprising thing: all of these authors condemn the idea that embryonic development follows the evolutionary pattern in no uncertain terms! Sedgwick, for instance, compiled an extensive list of objections to recapitulation as formulated by von Baer and Haeckel, and specifically rejected it as untenable - in 1894. This represents over a century of unambiguous denial of recapitulation. The date can be pushed back even further, since von Baer published his critique of recapitulatory interpretations of his observations in 1828. Wells cites these authors to back up his argument that Haeckel's ideas are false, but at the same time he tries to pretend that evolutionary biologists are all closet fans of Haeckel. If that is the case, where are the citations to prominent modern scientists defending his theories? 6

So, evolutionist Meyers claims that evolutionists haven’t believed in the embryological argument for more than 100 years.

We haven’t written much about embryology in our newsletters because we agree with Meyers’ point. Enlightened modern evolutionists have not only rejected Haeckel’s drawings, they have wisely rejected the theory those drawings tried to prove. We don’t want to take the cheap shots that Meyers criticizes Wells for taking.

But …

Last July we commemorated the 100th birthday of “The Elder Statesman of Evolution”, Ernst Mayr. In that essay we said, “We were shocked that Mayr included embryology in his chapter on evidence for evolution. … It is hard to believe that this book was published in 2001. These are the old claims that embarrass modern evolutionists. When we bring them up, evolutionists cry foul, claiming that we are taking cheap shots at long-rejected theories.”

Here is “a prominent modern scientist” using embryology as evidence of evolution. We cut him some slack because we respect ANYONE who lives to be 100 years old. Furthermore, he was 97 when he published the book, and we thought he could be forgiven for living in the past. Besides, we aren’t trying to make points by discrediting theories that enlightened, modern evolutionists have rejected.

The problem, which both Science Against Evolution and Meyers have failed to fully appreciate, is that there are a lot of unenlightened modern evolutionists out there. Eddy correctly observed that embryology is still in many current college textbooks. The thing that prompted Eddy’s email was our review of last month’s National Geographic magazine article which cites Darwin’s belief in embryology as evidence for evolution. National Geographic could have said Darwin was wrong, but the bold answer to their cover question was, “No. The evidence for evolution is overwhelming.” The implication is that embryology is part of that “overwhelming” evidence for evolution.

Should we devote more issues to refuting embryology? Probably not. It has already been refuted. It is a dead horse that need not be beaten any more. But as long as National Geographic, or anyone else, continues to use embryology as evidence for evolution, we have to tell the public that it isn’t true and has been rejected by enlightened evolutionists.

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1 S.F. Gilbert’s web page,, based on R. J. Richards’ The Meaning of Evolution. U. of Chicago Press, Chicago. (Ev)
2 S.F. Gilbert’s web page,
3 ibid.
4 ibid.
5 (Ev+)
6 ibid.