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Flock of Dodos, or Pack of Lies?

EDITORS NOTE: This is an updated and expanded version of a previous post.

Darwinist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson showed “Flock of Dodos” in Seattle on Wednesday, February 7. Although the film sacrifices truth in order to tell a good story, it fails even at that. As entertainment, it’s a flop.

But I’m less interested in the film’s cinematic shortcomings than in the way it misrepresents the truth — and in the way Olson is dealing with criticisms of those misrepresentations.

In his film, Olson implies that I’m the one guilty of misrepresentation for reporting in my 2000 book Icons of Evolution that modern biology textbooks use faked embryo drawings to convince students of Darwinism — the theory that all living things are descended from a common ancestor by unguided natural processes such as random variation and survival of the fittest. The embryo drawings purport to show that fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and humans look almost identical in their earliest stages and thus provide evidence that we all share a common ancestor.

Yet the drawings (by 19th century German Darwinist Ernst Haeckel) not only distort the embryos they purport to represent — they also omit stages that do not fit Darwin’s theory. Darwin thought that the “strongest single class of facts in favor of” his theory was that embryos of different classes are most similar in their earliest stages and become different only as they develop toward adulthood. But the truth is that early vertebrate embryos are strikingly different from each other; they become somewhat similar (though not as similar as Haeckel made them out to be) halfway through development, before they become different again as adults.

Olson concedes that the drawings are fraudulent, but he states on camera that “you don’t find them” in recent textbooks. In one scene, Olson hands Kansas attorney (and Darwin critic) John Calvert a recent biology textbook and challenges him to find Haeckel’s drawings in it. Taken by surprise, Calvert can’t do it. Afterwards, Olson displays a 1914 textbook containing the drawings but claims they haven’t been used since then. The film then compares Icons of Evolution to a supermarket tabloid.

Calvert later faxed Olson pages from a recent textbook containing Haeckel’s drawings, but Olson gives no hint of that in his film. Furthermore, Olson claims to have read Icons of Evolution, but if had he would have known that eight widely used biology textbooks with copyright dates between 1998 and 2000 contain versions of the faked drawings. After hearing reports of the film before it was released, I sent Olson an email in May 2006 citing three more textbooks with copyright dates of 2004 that contained Haeckel’s drawings, and I suggested: “You owe it to your audiences to acknowledge that in this respect your film is promoting a demonstrable lie.”
Olson ignored me.

The evening “Flock of Dodos” showed in Seattle, several people in the audience asked Olson about the discrepancy between the claims in his film and the contents of the textbooks. The next morning, Olson wrote on an Internet blog:

“While it’s important that everyone keep straight the absurdity of wrangling over Haeckel’s embryos, it is much more important that a single word is kept in mind throughout this — TRIVIA. Everyone needs to stay focused on the larger issue which is the subtitle of Wells’s book, ‘Why much of what we teach about evolution is wrong.’ As I point out in Dodos, he doesn’t say ‘some,’ or ‘a little bit,’ or ‘a few things.’ He says MUCH.”

Olson continued:

“The important thing is that the whole process needs to begin with THE BURDEN OF PROOF being on him [Wells] … to make the case for this word ‘much.’ With the Haeckel’s embryos anecdote he is implying that the entire field of evolutionary embryology is faulty just because of this piece of teaching trivia which is a crusty artifact from the world of science history.”

But if Haeckel’s drawings were just a “crusty artifact from the world of science history,” they wouldn’t still be used in textbooks as evidence for Darwinian evolution. Furthermore, there are many other misrepresentations in the teaching of evolution, even in embryology. For example, textbooks tell students that mutations in embryos account for the origin of new organs and body plans, even though experiments have shown that no matter what we do to a fruit fly embryo there are only three possible outcomes: a normal fruit fly, a defective fruit fly, or a dead fruit fly. Biology textbooks also distort and exaggerate the evidence from fossils, molecules, comparative anatomy, and field studies of natural selection.

Trivial? Only if you think that misrepresenting the evidence for a scientific theory is trivial.

Since writing Icons of Evolution I’ve learned that the evidence for Darwinian evolution is even weaker than I once thought. If I were writing the book today, its subtitle might be “Why MOST of what we teach about evolution is wrong.”
Olson insists that the burden of proof is on me, but that’s just goofy. The burden of proof is on those who claim that “evolution is a fact” supported by “overwhelming evidence,” and that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” (a slogan Olson repeats in his film). These are extraordinary claims, and as such they require extraordinary support — which Darwinists keep promising but fail to deliver. I show just how unsupported these inflated claims are in my 2006 book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design.

One more thing. Olson’s comments the day after showing his film in Seattle were posted on a blog maintained by University of Minnesota biologist P.Z. Myers, who declared in 2005 that it’s time “for scientists to break out the steel-toed boots and brass knuckles, and get out there and hammer” on those who criticize Darwinism. Just before Olson posted his comment, Myers wrote on his blog that the point of Haeckel’s embryo drawings “is still valid; there is an interesting phenomenon going on in development, in which there is a period during which the body plan of vertebrates is roughly laid out.”

Is that really what biology textbooks are saying with Haeckel’s fraudulent drawings? Of course not. In fact, if Olson objects to trivia, it’s hard to imagine a more trivial statement than “there is a period during which the body plan of vertebrates is roughly laid out.” Since animals aren’t born as fully formed adults, but develop from single egg cells, this statement is about as meaningful as “the sky is above us” or “the future lies ahead.”

Myers’s statement reminds me of a bait-and-switch advocated by National Center for Science Education Director Eugenie Scott (whom Olson in his blog post praises along with Myers). Scott recommends peddling Darwinian evolution to unsuspecting students by telling them that evolution is “the way we try to understand change through time. The present is different from the past.” After she gets them nodding in agreement to something so trivially obvious that no sane person would deny it, she gradually introduces them to “The Big Idea” — Darwinism.

This is not science, but a con game, and “Flock of Dodos” is part of it.
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Jonathan Wells

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Jonathan Wells has received two Ph.D.s, one in Molecular and Cell Biology from the University of California at Berkeley, and one in Religious Studies from Yale University. A Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, he has previously worked as a postdoctoral research biologist at the University of California at Berkeley and the supervisor of a medical laboratory in Fairfield, California. He also taught biology at California State University in Hayward and continues to lecture on the subject.