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Hoax of Dodos, pt. 1: Flock of Dodos Filmmaker Wrongly Claims Haeckel’s Embryo Drawings Weren’t in Modern Textbooks

John G. West

Note: This is the first of two blog posts responding to the errors and misrepresentations in the film Flock of Dodos. This post is co-authored with Casey Luskin. For more information, visit

Were Ernst Haeckel’s bogus embryo diagrams ever used in modern textbooks to prove evolution? Not according to filmmaker Randy Olson, who in his film Flock of Dodos portrays biologist Jonathan Wells as a fraud for claiming in the book Icons of Evolution (2000) that modern biology textbooks continued to reprint Haeckel-based drawings.

But it turns out that Olson is the one who is promoting a fraud. The diagrams in question were unquestionably used in modern textbooks, and Olson himself knows that fact.

In the nineteenth century, German Darwinist Ernst Haeckel produced drawings depicting human and fish embryos as almost identical in their early stages—supposedly providing evidence for their common ancestry. Olson concedes that Haeckel’s drawings are bogus, but he assures viewers that they haven’t been used in modern textbooks. “You don’t find” Haeckel’s embryo drawings in modern textbooks, Olson confidently asserts. “There’s no trace of [them] other than a mention that Haeckel once upon a time came up with this… idea that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” Intelligent design proponent John Calvert is then shown flipping through a biology textbook in a vain effort to find the embryo diagrams, and the only textbook Olson can find with the drawings dates from 1914. The segment closes with a scientist comparing biologist Jonathan Wells’ book, Icons of Evolution, to the National Enquirer and with an onscreen graphic showing Wells’ book next to a tabloid. The obvious take-home message is that Wells and other ID proponents who have criticized the continued use of Haeckel’s embryo drawings in textbooks are fabricating their complaint.

Olson’s account would have been news to the late evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould, who skewered the continued use of Haeckel’s drawings in the journal Natural History a few months before Wells’ book was published in 2000. Gould wrote:

We should… 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, March 2000, emphasis added]

Olson’s revisionist history would also be news to New York Times science reporter James Glanz, who in 2001 reported that Haeckel’s “drawings were reproduced in textbook after textbook for more than a century.” [James Glanz, “Biology Text Illustrations More Fiction Than Fact,” New York Times, April 8, 2001] Indeed, Glanz pointed out that one of the biology textbooks recycling Haeckel’s embryo drawings was co-authored by none other than Bruce Alberts, then-head of the National Academy of Sciences:

One of the texts that includes the faulty drawings is the third edition of ”Molecular Biology of the Cell,” the bedrock text of the field. Its authors include Dr. Bruce Alberts, a biochemist who is president of the National Academy of Sciences, and Dr. James D. Watson, the geneticist who shared a Nobel Prize for unraveling the structure of DNA.
In an interview, Dr. Alberts said he believed Haeckel’s drawings were ”overinterpreted,” or highly idealized, rather than outright fakes. But he said they would be removed from the fourth edition of the textbook, to appear at the end of this year.

Even self-proclaimed “evolution evangelist” Eugenie Scott at the National Center for Science Education hasn’t had the audacity to claim that Haeckel’s embryo drawings never appeared in modern textbooks. In an interview for the documentary version of Icons of Evolution, she explained that “the reason why the diagrams are reproduced is because they’re easily available. There’s no copyright on them. It’s an easy way to illustrate a point.”

It is true that after Jonathan Wells’ book was published in 2000 a number of textbooks removed Haeckel’s embryo drawings. But that is no thanks to defenders of Darwinism. As late as 2003, three textbook publishers were still trying to use Haeckel-based drawings in books submitted for review during the biology textbook adoption process in Texas. When Discovery Institute and Texans for Better Science Education brought up this fact, the reaction of Darwinists in Texas was to insist that the textbooks had no factual errors. Only after months of pushing by critics did the publishers finally agree to withdraw the drawings.

Now that Haeckel’s diagrams are on their way out because of the efforts of Darwin’s critics, Olson wants to erase this embarrassing episode from the history of evolution by pretending Haeckel’s drawings were never used in the first place. Has he been reading Orwell’s 1984, by chance?
Olson’s botched coverage of Haeckel’s embryo drawings may have been due initially to ignorance and sloppiness. Although in his film Olson claims to have read Wells’ book Icons of Evolution, he shows little indication of having actually done so. Since Wells’ book provides extensive documentation of the textbooks that have recycled Haeckel’s diagrams, it would have been easy for Olson to have checked the relevant textbooks if he doubted Wells’ account. But the excuse of ignorance no longer applies. At a pre-release screening of Olson’s film at the Scripps Institution for Oceanography in San Diego in April, 2006, Discovery Institute’s Casey Luskin confronted Olson with copies of recent textbooks that reused Haeckel’s drawings. Later Jonathan Wells sent Olson an e-mail providing a list of recent textbooks that have included the diagrams. Olson has been informed of the facts, but he has chosen to keep hoaxing his audiences.

Olson must believe his viewers are a bunch of “dodos” if he believes they are going to fall for such a complete rewriting of history!

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.