Lessons Learned from Haeckel and His Drawings: We Shouldn’t Always Believe What the “Leading Experts” Tell Us about Evolution

Links of Interest:
  • Hoax of Dodos, a response to inaccuracies in Flock of Dodos
  • Haeckel’s Bogus Embryo Drawings (Clip on YouTube)
  • The late Stephen Jay Gould was one of the most prominent and enthusiastic cheerleaders of biological evolution during the later decades of the Twentieth Century. As a Harvard professor who published many scholarly articles and books and taught biology, geology and the history of science, Gould was often viewed as a spokesperson for science and one of the most prestigious scientists in the world. As a frequent essayist in the popular press, Gould was also well known to the general public.
    To the consternation of fellow Darwinists, Gould often told the truth about Darwin’s theory of natural selection and how it measured up against the real world. In 2000, he published an article, entitled “Abscheulich (Atrocious!): Haeckel’s distortions did not help Darwin” (Natural History, March, 2000), that gave a frank assessment of Ernst Haeckel’s infamous embryo drawings and the ethics of using them to sell Darwin’s theory to students and the public.

    Gould described Haeckel as the “primary enthusiast and popularizer” of Darwin’s theory of evolution in the late Nineteenth Century, “exert[ing] more influence than the works of any other scientist, including Darwin and [T. H.] Huxley.” (Emphasis added.) Gould also admitted that Haeckel built his successful promotion of Darwin’s theory in part on the fraudulent claims made in Haeckel’s embryo drawings. Gould’s assessment of Haeckel and his motives? Guilty: “Haeckel had exaggerated the similarities [in early embryos] 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.” (Emphasis added.)
    Gould added that Haeckel’s drawings were known to be fraudulent by Haeckel’s scientific peers from the outset. Given the prominence of Haeckel and his books, a corollary would be that Haeckel’s scientific peers also knew from the outset that fraudulent drawings and claims were being used to sell Darwin’s theory of evolution to the general public.
    Gould offered a frank assessment of the vice in using such fraudulent drawings in scientific propaganda aimed at the general public. He wrote, “‘Improved’ illustrations masquerading as accurate drawings spell much trouble in popular books intended for general audiences lacking the expertise to separate a misleading idealization from a genuine signal from nature.”
    Hmm. If using such fraudulent illustrations in a popular book intended for adults “spells much trouble,” how much more trouble would result from using such fraudulent illustrations in biology textbooks aimed at impressionable youth in public schools? Gould offered a frank assessment of that vice as well: “The smallest compromise in dumbing down by inaccuracy destroys integrity and places an author upon a slippery slope of no return.”
    Yet, in 2000, when Gould wrote his article, Gould noted with disapproval that Haeckel’s drawings were still widely used in high school and biology textbooks. Gould provided a weak excuse for the textbook writers who were still including Haeckel’s fake embryo drawings in high school and college biology textbooks 100 years after they were known to be fraudulent. He claimed that the textbook authors were “probably quite unaware of their noted inaccuracies and outright falsifications” given Haeckel’s reputation as one of the most highly regarded scientists of his era.
    Perhaps Gould is correct and textbook authors who used Haeckel’s drawings, like Brown University biologist Ken Miller or National Academy of Sciences president Bruce Alberts, simply did not previously know that Haeckel’s embryo drawings were fraudulent when they included the drawings in their textbooks in publication at that time. Assuming such textbook authors were indeed innocent of purposely deceiving students, we are still left with a troubling implication: these textbook authors were not familiar enough with the subject matter of their textbooks to realize that Haeckel’s drawings were fraudulent. One is justified in asking, “How much informed, critical thinking is really going into textbook writing when it comes to evolution?
    Gould, of course, was no friend to critics of evolutionary theory. In his article, Gould made a feeble attempt to claim that the fuss over the continued use of Haeckel’s drawings 100 years after they were known to be forged was much to do about nothing in terms of the legitimacy of Darwin’s claims. But Gould, himself one of evolution’s most prominent proponents, had nonetheless exposed an undeniable and incredibly revealing historical fact: In 2000, many proponents of Darwin’s theory were using the same known fraudulent drawings and claims to sell evolution to school children that Darwin’s leading proponent had used to sell Darwin’s theory to the general public in 1900.
    Nascent filmmaker Randy Olson has recently put Haeckel’s embryo drawings back in the spotlight again by making the false claim in his documentary, “Flock of Dodos,” that Haeckel’s embryo drawings weren’t in fact included in any modern textbooks. When challenged on his claim by Casey Luskin and others, Olson has retreated to the equally false claim that Haeckel’s embryo drawings were only included in modern textbooks for the purpose of putting scientific beliefs about Darwin’s theory in historical context, but purportedly were never presented to students as accurate portrayals of nature.
    So who’s the public to believe on the question of whether Haeckel’s embryo drawings were indeed used widely in biology textbooks until rather recently, and the related question of whether Haeckel’s drawings were presented in the textbooks as evidence of Darwin’s theory of evolution? The renowned scientist Stephen Jay Gould, who admitted that the answer to both questions was “yes” and condemned the practice, or current Darwinist propagandist Olson, who seeks to deal with this inconvenient fact of the history of Darwinism by seeking to re-write it out of history?
    Personally, I have to go with Stephen Jay Gould and Jonathan Wells on this one.