Exorcising the spectre of Haeckel again

In the comments, Art Hunt passes along a short analysis from Patrick Frank of the instances of Haeckel’s work in a number of biology texts from 1923 to 1997. Even the oldest was critical of Haeckelian recapitulation, and only a minority used Haeckel’s figure at all.

I looked at 15 books in total. Where Haeckel’s drawings appeared, that fact is noted. Where comment on Haeckel or his law is given, I have quoted the text faithfully, or in one case summarized, to give the flavor of the commentary.

Of the 15 books, only 5 show Haeckel’s drawings, two in whole, three in part.

Of those 5, only one presents the biogenetic law uncritically, and that book is the 1937 H. C. Skinner, T. Smith, F. M. Wheat “Textbook in Educational Biology”.

The other 4 of these 5, along with another 7 that actually mention Haeckel, either dismiss Haeckel’s laws as crude or incorrect, or else critique them in the sense that embryos resemble one another at early stages, but that adaptational pressures have obscured or removed most of the similarities.

Four textbooks didn’t mention Haeckel at all, or the biogenetic theory.

The first three entries below, arranged by ascending publication date, are among Pepcis’ list, though the last two are later editions.

Note that not one of the three support Pepcis’ accusation of fraud propagation. In every case, Haeckel’s law is critiqued, and Storer, et al. end with “Thus there is no precise recapitulation.”

Notice also that even texts written in the 1920’s discussed the biogenetic law critically, noting the adaptationist pressures on embryos as causative of differentiation among them. That means even before the 1960 date shouted by Pepcis, the biogenetic law was under general critical review in biology.

In all cases, even where Haeckel’s drawings appear, the representation of what they indicate is critically given and the biogenetic law is rejected as either wrong or a crude approximation.

There is a clear distinction to be made, therefore, between the presentation of Haeckel’s drawings and the propagation of a myth, most especially deceitful myth, about them.

There is no apparent evidence of a conspiracy to deceive or of a propagation of myth about Haeckel or his law among biologists.

However, evidently the reverse is true among creationists, since the evidence doesn’t support their claim. Meaning either they didn’t research the evidence (as Pepcis clearly did not), or else they LIED about it.

One last comment: In Simpson’s book, item number 11 below, I have included their footnote 8. In that footnote, they explicitly state that one of two reasons why they are discussing Haeckel’s law at all is because some mention of it still occurred in biology and they wanted to be sure that students understood that it is incorrect. Very damaging evidence of a conspiracy to deceive, that.

Here are the findings and emphases were in the originals:

    E. O. Dodson “Evolution: Process and Product” (Reinhold Pub., 1960)

    p. 46, 47 include Haeckel’s drawings.

    p. 45: “Ernst Haeckel brought this field into prominence in the immediate post-Darwinian period with his Biogenetic Law, which states that “Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny”. He believed that embryonic states corresponded to ancestral adults. … Recapitulation does occur, but not as Haeckel thought, for resemblances are chiefly between embryos, not embryos and adults, and embryos, too, have adaptive problems.”

    P. 51, under the heading: “Difficulties of the Biogenetic Law: “[T]here was much unsound biology associated with the Biogenetic Law, and few aspects of evolutionary science have been so heavily attacked in recent years. The reasons are simple enough. The recapitulation theory assumes that embryos need only repeat the past … Actually embryos must cope with a hostile environment even as do adults. … [M]utations can effect embryonic as well as
    adult stages, and these, too, are subject to natural selection, so that embryonic adaptations become part of the normal pattern of development.”

  1. T. I. Storer, R. C. Stebbins, R. L. Usinger and J. W. Nybakken “General Zoology” 6th ed. (McGraw-Hill, 1979)

    p. 270 shows Haeckel’s drawings for fish, chicken and human.

    p. 271 “The theory of recapitulation, or biogenetic “law”, of Haeckel (1834-1919) stated that an individual organism in its development (ontogeny) tends to recapitulate, or repeat, the stages passed through by its ancestors (phylogeny). Von Baer’s “laws” provide a more accurate statement. The pattern of embryonic development in a group of related animals may contain features reflecting their past, but many innovations are superimposed that often
    obscure the ancestral pattern, Thus there is no precise recapitulation.”

  2. Charles Darwin “The Illustrated Origin of Species” Abridged and edited by Richard Leakey (Hill and Wang, Pub., 1979)

    p. 213 shows Haeckel’s drawings of dog, bat, rabbit and human are shown.

    The legend to that picture is: “Embryos of the dog, bat, rabbit and man, at three stages in their development, as illustrated by Ernst Haeckel in 1891. Only in the final stages do the embryos reveal their identity. Darwin correctly surmised that this is because the mutations that produced the changes between them during their evolution tended to be late-acting. Haeckel, on the other hand, formulated the misleading dogma that every individual must
    go through the whole evolutionary process of its species during its development, or “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.”

  3. L. L. Woodruff “Foundations of Biology” (The Macmillan Co., 1923)

    No inclusion of Haeckel’s drawings.

    p. 364 provides evidence supporting the “… so-called Recapitulation Theory or Biogenetic Law”. However, the discussion is reasoned in terms of supporting data, including examples of the embryonic transition from as 2-chambered heart (as in fish) through a 3-chambered heart (as in reptiles) to a 4-chambered heart (as in birds and mammals), progressive development of the neural tube to the brain, and so forth.

    Also, a comparative illustration of three embryos at an equivalent stage of development is shown for fish, bird, and human. However, they are not Haeckel’s drawings.

  4. W. M. Smallwood “A Textbook of Biology” (Lea & Febiger, Pub. 1924)

    No inclusion of Haeckel’s drawings and no mention of Haeckel or biogenetic theory, recapitulation theory, or law of phylogenesis at all.

  5. G. G. Scott “The Science of Biology” (Thomas Y. Crowell, Pub. 1925):

    No inclusion of Haeckel’s drawings:

    P. 410: “Haeckel, in 1874, accepted this [biogenetic] theory completely. It is known as Recapitulation Theory or Law of Phylogenesis, which is that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny – that is an animal in its development goes through stages indicating or representing its ancestors … [discussion of the theory follows] … Though there is some truth in this theory, yet embryological history does not show all details of ancestral
    history. Special conditions of development necessitate special structures … The application of the so-called law of phylogenesis is limited indeed.”

    P. 526: “…[S]ome enthusiasts like Haeckel applied this so-called law [of Phylogenesis] too widely…”

  6. W. J. Dakin “The Elements of General Zoology” (Oxford U. Press, 1927)

    No inclusion of Haeckel’s drawings and no mention of Haeckel at all in the book, no mention of biogenetic law or law of phylogenesis.

  7. H. C. Skinner, T. Smith, F. M. Wheat “Textbook in Educational Biology” (American Book Co., 1937)

    p. 396 Includes Haeckel’s drawings.

    “About sixty years ago, Ernst Haeckel stated “Ontogeny is a short recapitulation of phylogeny”. This means an individual is a brief resume of the evolution if its race.”

    (This is the only text I found uncritically accepting of Haeckel’s law)

  8. R. R. Erlich and R. W. Holm “The Process of Evolution” (McGraw-Hill) 1963.

    No inclusion of Haeckel’s drawings.

    p. 66 under the heading “Modification of the Developmental System”: “Of all the phenomena of morphogenesis, none has received more attention from evolutionists than so-called recapitulation … [i.e.,] each organism goes through a condensed version of its phylogenetic history … This generalization was originally called the biogenetic law by Haeckel and is often stated as “ontogeny recapitulations phylogeny”. This crude interpretation of
    embryological sequences will not stand close examination however. Its shortcomings have been almost universally pointed out by modern authors, but the idea still has a prominent place in biological mythology.”

  9. T. J. Parker & W. A. Haswell “A Text-book of Zoology” (Macmillan & Co.) 6th ed. 1964.

    No inclusion of Haeckel’s drawings.

    p. 2 contains the only mention of the biogenetic law in the book: “‘Ontogeny,’, wrote Garstang in 1922 (in reference to … the so-called Biogenetic ‘Law’ of Haeckel) ‘does not recapitulate Phylogeny: it creates it.'”

  10. George Simpson & William S. Beck “Life: An Introduction to Biology” (Harcourt, Brace & World Pub., 1965)

    No inclusion of Haeckel’s drawings.

    p. 240, under the heading “Supposed Recapitulation”: “Early evolutionists, especially E. H. Haeckel (1834-1919) rephrased that generalization as the principle of recapitulation: “ontogeny repeats phylogeny” … It is now firmly established that ontogeny does not repeat phylogeny. [footnote 8]”

    Footnote 8: “You may well ask why we bother with principles that turned out to be wrong. There are two reasons. In the first place belief in recapitulation became so widespread that it is still evident in some writings about biology and evolution. You should therefore know it does not really occur. In the second place, this is a good example of how scientific knowledge is gained. Von Baer and Haeckel were not flatly or wholly wrong. They made
    successive approximations to truth, and our present closer approximation is based on their accumulation of facts and attempts at explanation.”

  11. C. A. Villee and V. G. Dethier “Biological Principles and Processes” (W. B. Saunders Co., Pub., 1976)

    p. 295 shows Haeckel’s drawings of fish, chick, pig, and human.

    p. 295: “… Ernst Haeckel in 1866 … developed his theory that embryos, in the course of development, repeat the evolutionary history of their ancestors in some abbreviated form. This idea, succinctly stated as “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” stimulated research in embryology… It is now clear that the embryos of the higher animals resemble the embryos of lower forms, not the adults, as Haeckel believed.

    [In recapitulation, however] the embryo eliminates some steps and alters or distorts others … The concept of recapitulation must be used with due caution, but it can be helpful in understanding … curious and complex patterns of development.”

  12. W. L. Smallwood & P. Alexander “Biology” (Silver Burdett Co., Pub., 1981)

    No inclusion of Haeckel’s drawings, no mention of Haeckel, the biogenetic law, or recapitulation theory in embryos.

    I must say, though, that the book devotes only 2 pages to evolution and looks like a really poor text book.

  13. W. K. Purves, G. H. Orians & H. C. Heller “Life: the science of biology” (Sinauer Assoc., W. H. Freeman Pub., 1992)

    No inclusion of Haeckel’s drawings, no mention of Haeckel, no mention of biogenetic law.

    This text book looks excellent and is heavy on evolution. One entire chapter is devoted to embryology and animal development, but no mention at all of the biogenetic law.

  14. C. P. Hickman, jr., L. S. Roberts, A. Larson “Integrated Principles of Zoology” (Wm. C. Brown, Pub., 1997) 10th ed.

    No inclusion of Haeckel’s drawings.

    p. 161, under the heading “Ontogeny, Phylogeny and Recapitulation”: “… Haeckel gave his generalization: ontogeny (individual development) recapitulates (repeats) phylogeny (evolutionary descent). This notion became known simply as recapitulation or the biogenetic law. Haeckel based his biogenetic law on the flawed premise that evolutionary change occurs by successively adding stages onto the end of an unaltered ancestral ontogeny…”

    Pictures of embryos of fish, bird, reptile and human are given showing similarities among them, but the drawings are not Haeckel’s.

There’s also a very good comment from Ahcuah, who found a high school biology text from 1968, part of the famous BCCS series. Here’s what it says about recapitulation:

Embryology also gives us clues to paths of evolution. The similarities of embryological development among multicellular animals were intensively studied during the latter half of the nineteenth century. These studies led to the conclusion that the embryonic development of the individual repeated the evolutionary history of the race. Thus, it was thought to be possible to trace the evolutionary history of a species by a study of its embryonic development. This idea was so attractive as to gain the status of a biological principle.

Today the idea of embryonic resemblances is viewed with caution. We can see and demonstrate similarities between embryos of related groups, as shown in Figure 31-13. However, while a certain amount of recapitulation is unquestioned, the old idea that a human passes through fish, amphibian, and reptile stages during embryonic development is not correct.

At this point, I’d say Jonathan Wells’ claim is pretty much dead. Haeckel’s work is not one of the pillars upon which evolution is built, and biologists have been saying so for at least 85 years (and more like over a century). Next time one of those clowns tries to haunt modern biology with the ghost of Ernst Haeckel, just look ’em in the eye and tell them they’re full of crap.


  1. #1 Ichthyic
    February 10, 2007

    holy crap that is about the dumbest thing you could have possibly said, given the content of the thread you posted it in.


  2. #2 rrt
    February 11, 2007

    FWIW, attotheobscure (Atto?), I think ichthyic’s comment was motivated at least in part by the fact that Charlie B.’s comment described (rather clearly I thought) what Alberts said. Familiarity with the text wasn’t required there.

  3. #3 David Marjanovi?
    February 11, 2007

    If you’re at all familiar with that rather standard text, you’ll also know that the title is accurate, and this really isn’t a book about development, nor is it really an introductory biology text.

    British Understatement from Minnesota! The book is the size of a frying pan and the weight of two. It is positively monstrous. If you try reading just about any chapter of it before having studied molecular biology for a year or two, good luck.

  4. #4 David Marjanovi?
    February 11, 2007

    If you’re at all familiar with that rather standard text, you’ll also know that the title is accurate, and this really isn’t a book about development, nor is it really an introductory biology text.

    British Understatement from Minnesota! The book is the size of a frying pan and the weight of two. It is positively monstrous. If you try reading just about any chapter of it before having studied molecular biology for a year or two, good luck.

  5. #5 David Marjanovi?
    February 11, 2007

    Huh? What’s remarkable about a book being orange? ~:-|

  6. #6 David Marjanovi?
    February 11, 2007

    Huh? What’s remarkable about a book being orange? ~:-|

  7. #7 Ichthyic
    February 12, 2007

    Jeebus, talk about people dense to the concept, lago even went over to exilefromgroggs (paul) site and patiently explained it YET AGAIN.

    Paul’s response (after about the 13th repetition):

    “well, why didn’t you say so?”


  8. #8 truth machine
    December 31, 2007

    Just thinking about this subject logically, which came first the chicken or the egg?

    See, there’s this process called evolution … at some point in the past, chickens were somewhat less chicken-like than they are now and chicken eggs were somewhat less chicken egg -like. Go back far enough, and the thing hatching from the egg wouldn’t be recognizable as a chicken, but the egg would still be an egg (but not a chicken egg).

    Just before the fish decided to venture on to dry land, did it evolve lungs, if so why didn’t it drown?

    Whales have lungs and they don’t drown, so why do you think things with lungs must drown in water?

    You don’t have the right picture, because you aren’t taking into account how much time this process took, with very small gradual changes. The creatures that first moved onto land were already breathing air while in shallow water. Have you heard of lungfish? They don’t actually have lungs, they have a modified swim bladder that can absorb oxygen — so fish can come out of the water without evolving lungs first.

  9. #9 truth machine
    December 31, 2007

    All I’ve said is that using Haeckel’s pictures overplay the evidence.

    You don’t know what you’re talking about; what you’ve said is wrong.

  10. #10 truth machine
    December 31, 2007

    But the point is ambiguously made, and illustrated with Haeckel’s embryos, WHICH MAKES THEM LOOK THE SAME!

    Why do you capitalize this, as if it weren’t true that they look the same, when they do? Huh, Paul? Why do you do that? Do you think they don’t look the same? If so, why do you think that?

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