Junior Birdmen of the Discovery Institute

And when you hear the grand announcement
That their wings are made of tin.
Then you will know the Junior Birdmen
Have sent their box tops in.


Human beings cannot fly.

It’s simply impossible, and we’ve known it for centuries; there is, however, a conspiracy of committed, dogmatic aerodynamicists who have a vested interest in preserving the myth of Wilbur and Orville Wright, and despite the obvious impossibility of flight which is readily apparent to anyone with common sense, they persist in promoting their “theory.”


There are honest engineers who can lay out in detail for you the impossibility of flight. The dogmatic Wrightists simply ignore weight-to-lift ratios, surface area, power output, and Reynolds numbers. Reynolds numbers prove that humans can’t fly, but you will never, ever see that in any aerospace engineering textbook. There is a world-wide cover-up: they don’t want to risk their cushy grants and their payola from the aerospace industry.


They hide the truth. That strange “flying machine” to the right? It never got off the ground! It fell apart on the first attempt to fly! Yet you still find it portrayed in the textbooks, intact and looking like it’s about to leap into the air. This is a long-running and disgraceful fraud. And if you look at the history of the Wright brothers, you’ll see that they relied on the prior work of people like Lilienthal and Maxim and Boeing and Curtis, all frauds and charlatans. How can you trust a theory built on failure and fakes?

You want to show me what?


That proves my case.


Look at this birdman. We can all agree that that guy never flew — it would be a joke to think otherwise. Yet you expect me to believe that you can add many tons of weight, millions of complicated parts, and make it all out of metal, and now it can fly? You’ve amplified all the problems in the original design a million-fold, and now you try to tell me it works? You silly Wrightists.

No, I haven’t gone insane. I made the absurd argument above just to give you a sense of what I feel when I read the latest from the Discovery Institute. They have this ridiculous site, Judging PBS, that purports to be a rebuttal to the PBS documentary on the Dover trial. It’s actually just another rehash of the dishonesty found in Wells’ Icons of Evolution — a series of misrepresentations of the state of biological thought. I keep hammering on the lies in that dismal book, but the DI keeps using it. In this case, it’s particularly egregious; the PBS documentary didn’t say anything about the specific issues they’re trying to rebut. It’s as if they’ve got nothing else but the same old recycled garbage.

The strategy they’re relying is the Big Lie: they make ten points (the same ten they always do), and practically every sentence is wrong—and they know we’d have to write a whole book to document and refute it all. So, as usual, I’ll just go after the one I know best, their bogus claims about Haeckel. You’ll see why I used the example of disbelieving in flight. If you’re already familiar with the absurdity of their Haeckel claims, skip ahead to the conclusion. I don’t mind, I’m rehashing old arguments they’ve never answered myself.

Here’s how their argument starts.

PBS observes that Darwin boasted that embryology provided “the strongest single class of facts in favor of” his theory of evolution. But Darwin penned those words in the 1860s, and developmental biologists have learned much since that time. In fact, Darwin staked much of his evidential support upon the work of the 19th century embryologist Ernst Haeckel.

This is completely false. The facts Darwin is referring to were first documented by Karl Ernst von Baer in the first half of the 19th century, and were noted and repeated by many other embryologists since, right up into the modern day. Haeckel published after Darwin.

After Darwin, it was discovered that Haeckel promoted fraudulent data to falsely support vertebrate common ancestry by overstating the similarities between vertebrate embryos in their earliest stages of development.

This is also false. Haeckel did reuse some woodcuts in a later publication; the infamous diagram was not one of them. He did oversell the similarities between embryos to make his case, and he did select embryos that fit his thesis. There is still a real phenomenon to be explained, however: vertebrate embryos do go through a stage where they resemble one another.

Haeckel’s infamous embryo drawings obscured the differences between vertebrate embryos in their earliest stages, leading to widespread belief in the false idea that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” (i.e. development replays evolutionary history).

This is correct: Haeckel did promote an idea called the biogenetic law, or “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” The DI does leave out a significant point, however.

When was the biogenetic law rejected by biologists?

The 19th century.

They’re flogging a dead horse. It isn’t merely dead, it’s skeletal. It’s bones are scattered. The worms have eaten it all. It’s gone to dust. The dust has blown away. There ain’t no horse there, but merely the memory of a horse, and even that is scarcely recollected. That horse is a freakin’ myth. Yet the DI keeps flogging.

The factual data reveal that vertebrate embryos develop very differently from their earliest stages in a pattern that is unexpected if all vertebrates share a common ancestor. Darwin himself was a victim of Haeckel’s fraud, and had Darwin known the truth, perhaps he might never have made the statement that PBS quotes above.

Whoa. This one is devious. How would you expect embryos to develop if they share a common ancestor? Apparently the DI expects that they would follow Haeckel’s biogenetic law and recapitulate their phylogeny. But as I’ve just said, biologists don’t accept the biogenetic law, and haven’t done so for over a century.

So what they’re complaining about is that the pattern of development does not fit a pattern that evolutionary biologists and embryologists rejected long ago.

Darwin was not a victim of “Haeckel’s fraud”. His interpretations were not based on Haeckel, but von Baer. Darwin was a conscientious fellow; I’m sure that if he knew of the complaints against Haeckel, he would have revisited the embryological work he’d referenced, but it would not have required changing any of his conclusions.

For example, vertebrates, sea urchins, insects, and various other invertebrate groups all use the same regulatory genes to control growth of their widely diverse types of limbs, but it is not thought that their common ancestor had a common limb. Similarly, vertebrates, insects, and jellyfish use similar master control genes to control the development of their widely different eyes, but their alleged common ancestor is not thought to have had a common type of eye. In these cases, living animal groups would NOT be expected to have inherited their genetic “tool kits” from a common ancestor because there is no reason to believe that the common ancestor was using that genetic toolkit for some common body part. As Wolf-Ekkehard Lönnig, plant geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Genetics writes, “No theorist in evolutionary biology will ever derive chicken and insects from a winged common ancestor, and yet, clearly related sequences are specifically expressed in wing buds and imaginal disks.”

Finally, a somewhat more difficult argument that doesn’t rely on lying about the history of developmental biology…but it’s still wrong.

It is correct that the wings of birds and insects are not homologous (that is, bird wings and fly wings did not evolve from a common ancestral organ, but instead arose independently), yet they also use many similar genes. Lönnig’s claim is irrelevant, since no evolutionary biologist is trying to claim that they are derived from a winged common ancestor.

We can see this when we look at the molecules, too. Bird limbs are specified in a different way than insect limbs; they have different networks of genes that pattern the limbs, too. However, the limbs are built using similar molecules: for instance, BMP-2,4/Decapentaplegic signaling proteins are used all over the place, and they’re often regulated by Hedgehog proteins. There are homologous gene modules that get co-opted in many ways and at many different times. That’s what developmental biologists mean when they refer to a genetic toolbox — it’s not loaded with legs and eyes and livers, it’s a collection of genetic circuits that we see getting used over and over in different tissues.

We do not think that the last common ancestor of bugs and birds had limbs. But it did have have a little genetic sub-program to organize mesoderm and ectoderm to make a generic protrusion from the body wall, and it used something like the Decapentaplegic gene; and it had a set of genes, the Hox genes, that set up axial patterning information. Those common elements got recruited in different ways to make non-homologous insect claws and bird wings — but we can still see the molecular homology.

Who is this Lönnig fellow, and how can he be working as a geneticist and be so unaware of a basic finding of comparative molecular biology? This is a non-issue, so I’m more than a little surprised to see anyone bringing it up as an objection…but then, this is from the Discovery Institute.

Watch as they make their ignorant incomprehension even worse:

Darwinists try to resolve such quandaries by appealing to extreme examples of convergent genetic evolution, what one might term genetic predestination. But such examples of extreme convergence strain the credulity of Darwin’s mechanism. Can blind and undirected natural selection cause many animal groups to independently deploy precisely the same genetic toolkits for development? Such a high level of genetic similarity seems highly unlikely to evolve independently numerous times in the history of life.

What? No one uses bird wings and insect legs as examples of convergent evolution, nor are the similarities of some of the regulatory modules ascribed to convergence. This is a very strange claim from the DI; only someone completely ignorant of modern molecular/genetic developmental biology would even propose it.

The reason that arthropods and chordates use similar families of genes to regulate development is because they inherited from a common ancestor, and that’s what any developmental biologist will tell you. It’s not due to convergence, which given the breadth and ubiquity of these genes would be absurd. These genes evolved in unicellular and colonial organisms for universal functions like gene regulation and cell signaling and signal transduction — multicellular animals have them because we inherited the core processes from eukaryotic bacteria.

This one question — “Can blind and undirected natural selection cause many animal groups to independently deploy precisely the same genetic toolkits for development?” — is such concentrated ignorance it’s hard to know how to deal with it all. Natural selection is not random, as they want to imply, but it is irrelevant: these molecular homologies are not the product of natural selection, but of common descent. The organisms are not “independently deploying” these genes: they are a product of their contingent history, and are not independent at all. That’s what the developmental biologists are saying repeatedly, and with great clarity, in their publications — the toolbox genes they describe are of interest because they represent a shared pool of potential regulatory networks that we have inherited from a common ancestor.

I don’t know whether to accuse the Discovery Institute of simply appalling scholarship and ignorance, or of outright dishonesty and misrepresentation. I should probably play it safe and slam them for both.

Their presentation is both irrelevant and wrong, and fails spectacularly for anyone at all who has any knowledge of the fields they are criticizing — their site is shamelessly targeting the grossly ignorant. I know, that’s a good-sized market share, but still, it’s further refutation of their claim to be trying to do science. They are doing propaganda, nothing more, and even that is being done incompetently.

  • They have attempted to sidestep the criticisms levied against them in the PBS documentary on the Dover trial by raising completely irrelevant arguments against “Darwinism”. This is a distraction campaign, not an effort to inform.

  • In this one example that I have dissected, they have demonstrated an abysmal ignorance of the subject they are trying to critique. There are evo-devo explanations of the phenomena they describe; what they purport to be our explanations are comical in how far off they are.

  • Their complaints are ahistorical and anachronistic. Darwin built on the foundation of embryological knowledge present in 1859, which did not include Haeckel. Haeckel was influential, all right, but on scientists in the last third of the 19th century.

  • The most damning hole in their ridiculous assault on evolution, though, is that the basis of their complaint is an antique, discredited theory that has nothing at all to do with modern comparative developmental biology, or evo-devo. It’s like complaining that buggy whips have no effect on combustion engines, or that Da Vinci’s flying machines wouldn’t work, therefore modern transportation technologies are flawed. It misses the point to such a degree that they should be embarrassed, if ever they had a sense of shame.

Here are two little movies to illustrate the problem. The DI is trying to show us the one on the left, the one that shows vintage ideas and experimentally falsified exercises; early efforts in anything tend to go off in all kinds of directions, with various dead-ends and non-starters. Haeckel’s hypothesis is exactly the same. It’s a well-intended scientific hypothesis that was a bit oversold and that flopped spectacularly, and was left by the wayside while other scientists, such as Roux and Conklin and Morgan and Spemann and many, many others moved on in productive directions that did work.

Those other productive directions have led us to modern genetics, molecular biology, and developmental biology — sciences that have strengthened the theory of evolution. Modern biology is a sophisticated, complicated enterprise, dependent on hard-earned technologies that have allowed us to look deeper and farther than ever before; like the space shuttle, it works, it might yet have a long way to go, but its existence is not refuted by the existence of past mistakes.

Everytime the Discovery Institute brings up the case of Haeckel, you should be wondering — are they so hard up for errors in evolutionary biology that they have to go back 140 years to find one?


  1. #1 Ian H Spedding FCD
    December 23, 2007

    Dawkins, as ever, put it most succinctly:

    It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).

    That the Discovery Institute is simply ignorant of the mass of evidence for evolution accumulated by biologists is the most charitable interpretation of why they write what they do. It’s hard to sustain, though.

    These people are not stupid. They have degrees, they are literate, they write books and articles. If they are ignorant they have no excuse for it.

    Neither do they appear to be insane, unless you count a delusionary belief in the existence of a god.

    So, whether we prefer to consider it or not, that just leaves wicked – and that’s not meant in the contemporary slang usage, either.

  2. #2 Fe˛rag
    December 23, 2007

    Got you! That picture you claim is of modern flying machines? The ones pretending to be Canadian? That’s so obviously a computer-generated forgery!

  3. #3 Brownian, OM
    December 23, 2007

    “It’s turned out the taxon is monophyletic and hence we don’t really use it anymore”

    Felicia, what do you mean by this? Monophyletic clades are generally the goal in cladistics, so there’s nothing about monophyly in a taxon that implies we wouldn’t use it.

    Did you mean to write ‘paraphyletic’ instead?

  4. #4 Ichthyic
    December 23, 2007

    I have to ask — what are the eukaryotic bacteria?

    the intelligently designed ones?

  5. #5 Ichthyic
    December 23, 2007

    “Oh, no Ma’am, I’m just a dolphin.”

    ah, that brings back memories.

  6. #6 Sastra, OM
    December 23, 2007

    I once used the Wright brothers example against, of all things, the Lady Hope story. Some creationist told me, as a clincher argument, that “Darwin renounced his theory on his deathbed.”

    Not true, of course, but even if it had been — so what? Nobody would care, I told her. Evolution doesn’t rest on Darwin’s belief, Darwin’s data, or Darwin’s sincerity. It’s gone on. If Darwin really had recanted it would have no more effect on biology than finding out that the Wright brothers were fakes would have on aviation.

    “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We are going to be forced to an emergency landing — word has just come that the Wright brothers never really flew at Kitty Hawk. Our deepest apologies. You’ll have to find some other means of transportation: we suggest fairy wings, as an alternative. Thank you for your patience.”

  7. #7 Jud
    December 23, 2007

    Sastra wrote:

    If Darwin really had recanted it would have no more effect on biology than finding out that the Wright brothers were fakes would have on aviation.

    Yah, I always thought that was the coolest thing about scientific theories and data – they just go on being correct regardless of anyone’s political or religious opinions.

  8. #8 Ichthyic
    December 24, 2007

    Well, I’m glad that science is so unlike religion…

    we’re so glad you can demonstrate the fact that creobots project their authoritarian value system onto all they see.

    I’ve added your comment as a datapoint.

    statistically speaking, the numbers showing that creobots are only able to interact with others while projecting went beyond significant over 3 years ago, but adding another datapoint to the thousand or so I’ve already entered is always good.

    larger sample size the better, and all.

    don’t actually have to do statistics on it, since I have yet to run into a creobot that didn’t project.

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