“Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” This phrase, often heard in freshman biology classes, was coined by nineteenth-century German biologist Ernst Haeckel to describe the idea that the human embryo replays the steps of evolution as it develops. Simply stated, it means that the development of the individual embryo (ontogeny) of each vertebrate species retraces (recapitulates) the development of the whole group (phylogeny). Specifically, this theory has each embryo passing through a progression that resembles various evolutionary stages during the course of development. In short, observing the human embryo as it grows would be like watching a “silent moving picture” of our evolutionary past.
While Haeckel’s name might not sound familiar to you, one of the drawings he used to bolster his theory probably is. This now-familiar illustration (see figure below) of embryos of fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals lined up side-by-side is a common staple in most biology and embryology textbooks. This single figure has altered public consciousness of, and has become one of the best known “evidences” for evolution. Additionally, some individuals have used the concept of “embryonic recapitulation” to justify abortion by arguing that, after all, at various stages the fetus is no different from a fish or reptile. As an example, consider the case of the late evolutionist, Carl Sagan, and his wife, Ann Druyan. In an article titled “The Question of Abortion: A Search for the Answers” that they coauthored for the April 22, 1990 issue of Parade, these two humanists argued for the ethical permissibility of human abortion on the grounds that the fetus—growing within a woman’s body for several months following conception—is not a human being. Thus, the killing of this tiny creature is not murder.
And what was the basis for this assertion? Sagan and Druyan argued their case by subtly employing the antiquated argument based upon embryonic recapitulation. They wrote that the embryo first is “a kind of parasite” that eventually looks like a “segmented worm.” Further alterations, they suggested, reveal “gill arches” like that of a “fish or amphibian.” Supposedly, “reptilian” features emerge, and later give rise to “mammalian...pig-like” traits. By the end of the second month, according to these two authors, the creature resembles a “primate but is still not quite human” (1990, p. 6).
There is only one small problem. Haeckel’s illustration was a fake! Dr. Haeckel was an accomplished artist, as well as an anatomist. He used his art talent to falsify some of the drawings that accompanied his research articles on animal and human embryos, in order to make it appear as if embryonic recapitulation were true—when, in fact, it was not. History records that Haeckel was accused of scientific fraud by his peers and tried in an academic court at the University of Jena where he was a professor. (He was found guilty and, as a result, disrepute followed him for the remainder of his professional career.)
Haeckel’s drawings of embryos at three different stages for (from left to right): fish, salamander, tortoise, chick, hog, calf, rabbit and man (from 1876, Plates VI-VII). The supposed “gill-slits” are shown in red.
Recognition of Haeckel’s falsehoods still appears in scientific journals, as was evident in a letter to the editor in the May 15, 1998 issue of Science. The seven authors of the letter pointed out (correctly) that Haeckel was overzealous and purposely gave incorrect details in his embryonic drawings (Richardson, et al., 1998). In her book, Essays in the History of Embryology and Biology, Jane Oppenheimer observed that Haeckel’s work “was the culmination of the extremes of exaggeration which followed Darwin,” (1967, p. 150). She lamented: “Haeckel’s doctrines were blindly and uncritically accepted,” and “delayed the course of embryological progress.”
Embryologist Erich Blechschmidt considered Haeckel’s “Great Biogenetic Law” (as it came to be known) one of the most serious errors in the history of biology. In his book, The Beginnings of Human Life, he minced no words in repudiating Haeckel’s fraudulent forgeries: “The so-called basic law of biogenetics is wrong. No buts or ifs can mitigate this fact. It is not even a tiny bit correct or correct in a different form. It is totally wrong” (Menton, 1997)
In describing the general feeling upon discovering the truth, Sir Arthur Keith stated:
It was expected that the embryo would recapitulate the features of its ancestors from the lowest to the highest forms in the animal kingdom. Now that the appearance of the embryo at all stages is known, the general feeling is one of disappointment; the human embryo at no stage is anthropoid in appearance. The embryo of the mammal never resembles the worm, the fish, or the reptile. Embryology provides no support whatsoever for the evolutionary hypothesis (1932, p. 94)
Menton further suggests:
We could ignore this pathetic chapter in the history of evolutionism—were it not for something Michael Richardson mentioned in a letter to the editor in the August 28, 1998 issue of Science: “Sadly, it is the discredited 1874 drawings that are used in so many British and American biology textbooks” (p. 1289). The evidence of this statement is obvious when you look at just how far-reaching Haeckel’s drawings have become. Even Dr. Benjamin Spock saw fit to perpetuate Haeckel’s recapitulation myth in his well-known book, Baby and Child Care. Spock confidently assured expectant mothers that “each child as he develops is retracing the whole history of mankind, physically and spiritually, step by step. A baby starts off in the womb as a single tiny cell, just the way the first living thing appeared in the ocean. Weeks later, as he lies in the amniotic fluid of the womb, he has gills like a fish” (1997).
Unfortunately, the biogenetic “law” still is being taught as a scientific fact in many public schools and universities. Of 15 high school biology textbooks being considered for adoption by the Indiana State Board of Education in 1980, nine offered embryological recapitulation as evidence for evolution. Evolutionists themselves have conceded that the biogenetic “law” has become so deeply rooted in evolutionary dogma that it cannot be weeded out. For example, Paul Ehrlich observed: “Its shortcomings have been almost universally pointed out by modern authors, but the idea still has a prominent place in biological mythology” (1963, p. 66). It is time we began teaching the next generation the truth. All embryos are not the same, and embryonic humans are not the equivalent of fish, or reptiles. The evolutionists themselves have admitted as much. In their classic biology textbook, Life: An Introduction to Biology, George Gaylord Simpson and William S. Beck put it bluntly when they wrote: “Ontogeny does not recapitulate phylogeny.” Then, in a footnote at the bottom of the page where that statement appeared, they told the student: “You may well ask why we bother you with the 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 know therefore what recapitulation is supposed to be, and you should know that it does not really occur” (1965, p. 241).
Blechschmidt, Erich (1977), The Beginnings of Human Life (New York: Springer-Verlag).
Ehrlich, Paul R. and Richard W. Holm (1963), The Process of Evolution (New York: McGraw-Hill).
Keith, Sir Arthur (1932), The Human Body (London: Thornton and Butterworth).
Menton, David (1997), “Is the Human Embryo Essentially a Fish with Golls?,” http://www.gennet.org/facts/metro06.html.
Oppenheimer, Jane (1967), Essays in the History of Embryology and Biology (Boston, MA: MIT Press).
Richardson, Michael (1998), “Haeckel’s Embryos, Continued,” Science, 281:1289, August 28.
Richardson, M., J. Hanken, L. Selwood, G.M. Wright, R.J. Richards, C. Pieau, A. Raynaud (1998), “Haeckel, Embryos, and Evolution,” Science, 280:983-984, May 15.
Sagan, Carl and Ann Druyan (1990), “The Question of Abortion,” Parade, pp. 4-8, April 22.
Simpson, George Gaylord and W.S. Beck (1965), Life: An Introduction to Biology (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World), second edition.
Spock, B. (1998), Baby and Child Care (New York: Pocket Books).