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Shubin’s Subtly Deceptive “Gill Arches”

by  Kyle Butt, M.Div.

In the late 1880s, Ernst Haeckel foisted upon the scientific community one of the most infamous deceptions of the last two centuries. He proposed that all organisms trace their evolutionary history as they develop through their embryonic stages. His descriptive phrase for this process, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” caught on quickly, but was soon seen for the false, ridiculous hoax that it was (see Harrub, 2001). One of the tenants of his fraud was that humans, as well as other animals, have gill slits at certain periods of their embryological development. He said that these gill slits were evidence of mammals’ ancestral relationship with fish. Of course, in showing his ideas to be false, the scientific community also acknowledged the evident fact that the folds of tissue in humans and mammals that were thought to be gill slits were nothing of the sort.

Knowing the fallacious nature of Haeckel’s hoax, one would expect the current scientific community to steer clear of possible misconceptions that would lead modern readers to the idea that Haeckel was right. That is not, however, what we find in Neil Shubin’s national bestseller Your Inner Fish (2009). As is evident from the name, Shubin attempts (but fails) to prove that fish have an ancestral relationship to humans. In his discussion of the folds of tissue that Haeckel falsely identified with gill slits, Shubin maintains that, even though we know they are not gill slits, they “look like the gill slits in the throat regions of fish and sharks.” Since he believes that they “look like gill slits,” he finds this justification to call them gill arches throughout his book. Under a caption on page 88 of his book, he wrote: “If we follow the gill arches from an embryo to an adult, we can trace the origins of jaws, ears, larynx, and throat. Bones, muscles, nerves, and arteries all develop inside these gill arches” (emp. added). Notice that the caption acknowledges that the arches have nothing to do with gills. Yet Shubin insists on referring to them as gill arches. On page 93, Shubin wrote an entire section under the heading “Gill Arch Genes.” On page 104, Shubin stated: “The embryos of different species are not completely identical, but their similarities are profound. All have gill arches....”

While Shubin claims to be distancing himself from the false ideas put forth by Haeckel (pp. 103-104), his subtle and dishonest connection of embryological folds in humans to gill slits in fish leaves no one wondering what he is trying to do. His artificial connection of these folds to gills shows that he does, in fact, adhere to the incorrect view that such “similarities” between humans and fish prove the two to be related. Shubin could have chosen any name he wanted for the various folds of tissue. Why did he choose “gill arches” and continue to proliferate the false idea that such embryological developments prove humans are related to fish? Of course, one can only speculate as to why such a knowledgeable, modern paleontologist and anatomy professor would choose such a course. It seems one obvious reason is to continue foisting on the unsuspecting public the demonstrably false idea, which has long been associated with Haeckel’s work, that humans and fish are related. Such subtle deception belies the true agenda behind popular, evolutionarily biased writings like Shubin’s.


Harrub, Brad (2001), “Haeckel’s Hoax—Continued,”

Shubin, Neil (2009), Your Inner Fish (New York: Vintage Books).

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