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Reason and Revelation Volume 23 #1

Embryonic Recapitulation—Again!

by  Brad Harrub, Ph.D.

The call was just like many others that we receive at our offices in Montgomery. On the other end of the line was a Christian mother who had sent her son away to college, only to discover he was abandoning his faith in the Bible in favor of “science.” During our conversation, the mother related to me some of the material that her son said “proved” that humans had evolved—claims like human embryos having gill slits and evolutionary tails while they are growing in the womb. “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” is the mantra so often heard in freshman biology classes—a concept which, simply stated, theorizes that human embryos replay the steps of evolution as they develop.

The cover story of the November 11, 2002 issue of Time magazine detailed the latest findings in human fetal development. Juxtaposed between the illustrations and the article are photo-captions that contain throwbacks to this outdated embryonic recapitulation theory: “32 days: ...The brain is a labyrinth of cell-lined cavities, while the emerging arms and legs still resemble flipper-like paddles. 40 days: At this point, a human embryo looks no different from that of a pig, chick or elephant. All have a tail, a yolk sac and rudimentary gills” (Nash, 2002, 160[20]:71).

The article itself presents a “marvelous,” seemingly “miraculous,” and “vastly complicated” embryonic process. But those glossy pictures—the ones people tend to remember—have captions that paint an entirely different picture.

Is it correct that the human embryo goes through various stages during its development that resemble its evolutionary ancestors? No, it is not. As Jonathan Sarfati noted: “A human embryo never looks reptilian or pig-like. A human embryo is always a human embryo, from the moment of conception; it is never anything else. It does not become human sometime after eight weeks” (2002, p. 202, emp. in orig.). The scientific community has known for decades that Ernst Haeckel—the man responsible for conjuring up this theory and then falsifying drawings to support it—purposely misled the public during the late 1800s. Embryologist Erich Blechschmidt regarded Haeckel’s “Great Biogenetic Law” (as it came to be known) as one of the most egregious errors in the history of biology.

So why do Time magazine and modern-day professors still perpetuate this falsehood—a theory that was debunked over a century ago? Many individuals use this “principle of embryonic recapitulation” to justify the idea that embryos are not human. After all, at various stages, they say, 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 co-authored 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. Using the antiquated argument of embryonic recapitulation, Sagan and Druyan suggested that an embryo is first “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. According to these authors, by two months the creature resembles a “primate but is still not quite human” (1990, p. 6).

Imagine, then, scientists’ surprise when the new Bush administration research guidelines classified embryos as “human subjects” (see Kass, 2002). In this report of the President’s Counsel on Bioethics, the statement is made: “We hold that the case for treating the early-stage embryo as simply the moral equivalent of all other human cells is simply mistaken” (p. LIV). Erika Check, a staff writer for Nature, sounded the battle-cry for scientists in an article titled “U.S. Biologists Wary of Move to View Embryos as Human Beings,” which appeared in the November 7, 2002 issue. For the first time in U.S. history, scientists are facing a new definition of human beings that may force them to rein in some of their experimentation on human embryos. With embryos now being classified as humans, they no longer will be subjected to experiments that result in their death. Nor can they any longer be “conveniently” washed down the drain. And scientists aren’t very happy about it! So, prepare to see more of Haeckel’s hoax promoted—as uneasy U.S. researchers decry this classification of embryos as human, and try to shift the focus away from human life and back toward “worms and reptile-like creatures.” Call it a reptile, amphibian, or pig, but that does not change the fact that it is, and always will be, a human being.


Check, Erika, (2002), “U.S. Biologists Wary of Move to View Embryos as Human Beings,” Nature, 420[108]:3-4, November 7.

Kass, Leon (2002), Human Cloning and Human Dignity: The Report of the President’s Council on Bioethics (New York: PublicAffairs, Ltd.).

Nash, J. Madeleine (2002), “Inside the Womb,” Time, 160[20]:68-78, November 11.

Sagan, Carl and Ann Druyan (1990), “The Question of Abortion,” Parade, pp. 4-8, April 22 .

Sarfati, Jonathan (2002), Refuting Evolution 2 (Green Forest, AR: Master Books).

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