One hundred and twenty years after the event, the popular press has admitted that the widely quoted work of Ernst Haeckel on the ‘evolution’ of the embryo was a fraud. Writing in The Times on 11 August, science editor Nigel Hawkes reports how recent work by Dr Michael Richardson of St George’s Hospital Medical School, London, has brought this to light.
In 1874 Haeckel, who in his day was as famous as Charles Darwin, published drawings of embryos which purported to show that embryos of different species, as diverse as fish and man, all look very similar in their early stages. From this was derived the famous dictum, ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’ that is, the development of the embryo to maturity mimics the evolution of the species over the ages. So strong was the belief in this idea that it has often been presented as one of the foremost proofs of Darwinian evolution.
What Dr Richardson and others have now shown is that Haeckel’s theory is a complete fabrication. They examined embryos of many species and found that there is no resemblance at all between embryos of different species, even at the earliest stages. Haeckel had simply copied a human embryo and presented it as belonging to a variety of different species. Yet Haeckel’s theory still survives in authoritative medical textbooks such as Gray’s Anatomy and Gilbert’s Developmental Biology and is still taught in schools today as evidence for evolution. A medical illustrator, Richard Moore, admits that only one of the many embryological drawings he did for Gray’s Anatomy was done from life, and claims that explanatory material provided with the drawings was omitted or changed. As Dr Richardson comments in a subsequent letter to The Times ‘Modern views of how animals evolve are still heavily influenced by Haeckel’s view that embryos are largely untouched by evolution.’
This would not be so bad if Haeckel’s fraud had only just been discovered. It may have only just been admitted by the media, but it has in truth been known since Haeckel’s own day! Professor Terry Hamblin of the Royal Bournemouth Hospital points out that ‘Haeckel was tried and convicted of scientific fraud by a university court in Jena’ (letter to The Times 18 August). He apparently admitted the fraud but claimed that he was only following common practice and that most such drawings were done from imagination rather than life. Clearly his conviction did not discourage him from promoting, and others from following, these erroneous ideas and unscientific practices. Perhaps at last this fraudulent ‘proof’ of evolution will be laid to rest.