Recently a college student
wrote to the Creation Research Society asking about the status of embryology
with relation to evolution because his zoology professor had presented
the so-called biogenetic law to their class. This law
states that as embryos develop they pass through the various stages
attained by their ancestors as they climbed the evolutionary ladder.
in Earlier Years
I empathized with this
student because in the spring of 1947 when I was a freshman taking my
first semester of zoology at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst,
I had a similar experience. My professor, Gilbert L. Woodside, a Harvardtrained
embryology Ph.D. and then a leader in this field, presented to our class
the embryology argument for evolution. Usually this concept is called
recapitulation because the developing embryo is assumed to summarize
or epitomize the entire history of its race. When certain
embryonic observations are presented in a convincing way, the argument
compels acceptance of a macroevolutionary sequence of animal or plant
species. I recall thinking after that class, How could anybody
possibly doubt evolution when they understand this evidence?
I was driven to know more
biology, and so I switched my major from psychology to zoology, taking
physiology and entomology in my sophomore year. I had become a Christian
while in the Navy before my collegiate education, but after two years
at the university my Christian beliefs were being challenged in ways
that were difficult to handle. I was slated to be a laboratory assistant
in the physiology class the next fall, and would have enjoyed that greatly,
but I transferred to a Christian college (Houghton in New York), majoring
in zoology along with minors in Bible and in chemistry. I obtained a
BA degree in 1950, and in the summer of 1951 a BS degree, also in zoology,
from another Christian college (Wheaton in Illinois). In the latter
I expanded my science and theology backgrounds. Then I taught science
to middle and high school level students for one year at the Ben Lippen
School which was then in North Carolina. In 1952 I returned as a graduate
student to the University of Massachusetts where I obtained teaching
and research assistantships.
To my surprise I found
myself in an experimental embryology course with Dr. Woodside, who now
was Chairman of the Department of Zoology and of the Graduate School.
I became captivated by Dr. Woodside and his field of embryology. I did
research and wrote a masters thesis on chick embryology and the
first cancer-inhibiting drug, 8-azaguanine (see Frair and Woodside,
During my reading and
research I became determined to plumb the depths of embryonic recapitulation,
but to my utter amazement I learned from Dr. Woodside that the biogenetic
law was dead! So the man who had convinced me of the importance
of recapitulation when I was a freshman, then five years later was convincing
me of the opposite. Dr. Woodside not only disbelieved it, but also he
virtually despised it. Recapitulation no longer could be any more than
a hypothesis at best, and he wanted me to have nothing to do with it.
Professor Woodside believed
that embryology as a discipline was retarded because of recapitulation.
He told me that by the mid-20th Century no informed embryologist could
accept the recapitulation concept. Many investigators had given up their
work in disgust because they ran into dead ends trying to fit their
embryological data into an evolutionary context. Professor Woodside
also believed that there had been only one Nobelist in embryology
(Hans Spemann) because so many other good embryology investigators had
been focusing on evolution and failing. An example of the many exceptions
to the hypothesis of recapitulation is that in an evolution scheme the
spinal cord is present before the brain, but in embryology the brain
develops first. But, has not evolution been the thread that holds all
of biology together? At least we knew 50 years ago, and still realize
today, that Darwinian recapitulation is not part of any such thread
(see Bergman, 1999; Wells, 1999a).
Charles Darwin often has
received credit for ideas he promoted even though these thoughts actually
had originated in the minds of other people. This is true of recapitulation
which appears to have had its earliest roots among the Greeks more than
one half a millennium before the time of Christ (see Osborn, 1929).
Some thoughts regarding recapitulation were expressed in the eighteenth
century, but the most famous popularizer of recapitulation was the German
zoologist and philosopher, Ernst Haeckel (18341919). He was Charles
Darwins most prominent dogmatic and outspoken supporter of evolution
in Germany, but his influence spread around the world. Having met Darwin
in 1866, Haeckel tried to place not only science but also philosophy
and religion under an atheistic evolutionary umbrella (Jenkins-Jones,
It is interesting to realize
that since the 1860s it has been known that Haeckel falsified
his illustrations used to prove recapitulation. The most
comprehensive treatment of the topic in English is the 1915 book by
Assmuth and Hull. These authors refer to a massive amount of material
revealing that members of the scientific community recognized that in
promoting his views Haeckel relentlessly and shamelessly perpetrated
frauds and forgeries. Significant exposures of these date back to 1908,
1875, and at least as early as 1868. Many scientists joined in this
condemnation of the methods of Haeckel, in the instances which
had been exposed ...by eighty-three men [a group of 46 plus another
of 37] of good position in various branches of science and learning,
besides others who published their condemnations apart (Assmuth
and Hull, p. 23). Also see Rusch, 1969. The many dozens of Haeckels
frauds and forgeries included embryology and other fields of
Scientists during the
time of Haeckel and today have recognized that researchers need to be
free to construct their hypotheses and theories on the basis of the
empirical evidence. But they uniformly have recognized as improper the
support of these concepts by unidentified imaginary data or misrepresentations
of facts collected or presented by others. As examples of Haeckels
misdeeds see Plates I and II (Figures 1 and 2) from Assmuth and Hull.
(other than possibly his actual scientific research in systematic zoology)
seem to have been so intimately yoked with his philosophy that it appears
impossible to separate his actions from his attitudes. For example when
someone objected to the embryological contentions of Haeckel and his
followers they would be told:
This affair belongs
to embryology, and therefore you, who are not embryologists, are incompetent
to form a judgment in the matter. Even if their opponent happened
to be an embryologist, they would still discredit him if he retained
the slightest vestige of belief in God, freewill or the human soul.
He would immediately be dubbed a theologian, a clerical obscurantist,
whose dualistic superstitutions deprive him of the free use of his reason.
Haeckels pages are peppered over with this sort of ruling
out of court... (Assmuth and Hull, p. 54).
One outspoken critic of
Haeckel was J. Reinke, Professor of Botany at the University of Kiel.
In a pamphlet entitled
The Latest about Haeckelism (Heilbronn 1908) Reinke
fills seven pages with parallel columns; the one containing what
Haeckel says, the other what the truth is. He gives
twenty-four instances of misrepresentation perpetrated by Haeckel, and
adds: These are samples taken at random. It would be possible
to multiply their number many times (Assmuth and Hull, p. 31).
But Haeckel, the popularizer,
apparently failed to profit from such exposures and maintained his misleading
maneuvers into his later years, sometimes trying to justify himself
by claiming to be following standard biological procedures. As a result,
countless scientists and students of science including many authors
have been misled, an influence lingering to the end of the twentieth
century. Even though many current scientists tend to believe that the
demise of the biogenetic law was a middle-to-latter twentieth
century phenomenon, even as early as 1915 it was possible to make the
following very clear statement:
Hardly any scientist of
note will be found today who accepts the law as it stands. The convincing
reason is because recent research has clearly proved that the exceptions
to this law are far more frequent than the realisations of it. The majority
of the stages through which the individual embryos of different animals
pass, do not for the most part correspond to the gradations which, according
to the evolution theory, make up the history of the development of life
(Assmuth and Hull, p. 98).
Haeckel likely was aware
of these difficulties, for he distinguished embryonic changes leading
to evolutionary progress (palingenesis) from other deviations
(coenogenesis). But so called coenogenetic changes are so
numerous, they do not support the law but disprove it.
As indicated at the beginning
of this paper some teachers still are presenting the biogenetic
law in support of macroevolution, moribund as it has been for
decades in the light of the teachings of many leading scientists including
the late Canadian biologist, W. R. Thompson, who in 1956 published an
Introduction for a reprint of Darwins Origin of
When the convergence
of embryos was not entirely satisfactory, Haeckel altered the
illustrations of them to fit his theory. The alterations were slight
but significant. The biogenetic law as a proof of evolution
is valueless (pp. xvxvi).
In the past several years
Haeckels illustrations again have been in the news because some
textbooks in support of evolution still have been republishing Haeckels
bogus material (see Richardson, et al., 1998).
Figure 1. Haeckel's fraudulent copies of embryos (1 and 2) compared
to the originals of Selenka (2) and His (4) (Assmuth and Hull, 1915).
Gavin de Beer
Sir Gavin de Beer (18991972)
was a British zoologist and evolutionist who was well-known and influential
in the field of embryology. He was Director of the British Museum (Natural
History) 19501960. In 1930 he published a book, Embryology
and Evolution, in which he rejected the embryonic concept of recapitulation.
He published enlarged versions of his anti-Haeckel views in Embryos
and Ancestors copyrighted in 1940, 1951, and 1958. Gavin de Beer,
1958, referred to Haeckels theory as outworn and a mental
straight-jacket which has had lamentable effects on biological progress
(p. 172), and he concluded that evolution does not explain embryology
(p. 173). For example, according to phylogeny teeth came before tongues,
but in mammalian embryos tongues develop before the teeth (p. 7). With
chick embryos the heart functions very early in development, but in
the frog (which supposedly is closer to ancestral stock) the heart appears
much later in development. Specifically the dissimilarity is related
to the developing chicks need to receive yolk; whereas the frog
egg has much less yolk. Therefore, the differences are based upon structural
and functional conditions within the two animals, not their presumed
Often a considerable period
of time is required before established views in science are modified
on the basis of new evidence. This is illustrated by Perry, 1952, who
seems to have understood that the biogenetic law had been falsified;
but when writing his general zoology textbook he appears to have been
rather restrained in referring to recapitulation.
Several facts have been
discovered which are contradictory to the theory of recapitulation,
or at least are difficult to interpret in this light. Many reputable
biologists today question the significance of the seemingly apparent
agreement of some of the facts with the theory (p. 519).
Gavin de Beer used many
examples to show how so-called homologous (structurally similar) organs
could come from very different embryonic regions among various embryos.
Also, he disclosed that homologous structures commonly are not determined
by identical genes (see de Beer, 1971). A recent evaluation of this
topic by Wells and Nelson, 1997, emphasizes that:
Click to Enlarge
Figure 2. Haeckel's fraudulent drawings (II) misrepresent Huxley's
original plate (I). Haeckel's skeletons are drawn to look more alike,
thus suggesting an evolutionary sequence rather than a heterogeneous
group as Hexley more realistically drew them (Assmuth and Hull,
Subsequent research has
overwhelmingly confirmed the correctness of de Beers observation.
Homology, whether defined morphologically or phylogenetically, cannot
be attributed to similar developmental pathways any more than it can
be attributed to similar genes (p. 17).
In other words, similar
organs in the bodies of different organisms apparently would not be
produced by similar nucleotide sequences in the DNA of the genes. Recent
research appears to be leading toward some greater comprehension of
a solution to this conundrum.
For about two decades
there has been an expanding understanding regarding homeotic genes which
are small nucleotide sequences behaving somewhat like master switches
to control the development of various parts of the organism. The homeotic
genes play critical roles in the production of arms, legs, eyes and
other body parts within developing animals of many kinds. In each homeotic
gene there characteristically is a particular sequence of about 180
base pairs of DNA which are very similar to the sequence in the corresponding
homeotic genes of other animals whether mouse, man, fruitfly, or amphioxus.
For example, in a fly a particular type of gene will affect the antenna,
and in a mouse a very similar gene influences the hindbrain. Another
homeotic gene appears to be a master controller for development of eyes
including the compound eyes of insects and the greatly-different visual
organs of squids and even humans (see Wells, 1998).
Each homeotic gene produces
small protein molecules which serve to switch on the transcription of
other genes by attaching to their promoter loci. As a result there is
a cascade of chemical events which lead eventually to the formation
of a body structure such as an eye or a leg.
During recent past years
it has been baffling to learn that genes and their mutations are not
coupled to structural components of the body. For example, a spectacular
illustration of this discrepancy has resulted from DNA hybridization
experiments indicating an estimated 9899% similarity of DNA in
chimpanzees and humans; whereas people morphologically and physiologically
would be more like some 70 to 80 percent like apes. The DNA would be
located in the 48 chromosomes of chimps and the 46 chromosomes of humans.
Therefore, in addition to the basic nucleotide sequences in DNA there
must be other factors which very significantly influence development.
These factors could include effects related to the different arrangements
of the DNA in the chromosomes of chimps and people (see Hopkin, 1999).
One of the earlier Drosophila
researchers exploring homeotic mutants was W.J. Ouweneel who analyzed
evolutionist and creationist perspectives on the subject. He concluded
that views of older evolutionists such as Goldschmidt, Schindewolf,
and Nilsson were preferable to neo-Darwinism. He considered classical
neo-Darwinists naive to perceive the impressive complexity of
biological systems...to have originated by random processes (1975,
In a recent creationist
paper, developmental biologist J. Wells, 1998, discusses the serious
problems with macroevolutionary conceptions of the origins of homeotic
genes and the adaptions they control. Most homeotic genes are theorized
by evolutionists to have arisen early in evolution before the
adaptions they influence had been selected. This is a problem for Darwinists.
Wells is opposed to reductionistic DNA-based neo-Darwinism.
In addition to DNA, he discusses other factors which supply developmental
information. Within the cytoplasm there are at least three important
influences: the cytoskeleton, membranes, and regionalization of other
components. DNA is pictured as indicating what building materials are
needed; and other features determine how the materials will be assembled.
Although these processes are only vaguely understood at this time, Wells
feels that recent developments in embryology are best understood using
a design approach (Wells, 1999b).
So the issue centers on
whether the data fit better into an evolutionary pattern in which homeotic
genes would be conserved(phylum to phylum) over long periods
of time, or if they fit better into end-directed processes.
Perhaps now is the time for a shift toward a teleological paradigm which
will enable us to conceptualize development in a new way. We may be
on the threshold of opening a new vista of thought which will unveil
laws which so far have escaped our realization.
Consideration should be
given to a creation alternative which states that God created separate
types of physically unrelated plants and animals (see Frair and Davis,
1983). Genetic research (including homeotic genes) has revealed what
most creationists would recognize as the work of God who employed similar
genes for different organs in a diverse array of organisms.
In my response to the
college student who in 1999 was having the same problem I had 52 years
before, I shared with him much of the above information. So what further
advice can we give to our students of science today? We should try to
dig up all possible relevant facts, weigh them carefully, and be prepared
to change our mindset when the data and their implications so indicate.
As is true of science in general, we must maintain a degree of tentativeness
regarding our conclusions.
Dr. Jerry Bergman volunteered
important literature and helpful suggestions useful for this manuscript.
In addition to suggestions on this paper Dr. George Howe provided printed
material as well as his own very helpful unpublished writings on homeotic
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Press, Bombay, India.
Bergman, Jerry. 1999.
The rise and fall of Haeckels biogenetic law. Manuscript in process.
de Beer, Sir Gavin. 1958.
Embryos and ancestors, third edition. Oxford University Press,
Homology, an unsolved problem. In J. J. Head and O. E. Lowenstein (editors),
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