Biology exam fraud

Fraudulent embryo drawings (like Ernst Haeckel’s) wrongly claimed as evidence for evolution


Published: 6 November 2012 (GMT+10)
Figure 1: The exam question. Text reads: The diagram shows different vertebrate embryos at the same stage of development. How do the embryos provide evidence for evolution? (A) The embryos have different shaped eyes. (B) Different adults evolve from the embryos. (C) The embryos have structures that look similar. (D) Divergent evolution results in common characteristics in the embryos.
Figure 1: The exam question. Text reads: The diagram shows different vertebrate embryos at the same stage of development. How do the embryos provide evidence for evolution? (A) The embryos have different shaped eyes. (B) Different adults evolve from the embryos. (C) The embryos have structures that look similar. (D) Divergent evolution results in common characteristics in the embryos.

A government education institution recently provided a textbook example of how evolutionary dogma blinds the eyes of educators, crushes the ability of students to think critically and hinders the progress of true science.

The biology paper in the Higher School Certificate exam on 19 October 2012, a major public matriculation exam in New South Wales, Australia, contained a question featuring Haeckel’s fraudulent embryo drawings.1

Ernst Haeckel’s peers, well over 100 years ago, knew his embryo drawings were fraudulent, and this has been widely publicised, even by notable evolutionists such as Stephen Jay Gould.2 Yet they are still widely used in education, as the NSW exam question reveals, although some professional evolutionists claim that they are not.

Note that the drawings on the exam paper are simply labelled “fish”, “amphibian”, “bird” and “human”. This seems to be deliberately vague. Apart from the human, there is no indication of which species the drawings were supposed to represent. In reality there are substantial differences within a class. Nor is there any indication of the stage of development. In this way the students are left with the impression that embryos are far more similar than they really are, and the authors seem to be more protected against criticism for inaccurate drawing.

It would appear that whoever wrote or reviewed this question was unable (or unwilling) to see the problematic philosophical assumptions behind the question, quite apart from the problem of perpetuating and ignoring their fraudulent nature:

  1. It assumes that the embryos in fact do provide evidence for evolution—blatant question-begging.
  2. It makes unspoken assumptions about the nature of evidence. Presumably the students are being examined on how well they have learnt the knowledge they have been taught. However they are apparently not expected to be able to think critically about matters, such as:

    • how closely the data matches a prediction of the theory
    • whether there are alternative explanations that provide a better explanation of the data
    • whether any hypothetical but plausible data could falsify a theory
    • whether a theory is experimentally testable, and when this criteria is appropriate
    • human bias—for instance (hypothetically assuming that they are genuine, which they are not), if no-one had ever compared different embryos at the same stage of development before, would they have expected this level of similarity based on the evolutionary model, or was the data merely co-opted to bolster the theory after the (alleged) similarity was noticed?
    Richardson photos Figure 2: Photos by Michael Richardson (second row)
    Top row: Haeckel’s drawings of several different embryos, showing incredible similarity in their early ‘tailbud’ stage.
    Bottom Row: Richardson’s photographs of how the embryos really look at the same stage. (From left: Salmo salar, Cryptobranchus allegheniensis, Emys orbicularis, Gallus gallus, Oryctolagus cuniculus, Homo sapiens.)

    Students who have not been taught these types of skills may well be able to pass exam papers, but they will have a lot of difficulty later in life in making sound, trustworthy decisions about the information they are presented with.

    As evolutionist Suzan Mazur has said:

    Thus, the public is unaware that its dollars are being squandered on funding of mediocre, middlebrow science or that its children are being intellectually starved as a result of outdated texts and unenlightened teachers.3

    Students are also losing interest in science, both as a school subject and as a career option.

  3. It seems to assume, without ever spelling it out, that an embryo goes through its evolutionary stages of development during its growth (Haeckel’s classic phrase: “Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny”—the so-called “law of biogenesis”4). It assumes too that there is some survival advantage in embryos of different species looking more similar to each other than their adult counterparts. This really does not make sense according to the evolutionary model—characteristics that enhance survival are supposed to be favoured, while those that don’t are supposed to be gradually eliminated. So by this thinking, a human embryo that could bypass the costly fish stage of development should be favoured by natural selection.

It seems that while Haeckel’s drawings have long been discredited,5,6,7 much of the evolutionary establishment is still unwilling to let them go.8,9,10 Perhaps this is because they were so successful in convincing people of evolution in the first place (e.g. the late Dr Albert Mills, until ‘the scales fell off’), and there is nothing factual available that is as graphic and simple to grasp. There also seems to be an ingrained belief in his discredited law of biogenesis that somehow the study of the stages of an embryo can reveal secrets of our past evolutionary history.

One can only hope that the author(s) of this question are publicly taken to task (ideally by secular academics) on this. Future students need to be encouraged to question things, and that should include the assumptions behind evolutionary dogma. Hopefully too, future exam papers will be better written and test students on skills and understanding. And hopefully no students will be penalised for marking the ‘wrong’ option in this question, because every answer given in the question is wrong. Embryos do not provide evidence for evolution.


  1. Our thanks go to a teacher from New South Wales for bringing this to our attention. Return to text.
  2. Gould, S.J., Abscheulich! (Atrocious!), Natural History 109(2), March 2000. Return to text.
  3. Mazur, S., The Altenberg 16: An Exposé of the Evolution Industry, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA, p. ix, 2010. Return to text.
  4. Haeckel pretensiously named his so-called ‘law’ that “Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny” the “law of biogenesis” or “biogenetic law”. This is not to be confused with the more commonly understood meaning of “law of biogenesis”; that life only arises from pre-existing life, not from nonliving material. Return to text.
  5. He eventually grudgingly admitted as much – see Ernst Haeckel: Evangelist for evolution and apostle of deceit. Return to text.
  6. Richardson M, and Keuck G., Haeckel’s ABC of evolution and development, Biol. Rev. 77:495–528, 2003.
    (The authors write: Haeckel’s much criticized embryo drawings are important as phylogenetic hypotheses, teaching aids, and evidence for evolution. While some criticisms of the drawings are legitimate, other are more tendentious. p 495) Return to text.
  7. Richardson M, Hanken J, Gooneratne M, Pieau C, Paynaud A, Selwood L, and Wright G., There is no highly conserved embryonic state in the vertebrates: implications for current theories of evolution and development. Anat Embryol 196:91–106, 1997. Return to text.
  8. See, for instance http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/history/haeckel.html: “The ‘law of recapitulation’ has been discredited since the beginning of the twentieth century. Experimental morphologists and biologists have shown that there is not a one-to-one correspondence between phylogeny and ontogeny. Although a strong form of recapitulation is not correct, phylogeny and ontogeny are intertwined, and many biologists are beginning to both explore and understand the basis for this connection.” Note the awkward internal contradictions. Return to text.
  9. http://home.uchicago.edu/~rjr6/articles/Haeckel--fraud%20not%20proven.pdf Return to text.
  10. Luskin, C., What do Modern Textbooks Really Say about Haeckel’s Embryos? Discovery Institute, March 27, 2007, http://www.discovery.org/a/3935 Return to text.

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