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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.

Helpful Resources

Readers’ comments

Matthew T.
The New South Wales Department of Education should be ashamed of this. Surely the department has a policy in place where material for the HSC is proof read for errors (by at least a couple of science teachers) - hence there is no excuse. The above antiquated drawings have been proven to be fraudulent for decades now - this sort of material shouldn't be anywhere near the hands of ignorant exam formatters... it shouldn’t be anywhere near an education syllabus... not unless the subject is “Myths & Legends” or “The History of Fraud in the 19th/20th Century”.
Leopold H.
The Board of Education respondent either didn't understand the question or did not want to address the issue. It's not just Haeckel's theory that has been discredited but the drawings themselves, and thus the similarities in the embryos. So how can you use fraudulent drawings to teach a principle? Only if the principle has nothing else to back it up.
Rocky Smart
Indeed, as I could have pointed out earlier and maybe should have. The Richardson et al paper in Science showed with photographs that the degree of embryo similarity in the Haeckel drawings is the result of serious fraudulent doctoring. So the response is totally beside the point—it is irrelevant whether she accepts that Haeckel’s embryonic recapitulation theory has been discredited or not, because the very point they are trying to make relies on the fraud.
Note, by the way, that even if the embryos were that similar, it would not discredit creation any more than anatomical similarities in adults do. But it is frankly dishonest to keep using discredited, non-existent similarities to hammer home the intended evolutionary ‘take home message’ that the theory is true. This needs to be brought home to the educators concerned, frankly.
derek B.
I've had people try to tell me this does not exist in the textbooks anymore. I know for a fact that when I was doing high school biology in 1998 it definitely did. I'd be highly tempted to answer:

"They don't. Why are you teaching outright frauds to students in their textbooks? By what standard of education does education require the propagation of proven frauds be indoctrinated into impressionable youth as 'proven fact'?"

Instead, since I knew if I did I'd just marked wrong and marked down I fed back to them what they wanted to hear - "evolutionists claim... ". Can you get good marks in science wherever evolution is concerned without being an obedient little parrot?
robert B.
The examiner's reply.....

Dear Mr B. [Surname removed—Ed.]

I write in response to your emails of 8 November 2012 regarding Question 2 in the 2012 HSC examination in Biology. In your emails you expressed concern that the images used in Question 2 have been copied from drawings by Ernst Haeckel.

The Chief Examiner for Biology has advised me that the images used in Question 2 were chosen because they show the similarities in vertebrate embryos, due to similarities in particular genes known as homeobox genes (or Hox genes). This genetic relatedness is evidence for evolution. The inclusion of the drawings is not intended to show support for Haeckel’s theory which, as you note, has been discredited. Such images are commonly used in Biology textbooks used by senior secondary students.

The Chief Examiner has also advised me that Question 2 is assessing the syllabus topic 9.3 Blueprint for Life, in particular, how the theory of evolution is supported by the study of comparative embryology, to be found on page 43 of the Board of Studies Stage 6 Biology syllabus.

You also expressed an opinion about the competence of the people who developed the examination. The Board of Studies places great importance on the academic credibility of its Higher School Certificate examination papers. The HSC examinations are set by committees made up of, where possible, academics in the discipline and teachers of the subject. The 2012 Biology examination committee consisted of six people: three from universities and three experienced teachers of Biology.

I trust this addresses your concerns.


[Name removed—Ed.]
Examining and Testing
Office of the Board of Studies NSW

Rocky Smart
Thanks for sharing this response. It confirms the ambivalence and double–speak—they agree that Haeckel’s theory (presumably meaning embryonic recapitulation) has been discredited, but they are not prepared to let the fraudulent drawings used to support the theory go because they have nothing better to replace them with, and they are certainly not willing to denounce them too publicly (in the text books or course material). Instead, they admit to still using them regularly in biology textbooks.
So while admitting that Haeckel's theory has been discredited, they simply duck the most glaring issue that real photos of embryos don't actually show much similarity between different species in the first place (only fraudulent drawings show such similarity). By doing so, they leave one with the impression that they believe it is quite OK to use fraudulent drawings to try to prove a theory.
They also make the same philosophical faux pas regarding the nature of evidence—they just apply it to the similarities between Hox genes instead of embryological phenotypes.
Hox genes control basic body plan, so will naturally be expressed in the embryonic stage of life. They don’t provide support for evolutionary theory any more than any other observed homology does—in fact, evolutionists were quite surprised to discover such similar genes in such diverse species throughout the animal kingdom. See Hox (homeobox) Genes—Evolution’s Saviour? or Climbing Mt Improbable “evo devo” style for more information about these genes.
Julia C.
This year I began to home school my daughter going into the 4th grade. I am shocked to find that she has already been indoctrinated with evolution to the point that now she is completely confused. When I started to tell her about creation vs evolution(as her father and I have done from the beginning), I could see that she now has to reconcile that her beloved teachers in the past have taught her lies. It is no wonder why they have kept what she was learning from us. She brought no books home, nor papers, nor tests. I am so angry with the schools and with myself for not seeing this sooner. They have obviously wanted to brainwash her by starting as early as they could. No more!
Rocky Smart
Thanks Julia for letting us know your experience. Have a look at the Parents’ Corner (online resources for parents and children).
D. C.
The reason people publish such is simple. Fame, fortune and funding. In a documentary called "The Great Global Warming Swindle" a scientist said, if you wanted to do a study on how squirrels gather nuts, it was a struggle for funding. But if you said, "I want to study how global warming affects squirrels gathering nuts." the funding flowed.
Enrique A.
If the question was re-worded to say:

"This diagram shows four poorly drawn caricatures of different vertebrate embryos with their yolk removed at a similar stage of development.

How do the embryos provide evidence for evolution?"

Would that be better?
Rocky Smart
It would not make any difference whatsoever!
Apart from the fraud itself, the real problems highlighted in the article are problems such as

  • 'begging the question' (i.e. it simply assumes, without any justification, that the embryos do actually provide evidence for evolution),

  • the nature of 'evidence', how it should be interpreted, and the role of presuppositions—see Creation: 'Where's the proof?',

  • the evolutionary model itself does not even offer a theoretical reason why embryos should pass through stages reminiscent of its alleged evolutionary history—such a process does not have any survival value.

Simply apologizing for the poor quality of the drawings does nothing to answer these problems. Removing the yolk sacs does not help in any case—see the references to E. van Niekerk’s paper above (Countering revisionism—part 1: Ernst Haeckel, fraud is proven, J. Creation 25(3):89–95, 2011).
Cole T.
As a high school science teacher, I found myself having to teach Evolution to my Year 10 students this term. Rather than teaching them the subject the way I know the majority of my colleagues would, I chose to teach both sides of the argument pointing out that there is another view to how we came to be.

I was surprised, and disappointed, to note that the textbook included an illustration of Haeckel's drawings of embryos. Having read something on the subject several years ago I did my research and was able to present to my students the facts surrounding the fraudulent production of these images.

Impressively, my students responded by asking why they were being taught falsities instead of the truth. In addition, one of the highest level students informed me that she was finding this term's work difficult as it was forcing her to question that which she thought she knew. If I can encourage even one student to think more critically on these matters I will be greatly pleased.
James W.
There are a few points academically disturbing about this question. Possessing (nearly) a B.Sc in Evolutionary Biology – with honours at University, I am hard pressed to actually answer the question!!
Not that I don’t understand it, but the great fraud of evolution is that everything is claimed as evidence of evolution. Consider choice (A). That any biological creature has different shaped eyes is always claimed as evidence of evolution, as it is a biological adaptation, enhancing fitness. Dawkins would be well at home claiming eye shape as an evolutionary adaptation Consider (B) Now if I said “Different adults do not evolve from embryos” my lecturers would immediately label me a creationist !!! Consider (C) This is about convergent evolution. Similar looking structures are the mainstay of evolutionary theory since Darwin’s time, despite being patently false as nature is proliferated with similar structures that evolutionist don’t even claim have common ancestry (squid and human eye). Consider (D) Divergent evolution is a derivation of different characteristics between different species from a common ancestor. That the embryos show differences against a similar ancestral structure (allegedly) makes this answer also right. I suspect they are looking for (D). BUT, divergence derives from common characteristics (from the ancestral species), and different characteristics (from the derived species). It doesn’t *result in* common characteristics. (D) is a very confused answer.
But they are all correct, because any difference in organisms is claimed as evidence, and any sameness is also claimed as evidence. Evolution embraces all possibilities, which it why it is not science, as it cannot be falsified.
Rocky Smart
This ties in closely with the second philosophical problem above. Yes, evolution is so slippery that any observation is taken to be ‘evidence’.

Good on you for surviving an honours degree in Evolutionary Biology.
michael S.
Graham D, thank you for your comments that have boosted my faith, your comments contained question-begging epithets such as "brainwash" and, "nonsense". Notice you don't have to do anything to prove these accusations against CMI, other than baldly state them.

If a body correctly accuses another body of doing something wrong, some people might then accuse the accusing body.

For example, imagine you caught a wrong-doer trying to break into your house but when the police came he said to the police, "he insults people, we all hate him".

In this instance, the evolutionary body is responsible for wrong-doing, not CMI.
Robert B.
I am concerned for my daughter who will do Biology for HSC.. So I wrote to the HSC Chief Examiner Selectors
[Email address removed as per feedback rules—Ed.]

"The Haeckel drawing adapted for the recent 2012 HSC Biology paper (see attached) has been exposed as a fraud in the scientific literature since 1997. Can the HSC examiners selectors please select Biology examiners who are up-to-date about this fact? Haeckel was not a scientist but a eugenic zealot. Putting these drawings into the HSC exams reflects badly on the examiner’s competence and 'recapitulates' a rather sordid period in the recent history of science, where the ideal of science was muddied by the racial supremacy biases of a few white Europeans. I am concerned because there are worse pictures produced by Haeckel, that could appear. Note the ugly Australien in the other attached fraudulent picture by Haeckel. Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte, 1870."

Robert B
Rocky Smart
It will be interesting to see what response you get.
Petra P.
Thank you for this article.
I think it is quite telling that a certain theory has to be supported by know frauds and forgeries.

I just wanted to let you know that in Germany there is a new -or not so new- series of lectures called "Viva la evolución" at a German college/university and take a guess what has been used as their logo:

[Link removed as per feedback rules—Ed.]

(Especially telling that "Creationists" are specifically mentioned who should not be allowed to drag the people back to the middle ages)
Rocky Smart
Thanks Petra for passing this on. Such ‘worship’ of the ‘power of evolution’ is all too typical.

For the benefit of readers, I have removed the link but reproduced the banner itself, with the fraudulent drawings in place.

fraudulent banner
Errol B.
It’s only been 140 years; we can’t expect them to update their text books too quickly, after all, what would they replace it with? Perhaps we should not expect biology text books to update evidence for common genetic code to multiple genetic codes until about the year 2160. Regardless, isn’t anatomical similarity of tiny embryos a rather simplistic argument? Shouldn’t they be looking deeper into the cell, including genetic instructions? Surely with today’s modern scientific advances, we must move past these desperate dodgy arguments.
Timothy C.
It's ironic that the anti-creationist yells at the top of their lungs that creationists are anti-science when it's the anti-creationists who are using frauds to support evolution. It is nothing more than anti-science to use frauds to support a theory.
Jeremy W.
This is just like those old pictures where they show a monkey next to a man and say, 'look how much they are alike, they must have had an evolutionary ancestor.' Doesn't prove anything, even if they weren't fraudulent, and only serves as a tool to deceive and steer people into believing what you tell them to. Sometime I think evolutions would make great lawyers, because they are good at convincing people of something that isn't true.
Alex F.
Haeckel may not be as guilty as it seems. Much of the evidence against him is based on photographs by Richardson, some of which still have yolk sac attached (Haeckel removed the yolk sac to emphasise the embryo) and have not been reduced to the same scale (Haekel re-scaled his drawings). When these corrections have been made [Link removed as per feedback rules—Ed.] the drawings are remarkable similar to the photographs. Perhaps people should read a bit more and condemn a bit less!
Rocky Smart
We are well aware of modern-day efforts by Richards and others to resurrect the reputation of Haeckel. The evidence that Haeckel deliberately fabricated the drawings goes back to Wilhelm His, Sr (1831–1904) in 1874, 123 years before Richardson's photos were published in 1997. This was only the most infamous example of his questionable practices, not the only example by any means. In many cases the yolk sac is an integral part of the embryo, and could not be removed without distorting the actual appearance.

Please see Homology and Embryology Questions and Answers, and the related articles below, for more information. [See also E. van Niekerk’s feedback response Haeckel the hero? and her thoroughly documented paper Countering revisionism—part 1: Ernst Haeckel, fraud is proven, J. Creation 25(3):89–95, 2011.—Ed.]
James W.
Graham, this example of Haeckel’s embryology serves well to support the creations viewpoint of evolution being taught as a dogma, or as you (not quite correctly) put it “the study of biodiversity as dogma”. Not quite correctly, because the study of biodiversity is the rich study of the many forms of organisms that God did indeed create. Such a study in its true form is without dogma; a true science of observation concluding in the classification and categorisation of the diversity, as Carolus Linnaeus so did. The dogma taught to Children is that this biodiversity arose by chance, through unguided mutation.

Such a theory is not necessary to describe biodiversity, as Linnaeus did just that prior to the theory of evolution. Such a theory cannot describe the biodiversity and is patently without basis, genetically, observationally and experimentally. Your observation that these drawings are fraudulent is a small window into a vast world of just so stories, fraud, deceit and hopeful hypothesis that collectively form Darwin’s theory. Haeckel’s drawings are powerful; they fuel the minds of children with the best observational evidence of evolution –a fraud.

And this isn’t a misunderstanding by the HSC, these drawings are tendered as prima facia evidence for evolution in my latest edition university Zoology text book “Integrated Principles of Zoology” ( Cleveland P, et al.), and in my text “Biology Concepts and Connections” (Campbell, et. al.) and in my Vertebrates text “Comparative Anatomy..” (Kardong) and in my Invertebrates text, class notes etc. Why is such a fraud still in all my major texts at University? Indeed the brainwashing and dogma, as you put it, wilfully belongs to the evolutionist. The creationist frame is vastly superior in describing the biodiversity.
Rocky Smart
Actually, King Solomon studied biodiversity almost 3,000 years before Linnaeus - see 1 Kings 4:33. He managed to do so without any reference to evolution.
Marthina F.
This was in our Biology text books in the 1990's in South Africa. Biology was my favourite subject but this nearly cost my faith!! But thanx to Creation Ministries 6 years ago it was restored. Blessings!!!
Rocky Smart
Thanks for the encouragement, Marthina, we are so glad to hear that your faith was restored. These fraudulent drawings have arguably done more to deceive people about evolution than any other "evidence". We need to keep getting the correct information out there.
Graham D.
I find it ironic that somebody who believes in complete nonsense, who would write and endorse articles awash with logical fallacies, who would brainwash children, who would refer to the study of biodiversity as 'Dogma'; would accuse somebody else of being a fraud.

While I agree that these are fraudulent sketches and should never have been included in the HSC examination under any circumstances, I am willing to bet my bottom dollar that you didn't check to see if the DOE simply made a mistake?

Rocky Smart
I'm glad that you agree that these are fraudulent sketches and should never have been included in the Higher School Certificate examination under any circumstances. If the New South Wales Department of Education made a genuine mistake, I would expect them to come out and make a genuine public apology, and ensure that no students are penalised.
[See Robert B.’s complaint and the response received from the department below—Ed.]
Peter N.
I'm amazed that this was in a 2012 exam paper!
Which of the following apply?
a) "Don't let the facts spoil a good story?",
b) "Repeat a lie often enough and people believe it",
c) "Mix truth and speculation and everybody gets confused",
d) "All of the above".

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