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Creation 20(2):49–51, March 1998

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Fraud rediscovered

It has long been known that one of the most effective popularizers of evolution fudged some drawings, but only now has the breathtaking extent of his deceit been revealed.


Most people have heard of or been taught the idea that the human embryo goes through (or recapitulates) various evolutionary stages, such as having gills like a fish, a tail like a monkey, etc., during the first few months that it develops in the womb.

The idea has not only been presented to generations of biology/medical students as fact, but has also been used for many years to persuasively justify abortion. Abortionists claimed that the unborn child being killed was still in the fish stage or the monkey stage, and had not yet become a human being.

This idea (called embryonic recapitulation) was vigorously expounded by Ernst Haeckel from the late 1860s to promote Darwin’s theory of evolution in Germany, even though Haeckel did not have evidence to support his views.1

Data manufactured

Lacking the evidence, Haeckel set out to manufacture the data. He fraudulently changed drawings made by other scientists of human and dog embryos, to increase the resemblance between them and to hide the dissimilarities. We reported on this particular fraud in a recent issue of Creation magazine.2

Haeckel’s German peers (notably, in 1874, Wilhelm His Sr, professor of anatomy at the University of Leipzig) were aware of this fraud and extracted a modest confession from him, in which he blamed the draughtsman for blundering—without acknowledging that he himself was the draughtsman!2

Most informed evolutionists in the past 70 years have realised that the recapitulation theory is false.3

Nevertheless, the recapitulation idea is still advanced as evidence for the theory of evolution in many books and particularly encyclopedias and by evolutionary popularizers like the late Carl Sagan.4

But wait—there’s more

Haeckel’s famous (infamous) set of 24 drawings purporting to show eight different embryos in three stages of development, as published by him in Anthropogenie, in Germany, 1874.

When evolutionists say that the recapitulation theory is false, they usually do not mean to admit that comparing embryos gives no evidence of common ancestry. In fact, they still frequently highlight the assumed similarities between embryos in their early stages (called embryonic homology) as evidence for evolution. This assumption is based on the idea that such similarities are ‘common knowledge’.5

This alleged similarity of embryos has for years been resting, consciously or unconsciously, on a set of 24 of Haeckel’s drawings which he first published in 1866 in his Generalle Morphologie der Organismen, and then repeated in 1874 in his more popular Anthropogenie (see below). These purport to show embryos of fish, salamander, turtle, chicken, pig, cow, rabbit, and human in three stages of development.

The various stages, particularly the earlier ones, show substantial similarity. Ever since these drawings appeared, it has been assumed that they have given us something close to the truth about embryos of vertebrate species. So much so that they still appear in textbooks and popular works on evolution.6,7

In fact, no one has bothered to check—until now. It turns out that Haeckel’s fraud was much worse than anyone realised. It did not just affect the idea of recapitulation, it turns out that the similarities are much, much less than anyone thought.

Fraud examined and exposed

Photos by Michael Richardson (second row)747-richardson-embryos
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.) Many modern evolutionists no longer claim that the human embryo repeats the adult stages of its alleged evolutionary ancestors, but point to Haeckel’s drawings (top row) to claim that it repeats the embryonic stages. However, even this alleged support for evolution is now revealed as being based on faked drawings.

Michael Richardson, a lecturer and embryologist at St George’s Hospital Medical School, London, has exposed this further fraud, in an article in the journal Anatomy and Embryology,8 recently reviewed in Science9 and New Scientist.10

Richardson says he always felt there was something wrong with Haeckel’s drawings, ‘because they didn’t square with his [Richardson’s] understanding of the rates at which fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals develop their distinctive features’.8 He could find no record of anyone having actually compared embryos of one species with those of another, so that ‘no one has cited any comparative data in support of the idea’.8

He therefore assembled an international team to do just that—examine and photograph ‘the external form of embryos from a wide range of vertebrate species, at a stage comparable to that depicted by Haeckel’.8

The team collected embryos of 39 different creatures, including marsupials from Australia, tree-frogs from Puerto Rico, snakes from France, and an alligator embryo from England. They found that the embryos of different species are very different. In fact, they are so different that the drawings made by Haeckel (of similar-looking human, rabbit, salamander, fish, chicken, etc. embryos) could not possibly have been done from real specimens.

Nigel Hawkes interviewed Richardson for The Times (London).11 In an article describing Haeckel as ‘An embryonic liar’, he quotes Richardson:

‘This is one of the worst cases of scientific fraud. It’s shocking to find that somebody one thought was a great scientist was deliberately misleading. It makes me angry … What he [Haeckel] did was to take a human embryo and copy it, pretending that the salamander and the pig and all the others looked the same at the same stage of development. They don’t … These are fakes.’ 11

Photos by Michael Richardson747-more-embryos
More of Richardson’s photographs of embryos at the same ‘tailbud’ stage of development and to the same scale, showing the huge differences between various species. (From left: Petromyzon marinus, Acipenser ruthenus, Bufo bufo, Erinaceus europaeus, Felis catus, Manis javanica, Canis familiaris.)

Haeckel not only changed the drawings by adding, omitting, and changing features but, according to Richardson and his team,

‘he also fudged the scale to exaggerate similarities among species, even when there were 10-fold differences in size. Haeckel further blurred differences by neglecting to name the species in most cases, as if one representative was accurate for an entire group of animals’.9

Ernst Haeckel’s drawings were declared fraudulent by Professor His in 1874 and were included in Haeckel’s quasi confession, but according to Richardson,

‘Haeckel’s confession got lost after his drawings were subsequently used in a 1901 book called Darwin and After Darwin and reproduced widely in English language biology texts.’9,12

Will there now be a rush by libraries, publishers and sellers of evolutionist books to withdraw from circulation, rewrite and otherwise acknowledge the fact that the idea of embryonic similarities’ suggesting evolution is largely based on academic fraud?

The embryo photos used in this article were kindly supplied by Dr Michael K. Richardson. They originally appeared in M.K. Richardson et al., ‘There is no highly conserved embryonic stage in the vertebrates: implications for current theories of evolution and development’, Anatomy and Embryology, 196(2):91–106, 1997, © Springer-Verlag GmbH & Co., Tiergartenstrasse, 69121 Heidelberg, Germany. Reproduced here with permission.

References and notes

  1. The superficial resemblance of various embryos to one another had attracted the attention of zoologists before Haeckel, including J.F. Meckel (1781–1883), M.H. Rathke (1793–1860), and Etienne R.A. Serres (1786–1868) who theorised that embryos of higher animals pass through stages comparable to adults of lower animals, and K. von Baer (1792–1876) who was a creationist and opposed this view as well as vigorously opposing Darwinism (Encyclopaedia Britannica 1:789, 1992). It was Haeckel who popularised the idea with his catchy phrase ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’ (meaning that the development of the human embryo in the womb is a rerun of the steps in man’s alleged evolutionary rise from a primitive creature). Return to text.
  2. R. Grigg, ‘Ernst Haeckel: Evangelist for evolution and apostle of deceit ’, Creation 18(2):33–36, 1996. Return to text.
  3. E.g. evolutionist Stephen J. Gould has said, ‘Both the theory [of recapitulation] and “ladder approach”? to classification that it encouraged are, or should be, defunct today.’ Dr Down’s Syndrome, Natural History 89:144, April 1980, cited from Henry Morris, The Long War Against God, Baker Book House, Michigan, p. 139, 1989. Return to text.
  4. E.g, World Book Encylopedia 6:409–410, 1994; Collier’s Encyclopedia, 1994, 2:138, 1994; Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden, Book Club Associates, London, pp. 57–58, 1977. Return to text.
  5. Creationists have for many years pointed out that similarity does not prove common ancestry, but can equally well arise from common design, common pathways for engineering efficiency, etc. See DNA Similarity of Humans and Chimps—does it prove common ancestry? Return to text.
  6. E.g. Scott Gilbert, Developmental Biology, Sinauer Associates, Massachusetts, fifth ed. pp. 254 and 900, 1997, where Gilbert wrongly attributes the drawings to ‘Romanes, 1901’. And George B. Johnson, Biology, Mosby-Year Book, St Louis, p. 396, 1992. Return to text.
  7. E.g. Mahlon Hoagland and Bert Dodson, The Way Life Works, Ebury Press, London, p. 174, 1995, presents Haeckel’s drawings in full colour, no less! And Richard Leakey, Illustrated Origin of Species, Faber and Faber, London, p. 213, 1986, where Leakey calls Haeckel’s recapitulation dogma ‘misleading’, but still reproduces the drawings. Return to text.
  8. Michael Richardson et al., Anatomy and Embryology 196(2):91–106, 1997. Return to text.
  9. Elizabeth Pennisi, Haeckel’s Embryos: Fraud Rediscovered, Science 277(5331):1435, 5 September 1997. Return to text.
  10. Embryonic fraud lives on, New Scientist 155(2098):23, 6 September 1997. Return to text.
  11. Nigel Hawkes, The Times (London), p. 14, 11 August 1997. Return to text.
  12. Creationists have always been aware of Haeckel’s fraud, though not necessarily its extent. See Ian Taylor, In the Minds of Men, TFE Publishing, Toronto, pp. 185ff., 275ff., 1986; Wilbert H. Rusch Sr, Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny, Creation Research Society, 6(1):27–34, June 1969; Douglas Dewar, Difficulties of the Evolution Theory, Edward Arnold & Co., London, Chapter VI, 1931. Also Assmuth and Hull, Haeckel’s Frauds and Forgeries, Bombay Press, India, 1911. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

15 Reasons to Take Genesis as History
by Dr Don Batten, Dr Jonathan D Sarfati
US $3.50
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Readers’ comments

Ronald O.
I think more than a century of fraud is enough time for the word "heckle" to evolve.
Alex M.
To Edward K. Australia:
You said Haeckel’s Recapitulation Theory had been soundly disproved and rejected by biologists just a few years after it was published... And yet the "science" textbooks written by evolutionist STILL use these pictures to "prove" evolution. Doesn't it bother you that they are willing to continuing using pictures known to be a fraud?
Tas Walker
Yes, it is a great concern. It seems that this argument is such an effective one in convincing people of evolution that they will not let it go, even though it has been shown not to work.
Keith S.
To Edward K. Australia:
The argument that one fact shouldn't be used to bring down the whole theory of evolution is a typical response of evolutionist-thinking people. It is also completely a straw man. Creationists, and especially this web site - which has many thousands of pages - expound on facts ranging from geology through paleontology to genetics which, when put together make the whole concept of evolution ridiculous!
Todd B.
To quote from my Biology professor in 1986 as he showed the drawings on an overhead projector, "See. here's the best proof of Evolution right here." I left class that day doubting my faith, but compromised, and concluded, based on that fraudulent information, that God used evolution. I can't tell you how angry I became years later when I learned this "proof of Evolution" was a fake, and that I had compromised my faith because of it.
Edward K.
I think you failed to recognize the fact that Haeckel’s Recapitulation Theory had been soundly disproved and rejected by biologists only a few years since the theory (and pictures) was published. One regrettable case academic dishonesty should not be used as propaganda to in an effort to bring down the entire Theory of Evolution.
Stanley M.
These photos do establish the fraud presented as science. Another fraud is the Piltdown man. There is a book you might be interested in: What Darwin Didn’t Know by Geoffrey Simmons M.D., ISBN 0-7369-1313-0 (pbk), Harvest House Publishers in Eugene Oregon 97402 www.harvesthousepublishers.com
Melissa S.
The photographs show very similar development. I don't think it makes your point
Are you looking at the second and third figures, and the second row of photos in the second figure? For example, compare the salamander and human embryos versus the fraudulent Haeckel images (top row of figure 2). The fuller discussion of the problems with the drawings is in the paper by Richardson et al. published in the journal Anatomy and Embryology in ref. 8 below. Have a look at that paper.
Bronwyn R.
My old boss, a very intelligent and highly educated man, once very smugly told me that ‘Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’, thinking he had bamboozled me with big words and won an argument. I responded that Ernst Haeckel’s drawings which had previously been accepted as fact, had many years ago been proven to be entirely fraudulent, and that despite this fact, his drawings are still being published in high school textbooks today and taught as representing the truth! Is it possible there is a less than pure motive for teaching untruths to support evolution? This article shows how the fraud was even greater than first understood–an interesting read!
Robert B.
Not only are these convenient mistruths in textbooks but students are examined on them.

2009 Year 10 Term 4 Science exam at one independent Sydney girls’ high school showed Haeckel’s drawings and asked students to explain how they supported the theory of evolution. (3 marks) I am interested in the Science HOD’s response to my query about this matter.
Ron T.
I have taught Jr. High Science for over 35 years. Every textbook from every major publisher I have ever seen has had Haeckel’s embryos pictured and the text usually claims this as a proof for evolution. The other proofs given are also ones that have been disproved long ago; such as Miller’s experiment, and the beaks of finches
John M.
Thank you for this article. My daughter’s Year 11 (New South Wales High School) biology text book, written in 2006, still has Haeckels drawings in it. Fraudulent for over 100 years, and still taught as fact.

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