Saturday, 24 January 2015

Haeckel's Embryos and Creationist Hypocrites

1874 illustration from Anthropogenie showing "very early", "somewhat later" and "still later" stages of embryos of fish (F), salamander (A), turtle (T), chick (H), pig (S), cow (R), rabbit (K), and human (M)
How fudged embryo illustrations led to drawn-out lies - life - 20 January 2015 - New Scientist

Haeckel's embryo drawings are something of embarrassment for biology, but how they have been used to mislead their dupes should be an even bigger embarrassment for creationist pseudoscientists, if it were even remotely possible to embarrass them with evidence of false claims, that is.

Haeckel produced his set of drawings intending to show how vertebrate embryology supported Darwinian evolution by pointing to a common ancestor and because the stages of development represented a replay of the evolution which led to their final adult forms. Unfortunately, he not only 'enhanced' his drawings to support this 'Recapitulation theory' but then arranged them in a matrix intended to show how they fitted with accepted evolutionary relationships with a form of circular resoning by which the drawings were made to look like they fitted naturally into the matrix as he had arranged them.

As though this wasn't bad enough, Haeckel's drawings were then widely accepted and reproduced in biology books in support of Darwinian evolution, not because the authors had checked and validated them for themselves, but because they accepted the authority of one of the most renowned and respected biologists of his day, and despite not even being universally accepted even at the time he first published them. In doing so, so far as this aspect of biology was concerned, it became dangerously dogmatic and based not on observation of the real world but on the authority of one of the 'greats' from history. In contrast to religion, science should never depend on authority but on evidence. Religion, of course, rests entirely on authority.

It's not as though Haeckel wasn't without his critics in his lifetime. His Recapitulation theory was questioned almost immediately by people like Karl von Baer and Wilhelm His. Unfortunately, they became entangled with criticism not by biologists but by the Catholic Church in Germany, which was then implacably wedded to seven-day creation and a literal interpretation of Genesis, and so rejected Darwinian evolution by natural selection not on scientific or evidential grounds but on grounds of theological dogma in an echo of its rejection of Copernican/Galilean heliocentrism.

But then, as Michael K. Richardson, Professor of Evolutionary Developmental Zoology, Leiden University has said, "on a fundamental level, Haeckel was correct". In other words, he may have been guilty of over-emphasising the evidence, maybe motivated by a desire to make it more obvious and easier to understand, but he wasn't fundamentally wrong. Vertebrate embryos do show evidence of evolutionary relationships, and do show evidence of development of now redundant or highly modified structure from pre-vertebrate ancestors, such as gill slits and gill arches which go on to develop into structures such as the salivary glands.

But in science, even trying to make your evidence look better than it is is enough to discredit your work. Only the most rigorous honesty is acceptable.

But perhaps the real reason so few people paid enough attention to Haeckel's drawing to have them discredited and removed from the biology books was because, quite simply, they are not essential to Darwinian evolution anyway. Even if they had been accurate they would only have been accessory evidence for descent with modification. They were accepted as a nice example of what we should expect given common ancestry and evolutionary divergence; they were never the definitive proof of it.

Science is a self-correcting process when even relatively minor infringements of the highest standards expected are eventually found out, reported, and discredited, and so science moves on. Such is the strength of Darwinian evolution that it mattered not one jot to it that Haeckel had been overzealous in support of it. Darwinian evolution by descent with modification is supported by so many strands of independent evidence that we can confidently look at earlier representations of embryo development and say, if they don't support Darwinian evolution they are almost certainly wrong. No one nowadays uses comparative embryology to establish evolutionary relationships because, quite frankly, there are much better tools and much stronger correlations to be found in genetics and immunology. If we wanted to place vertebrates in Haeckel's matrix nowadays we would base it on genetics.

And guess what. When we do just that we come close to what Haeckel produced because he based it on Darwinian evolution and Darwinian evolution is correct.

But what a contrast to how creationism approaches evidence and its attitude to intellectual honesty and rigorous attention to detail.

The entire creationist notion of magic being used to create everything as is, infantile though it is, is based entirely on the authority of what someone wrote in a book a long time ago and not only is that reproduced over and over again and taught as established fact to other budding creationists but it's not even permitted to question or criticise these 'greats' of theology. Their authority is sacred and beyond reproach even to the extent of rejecting any evidence when it contradicts what the authors of the old book says.

How hypocritical of creationists to try to use drawings that were shown to be enhanced and so discredited, not by creationists but by scientists, and which were used in biology books for longer than they should have been not because they were important but because they weren't, as some sort of evidence that evolutionary biology is based on a forgery and that science is a dogmatic argument from authority.

The entire creationist apologia is nothing but forgery, lies, deliberate misrepresentations, 'enhanced' evidence and above all, an argument from authority. And an 'authority' moreover that we can't possibly judge for reliability because, unlike Ernst Haeckel, they have no other body of work by which we can judge them and we don't even know who they were. All we know for sure is that they lived in the Bronze Age before the wheel was invented, thought the sun and moon were lamps hanging from a dome over a flat Earth, that earthquakes can cause stars to fall down, that illness is caused by magic demons and that everything can be created out of nothing with some magic words.

Take for example the creationists led by Dr Hugh Miller who lied to get some samples of dinosaur fossils, lied about them being bone and sent them for C14 dating, were told that, as fossils any carbon present would not be organic in origin and anyway the samples were heavily contaminated with modern organic shellac to preserve them, but asked for the test to be done anyway, then claimed an independent laboratory had confirmed the 'bones' were only a few thousand years old by C14 dating. Were they discredited and their work removed from creationist literature?

Of course not. They are still widely acclaimed for their deception and their fake results are frequently quoted and presented as solid scientific evidence that a) dinosaurs were around a few thousand years ago and/or b) C14 dating is unreliable. Honesty and professional integrity were never part of creationist pseudoscience for the simple reason that that approach gives them the 'wrong' results.

It's almost axiomatic that you can take any creationist argument against science or scientific methodology and you will find creationism guilty ten times over of whatever it is they are accusing scientists of doing. They are like the gossiping old woman who stands at her front door criticising her neighbours for having an untidy house whilst keeping her door tightly shut and her curtains drawn lest passers by catch a glimpse of the squalor in which she lives.

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  1. Here is a guy that still wants to teach that here are gill slits in human embryos. There is no actual evidence at all of anything Haeckle set forward. NONE.

    1. Apart from the observable nascent gill arches in human embryos, of course.


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