Podcast: One of the most infamous fakes in biology? How Ernst Haeckel’s disputed embryo images sows confusion about evolution

Haeckel, Anthropogenie 1874
Haeckel's controversial embryo images

Geneticist Dr Kat Arney takes a closer look at some of the most controversial images in embryology—Ernst Haeckel’s illustrations of early embryos from species ranging from fish to human.

Born in 1834, Haeckel was a German zoologist with a flair for illustration, and a knack for creating incredibly detailed and widely shared scientific images. But do his infamous embryo drawings really show the true picture of early development? 

Haeckel used these images to support the concept that ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’. This is the idea that the changes in shape and structure of human embryos in the womb recapitulate their evolutionary history. One infamous example depicts human embryos passing through a ‘fish’ stage because they seem to have gills at one point during early development, reflecting our ancient fish-like ancestors.

However, Haeckel’s pictures attracted controversy from the moment they were published. His peers pointed out that the same embryos had been re-used in some of the images, leading to accusations of fraud. Although the argument died down over the next century, the air of suspicion surrounding Haeckel and his embryo drawings never really went away.

In 1997, the journal Science published an article entitled Haeckel’s Embryos: Fraud Rediscovered, claiming that Haeckel had intentionally misrepresented embryological development. British embryologist Michael Richardson was quoted in it as saying, “It looks like it’s turning out to be one of the most famous fakes in biology.”

Although Haeckel created his drawings using the best tools and technology that was available at the time, modern techniques reveal that there are several inaccuracies. However, it would be a disservice to his many contributions to science to brand him a fraud.

Related article:  Can DNA predict who might be a mass murderer?

The images may be inaccurate, but the fundamental point that the illustrations are showing is correct: the more closely related two species are in evolution, the more similar their early-stage embryos will appear.

Tiktaalik picture - Eduard Sola CC-BY-SA-3.0
Your ‘inner fish – a Tiktaalik fossil (Eduard Sola CC-BY-SA-3.0)

There is a close connection between development and evolution, or ‘evo-devo’ as it’s sometimes known.  In short, our evolutionary history is written in our developmental genes, and it’s a history that we can trace right the way back to the very first vertebrates.

By way of example, Arney also looks at the story of Tiktaalik – a 375-million-year-old fossil discovered in northern Canada in 2004 by Professor Neil Shubin and his colleagues. According to Shubin, author of the book Your Inner Fish, Tiktaalik represents our oldest ‘fishapod’ ancestor, forming the missing link between fish and land-dwelling tetrapods. 

Full transcript, links and references available online at GeneticsUnzipped.com

Genetics Unzipped is the podcast from the UK Genetics Society, presented by award-winning science communicator and biologist Kat Arney and produced by First Create the Media.  Follow Kat on Twitter @Kat_Arney, Genetics Unzipped @geneticsunzip, and the Genetics Society at @GenSocUK

Listen to Genetics Unzipped on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) Google Play, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts

Outbreak Daily Digest
Biotech Facts & Fallacies
Talking Biotech
Genetics Unzipped
Video: Test everyone – Slovakia goes its own way to control COVID

Video: Test everyone – Slovakia goes its own way to control COVID

As Europe sees record coronavirus cases and deaths, Slovakia is testing its entire adult population. WSJ's Drew Hinshaw explains how ...
mag insects image superjumbo v

Disaster interrupted: Which farming system better preserves insect populations: Organic or conventional?

A three-year run of fragmentary Armageddon-like studies had primed the journalism pumps and settled the media framing about the future ...
dead bee desolate city

Are we facing an ‘Insect Apocalypse’ caused by ‘intensive, industrial’ farming and agricultural chemicals? The media say yes; Science says ‘no’

The media call it the “Insect Apocalypse”. In the past three years, the phrase has become an accepted truth of ...
globalmethanebudget globalcarbonproject cropped x

Infographic: Cows cause climate change? Agriculture scientist says ‘belching bovines’ get too much blame

A recent interview by Caroline Stocks, a UK journalist who writes about food, agriculture and the environment, of air quality ...
organic hillside sweet corn x

Organic v conventional using GMOs: Which is the more sustainable farming?

Many consumers spend more for organic food to avoid genetically modified products in part because they believe that “industrial agriculture” ...
benjamin franklin x

Are most GMO safety studies funded by industry?

The assertion that biotech companies do the research and the government just signs off on it is false ...

Environmental Working Group: EWG challenges safety of GMOs, food pesticide residues

Known by some as the "Environmental Worrying Group," EWG lobbies for tighter GMO legislation and famously puts out annual "dirty dozen" list of fruits and ...
m hansen

Michael Hansen: Architect of Consumers Union ongoing anti-GMO campaign

Michael K. Hansen (born 1956) is thought by critics to be the prime mover behind the ongoing campaign against agricultural biotechnology at Consumer Reports. He is an ...
News on human & agricultural genetics and biotechnology delivered to your inbox.
Optional. Mail on special occasions.
Send this to a friend