New book: Images, evolution and fraud

Book review reblogged from New Scientist

(Image: Paul D. Stewart/SPL)

Some of the most iconic images in biology hold a dark secret. Haeckel’s Embryos: Images, evolution, and fraud delves into their history

IT’s embarrassing but true: some of the most influential drawings in the history of biology are wrong, exaggerated to fit a thesis.

As we discover in Haeckel’s Embryos, German biologist Ernst Haeckel included illustrations of the embryological stages of vertebrates in a series of books published between 1868 and 1908. Fudging the data, he placed the drawings into a comparative grid, highlighting similarities between species and blurring differences. The results are highly inaccurate.

Haeckel wanted to convince his readers that all vertebrates share a common ancestor, and that, as he put it, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” – our embryonic development repeats our evolutionary past. This aphorism was soon disproved, but the use of Haeckel’s drawings persisted, particularly in education. There were waves of criticism, from the 1870s when the drawings were published, up to 1997 as Haeckel’s “fraud” was rediscovered and exploited by creationists.

In this sumptuous book, Nick Hopwood, a science historian, examines how and why Haeckel made his drawings, and the use made of them since. His clever detective work takes him into the Haeckel archives in the German town of Jena, discovering the original drawings and even the woodblocks. At the other end of the story, he explores how Haeckel’s drawings appeared in postwar textbooks in the UK and the US.

Stunning illustrations show the way the images have been copied and reinterpreted from the late 19th century on, and insights from writers shed a fascinating light. For example, Scott F. Gilbert, author of a 1985 developmental biology textbook, inadvertently used Haeckel’s images.

Ironically, although Haeckel’s drawings are used only as relics now, modern molecular genetic studies show that his fundamental point – that there are important similarities between different vertebrate embryos – seems less mistaken, even though his diagrams are profoundly wrong.

Hopwood’s excellent, thought-provoking book makes us ponder how these erroneous illustrations acquired their iconic status, and, above all, it shines a spotlight on the power of drawings to influence our thinking.

This article appeared in print under the headline “Drawn-out lies”

Matthew Cobb is professor of zoology at the University of Manchester, UK

Categories: Science

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