Talk Reason PRINT

The Haeckel-Wells Chronicles

By PZ Myers

Posted February 19, 2007

Lately, the Discovery Institute has stuck its neck out in response to the popularity of showings of Randy Olson's movie, Flock of Dodos, which I reviewed a while back. They slapped together some lame critiques packaged on the web as Hoax of Dodos (a clunker of a name; it's especially ironic since the film tries to portray the Institute as good at PR), which mainly seem to be driven by the sloppy delusions of that poor excuse for a developmental biologist, Jonathan Wells. In the past week, I've also put up my responses to the Wells deceptions -- as a developmental biologist myself, I get a little cranky when a creationist clown abuses my discipline.

In case you are completely baffled by this whole episode, here's a shorter summary.

In the early 19th century, a very famous embryologist, Karl Ernst von Baer, made the observation that vertebrate embryos go through a stage in which all are surprisingly similar to one another -- so similar that he, probably the greatest embryologist of his day, couldn't tell bird and reptile embryos apart. This observation has been repeatedly confirmed; no rational person argues against the general statement, although there have also been good, detailed studies (by Richardson in particular) that show that there are differences in specifics that need to be appreciated. In addition, modern observations of patterns of gene expression show that there is also a deeper similarity in the molecules involved in this particular period.

I emphasized the observations above because these are the data, and they aren't in question. One could argue that interpretations are open to questioning, however. So what are the interpretations?

This is the level of intellectual bankruptcy the Discovery Institute has reached. They choose to deny the facts, an observation made by a fellow creationist almost 180 years ago and repeated over and over again, to the point that Wells in his book Icons of Evolution condemns textbooks that show photos of embryos at this particularly interesting stage. This Intelligent Design 'theory' they promote is so toothless that they have no alternative explanations, so they choose try to to bury the data.

What I also find interesting is that these proponents of 'teaching the controversy' are so anxious to hide the fact that legitimate biologists wrestled over an alternative theory that had, for a brief (but still too many decades) time had engaged a significant number of members of the scientific community. Haeckel's theory was popular among scientists and the public, had some intuitive appeal, and also promised to explain many phenomena…but it fizzled precisely because it failed to accumulate scientific evidence in its favor. The textbooks that still mention it do so because it was our example of phlogiston -- an interesting historical curiosity that tried to explain real observations, but failed under growing experimental tests. Wells' denial of the similarity of vertebrate embryos as a tactic for disputing evolutionary theory is comparable to trying to refute modern chemistry by attacking phlogiston theory on the grounds that substances don't burn. Not only does the absurdity of the target label them a kook, but even if they were successful, no one is defending phlogiston or the biogenetic law anymore.

This article originally appeared on The Panda's

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