Casey Luskin, Disco. ‘Tute spinner, has recently relaunched a fight over whether and how textbooks use embryological drawings from Ernst Haeckel’s 19th century popular works. In his two posts (excerpting from a jumbled essay he wrote for a law review), he repeatedly claims that those drawings are fraudulent. To wit:
textbooks in use today, in arguing for evolution, still use Haeckelâs fraudulent embryo drawings
That Haeckelâs drawings were fraudulent and have been used in textbooks is essentially beyond dispute
Stephen Jay Gould recognized that Haeckelâs drawings â¦ fraudulently obscured the differences between the early stages of vertebrate embryos
Haeckelâs fraud has had a non-trivial influence on both evolutionary thought and evolution education
a textbook submitted â¦ for adoption in Texas in 2003 â¦ used a slightly simplified version of Haeckelâs original fraudulent drawings
But here’s the thing. The only place Casey actually presents an argument for “fraud” is in footnote 262 (from the “beyond dispute” claim above):
Even Matzke and Gross recognize that âHaeckel did exaggerate similarities in very early embryos of different species, and his figures, or derivatives of them, have appeared in a few textbooks.â Nicholas J. Matzke & Paul R. Gross, Analyzing Critical Analysis: The Fallback Antievolutionist Strategy, in NOT IN OUR CLASSROOMS: WHY INTELLIGENT DESIGN IS WRONG FOR OUR SCHOOLS 40 ( Eugenie C. Scott & Glenn Branch, eds. 2006).
The problem is, Casey is pretending that research into Haeckel’s drawings stopped in 2002, with the publication of the deeply inaccurate Icons of Evolution. In fact, the most recent work on the topic would be Robert Richards’ biography of Haeckel (The Tragic Sense of Life), and a paper Richards wrote based on his research for that book: “Haeckel’s embryos: fraud not proven.” You’d think anyone doing even a trivial search would have turned that paper up.
This is a disappointing oversight for two reasons. First, Casey is described by Disco. as a “staff attorney,” and he should know that proving fraud takes more than just “exaggeration.” Second, he submitted and published this piece as a piece of serious scholarship, yet failed a basic standard of research: accurately representing the current state of the field.
As Richards points out, a fair evaluation of the evidence shows “the charge against Haeckel to be logically mischievous, historically naive, and founded on highly misleading photography.”
in particular, Richards observes that the drawings everyone talks about are from Haeckel’s 1874 book, a popular work based on stenographic notes of a lecture series he’d presented, and illustrations used in that talk. He continued to revise the work through several subsequent editions, and the evidence is clear that he continued to update his drawings as newer and better embryological illustrations became available. As Richards explains:
The refinements were a function of more material available and better instrumentation (embryos at the earliest stages are invisible to the naked eye). Had the Science article [on which Luskin and others rely] compared Richardsonâs photos with illustrations from Haeckelâs later editions, the argument for fraud would have withered.
Richards, like other critics, also points out that modern photographs often offered as evidence of Haeckel’s perfidy actually present their own misrepresentation.
several (but not all) of the photographed embryos retain the attached yolk sack and other maternal material; this exaggerates their differences from Haeckelâs images. Haeckel explicitly indicated that he pictured his specimens without yolk, allantois, and amnion. The bulge of the salamander is not part of the embryo; rather, it is the yolk sack, as is the case for the fish and the human embryos (though not for the chick and the rabbit, from which the yolk sacks have been removed).
When one corrects these discrepancies, Haeckel’s drawings don’t look nearly so different from modern photographs, as shown in the picture below (Richards’ figure 5):
Casey, attempting to bolster the case for fraud, compares modern textbook illustrations to Haeckel’s drawings, but does not show the comparison to photographs. This is a critical component of any claim that modern textbooks mislead through their illustrations. Haeckel’s drawings are surely imperfect, but as Casey acknowledges, the textbook illustrations are not identical to Haeckel’s work. The important question is whether the differences between the two illustrations correct the flaws in Haeckel’s dated drawings. If not, one might argue that publishers are knowingly passing along Haeckel’s inadvertent errors. But if their drawings correct those flaws, then no charge of fraud can be attached to the modern authors, either.
This is all by way of saying that Casey appears to be a lawyer who doesn’t know the elements of proving fraud, who fails even to make a pass at demonstrating the charge he’s prosecuting, and who fails to make his audience aware of exculpatory evidence. Not the best way to be.