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Survival of the Fakest

Survival of the Fakest



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Published by dannyatschool

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Published by: dannyatschool on Mar 29, 2008
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Article originally appeared in
The American Spectator 
 December 2000 / January 2001
f you had asked me during my years studying scienceat Berkeley whether or not I believed what I read inmy science textbooks, I would have responded muchas any of my fellow students: puzzled that such aquestion would be asked in the rst place. One might ndtiny errors, of course, typos and misprints. And science isalways discovering new things. But I believed – took it as agiven – that my science textbooks represented the best sci-entic knowledge available at that time.It was only when I was nishing my Ph.D. in celland development biology, however, that I noticed what atrst I took to be a strange anomaly. The textbook I wasusing prominently featured drawings of vertebrate embryos – sh, chickens, humans, etc. – where similarities were pre-sented as evidence for descent from a common ancestor.Indeed, the drawings did appear very similar. But I’d beenstudying embryos for some time, looking at them under amicroscope. And I knew that the drawings were just plainwrong.I re-checked all my other textbooks. They all hadsimilar drawings, and they were all obviously wrong. Notonly did they distort the embryos they pictured; they omit-ted earlier stages in which the embryos look very differentfrom one another.Like most other science students, like most scien-tists themselves, I let it pass. It didn’t immediately affectmy work, and I assumed that while the texts had somehowgotten this particular issue wrong, it was the exception tothe rule. In 1997, however, my interest in the embryo draw-ings was revived when British embryologist Michael Rich-ardson and his colleagues published the result of their studycomparing the textbook drawings with actual embryos. As
. Y
. W
Richardson himself was quoted in the prestigious journal
: “It looks like it’s turning out to be one of the mostfamous fakes in biology.”Worse, this was no recent fraud. Nor was its dis-covery recent. The embryo drawings that appear in mostevery high school and college textbook are either repro-ductions of, or based on, a famous series of drawings bythe 19th century German biologist and fervent Darwinian,Ernst Haeckel, and they have been known to scholars of Darwin and evolutionary theory to be forgeries for over ahundred years. But none of them, apparently, have seen tto correct this almost ubiquitous misinformation.Still thinking this an exceptional circumstance, Ibecame curious to see if I could nd other mistakes in thestandard biology texts dealing with evolution. My searchrevealed a startling fact however: Far from being excep-tions, such blatant misrepresentations are more often therule. In my recent book I call them “Icons of Evolution,”because so many of them are represented by classic oft-repeated illustrations which, like the Haeckel drawings,have served their pedagogical purpose only too well – xingbasic misinformation about evolutionary theory in the pub-lic’s mind.We all remember them from biology class: theexperiment that created the “building blocks of life” in atube; the evolutionary “tree,” rooted in the primordial slimeand branching out into animal and plant life. Then therewere the similar bone structures of, say, a bird’s wing anda man’s hand, the peppered moths, and Darwin’s nches.And, of course, the Haeckel embryos.As it happens, all of these examples, as well asmany others purportedly standing as evidence of evolution,
Article originally appeared in
The American Spectator 
 December 2000 / January 2001
turn out to be incorrect. Not just slightly off. Not justslightly mistaken. On the subject of Darwinian evolution,the texts contained massive distortions and even some fakedevidence. Nor are we only talking about high-school text-books that some might excuse (but shouldn’t) for adheringto a lower standard. Also guilty are some of the most presti-gious and widely used college texts, such as Douglas Futuy-ma’s
 Evolutionary Biology
, and the latest edition of thegraduate-level textbook
 Molecular Biology of the Cell
, co-authored by the president of the National Academy of Sci-ences, Bruce Alberts. In fact, when the false “evidence” istaken away, the case for Darwinian evolution, in the text-books at least, is so thin it’s almost invisible. 
Life in a Bottle
Anyone old enough in 1953 to understand theimport of the news remembers how shocking, and to many,exhilarating, it was. Scientists Stanley Miller and HaroldUrey had succeeded in creating “the building blocks” of life in a ask. Mimicking what were believed to be thenatural conditions of the early Earth’s atmosphere, and thensending an electric spark through it, Miller and Urey hadformed simple amino acids. As amino acids are the “build-ing blocks” of life, it was thought just a matter of timebefore scientists could themselves create living organisms.At the time, it appeared a dramatic conrmation of evolutionary theory. Life wasn’t a “miracle.” No outsideagency or divine intelligence was necessary. Put the rightgasses together, add electricity, and life is bound to happen.It’s a common event. Carl Sagan could thus condentlypredict on PBS that the planets orbiting those “billlllionsand billlllions” of stars out there must be just teeming withlife.There were problems, however. Scientists werenever able to get beyond the simplest amino acids in their simulated primordial environment, and the creation of pro-teins began to seem not a small step or couple of steps, buta great, perhaps impassable, divide.The telling blow to the Miller-Urey experiment,however, came in the 1970’s, when scientists began to con-clude that the Earth’s early atmosphere was nothing like themixture of gasses used by Miller and Urey. Instead of beingwhat scientists call a “reducing,” or hydrogen-rich environ-ment, the Earth’s early atmosphere probably consisted of gasses released by volcanoes. Today there is a near consen-sus among geochemists on this point. But put those volca-nic gasses in the Miller-Urey apparatus, and the experimentdoesn’t work – in other words, no “building blocks” of life.What do textbooks do with this inconvenient fact?By and large, they ignore it and continue to use the Miller-Urey experiment to convince students that scientists havedemonstrated an important rst step in the origin of life.This includes the above-mentioned
 Molecular Biology of the Cell
, co-authored by the National Academy of Sciencespresident, Bruce Alberts. Most textbooks also go on to tellstudents that origin-of-life researchers have found a wealthof other evidence to explain how life originated spontane-ously – but they don’t tell students that the researchers them-selves now acknowledge that the explanation still eludesthem.
Faked Embryos
Darwin thought “by far the strongest single class
Article originally appeared in
The American Spectator 
 December 2000 / January 2001
of facts in favor of” his theory came from embry-ology. Darwin was not an embryologist, however,so he relied on the work of German biologist ErnstHaeckel, who produced drawings of embryos fromvarious classes of vertebrates to show that they arevirtually identical in their earliest stages, and becomenoticeably different only as they develop. It was thispattern that Darwin found so convincing.This may be the most egregious of distor-tions, since biologists have known for over a cen-tury that vertebrate embryos never look as similar asHaeckel drew them. In some cases, Haeckel usedthe same woodcut to print embryos that were sup-posedly from different classes. In others, he doc-tored his drawings to make the embryos appear more alike than they really were. Haeckel’s con-temporaries repeatedly criticized him for these mis-representations, and charges of fraud abounded inhis lifetime. In 1997, British embryologist MichaelRichardson and an international team of expertscompared Haeckel’s drawings with photographs of actual vertebrate embryos, demonstrating conclu-sively that the drawings misrepresent the truth.The drawings are misleading in another way.Darwin based his inference of common ancestry onthe belief that the earliest stages of embryo devel-opment are the most similar. Haeckel’s drawings,however, entirely omit the earliest stages, which aremuch different, and start at a more similar midwaypoint. Embryologist William Ballard wrote in 1976that it is “only by semantic tricks and subjectiveselection of evidence,” by “bending the facts of nature,” that one can argue that the early stages of vertebrates “are more alike than their adults.”Yet some version of Haeckel’s drawings canbe found in most current biology textbooks. Ste-phen Jay Gould, one of evolutionary theory’s mostvocal proponents, recently wrote that we should be“astonished and ashamed by the century of mind-less recycling that has led to the persistence of thesedrawings in a large number, if not a majority, of modern textbooks.” (I will return below to the ques-tion of why it is only now that Mr. Gould, who hasknown of these forgeries for decades, has decided tobring them to widespread attention.)
Darwin’s Tree of Life
Darwin wrote in
The Origin of Species
: “Iview all beings not as special creations, but as thelineal descendants of some few beings” that lived

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