Oh God, the pain… In response to Randy Olson’s wonderful documentary Flock of Dodos the Disco Institute has come out with an idiotic diatribe of a reply in YouTube form featuring an irate reader of Icons of Evolution and an “attendant” named Casey (who I can only assume is the Discovery Institute Attack Mouse, aka Casey Luskin). Should you ever want to torture someone, make them watch this video
This all stems from Jonathan Wells’ discredited polemic, Icons of Evolution, wherein he accusses 10 different textbooks of containing the long-refuted Haeckel’s Embryos, suggesting that students are still being taught that vertebrate development is so alike that we “replay” evolution in the womb. I have in my library two textbooks mentioned by Wells (although not the editions mentioned in Icons, one being older and another being more recent) as well as several other texts I’m about to search for the offending embryos. I do know that Ernst Mayr, for some damn-fool reason, published Haeckel’s Embryos in the first editions of What Evolution Is (even doing so a year after Icons was published), but otherwise I haven’t seen the outdated diagrams for some time. Let’s have a look-see;
Evolution by Douglas J. Futuyma, 2005 edition
Nope, no inaccruate embryos here. On page 56 there’s a photograph of human, opossum, chicken, and salamander embryos at various stages of development, but being that these are photographs and the differences in them are apparent, this is not handing out doctored information. In fact, on the same page Haeckel’s errors are discussed, thus leaving no room to consider his drawings accurate.
Biology: Concepts & Connections, 3rd Edition, by Cambell, Mitchell, & Reece; 2000
I remember this textbook from some of my earliest college-level biology classes, and upon inspection I can’t find any drawing or picture even analagous to Haeckel’s embryos. All of the developmental pathways seem to be handled by Phylum/Class with no comparative diagrams, at least in any of the relevant chapters on evolution, classification, and development.
Vertebrate Natural History by Mary E. Willson, 1984
Ah, an older book. Perhaps in here we’ll find those darned embryos. Nope, even the term “development” is absent from the index, the subject touched on only briefly and the focus being on telling the difference between extant vertebrates. Perhaps a poor candidate for the search, but it does show that even in dated text the embryos are perhaps not as pervasive as implied by Wells.
Animal Behavior: An Evolutionary Approach, 8th edition, by Joan Alcock, 2005
This is the book from my current Behavioral Biology course, and while behavior is the focus as any ethologist knows development can play a crucial role in behavior. Once again Haeckel is absent even from the index.
Zoology, 2nd Edition, Stephen A. Miller & John P. Harley, 1994
This was an older edition of a vertebrate zoology textbook I purchased a few years ago (can’t beat a textbook for $20, even if it is a little old) and once again, Haeckel is left out.
Over at Pharyngula PZ went over the same claim, dealing specifically with the texts Wells cited, long ago, and you can find his post for your further edification here. I have to admit that the idea of “phylogeny recapitulates ontogeny” sometimes shows up unexpected, but it is typically the result of pseudo-science in bad horror movies (The Prophecy and Peter Benchley’s Creature being among them) rather than what is actually taught in science class. Are the fraudulent pictures still cropping up here and there? Like I said, Ernst Mayr’s “definitive” book on evolution had them and perhaps some others do as well, but what I would like to see is a listing of how many schools are using the “offending textbooks” and if the corrections have been made in recent years. As the video rightly notes, even evolutionists have recognized the irresponsible use of these embryos and called for them to be nothing more than a footnote in the history of evolutionary thought (which is actually how they’re referred to in the majority of textbooks they appear in). If one reads Wells’ criterion for his bogus A-F grading scale for the textbooks in Icons, it quickly becomes apparent that even publishing illustrations that resemble Haeckel’s to illustrate his folly will garner the book a D, the only difference between a D and an F in Wells’ mind being a “D” grade book selecting a few embryos rather than publishing the full swath Haeckel originally doctored.
Back to the original accusation posed by the DI: Is Randy Olson defending the accuracy of Haeckel’s ideas in the film? Not at all! The point Olson tries to make is that Haeckel’s Embryos are not as widespread in the literature (even older books) as is perceived by ID advocates. Putting the assertion that Haeckel’s Embryos are nearly ubiquitous in the literature to the test, he rightly challenges the creationist who espouses this claim and together they review the books in the man’s library, coming up (as I did) empty handed.
Of course, we all know that it wouldn’t be a real Disco Institute fun-fest without a good dose of self-serving smarminess thrown on, coming in the form of a “We tried to warn him” personal attack towards the end of the painful clip (apparently they were in the Ed Wood school of cinematography where they’re going to go with the 1st take, no matter what horrific acting takes place). I realize that I’ve engaged in personal attacks myself here in this very blog (let’s face it, this is not a formal forum and I don’t have to be “nice” to people who irritate me on a near-daily basis), but I really found the whole thing insufferable and smacking of the same condescending attitude that pervades everything the Disco Institute does.
As for Casey Luskin supposedly confronting Olson with the textbooks, I’ve heard various stories ranging from what the video said (Luskin heroically debating Olson, textbooks held in each arm like the 10 Commandments, Holy Fire raining down around him) to the claim that Luskin merely “confronted” Olson, which of course could be done at any time after the film & panel ended. I’m sure we’ll be hearing from Randy in the near future about all of this (it was a public screening after all, and I’m sure there are plenty of people, not the least of which being Muffy Moose, who could verify what happened) but apparently the Disco Institute folks love pulling this stuff right before evolutionists are about to celebrate, the last instance being William Dembski releasing his idiotic Judge Jones flash animation right before Christmas (“Hoax of Dodos” coming out in time for Darwin Day).
After I saw Flock of Dodos at the Margaret Mead Film Festival at the American Museum of Natural History I got the chance to meet Randy and he was perhaps one of the most personable scientists I have had the pleasure to meet. I shoot him an e-mail now and then and he always responds kindly and promptly, and through my interactions with him (and looking at the evidence for myself) I do not see any malice or bad intent in the film he has made. Indeed, it does rightly favor evolution over ID, but at least during interviews he allowed creationists to freely speak their minds without strangling them, which I have to say is perhaps more than I would be capable of after so many interviews. If you have not seen the movie already, do yourself a favor and see it for yourself, and even take a look at what the Disco Institute is complaining about if you’re so inclined; it is crystal clear that Randy did not misrepresent what’s going on over in Seattle.
Update: Randy Olson has responded to the video in the comment thread of this Pharyngula post. Quite rightly, he clarifies that in the debate between evolution and creationism, the burden of proof to prove the claims about the “icons” rests with Wells, which are up to this point merely collected “trivia.” My worry is that even though I may look at Icons and see it for what it is, some people are going to latch onto the flimsy arguments and suddenly believe they’ve been lied to their whole lives by scientists, teachers, and even their own families, once again showing that evolution should be about the evidence and not how well you can debate or change people’s minds. The oddest thing of all was when I took an Evolution course last semester several students used the “March of Progress” picture right from the cover of Wells’ book for their explanation of human evolution, and while they understood what occurred when asked to present their work, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at seeing the cover of Icons used in a serious discussion of evolution. Much like Olson points out in the film, scientists and educators need to do a better job at explaining and teaching evolution to the public, especially since old habits seem to die hard.