Haeckel on gastrulation

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This morning, the ID guys were embarrassed – once again – when it was revealed that they didn’t know what they were talking about when they accused PZ Myers of lying by misquoting Wells in PIGDID. PZ dealt with this pretty darn convincingly over here.

But looking at the Haeckel/embryos chapter of PIGDID reminded me of something that has always bugged me about Wells’s claims. Here it is:

Yet only after cleavage and gastrulation does a vertebrate embryo reach the stage that Haeckel labeled the “first.” If it were true (as Darwin and Haeckel claimed) that vertebrates are most similar in their earliest stages, then the various classes would be most similar during cleavage and gastrulation. (Wells, PIGDID, p. 30)

There you have it: Darwin and Haeckel were ignorant of diversity in embryo gastrulation! What boobs!

Imagine my surprise when I actually took a look at Haeckel’s Anthropogenie (1891 edition):

(source: Ernst Haeckel (1891). Anthropogenie, fourth edition (revised and expanded). Leipzig: Verlag von Wilhelm Engelman, 1891.)

Haeckel got many things wrong, e.g. recapitulation – and even his attempt to abstract a generic “gastrula” stage for all vertebrate embryos is dubious (see the Ballard 1976 paper that PZ quoted Wells misquoting) – but ignoring the diversity of gastrulation wasn’t one of his mistakes.

Sooner or later people are going to realize that the ubiquitous negative depictions of Haeckel are highly tendentious. It is worth taking a look at Haeckel’s wikipedia page and the links therein (e.g., Kunstformen der Natur) to get some idea of why Haeckel was a biological genius in many ways, despite his well-known flaws.

Credits: photos of Anthropogenie, 4th edition, taken by Alan Gishlick some years ago. I think I have reconstructed the correct edition from the order of the photos.

7 Comments

Just for the heck of it I went looking for what Darwin said about the similarity of embryos. The Darwin Online archive yields just 26 hits on [+similarity +embryos], all but two of them in various editions of Origin of Species. Looking through them, one finds remarks like this:

How, then, can we explain these several facts in embryology,—namely the very general, but not universal difference in structure between the embryo and the adult;—of parts in the same indivividual [sic] embryo, which ultimately become very unlike and serve for diverse purposes, being at this early period of growth alike;—of embryos of different species within the same class, generally, but not universally, resembling each other;—of the structure of the embryo not being closely related to its conditions of existence, except when the embryo becomes at any period of life active and has to provide for itself;—of the embryo apparently having sometimes a higher organisation than the mature animal, into which it is developed. I believe that all these facts can be explained, as follows, on the view of descent with modification. (OoS, 1st Ed., pp 442-443; bolding added)

Clearly Darwin was referring to a restricted set (“within the same class”), and to a general but not universal phenomenon. He was certainly aware of differences as well as similarities, and limited it to the level of classes, not the subphyllum Vertebrata.

The two outliers in the first search were in The variation of animals and plants under domestication, where Darwin wrote

As a consequence of this the embryo, even when the parent-form undergoes a great amount of modification, is left only slightly modified; and the embryos of widely-different animals which are descended from a common progenitor remain in many important respects like each other and their common progenitor.

Again, Darwin’s statements are considerably more circumspect and qualified than Wells’s “If it were true (as Darwin and Haeckel claimed) that vertebrates are most similar in their earliest stages, then the various classes would be most similar during cleavage and gastrulation” would imply.

Searching on [+stage +similar +embryos] I get 13 hits. On a fast scan, none make the claim that Wells attributes to Darwin. I do find a similar sort of claim, though, together with a blatant “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” claim, in a 1903 book called An easy outline of evolution by a Dennis Hird:

Man is developed from a small cell (called the ovum or ovule), about the 120th of an inch in diameter, which differs in no apparent respect from the ovules from which other animals grow. The embryo itself at a very early period cannot be distinguished from that of other members of the vertebrate kingdom (See Fig.7). Very wonderful is the evidence in favour of Evolution furnished by the development of man from the very beginning of his life before birth. Speaking broadly, man in his development goes through a series of changes that are the same, at different stages, as the fixed forms of the lower animals when they are full-grown. In his development from cell or egg he presents structures that are precisely like those seen in the bodies of the lower and lowest animals in their adult state. In fact, they correspond with the stages of man’s evolution in the almost infinite past. The detailed life-history of any one man shows the history of his race.

I found nothing like that searching Darwin’s writings.

Now, Darwin clearly knew that differentiation occurred during development, and that later stages showed more clearly the adult specializations that would result from the completed development process. But as far as I can tell he made no blanket statements about similarities as a function of stage starting at cleavage.

So Nick’s post shows that Haeckel was surely aware of differences, and Darwin was circumspect and qualified in his claims about similarities. Wells has over-simplified both to the point of deceptive caricature.

The final question, of course, is “Who cares?” Darwin and Haeckel wrote in the 19th century. We’ve learned a dab about developmental processes since then.

RBH

Darwin clearly even knew about the differences in eggs, “blastulas”, etc., which are due to different amounts of yolk and adaptation to different environments (floating in the water, vs. large egg, vs. internal pregnancy, etc.):

embryos of different species within the same class, generally, but not universally, resembling each other;—of the structure of the embryo not being closely related to its conditions of existence, except when the embryo becomes at any period of life active and has to provide for itself;

Chapter Nine of Haeckel’s The Evolution of Man starts out:

The remarkable process of gastrulation, ovum segmentation and formation of germ layers present a most conspicuos variety.

Haeckel goes on to say:

In all other extent Vertebrates these fundamental processes have been more or less modified by adaptation to the conditions of embryonic development (especially by changes in the food yolk); they exhibit various cenogenetic forms of the formations of the germlayers, and thus develop by means of a metagastrula. However, the different classes vary considerably from each other. In order to grasp the unity that underlies the manifold differences in these phenomena and their historical connection, it is necessary to bear in mind always the unity of the vertbrate-stem…All impartial zoologists agree to-day that all vertebrates, from Amphioxus and the fishes to the ape and man descend from a common ancestor, “the primitive Vertebrate.”

Clearly he was aware of variety in the gastrulation process - but also noted some similarities which he chalked up to common descent. Like Darwin, Haeckel noted greater variation between classes. As RBH noted developmental biology has come a long way since Haeckel, so the question has more historical interest than anything else…

Wells misrepresentation of embryology has already been discussed in a former PT thread: Iconoclasts of Evolution: Haeckel, Behe, Wells & the Ontogeny of a Fraud Since the link in there is dead please follow this one to access the PICKETT, WENZEL, RISSING paper published in The American Biology Teacher. Seemingly, Wells is just ignoring it.

Haeckel was an elitist eugenicist who, without a doubt (and unlike Darwin) DID provide inpsiration for the Nazis.

He as also a liar and not above faking evidence.

Who ya kiddin”

Besides yourselves?

[Seemingly, Wells is just ignoring it.]

The latest ID tactic: ignore it and hope it’ll go away.

Good thinking for them, as they certainly can’t afford any more embarassments.…

Ristsenchen Wrote:

Haeckel was an elitist eugenicist who, without a doubt (and unlike Darwin) DID provide inpsiration for the Nazis.

He as also a liar and not above faking evidence.

None of which means he was wrong on this particular issue, as Wells claims.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Nick Matzke published on November 3, 2006 7:17 PM.

The scientific vacuity of ID: design inference versus “Design Inference” was the previous entry in this blog.

IRS claims Kent Hovind’s $250,000 challenge; all mysteries of life now solved is the next entry in this blog.

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