Wells’ false accusation against Randy Olson


The Discovery Institute is stepping up their smear campaign against Randy Olson and Flock of Dodos, and the biggest issue they can find is their continued revivification of Haeckel's biogenetic law. They've put up a bogus complaint that Olson was lying in the movie, a complaint that does not hold up, as I'll show you.

First, though, let's simplify the debate. The Discovery Institute position is that any text that shows Ernst Haeckel's ancient diagram of various embryos is guilty of fraudulently distorting the evidence for evolution. They have accused scientists of a conspiracy of lies, of using this known false diagram to buttress evolutionary theory.

If this were the case, then the worst case of mass market fraud around would have to be Wells' own Icons of Evolution: it contains 4 versions of the Haeckelian diagram, including the original, and talks about it for 28 pages. Obviously, this is a criminal conspiracy to promote phony evidence for evolution.

Wait, wait, you protest: Wells' book was explaining that Haeckelian recapitulation was wrong, and that there were both errors and intentional misrepresentations of embryos in that old work. That should be acceptable.

I would agree, except that the textbooks Wells is damning in Icons often do exactly the same thing! Those that do mention Haeckel and his biogenetic law do so as an example of a historically significant error. Some go on to explain what was correct and what was wrong in his ideas, but basically all are merely pointing out that here was an interesting but failed explanation from the late 19th century, that nonetheless exposes an interesting phenomenon that needs to be understood.

I would add that progress in evolutionary biology has led to better explanations of the phenomenon that vertebrate embryos go through a period of similarity: it lies in conserved genetic circuitry that lays down the body plan. Intelligent Design creationism has contributed absolutely nothing to either refuting Haeckelian ideas, which was the product of working biologists at the end of the 19th century, nor has it generated any better, testable explanations for the conservation of embryonic body plans.

Now what about the Discovery Institute's claim that Olson was lying about Haeckel's representation in modern texts?

Continue reading "Wells’ false accusation against Randy Olson" (on Pharyngula)


Oh man. Great dismantlement PZ. Does the distortion ever end? (I know the answer to this question.)

Since the loss in Dover and the subsequent (and consequent) loss in Ohio’s State BOE, the Disco Dancers have descended from distortions and misrepresentations to plain straightforward lying. What an uplifting moral lesson they provide for the youth of America.



the link only shows 4 textbook examples.

Could you provide a larger list that use Haeckel “as an example of a historically significant error.” so that some of us can use it the next time an IDist brings it up?? It would be a great resource.

BTW, the movie criticizes both sides equally so the DI should stop the witchhunt.

One individual is making a blatant attempt to remove Neutrality over on Wikipedia’s article on Flock of Dodos, by parroting what is on the DI website. At the moment I’ve restored neutrality to the Criticism section, but there have been a few Reverts- I’d recommend everyone keeping an eye on the article to ensure that it remains neutral, neither supporting nor attacking criticism of the movie.

Looking at Wells’ website, I’ve noticed a number of factual errors. He was either in the audience the night I was in it, or makes it sound like he is in the DI article. Myers has brilliantly addressed the most important of these, but I want to respond to those that I can address since I was in the audience as well.

First, Wells makes it appear as if Olson ignored him. Olson has stated a number of times that he repeatedly tried to get DI’s input into the movie, and they ignored Olson. DI has never denied this.

Second, Wells claims that several people asked about the embryos. This is at best an exaggeration. As I remember it, there was one, maybe two people, who asked about the issue that night, and the questioners sounded suspiciously like plants. But Wells is trying to make this appear to be a significant controversy, just as is that editor over at Wikipedia.

Third, Wells attempts to distort Olson’s response that these issues are trivia. Wells makes it appear that Olson is here talking of Haekel’s actions, “misrepresenting scientific trivia”. Wells then goes on to subtly switch the discussion to “other misrepresentations in the teaching of evolution”, decrying genetics research on Drosophilia, and then acting as if these issues were what Wells responded to in trivia. However, at the post-discussion discussion of the movie that night, Wells told me personally about the trivia response- and he was stating that this attempt to focus on the monetary amount firstly, and secondly what’s in the books, is rather trivial. One is a difference between 4.2 and 5 million, compared to the c.$670,000 by the equivalent scientific organization’s budget. The other is a blatant attempt to distort the truth by ID (and in that sense not trivial), but is rather beside the point as it hasn’t been taught in schools for many decades. And both he and the Information Systems Biologist who were answering questions that night alluded to the important point that there are similarities in related embryos, as evolution is working from a common stock, and so ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny to a degre. And that shouldn’t be forgotten either.

In this last matter, it would be nice to think that Wells is simply mistaken in what Olson meant by trivia, or even that he is trying to distort. But since his article indicates that either he was in the audience, or he had people there, they would have been around to hear Wells remarks on trivia, and so know full well to what he is referring.

I find it strange that little has been mentioned in this on Van Baer’s contributions, although I know Gould brought it up at one point. My college Developmental Bio book points out that it was the Creationist Van Baer who pointed out similarities between embryos, with Van Baer’s Law. He did so because at the time nascent evolutionary ideas proposed single line development, rather than branching, so similarities between embryos would indicate that the evolution of the time was false. Later Haekel exagerrated his drawings in order to argue that the embryo goes through all stages of evolutionary development.

Let me get this right: So far the Discovery Institute has raised two objections to the movie: One about the amount of spending by the Discovery Institute and one about Haeckel. The former appears to be a minor discrepancy, the latter one mostly a figment of their own imagination?

How am I doing so far?

Why do these people keep bringing up this nonsense about Haeckel’s drawings being in biology textbooks? I took two years of biology in high school and four years at the undergraduate level (so far) and I never once had a biology textbook that mentioned Haeckel as anything more than a footnote, in exactly the way that PZ Myers explains. I’m about to get my undergrad degree and have never seen Haeckel’s drawings once in all this time!

Maybe the DI lackeys haven’t managed to read any biology textbooks since the 1970’s? This could explain why they seem to know so little about anything that’s happened in the last 30 years and keep worrying about work done more than a century ago.

The DI is spinning the story once again. Have they no shame?

As a follow-up to my comment, a friend of mine just reported that one of the two questioners in the audience (on the issue of Haekel that Wells mentions when referring to “several” questioners in the audience) was indeed a plant, working for the Discovery Institute’s PR department! Of course, it can’t be much worse than that. Except maybe that she was secretly recording the question and answer for later use on their site.

It’s good to see the DI and Wells in particular are not tied up in any schemes where they could be open to accusations that they falsified results, used bogus data to push a particular spin on their desired outcome regardless of the evidence, created an incorrect impression, diverted attention to manufactured details, used immoral means, attempted to pervert the course of an investigation or used other methods to aggrandize themselves in the eyes of the public by wasting their considerable funds on useless lab equipment or over hyped professional scientists who may or may not have a decent or deserved reputation in the scientific community by actually doing some contemporary relevant scientific research that may be of assistance to the future wellbeing of the human population here on earth.…It’s far too risky.…..uh oh.…as you were. Carry on.

Is the DI so full of clueless characters that they believe that “proof” is to be found in the textbooks? Maybe they are!

Have they no shame?

surely after all this time, you meant that rhetorically?

Re “Is the DI so full of clueless characters that they believe that “proof” is to be found in the textbooks? Maybe they are!”

Or maybe they’re gambling that a large enough fraction of their followers will simply accept what they’re claiming without checking it out?

I got to hear West of the DI encourage people to go see Flock of Dodos- and answer the allegation of the movie that the DI didn’t respond to Olson’s repeated attempts to include them in his movie. You can read more at www.abdulmuhib.blogspot.com, before the podcast comes out in a couple days.

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This page contains a single entry by PZ Myers published on February 10, 2007 12:39 PM.

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