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)