Ernst Haeckel’s contribution to Evo-Devo and scientific debate: a re-evaluation of Haeckel’s controversial illustrations in US textbooks in response to creationist accusations

  • Elizabeth WattsEmail author
  • Georgy S. Levit
  • Uwe Hossfeld
Original Article


As Blackwell (Am Biol Teach 69:135–136, 2007) pointed out, multiple authors have attempted to discredit Haeckel, stating that modern embryological studies have shown that Haeckel’s drawings are stylized or embellished. More importantly, though, it has been shown that the discussion within the scientific community concerning Haeckel’s drawings and the question of whether embryonic similarities are convergent or conserved have been extrapolated outside the science community in an attempt to discredit Darwin and evolutionary theory in general (Behe in Science 281:347–351, 1998; Blackwell in Am Biol Teach 69:135–136, 2007; Pickett et al. in Am Biol Teach 67:275, 2005; Wells in Am Biol Teach 61:345–349, 1999; Icons of evolution: science or myth? Why much of what we teach about evolution is wrong. Regnery Publishing, Washington, 2002). In this paper, we address the controversy surrounding Haeckel and his work in order to clarify the line between the shortcomings and the benefits of his research and illustrations. Specifically, we show that while his illustrations were not perfect anatomical representations, they were useful educational visualizations and did serve an important role in furthering studies in embryology.


Haeckel Visualization Creationism Evolution Science education Textbooks 



  1. Beer Gd (1951) Embryos and ancestors. Clarendon Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  2. Behe M (1998) Embryology and evolution [Letter to the editor]. Science 281:347–351CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Blackwell WH (2001) Don’t Heckle Haeckel so much. Am Biol Teach 63:550–554CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Blackwell WH (2007) What to make of all this commentary on Haeckel? Am Biol Teach 69:135–136CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Blancke S, Hjermitslev HH, Kjærgaard PC (2014) Creationism in Europe John Hopkins UP. Baltimore, MAGoogle Scholar
  6. Branch G (2016) The case of the vanishing embryos, vol 2017. NCSE,
  7. Chiapetta E, Sethna G, Fillman D (1993) Do middle school life science textbooks provide a balance of scientific literacy themes? J Res Sci Teach 30:787–797CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Coyne J (2001) Creationism by stealth. Nature (Book review) 410:745–746Google Scholar
  9. DiGregorio M (2005) From here to eternity. Ernst Haeckel and scientific faith. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, GöttingenGoogle Scholar
  10. Engelman L (2001) The BSCS story: a history of the biological science curriculum study. BSCS, Colorado SpringsGoogle Scholar
  11. Freeman B (2001a) Haeckel's forgeries. Am Biol Teach 63:20CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Freeman B (2001b) The Myth of “Biogenetic Law”. Am Biol Teach 63:84CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Garstang W (1922) The theory of recapitulation: a critical re-statement of the biogenetic law. J Linnean Soc Zool 35:81–101CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Gilbert SF (1991) Developmental biolgy, 3rd edn. Sinauer, SunderlandGoogle Scholar
  15. Gishlick AD (2006) Icon 4—Haeckel’s Embryos. National Center for Science Education,
  16. Gould SJ (1977) Ontogeny and phylogeny. Belknap, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  17. Gould SJ (1980) The Panda’s Thumb. Norton, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  18. Gould SJ (1985) The Flamingo’s Smile. Norton, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  19. Gould SJ (1989) Wonderful Life. Norton, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  20. Gould SJ (1992) Ever since Darwin: reflections in natural history. W. W. Norton & Company, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  21. Gould SJ (2000) Abscheulich! (Atrocious!), Haeckel’s distortions did not help Darwin. Nat Hist 109:42–49Google Scholar
  22. Gould SJ (2002) The structure of evolutionary history. Belknap Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  23. Gould SJ (2003) The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox. Harmony Books, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  24. Grabiner JV, Miller PD (1974) Effects of the scopes trial. Science 185:832–837CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Grant V (1991) The evolutionary process: a critical study of evolutionary theory, 2nd edn. Colombia University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  26. Grell KG (1979) Die Gastraea-Theorie. Medizinhist J 14:275–291Google Scholar
  27. Haeckel E (1866) Generelle Morphologie der Organismen, 2 vols.—i. Allgemeine Anatomie der Organismen; ii: Allgemeine Entwickelungsgeschichte der Organismen. Georg Reimer Verlag, BerlinGoogle Scholar
  28. Haeckel E (1872) Monographie der Kalkschwämme, 3 vols. Georg Reimer Verlag, BerlilnCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Haeckel E (1874) Anthropogenie oder Entwickelungsgeschichte des Menschen. Gemeinverständliche wissenschaftliche Vorträge über die Grundzüge der menschlichen Keimes- und Stammesgeschichte. Wilhelm Engelmann, LeipzigCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Haeckel E (1875) Die Gastrula und die Eifurchung der Thiere. Jenaische Zeitschrift für Naturwissenschaft 9:402–508Google Scholar
  31. Haeckel E (1894) Systematische Phylogenie. Entwurf eines natürlichen Systems der Organismen auf Grund ihrer Stammesgeschichte. Erster Theil, Systematsiche Phylogenie der Protisten und Pflanzen. Georg Reimer, BerlinGoogle Scholar
  32. Haeckel E (1896a) The evolution of man, a popular exposition of the principal points of human ontogeny and phylogeny. Appleton and Co., New YorkCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Haeckel E (1896b) Systematische Phylogenie. Zweiter Theil, Systematische Phylogenie der wirbelosen Thiere (Invertebrata). Georg Reimer, BerlinCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Haeckel E (1910) Sandalion. Eine offene Antwort auf die Fälschungsanklagen der Jesuiten. Neuer Frankfurter Verlag, FrankfurtCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Haeckel E (1911) The Answer of Ernst Haeckel to the falsehoods of the jesuits, catholic and protestant, from the German pamphlet “Sandalion” and “My Church Departure”. The Truth Seeker Company, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  36. Hawkes N (1997) An Embryonic Liar. LondonGoogle Scholar
  37. Hopwood N (2006) Pictures of evolution and charges of fraud: Ernst Haeckel’s embryological illustrations. Isis 97:260–301CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Hopwood N (2015) Haeckel’s embryos: images, evolution, and fraud. The University of Chicago Press, ChicagoCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Hossfeld U (1999) Haeckelrezeption im Spannungsfeld von Monismus, Sozialdarwinismus und Nationalsozialismus. Hist Philos Life Sci 21:195–213Google Scholar
  40. Hossfeld U (2010) absolute—Ernst Haeckel. Orange Press, FreiburgGoogle Scholar
  41. Hossfeld U (2013) Protestantismus und Monismus - Das Beispiel Ernst Haeckel. In: Spurenlese. Kulturelle Wirkungen der Reformation. Hg. von der Reformgeschichtlichen Sozietät der Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg. Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, Leipzig, pp 219–241Google Scholar
  42. Hossfeld U (2016a) 150 Jahre Haeckel’sche Biologie. Blätter zur Landeskunde Thüringens, Landeszentrale für politische Bildung Erfurt 114Google Scholar
  43. Hossfeld U (2016b) Geschichte der biologischen Anthropologie in Deutschland. Von den Anfängen bis in die Nachkriegszeit. 2. Auflage Franz Steiner Verlag, StuttgartGoogle Scholar
  44. Hossfeld U, Levit GS (2016) ‘Tree of life’ took root 150 years ago. Nature 540:38CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Hossfeld U, Olsson L (2003a) The history of comparative anatomy in Jena: an overview. Theory Biosci 122:109–126Google Scholar
  46. Hossfeld U, Olsson L (2003b) The road from Haeckel. The Jena tradition in evolutionary morphology and the origin of „Evo-Devo“. Biol Philos 18:285–307CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Hossfeld U, Olsson L (2008) Entwicklung und Evolution ein zeitloses Thema Praxis der Naturwissenschaften/Biologie in der Schule—Themenheft „Evolution und Entwicklungsbiologie“ 57:4–8Google Scholar
  48. Hossfeld U, Olsson L, Levit GS (2011) Evolutionäre Entwicklungsbiologie (Evo-Devo). In: Dreesmann D, Graf D, Witte K [Hrsg.]: Evolutionsbiologie—Moderne Themen für den Unterricht. Springer, Heidelberg, pp 151–179Google Scholar
  49. Hossfeld U, Levit GS, Olsson L (2016) Haeckel reloaded: 150 Jahre „Biogenetisches Grundgesetz”. Biol unserer Zeit 46:190–195CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Hossfeld U, Watts E, Levit GS (2017) The first Darwinian phylogenetic tree of plants. Trends Plant Sci 22:99–102CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Hossfeld U, Porges K, Levit GS, Watts E (2019) Ernst Haeckel’s embryology in biology textbooks in the German Democratic Republic, 1951–1988 Theory in Biosciences (this issue)Google Scholar
  52. Johnson AW, Yost FH (1948) Separation of Church and State in the United States. Minnesota Archive Editions edition. University of Minnesota PressGoogle Scholar
  53. Junker T, Hossfeld U (2009) Die Entdeckung der Evolution. Eine revolutionäre Theorie und ihre Geschichte. 2nd ed. WBG, DarmstadtGoogle Scholar
  54. Junker R, Scherer S (2013) Evolution—Ein kritischer Lehrbuch. Weyel, GießenGoogle Scholar
  55. Kutschera U (2016a) Ernst Haeckel’s biodynamics 1866 and the occult basis of organic farming. Plant Signal Behav 11(7):e1199315CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Kutschera U (2016b) Haeckel’s 1866 tree of life and the origin of eukaryotes. Nat Microbiol 1/8Google Scholar
  57. Kutschera U (2017) Maria Sibylla Merian and metamorphosis. Nat Ecol EvolGoogle Scholar
  58. Ladouceur RP (2008) Ella Thea Smith and the lost history of American high school textbooks. J Hist Biol 4:435–471CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Larson EJ (2003) Trial and error: the American controversy over creation and evolution, 3rd edn. Oxford University Press, New YorkCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Laubichler MD, Maienschein J (eds) (2007) From embryology to Evo-Devo: a history of developmental evolution. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  61. Levit GS, Hossfeld U, Olsson L (2004) The Integration of Darwinism and evolutionary morphology: Alexej Nikolajevich Sewertzoff (1866–1936) and the developmental basis of evolutionary change. J Exp Zool B Mol Dev Evol 302B:343–354CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Levit GS, Hossfeld U, Olsson L (2006) From the “Modern Synthesis” to cybernetics: Ivan Ivanovich Schmalhausen (1884–1963) and his research program for a synthesis of evolutionary and developmental biology. J Exp Zool B Mol Dev Evol 306B:89–106CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Levit GS, Hossfeld U, Olsson L (2015) Alexei Sewertzoff and Adolf Naef: revising Haeckel’s biogenetic law. Hist Philos Life Sci 36:357–370CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Maienschein J, Wellner K (2011) Competing views of embryos for the twenty-first century: textbooks and society. Sci Educ 10:1–12Google Scholar
  65. Matzke NJ (2010) The evolution of creationist movements. Evolution 3:145–162Google Scholar
  66. Mayr E (1994) Recapitulation reinterpreted, the somatic program. Q Rev Biol 69:223–232CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Miller KR (2010) Evolution—by the (Text) book. Evo Edu Outreach 3:225–230CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Minkoff EC (1983) Evolutionary biology. Addison-Wesley, ReadingGoogle Scholar
  69. Niklas KJ, Cobb ED, Kutschera U (2016) Haeckel’s biogenetic law and the land plant phylotypic stage. Bioscience 66:510–519CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Olsson L, Hossfeld U (2007) Die Entwicklung: Die Zeit des Lebens. Ausgewählte Themen zur Geschichte der Entwicklungsbiologie. In: Höxtermann E, Hilger H [Hrsg.]: Lebenswissen. Eine Einführung in die Geschichte der Biologie. Natur & Text, Rangsdorf, pp 218–243Google Scholar
  71. Olsson L, Hossfeld U, Breidbach O (2006) Preface. From evolutionary morphology to the modern synthesis and “Evo-Devo”: historical and contemporary perspectives. Theory Biosci 124:259–263CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Olsson L, Hossfeld U, Breidbach O (2009) Preface Between ernst haeckel and the homeobox: the role of developmental biology in explaining evolution. Olsson, L. et al. [eds.]: Evo-Devo international. Theory Biosci 128:1–5CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Olsson L, Levit GS, Hossfeld U (2010) Evolutionary developmental biology: its concepts and history with a focus on russian and german contributions. Naturwissenschaften 97:951–969CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Olsson L, Levit GS, Hossfeld U (2017) The ‘‘Biogenetic Law’’ in zoology: from Ernst Haeckel’s formulation to current approaches. Theory Biosci 136:19–29CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Padian K, Gishlick AD (2002) The Talented Mr. Wells. Q Rev Biol 77:33–34CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Pennisi E (1997) Haeckel’s embryos: fraud rediscovered. Science 277:1435CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Phillips LM, Norris SP, Macnab JS (2010) Visualizations and science1. In: Visualization in mathematics, reading and science education. Models and modeling in science education, vol 5. Springer, DordrechtGoogle Scholar
  78. Pickett KM, Wenzel JW, Rissing SW (2005) Iconoclasts of evolution: Haeckel, Behe, Wells & the Ontogeny of a Fraud. Am Biol Teach 67:275CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Provine W (1998) Embryology. In: Mayr F, Provine W (eds) The evolutionary synthesis. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp 96–97Google Scholar
  80. Reiß C, Hossfeld U, Olsson L, Levit GS, Lemuth O (2009) Das autobiographische Manuskript des Entwicklungsbiologen Julius Schaxel (1887–1943) vom 24. Juli 1938—Versuch einer Kontextualisierung. Ann Hist Philos Biol 13:3–51Google Scholar
  81. Reiß C, Olsson L, Hossfeld U (2015) The history of the oldest self-sustaining laboratory animal: 150 Years of Axolotl research. J Exp Zool B Mole Dev Evol 324B:393–404CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Richards RJ (2008a) Haeckel’s embryos: fraud not proven. Biol Philos 24:147–154CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Richards RJ (2008b) The tragic sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the struggle over evolutionary thought. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Richardson MK, Keuck G (2003) Haeckel’s ABC of evolution and development. Biol Rev 77:495–528CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. Richardson MK, Hanken J, Gooneratne ML, Pieau C, Raynaud A, Selwood L, Wright GM (1997) There is no highly conserved embryonic stage in the vertebrates: implications for current theories of evolution and development. Anat Embryol 196:91–106CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Schafersman S (2009) Texas science standards and march madness: Did we win or lose? RNCSE 29:4–6Google Scholar
  87. Sedgwick A (1894) On the law of development commonly knownas von Baer’s law; and on the significance of ancestral rudiments in embryonic development. Q J Microsc Sci 36:35–52Google Scholar
  88. Shermer M (2006) Why Darwin matters: the case against intelligent design. Times Books, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  89. Smith KK (2001) Heterochrony revisited: the evolution of developmental sequences. Biol J Lin Soc 73:169–186CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  90. Uschmann G (1985) Das Werk Ernst Haeckels, Voraussetzungen und Bedingtheiten. In: Wilhelmi B (ed) Leben und Evolution. Friedrich-Schiller Universität, Jena, pp 32–39Google Scholar
  91. Vavra KL, Janjic-Watrich V, Loerke K, Phillips LM, Norris SP, Macnab J (2011) Visualization in science education. ASEJ 41:22–30Google Scholar
  92. Wallis C (2005) The evolution wars. Time Inc., New YorkGoogle Scholar
  93. Watts E (2018) Analysis of Creationism in the United States from Scopes (1925) to Kitzmiller (2005) and its Effect on the Nation’s Science Education System, vol 19, issue 2014. Annals of the History and Philosophy of Biology. Universitätsverlag GöttingenGoogle Scholar
  94. Watts E, Hossfeld U, Tolstikova II, Levit GS (2016a) Beyond borders: On the influence of creationist movement on the educational landscape in the USA and Russia. Theory Biosci 136:31–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  95. Watts E, Levit GS, Hossfeld U (2016b) Science standards: the foundation of evolution education in the United States. Perspect Sci 10:59–65CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  96. Weber H, Hossfeld U (2006) Stichwort „Monismus“. Naturwissenschaftliche Rundschau 59:521–522Google Scholar
  97. Wellner KL (2014) Lessons from Embryos: Haeckel’s embryo drawings, evolution, and secondary biology textbooks. Arizona State UniversityGoogle Scholar
  98. Wells J (1999) Haeckel’s Embryos and evolution: setting the record straight. Am Biol Teach 61:345–349CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  99. Wells J (2002) Icons of evolution: science or myth? Why much of what we teach about evolution is wrong. Regnery Publishing, WashingtonGoogle Scholar
  100. Yager RE (2003) The importance of terminology in teaching K-12 science. J Res Sci Teach 20:577–588CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Elizabeth Watts
    • 1
    Email author
  • Georgy S. Levit
    • 2
  • Uwe Hossfeld
    • 1
  1. 1.Biology Education Research Group, Institute for Zoology and Evolutionary Research, Faculty of Biological SciencesFriedrich Schiller UniversityJenaGermany
  2. 2.Institute for BiologyUniversität KasselKasselGermany

Personalised recommendations