Manual Haeckels Embryos: Images, Evolution, and Fraud

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In books, television programs, and websites, new images appear alongside others that have survived from decades ago. Among the most famous are drawings of embryos by the Darwinist Ernst Haeckel in which humans and other vertebrates begin identical, then diverge toward their adult forms.

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But these icons of evolution are notorious, too: within months of their publication in , a colleague alleged fraud, and Haeckel's many enemies have repeated the charge ever since. His embryos nevertheless became a textbook staple until, in , a biologist accused him again, and creationist advocates of intelligent design forced his figures out.

How could the most controversial pictures in the history of science have become some of the most widely seen?

Accuracy in embryo illustrations

In Haeckel's Embryos , Nick Hopwood tells this extraordinary story in full for the first time. He tracks the drawings and the charges against them from their genesis in the nineteenth century to their continuing involvement in innovation in the present day, and from Germany to Britain and the United States.

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Emphasizing the changes worked by circulation and copying, interpretation and debate, Hopwood uses the case to explore how pictures succeed and fail, gain acceptance and spark controversy. Along the way, he reveals how embryonic development was made a process that we can see, compare, and discuss, and how copying — usually dismissed as unoriginal — can be creative, contested, and consequential.

How fudged embryo illustrations led to drawn-out lies

With a wealth of expertly contextualized illustrations, Haeckel's Embryos recaptures the shocking novelty of pictures that enthralled schoolchildren and outraged priests, and highlights the remarkable ways these images kept on shaping knowledge as they aged. Read an extended review on our blog.

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His clever detective work takes him into the Haeckel archives in the German town of Jena, discovering the original drawings and even the woodblocks. At the other end of the story, he explores how Haeckel's drawings appeared in postwar textbooks in the UK and the US. It is likely to be of most value to those with interests in developmental biology, embryology, the history of attacks on evolution, or the history of scientific publication.

In this lavishly illustrated volume, Nick Hopwood traces the chequered history of the sketches, which showed similarities between embryos of higher and lower vertebrates, including humans, at particular points in their development. Haeckel intended the images as support for Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory, but under attack revealed that they were schematics.

Hopwood meticulously charts how, despite the controversy, the drawings took on a life of their own. For nearly a century and a half his widely circulated series of animal and human embryos, illustrating common descent, have prompted charges of forgery and fraud from scientific, religious, and political critics. Antievolutionists, especially advocates of intelligent design, have been among his most outspoken detractors.

One can only hope that Nick Hopwood's scrupulously researched and evenhandedly argued book will finally lay these longstanding controversies to rest.


Numbers, author of Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion "Nick Hopwood has written a meticulous and engaging history that sets a high bar for future print and visual culture studies. Haeckel's Embryos shows the material, intellectual, and cultural conditions under which the hidden is rendered visible and the visible rendered standard, amidst contestation at every turn. Open it, and — after you have recovered from its spectacular images — read it, for this is history of science at its best.

In this excellent book, surely the definitive account of the afterlife of scientific images, Nick Hopwood examines the most iconic pictures of vertebrate embryos, those first produced by German evolutionist Ernst Haeckel in Nick Hopwood.

Centre for Global Health Histories

Pictures from the past powerfully shape current views of the world. In books, television programs, and websites, new images appear alongside others that have survived from decades ago. Nick Hopwood.

Pictures from the past powerfully shape current views of the world. In books, television programs, and websites, new images appear alongside others that have survived from decades ago.