What Makes Us Human

And one percent Neanderthal

So What's Wrong with Embryology?

Why US Rep Paul Broun Included Embryology in "Lies from the Pit of Hell"

"God's word is true. I've come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the big bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell."

Those remarks by US Congressional Representative Paul Broun (Republican, Georgia) went so far beyond what might be expected of a member of the House Science Committee that they became an international phenomenon.

While Stephanie Pappas at LiveScience produced a fine commentary on Broun's assertion that scientific evidence proved the earth was only 9000 years old, most responses focused on the wholesale dismissal of evolution.

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But what about embryology? why include that descriptive branch of biology as one of the "lies to try and keep me and all the folk that were taught that from understanding that they need a saviour"?

The American Heritage Dictionary defines embryology as

The branch of biology that deals with the formation early growth and development of living organisms.

That hardly seems to provide a lot of scope for "lies straight from the pit of hell". The apparent lack of offensive content in embryology has provided little room for news media to explain the remarks.

A writer at the blog Why Evolution is True (promoting the book of the same name by University of Chicago Professor Jerry Coyne) was so inspired by this apparent lack of motivation that he suggested sarcastically that Broun "must be a proponent of scientific storkism", playing off a cartoon by Tom Tomorrow.

Leave it to participants on a progressive Christian blog to point the way to a better explanation.

James McGrath, writing on Patheos, said

I am not surprised that Broun would turn his sights on embryology as well. Indeed, it is high time we saw a young-earth creationist with that sort of consistency. The Bible depicts God as knitting us together in our mother’s womb. Saying that DNA does it instead is clearly a secularist lie from the pit of hell – just like secular meteorology, which says that it is not God that sends the rain on the just and the unjust, and I am confident that Broun will continue to be consistent and will turn his opposition there next.

However funny this is-- and McGrath does a lot more than make fun, including foregrounding the troubling point that Broun is claiming there is a conspiracy among scientists to cover up the truth and spread satanic lies-- it is in the comments on his post that we find the real payoff. I can summarize it in one word:

Haeckel.

Yes-- for those of you who just had a lightbulb go off over your heads-- that Haeckel. A German biologist who died in 1919, Ernst Haeckel is, I am astonished to find, a lively protagonist of views pilloried by the intelligent design crowd as undermining contemporary evolutionary knowledge.

Haeckel developed the 19th century concept of embryonic development "recapitulating" evolutionary stages, familiar as "ontogeny recapitulates phyologeny". As any contemporary biology resource will tell you, this concept lost its currency a long, long time ago. And the reason it has been supplanted?

You guessed it: science. To quote Berkeley's History of Evolutionary Thought website

Haeckel’s final downfall came with the rise of genetics and the modern synthesis. Haeckel, after all, was promoting a basically Lamarckian notion that evolution had a built-in direction towards “higher” forms. But genes, it was soon discovered, controlled the rate and direction of embryonic development. Individual genes can mutate and cause different changes to the way embryos grow—either adding new stages at any point along their path, or taking them away, speeding up development or slowing it down.

Embryos do reflect the course of evolution, but that course is far more intricate and quirky than Haeckel claimed. Different parts of the same embryo can even evolve in different directions. As a result, the Biogenetic Law was abandoned, and its fall freed scientists to appreciate the full range of embryonic changes that evolution can produce—an appreciation that has yielded spectacular results in recent years as scientists have discovered some of the specific genes that control development.

While this is in fact the consensus view in biology, you wouldn't know it if you got your facts from creationist sources. They tell us that Haeckel's views are still reproduced in textbooks. By ignoring the fact that Haeckel is discussed as a historical figure-- and not as a contemporary source for scientific explanation-- they imply that modern science shares the weaknesses of Haeckel's ideas-- ideas disproved by modern science.

Creationist sources note that Haeckel altered illustrations of embryos in his publications to make them fit his model better. By implication, data produced by modern scientists are suspect as well. These sources generally fail to acknowledge that modern biologists do not use the concept of recapitulation, and that they recognize the alterations to illustrations.

So that's how we get to Paul Broun's denunciation of embryology-- a descriptive study of stages of development-- as deliberately misleading "lies straight from the pit of hell". As a commenter at Patheos said "I know he's ignorant, but he can't be denying the existence of embryos".

But he can be misrepresenting the history of their study.

Rosemary Joyce, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley.

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