Haeckel’s Embryos: Images, Evolution, and Fraud

Nick Hopwood. Univ. of Chicago, $45 (392p) ISBN 978-0-226-04694-5
This unusual work of scientific history follows the story of a once-popular 19th-century image of a grid of developing embryos that was reproduced in American textbooks into the 1980s and still appears in intelligent design literature meant to discredit the theory of evolution. University of Cambridge science historian Hopwood focuses less on the career of Ernst Haeckel, the “flawed hero of German Darwinism,” and his controversial idea that earlier forms of life are recapitulated physically in early human development, and more on the image, which was published in his 1874 work, Anthropogenie. It’s a dramatic example of how an image can powerfully persist in the human imagination, spreading well beyond its original scope as it becomes modified through copying, translation, and reimagining—remaining popular in the face of evidence that it is both fraudulent and mostly wrong. Though the work is dense and detailed, Hopwood raises important questions (particularly pertinent to the modern era of viral memes) about the teaching of empirical science and the bringing of complex scientific ideas to the public, the “boundary of popular literature and specialist work,” the relationship between the observer as accurate reporter and as artist, and the line beyond which schematization for didactic or rhetorical effect becomes deliberately misleading. (Jan.)
Reviewed on: 11/17/2014
Release date: 02/01/2015
Genre: Nonfiction
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