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Apologetics Press :: Sensible Science

A New Definition of Life
by Brad Harrub, Ph.D.

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The call was just like many others that we receive at our offices in Montgomery. On the other end of the line was a Christian mother who had sent her son away to college. Now, just a few short months later, she realized that he was questioning his faith and abandoning the Bible in favor of “science”. He had shared with her some of the material he was learning in his biology class, and it was obvious that the information was completely at odds with the Bible. During our conversation, the mother related to me some of the material that her son said “proved” that humans had evolved—claims like human embryos having gill slits and evolutionary tails while they are growing in the womb. Those words had barely escaped her lips before I recalled these same ideas being espoused by my own professors less than ten years ago. “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” is the mantra sometimes heard in freshman biology classes, which, simply put, theorizes that human embryos replay the steps of evolution as they develop.

The November 11, 2002 cover story of Time magazine details the latest findings in human fetal development. Juxtaposed between the high-resolution images and the article are photo-captions that contain throwbacks to this old embryonic recapitulation theory: “32 days: …The brain is a labyrinth of cell-lined cavities, while the emerging arms and legs still resemble flipper-like paddles. 40 days: At this point, a human embryo looks no different from that of a pig, chick or elephant. All have a tail, a yolk sac and rudimentary gills” (Nash, 2002, 160[20]:71). The article itself presents a “marvelous,” seemingly “miraculous,” and “vastly complicated” embryonic process. However, those glossy pictures—the ones people tend to remember—have captions that paint an entirely different picture.

Is it true that the human embryo goes through various stages during its development that resemble evolutionary ancestors? No, it is not. As Jonathan Sarafati noted: “A human embryo never looks reptilian or pig-like. A human embryo is always a human embryo, from the moment of conception; it is never anything else. It does not become human sometime after eight weeks” (2002, p. 202, emp. in orig.). The scientific community has known for decades that Ernst Haeckel—the man responsible for conjuring up this theory and then falsifying drawings to support his pet project—purposely misled the public during the late 1800s.

Embryologist Erich Blechschmidt considered Haeckel’s “Great Biogenetic Law” (as it came to be known) one of the most serious errors in the history of biology. In his book, The Beginnings of Human Life, he minced no words in repudiating Haeckel’s fraudulent forgeries: “The so-called basic law of biogenetics is wrong. No buts or ifs can mitigate this fact. It is not even a tiny bit correct or correct in a different form. It is totally wrong” (Menton, 1997)

In describing the general feeling upon discovering the truth, Sir Arthur Keith stated:

It was expected that the embryo would recapitulate the features of its ancestors from the lowest to the highest forms in the animal kingdom. Now that the appearance of the embryo at all stages is known, the general feeling is one of disappointment; the human embryo at no stage is anthropoid in appearance. The embryo of the mammal never resembles the worm, the fish, or the reptile. Embryology provides no support whatsoever for the evolutionary hypothesis (1932, p. 94)

And that was in the 1930s! The only thing that has changed in the last seventy years is the accumulation of additional evidence indicating that humans never experience any reptilian or amphibian stages.

So why do modern-day professors and Time magazine still perpetuate this false theory—which was debunked by scientists over a century ago? Many individuals use this principle of “embryonic recapitulation” to justify that embryos are not human. After all, they say, at various stages the fetus is no different from a “fish or reptile.” As an example, consider the case of the late evolutionist Carl Sagan, and his wife, Ann Druyan. In an article titled “The Question of Abortion: A Search for the Answers” that they co-authored for the April 22, 1990 issue of Parade, these two humanists argued for the ethical permissibility of human abortion on the grounds that the fetus—growing within a woman’s body for several months following conception—is not a human being. Thus, the killing of this tiny creature is not murder. What was the basis for this assertion? Sagan and Druyan argued their case by subtly employing the antiquated argument—embryonic recapitulation. They wrote that the embryo first is “a kind of parasite” that eventually looks like a “segmented worm.” Further alterations, they suggested, reveal “gill arches” like that of a “fish or amphibian.” Supposedly, “reptilian” features emerge, and later give rise to “mammalian...pig-like” traits. By the end of the second month, according to these two authors, the creature resembles a “primate but is still not quite human” (1990, p. 6).

Imagine, then, scientists’ surprise when the Bush administration’s new research guidelines classified embryos for the first time as “human subjects” (see Kass, 2002). In this report of the President’s Counsel on Bioethics, the point is made: “We hold that the case for treating the early-stage embryo as simply the moral equivalent of all other human cells is simply mistaken” (p. LIV). Fearing this might happen, Erika Check sounded the battle-cry for scientists in an article titled “U.S. Biologists Wary of Move to View Embryos as Human Beings” in the November 7, 2002 issue of Nature. For the first time in United States history, scientists are facing a definition of human beings that may force them to rein in some of their embryonic experimentation. With embryos being classified as humans, the possibility exists that they no longer will be subjected to experiments resulting in their death, and thus no longer can be “conveniently” washed down the drain as if they were so much refuse.

Make no mistake about it: scientists aren’t very happy about it! So, prepare to see more of Haeckel’s hoax promoted as uneasy U.S. researchers decry this classification of the embryo as human, and try to shift the focus away from human life and back toward “worms and reptile-like creatures.” Call it a reptile, amphibian, or pig, but that does not change the fact that it is, always has been, and always will be, a human life.


Blechschmidt, Erich (1977), The Beginnings of Human Life (New York: Springer-Verlag).

Check, Erika, (2002), “U.S. Biologists Wary of Move to View Embryos as Human Beings,” Nature, 420[108]:3-4, November 7.

Kass, Leon (2002), Human Cloning and Human Dignity: The Report of the President’s Council on Bioethics (New York: PublicAffairs, Ltd.).

Keith, Sir Arthur (1932), The Human Body (London: Thornton and Butterworth).

Menton, David (1997), “Is the Human Embryo Essentially a Fish with Gills?,”

Nash, J. Madeleine (2002), “Inside the Womb,” Time, 160[20]:68-78, November 11.

Sagan, Carl and Ann Druyan (1990), “The Question of Abortion,” Parade, pp. 4-8, April 22.

Sarfati, Jonathan (2002), Refuting Evolution 2 (Green Forest, AR: Master Books).

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