There is a Fish in my Womb!

Posted: July 31, 2012 in Biology Related, Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Little human embryos don’t look too human to the average lay person. Images like these lead to a lot of misconceptions usually centered on abortion debates, but they also lead to evolution debates.

Charles Darwin theorized that animal embryos went through developmental stages that mirrored our evolutionary history, called embryogenesis, or biogenetic law.[1] Each embryo goes through a fish stage, amphibian stage, reptile stage and so on. German Professor of Zoology Ernst Haeckel studied embryos from various different animals, documented and drew their features in a series of 24 drawings. These drawings revealed that animal embryos are almost identical in early stages of development and thus embryogenesis was true. One of the vindicating evidences being what appeared to be gills on all vertebrate embryos. But there were two small problems. One; those gills weren’t really gills at all, and two; Haeckel doctored the drawings!

Haeckel’s doctored drawings. Notice the red highlighted gill slits.

Other German scientists began to call Haeckel out stating that his drawings were falsified[2], and eventually Haeckel admitted to the deed. Yet, his drawings still appear in textbooks to this day as accurate, despite being proved false over 100 years ago!!! Stephen Jay Gould wrote about this atrocity as, “[W]e do, I think, have the right to be both astonished and ashamed by the century of mindless recycling that has led to the persistence of these drawings in a large number, if not a majority, of modern textbooks!”[3]

Images like these are still shown in science textbooks today.

To this day you can find pictures of human embryos in science textbooks with captions and footnotes pointing out supposed gills that are evidence of our evolutionary fish ancestry. Despite evolutionary scientists today pointing out the that Haeckel’s drawings were, “highly inaccurate, exaggerating the similarities among embryos, while failing to show the differences.”[4] Even the journal of Science reported, “[g]enerations of biology students may have been misled by a famous set of drawings of embryos published 123 years ago by the German biologist Ernst Haeckel… the impression they give, that the embryos are exactly alike, is wrong.”[5] Renowned anatomist Erich Bleschschmidt wrote, “…the so-called 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”[6]

So what are these little pouches that look like gills?

Not gills: Fish absorb oxygen through the water using their gills. Not once during development does a human embryo ever absorb oxygen through the water. Human embryos receive oxygen from the umbilical cord.[7]

Not slits: Those slits aren’t slits at all. They’re folds in the embryo neck.

The folds are caused by the over growing of the embryo brain and spinal column starting on the 28th day. The growth is so rapid that it causes the embryo to curl forward and bend the neck forward causing the tissue on the neck to fold.[8] Just as bending your own neck forward can give you a temporary double chin… or a third chin if you already have a double chin…

So calling these folds gill slits is incredibly misleading since they are neither gills nor slits. They’re often called bronchial arches, but this too is misleading since bronchial comes from the Greek word for “gills.”[9] The proper scientifically sound terminology is pharyngeal arches, pharyngeal clefts or pharyngeal pouches.[10]

From these folds and pouches come our thymus, thyroid, and parathyroid glands. These are a far cry from fish gills.[11]

Biologist Jonathan Wells writes, “[H]uman embryos do not really have gills or gill slits: like all vertebrate embryos at one stage in their development, they possess a series of ‘pharyngeal pouches,’ or tiny ridges in the neck region. In fish embryos these actually go on to form gills, but in other vertebrates they develop into unrelated structures such as the inner ear and parathyroid gland. The embryos of reptiles, birds and mammals never possess gills.”[12]

It is only at a superficial level that some past scientists concluded the folds to be gill slits, but sadly it has remained in textbooks to this day…

[1] Mitchell, T. & Mitchell, E., (March 2007) “Something Fishy About Gill Slits!”

[2] Mitchell, T. & Mitchell, E., (March 2007) “Something Fishy About Gill Slits!”

[3] Gould, S. J. (March 2000) “Abscheulich!(Atrocious!),” Natural History

[4] Richardson, M.K. (1997) “There is No Highly Conserved Embryonic Stage in the Vertebrates: Implications for Current Theories of Evolution and Development,” Anatomy and Embryology, Vol. 196:91

[5] Pennisi, E., (1997) “Haeckel’s Embryos: Fraud Rediscovered,” Science, Vol. 277:1435

[6] As quoted in Dr. John Morris’ “Does the Human Embryo Go Through Animal Stages?”

[7] Mitchell, T. & Mitchell, E., (March 2007) “Something Fishy About Gill Slits!”

[8] Mitchell, T. & Mitchell, E., (March 2007) “Something Fishy About Gill Slits!”

[9] Mitchell, T. & Mitchell, E., (March 2007) “Something Fishy About Gill Slits!”

[10] Mitchell, T. & Mitchell, E., (March 2007) “Something Fishy About Gill Slits!”

[11] Jonathan, M., (October 2011) “Fact-Checking Wikipedia on Common Descent: The Evidence from Comparative Anatomy,”

[12] Wells, J., (May 1999) “Haeckel’s Embryos & Evolution: Setting the Record Straight,” The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 61(5):345-349

    • matthew2262 says:

      Hi Troy. Sorry for the delay, I’ve been incredibly busy with my school work.

      I would have to disagree in your commentary regarding the nature of the picture Thomas uses in his article. You stated that you contacted the author of the picture used informing them it had been used in a scientific context. I disagree that it was used in a scientific context. Sure, Thomas’ article was science related, but the usage of the picture was more in context with a simple header graphic presentation related to the article topic; an attention grabber. All other articles from are done in similar fashion; like the picture of a salmon jumping through a river in a different article about the navigation abilities of salmon. There is no scientific value to these pictures. They’re just meant to give some form of visual stimulation to the article. This is something many blogs and websites do everyday, even prestigious ones like Nature or Scientific American. Just browse articles on genetics alone and you’ll see graphic headers of computer generated representations of double helixes and molecules that have been “doctored.”

      Additionally Thomas does not reference the picture or use it in any way as evidence or data. He never claims the picture is indeed accurate or has any basis in reality. In contrast, Haeckle doctored the images and used them as genuine scientific evidence with intent to mislead. The difference is context: Thomas’ graphic is not being used as data to prove anything, where as Haeckle’s images were. Your argument is, in my opinion, the fallacy of faulty comparison.

      I should also add that the graphic in Thomas’ article is clearly a computer generated one. I don’t honestly think that any rational person would look at it and believe it is in fact a real image of a developing embryo. And granted that even the computer-generated embryo has no clefts or folds, it clearly was not used to support Thomas’ opinion since he writes about the very clefts and folds not pictured. So I think it is more accurate to say that Thomas used this graphic in the article as a visually stimulating header. Which is the case for pretty much every other article on the website, and is commonly the case for other scientific websites and blogs.
      As for your other comments; Thomas writes that embryologists refuted the concept that pouches represent an evolutionary fish stage. To which you respond that Martin Heinrich Rathke was identifying them as throat and gill clefts nine years before Haeckel. You might have to explain your argument here more thoroughly to me, because I don’t see how that counter-argues Thomas’ statement. He is talking about a supposed phase in embryo development reflecting ancestry to fish, and you’re discussing the origin of anatomical descriptions.

      I don’t believe the fact that creationists pre-dating Darwin referring to them as “gill-slits” has any bearing if their descriptions were analogical identifications of anatomy, and not remnants of lost function related to ancestry. I can only speculate on that since I do not have access to their writings, but since you apparently do, it would be interesting to know the context as to why they called them gill slits. Was Rathke just making an analogical observation or did he believe the clefts were throwbacks to ancestry? If he believed they were throwbacks to ancestry then he could hardly be considered a creationist. Regardless, creation scientists of the past can be wrong. And just because they maintained a particular scientific notion of what the pouches were doesn’t mean creation scientists today cannot think differently.
      My issue with the term gill-slits is the faulty connotation that they are in fact gill slits, which a friend of mine in class was lead to believe. She literally thought human embryos had functioning gills in the womb because in her words, that is what she was taught in her biology classes. I have no problem with the clefts being referred to as gill slits if it is made known that the name is just an analogical identification and not a description of actual function. In other words, I don’t mind them being called gill slits if people understand that they are not gill slits.

      As far as the illustrations that creationists use to discredit Haeckel, I am not sure how they’re relevant in this context since Thomas’ article does not use any of the illustrations you mentioned. Thus your whole time travel argument is really just a straw man argument with no value in this particular post.

      Additionally, the implied and unsound syllogism you accuse Thomas of using is again a straw man in the sense that you are misrepresenting his argument, claiming that Haeckel’s drawings and recapitulation theory is “ALL evidence for evolution.” To use Thomas’ actual words, Haeckel is “perhaps most famous,” which is far from the absolute claim you’re trying to establish. Thus, Thomas’ article is attacking perhaps the most famous scientist to defend evolution with embryo comparative anatomy. This isn’t an attempt to knockdown the entire comparative anatomy paradigm, but merely to address one brick of the overall evolution wall.
      Naturally Richardson would adhere to the evolutionary presupposition and be troubled by his work somehow aiding creationist progress. But his cited writings you provided don’t contradict Thomas’ use of them, which was to show the flaws in Haeckel’s recapitulation theory. The only difference is that Richardson still adheres to the evolution paradigm and Thomas does not. I would think that in scientific circles, having your theory completely overturned with only some small portion of it still considered relevant (and even that sounds ambivalent), could be considered having a “bomb” dropped on it… but then we would be arguing semantics.

      Later you seem to defend a textbook’s use of inaccurate drawings of embryos because they do not create evidence for evolution which already isn’t there. As if the ends justifies the means. And if that is the case than how can we attack Thomas’ use of an inaccurate embryo graphic, which unlike the textbook, isn’t being used to prove anything. I could actually take what you wrote and replace a few words to flip the entire thing around:

      “In any case, the figures in Thomas’ article, while not photographically accurate do not really create evidence for creation that is absent in the actual embryos and while updated more technically accurate illustrations would be preferred, illustrations like this one are not the horrible pedagogical malpractice that Mr. Britain implies.”

      …there seems to be a double standard here…

      Later, you again prop up another straw man by saying that Thomas’ article implies that all “evidence from evolution from developmental biology is suspect with innuendo and guilt by association.” From what I read in Thomas’ article, he is merely pointing out the troubling fact that the work of a scientist who undeniably doctored his drawings is still used in textbooks to this day. When you take into consideration that Thomas referenced Richardson’s work, who clearly isn’t a creationist, I think it becomes clear that Thomas’ motives lie in the data. That is, Richardson’s data which punched a lot of holes in Haeckel’s theory, which was backed by faulty data. Whether this data points you towards creation or evolution, the data taught in the classroom should be precise.

      I do agree with your statement that the main features of the face all coming together at the right time being the result of natural selection. Though I do not believe natural selection in anyway disproves the notion of a God. In my opinion, the only way to assert divine design in this instance is to back step and make an overall blanket assertion that God crafted the DNA and molecular biology in all living things, in which case you could attribute any and all biological functions to His design, which through natural selection is further refined overtime for survival.

      To use your engineering analogy of God using similar organs to form different structures is like starting construction on a submarine and an automobile by beginning with the same framework: The framework is very different between fish and humans even from the very beginning just as the pictures you provided from Richardson (yolk sacs and other extras excluded). But there are similar parts involved that end up having different functions. In your analogy it could be the submarine’s propeller vs. the automobile’s radiator fan, or the submarine’s sonar equipment vs. the automobile’s stereo system. All similar in some ways in mechanical function, but used differently to suit the needs of the overall design. Engineers use existing technologies to innovate different uses for them and reuse old tried and true designs in various ways to accomplish different tasks everyday. I would expect God to be no different.

      However, I do understand that the same thing would be expected in an macro-evolutionary scenario. But just as your argument that comparative anatomy supports evolution, the data of comparative anatomy can just as likely support a creator using similar design.

      So, those are my thoughts on the issue. If people want to maintain embryogenesis theory, fine. But it is troubling when people are mislead to think that human embryos have functioning gills in early development and textbooks contain inaccurate embryo graphics borrowed from faulty data over 100 years ago used to support current biological evolution understanding. I think we could both agree that this shouldn’t be so. Thank you for your comment. Take care,


  1. Troy Britain says:

    Is there some reason you did not approve my previous comment?

    • matthew2262 says:

      Hi Troy, I haven’t had a chance to properly read through it all. I have your comment saved and once I have had a chance to read through it and give some feedback, I will approve and post it. Take care. -Matt

  2. matthew2262 says:

    “This generalization was originally called biogenic law by Haeckel and is often stated as ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.’ This crude interpretation of embryological sequences will not stand close examination, however. Its shortcomings have been almost universally pointed out by modern authors, but the idea still has a prominent place in biological mythology.” -Paul R. Ehrlich, late Biologist and president of Stanford University’s Conservation Biology, and Richard W. Holm, likewise a Standford Biologist.

    Ehlrich, P.R. & Holm, R.W., (1963) The Process of Evolution, (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill) pp. 66.

  3. matthew2262 says:

    “It is now firmly established that ontogeny does not repeat phylogeny.” -George Gaylord Simpson, paleontologist and William S. Beck, Chief of Hematology and Medical Sections for the Atomic Energy Project and past professor at UCLA, Harvard and NYU.

    Simpson, G.G. & Beck, W.S. (1965) Life: An Introduction to Biology, (New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.) pp. 241.

  4. matthew2262 says:

    “The enthusiasm of the German zoologist, Ernst Haeckel, however, led to an erroneous and unfortunate exaggeration of the information which embryology could provide. This was known as the ‘biogenetic law’ and claimed that embryology was a recapitulation of evolution, or that during its embryonic development an animal recapitulated the evolutionary history of its species.”
    -Sir Gavin Rylands deBeer, evolutionary embryologist and former Director of the British Museum of Natural History.

    deBeer, G.R. (1964) An Atlas of Evolution, (New York, NY: Nelson) pp. 38

  5. matthew2262 says:

    “… the theory of recapitulation has had a great, and while it lasted, regrettable influence on the progress of embryology.” -Sir Gavin Rylands deBeer, evolutionary embryologist and former Director of the British Museum of Natural History.

    deBeer, G.R., (1951) Embryos and Ancestors (London: Oxford University Press) pp. 10.

  6. matthew2262 says:

    “Moreover, the biogenetic law has become so deeply rooted in biological thought that it cannot be weeded out in spite of its having been demonstrated to be wrong by numerous subsequent scholars.” Walter J. Bock, vertebrate zoologist and orinthologist, evolutionary biology professor for Columbia University and a research associate for the American Museum of Natural History.

    Bock, W.J., (May 1969) “Evolution by Orderly Law,” Science, Vol. 164, pp. 684-685.

  7. matthew2262 says:

    “… we no longer believe we can simply read in the embryonic development of a species its exact evolutionary history.” -Hubert Frings, zoologist.

    Frings, H. & Frings, M., (1970) Concepts of Zoology, (Toronto: Macmillan Publishing Co.) pp. 267.

  8. matthew2262 says:

    “The type of analogical thinking which leads to theories that development is based on the recapitulation of ancestral stages or the like no longer seems at all convincing or even interesting to biologists.” -Conrad Hal Waddington, biologist paleontologist, geneticist, embryologist and philosopher.

    Waddington, C.H. (1956) Principles of Embryology (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd.) pp. 10.

  9. matthew2262 says:

    “Surely the biogenetic law is as dead as a door nail.” -Keith Stewart Thomson, senior fellow of the American Philosophical Society and emeritus professor of natural history at the University of Oxford.

    Thomson, K.S., (May-June 1988) “Ontogeny and Phylogeny Recapitulated,” American Scientist, Vol. 76, pp. 273.

  10. matthew2262 says:

    “Advances in molecular genetics over the past twenty years have drastically changed the eveidence cited for evolution and rearranged putative evolutionary relationships, but outdated information is still found in many books. …biologists have largely abandoned evidence from body structure in favor of genetic similarities.”

    -Gerald Rau (Ph. D., Cornell) Founder and Chief Editor at Professional English International.

    Rau, G., (2012) Mapping the Origins Debate, (Downers Grove, IL: InvterVarsity Press) pp.102.

  11. matthew2262 says:

    “It seems no introductory biology text would be complete without an illustration of the similarities of vertebrate embryos. Embryology similarity is a line of evidence that has been used since the time of Darwin, who, not being an embryologist himself, depended on the work of Haeckel. Some have averred that Haeckel’s drawings were faked… Whether he was purposefully deceitful or was limited by the technology of his day and so saw what he expected to see and chose to present only the evidence that best illustrated his conclusion, I will leave for others to debate. If the latter, he was no worse a scientist than any alive today. Motives aside, we now know there were several problems with his reported observations.

    First, the pictures are selected for maximum similarity of appearance. The stages shown are the ones that look most similar, whereas earlier and later stages appear far less similar. Several vertebrate groups that do not have a similar-looking stage are not represented at all. Second, and more important, now that we are able to look at a cellular level we know that many structures that seem similar externally arise from totally different processes, thus defeating the argument that they are developmentally similar. A strong case could be made that this line of evidence, no longer used in professional science, should be dropped from textbooks.”

    -Gerald Rau (Ph. D., Cornell) Founder and Chief Editor at Professional English International.

    Rau, G., (2012) Mapping the Origins Debate, (Downers Grove, IL: InvterVarsity Press) pp.114

  12. matthew2262 says:

    “If the opening were really part of a gill, if it really were
    a “throwback to the fi sh stage,” then there would be blood vessels
    all around it, as if it were going to absorb oxygen from water as a
    gill does. But there is no such structure in humans of any age. We
    simply don’t have the DNA instructions for forming gills.”

    -Biologist Dr. Gary Parker

    Parker, G (2007) Creation Facts of Life, (Green Forest, AR: Master Books) pp. 57

  13. matthew2262 says:

    “The throat (or pharyngeal) grooves and pouches, falsely called
    “gill slits,” are not mistakes in human development. They develop
    into absolutely essential parts of human anatomy. The first pouches
    form the palatine tonsils that help fight disease. The middle ear
    canals come from the second pouches, and the parathyroid and
    thymus glands come from the third and fourth. The thymus prepares
    T cells, the immune cells destroyed by the AIDS virus, so
    you know how important the thymus is for human life. Without
    the parathyroids, we would be unable to regulate calcium balance
    and could not even survive.”

    -Biologist Dr. Gary Parker

    Parker, G (2007) Creation Facts of Life, (Green Forest, AR: Master Books) pp. 57

  14. matthew2262 says:

    “After a university talk on creation in which I didn’t mention
    the embryo, a student asked, “If God created us, why do human
    embryos have a yolk sac, gill slits, and tail?” Before I could say
    anything, a local professor scolded emphatically: “Sit down! Hush.
    We don’t believe that anymore!” In a debate at the University of
    New Brunswick, my opponent actually complimented what I had
    to say about the human embryo, stressing that the “throwback
    theory” (based on fudged diagrams!) had been disproved decades
    ago and desperately needed to be removed from textbooks.”

    -Biologist Dr. Gary Parker

    Parker, G (2007) Creation Facts of Life, (Green Forest, AR: Master Books) pp. 61

  15. How is it possible then that we are able to create dinosaurs by suppressing embryonic development in birds? It has been done already at Yale i believe.

  16. matthew2262 says:

    Hi Jake,
    Thank you very much for your comment. After reading it, here is my response:

    I believe what you are referring to is an experiment in Yale where it was claimed that a chicken embryo was given a dinosaur “snout,” instead of a beak. This is an excellent of example of the media (and some scientists) over-exaggerating the results from science experiments to generate attention. In reality, the chicken’s face only has the “superficial” appearance of a dinosaur. It all lies in the eye of the beholder. Which is the same situation with the “gill slits” I mentioned in my article.

    Dr. Bhullar from Yale who was one of the project leads, even admitted that the modifications to the chicken weren’t that extreme at all, and that chicken breeders create weirder modifications to chickens all the time. He even admitted, “I would not say we gave birds snouts.” And others admit, if anyone where to look at the chicken they’d think it looks like it any other chicken. It is only one minor modification to the skeletal structure of the beak.

    Other doctors are disputing the claim that the “snout” is any evidence of past evolutionary features, arguing that the chemicals used to block particular genes the chicken expressed works to kill cells, so it is very well possible that the “snout” is the result of dying tissue.

    Knowing that, if you really take a step back and think about it, you might notice that the experiment was aimed at creating these features. The scientists know the anatomy of a beak which is a single fused bone, the anatomy of a dinosaur’s snout which has a separated gap, and the genes expressed in chickens that create this fused single bone. So, they purposely suppressed the genes which prevented fusing of the beak and instead left the gap that a dinosaurs snout has. If anything, this is reverse evolution by intelligent designers (the scientists). They artificially created the “snout” with gene suppression.

    Think of it this way. Let’s say scientists found a way to modify human genes by injecting chemicals into a human embryo that makes our coccyx extend far beyond our body giving the appearance of a long tail. The media would probably produce a bunch of articles saying scientists have revealed our ancestry to our past tree-dwelling ancestors. But in reality, all they did was introduce a chemical to create a freakish human appendage that isn’t naturally occurring. It wouldn’t stand as any proof of our ancestry because, like the “snouted’ chicken, the scientists purposefully set out to artificially modify anatomy to look specifically like something they wanted it to look like.

    Ask yourself, if they found a way to modify the chicken’s genes to grow human features, like skin with hair, would that then indicate humans came from chickens, or chickens from human ancestry? It wouldn’t. It would only show that scientists can artificially dictate gene expression. Something chicken breeders have been doing for hundreds of year through artificial breeding. At the end of the day, these scientists want to generate chickens that look like dinosaurs, so they are finding which genes they can tinker with to generate that outcome. It is very cool and exciting stuff, with ethical considerations aside, but it has no value in dictating the ancestry of the chicken.
    You may also notice that none of the major scientific journals even mention embryogenesis of biogenetic law. Because, that theory is still widely discredited, and has been for quite some time.

    If you have some time, check out:

    Thank you again for your comment. Take care.


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