My family and I recently took advantage of a low cost subscription offer for National Geographic, which we have been enjoying. I had some time ago allowed a previous subscription to National Geographic lapse for reasons practical and principled: Of the former, I simply did not have time to read the magazines, and of the latter, I had begun to see why disputes arose between the magazine and institutions such as the Smithsonian due to the magazine’s sometimes sloppy science reporting. (For those who wish to look into the matter, you can Google for info about the so-called “archaeoraptor” scandal in which (1) National Geographic unethically — though surely without malicious intent — named a “fossil” publicly before the discovering scientist had an opportunity to do so, thus robbing him of the little enduring popular token of credit that normally goes to such individuals; (2) National Geographic reported on this same “fossil” before any scholarly journal had done so; (3) and finally, National Geographic suffered the humiliation of seeing the “fossil” find it was touting in its pages exposed as a total fraud, in which legitimate dinosaur fossils had been placed together with bird “fossils” from a totally different animal.) (My, what a long parenthetical comment that was!)
Anyway, the most recent issue (February 2007) has an interesting article about “Hawaii’s unearthly worms” with some fascinating facts and photographs. One of those photographs (on p.123) shows an acorn worm and bears a caption containing the following sentence: “It has a liver (the nubs along its body) and gill slits like those of sharks — and embryonic humans.” Ah, there’s the rub. “…gill slits like those of sharks — and embryonic humans.”
First, let me comment on what I appreciate about that sentence, though it annoys me nonetheless. With all of the talk these days about using human “embryos” as mere organic fodder for experimentation — a “resource” to be “harvested” — I find this interchange between adjective and noun to be painfully delightful. Why can’t we experiment on “human embryos,” one might ask? Isn’t it just like human blood, human hair, human teeth, human organs, et al.? When we are discussing treating these “objects” as something to be experimented with or manipulated or frozen or destroyed or dissected or handled in whatever manner we please, then the object is an “embryo” which just so happens to be “human.”
Yet in this caption, in which an entirely different point is being hinted at, we find the same “object” described not as a “human embryo” but as an “embryonic human.” Do you see the fascinating shift of emphasis? Do you catch the import and implication of this shift? Sleeping human, angry human, old human, young human, short human, tall human, comatose human — embryonic human. Putting it this way, the “object” is seen not as a “thing” which just happens to be related to humans, but as a human who just happens to be in a particular state. A world of difference, illustrated by simply shifting the words used as noun and adjective.
I have no desire to pretend that I am neutral and unbiased in this matter, for I am not. I like the term “embryonic human” much better. It coveys a truth that “human embryo” does not.
In this sense, I was pleased to see it used in this caption. However, the probable reason it was used here does trouble me. I don’t want to make assumptions about the intent of the caption’s author, but the stress given to the statement by that unnecessary highlighting dash (“…like those of sharks — and embryonic humans.”) seems to me to be an attempt to make a point: “We used to have gills, too,” the writer seems to be saying with that dash. “We all evolved from the same primitive life: worms, sharks — even humans.” Apparently such truths as the subtle difference between “human embryos” and “embryonic humans” only surface when there is an evil agenda to promote. When we wish to evangelize the masses for the Faith of Evolutionism, they’re “embryonic humans.” When we wish to evangelize the masses with the Faith of Medicine Without Ethical Restrictions, they’re “human embryos.”
If you think I am making too much of such a subtle difference, I would say: (1) I engage in such healthy skepticism myself, so I don’t fault you too much. People often do read too much into the words of others. Yet, (2) I would caution you to remember that “the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field” (Genesis 3:1, KJV). Sometimes, subtle differences are big clues. And in the world of “science evangelism” subtleties are very often pressed into service. One can pack a great deal of dogma into a well crafted “subtlety.”
Leading me to the “sniff of lie” in the caption. The comment that embryonic humans have gill slits. They do not have gill slits. They have pharangeal clefts or arches, which are the structures which eventually become the ear canals, the thymus gland, and the parathyroid glands — far from gills. These structures on the embryo are often referred to as “gill slits,” but there is no reason to call them this outside of tradition and a history of bad science.
Yes, there are similar-looking structures in vertebrate embryos of different species. But the conclusions drawn about these structures reflect the presuppositions and assumptions that one takes to their observation. The Evolutionists sees similar looking structures in the embryos of a number of creatures and, although they produce vastly different organs in the adults with very different functions in the adults (gills, feeding mechanisms, ears and glands), they are declared to be evidence of common ancestry. Yet others (admittedly, with their own preconceived assumptions) can look to the great differences of structure and function in the resulting adults and declare the embryonic structures to be unrelated in all but appearance.
I remember as a child seeing these so-called “gill slits” highlighted in various PBS specials and programs, and actually believing (as some still do today) the completely false conclusion that embryonic humans breathe through gills while in the womb. Completely false! My childhood mistake was encouraged by the “convincing” drawings of the 18th Century evolutionary biologist Ernst Haeckel and his drawings of various embryos, showing their startling “similarities.” Well, it has been unshakably proven that Haeckel lied in his diagrams — a fact known by scientists for a century-or-so. He even went so far as to physically alter some embryos to stress “similarities,” and to copy the same embryos over and over again, claiming they were different animals. And when I say his fraud has been proven, I mean by other evolutionists. See, for example, the article in Natural History (March 2000) by the late famed evolutionist, Stephen Jay Gould, entitled, “Abscheulich! – Atrocious! – the precursor to the theory of natural selection” in which he unequivocally declares Haeckel’s work to be fraudulent. I have read that Haeckel, himself, had to deal with accusations of fraud in his work, in which he apparently blamed the artist — conveniently omitting the crucial fact that he was the artist. Still (and Gould understandably laments this) Haeckel’s fake “embryo” drawings continue to be used in many modern biology textbooks without comment or criticism. Once a wonderful and functional lie is set loose, it is hard to place it back in its cage.
I look forward to future issues of National Geographic. But, as always, I will remember that it is a publication whose writers have an agenda to advance and a religion to promote. And we may ask, “What writer does not?”