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Nils Heribert Nilsson

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This article is an assay of a nugget from a creationist quote-mine.

Nils Heribert-Nilsson - sometimes Nils Heribert Nilsson or just Heribert Nilsson (May 26, 1883 – August 3, 1955) was - according to some creationists - "a well known noted Swedish geneticist and Professor of Botany at the University of Lund in Sweden.[1][2] In addition, Nilsson was Director of the Swedish Botanical Institute.[3]"

In real life, Nils Heribert-Nilsson was a Swedish botanist and geneticist, who did research mainly in the taxonomy of willow trees. From 1934 to 1948 he was Professor of Botany at the University of Lund in Southern Sweden, and in 1943 he was elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the organization who awards the Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry.[4] However, today he is mainly known because creationists love to quote a couple of sentences from his magnum opus, Synthetische Artbildung from 1953.

Why creationists like Nilsson[edit]

Quotes of Nilsson bounce around the creatiosphere. Here are just a few examples of creationists quoting Heribert-Nilsson to "prove" their case:

Possibilities For Original Kinds?[5]

These quotations indicate that intergrading forms do not exist. In truth this is negative evidence, but I submit that if you look for something long enough and thoroughly enough and do not find it, the odds favor its not being there. The Swedish geneticist, Dr. Heribert Nilsson, Professor of Botany at the University of Lund in Sweden, stated in 1953:
My attempt to demonstrate evolution b.%. [sic] an experiment carried on for more than 40 years, has completely failed. Anyway, I should hardly be accused of having started from a preconceived anti-evolutionary standpoint.19

It may, therefore, be firmly maintained that it is not even possible to make a caricature ot [sic] an evolution out of palaeobiological facts. The fossil material is now so complete that it has been possible to construct new classes and the lack of transitional series cannot be explained as due to the scarcity of the material. The deficiencies are real, they will never be filled. . . The idea of an evolution rests on pure belief.20

19. Nilsson, H. 1953. Synthetische Artbildting [sic]. CWK Gleerup, Lund, Sweden, p. 1185.
20. Ibid., p. 1212.

Bible Study Manuals[6]

Dr. Heribert-Nilsson, late Director of the Swedish Botanical Institute and as familiar as anyone with these deposits, says concerning them:

In the pieces of amber, which may reach a size of 5 kilos or more, especially insects and parts of flowers are preserved, even the most fragile structures. The insects are of modern types and their geographical distribution can be ascertained. It is then quite astounding to find that they belong to all regions of the earth, not only to the Paleoarctic region, as was to be expected.... The geological and paleobiological facts concerning the layers of amber are impossible to understand unless the explanation is accepted that they are the final result of an allochthonous process, including the whole earth.

N. Heribert-Nilsson: Sunthetisch [sic] Artbildung, pp. 1194-1195

This quote is rehashed by Creation Ministries: Gladiator—an ‘extinct’ insect is found alive [7]

When describing the famous Baltic amber deposits, N. Heribert-Nilsson, former professor of botany, Lund University, Sweden, and member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, wrote:
The geological and paleobiological facts concerning the layers of amber are impossible to understand unless the explanation is accepted that they are the result of an allochthonous process, including the whole earth.6
6. Translated from the original German on p. 1194 of the book Synthetische Artbildung, cited in Creation 1(2):5, 1978

The footnote to this quote gives us an insight into the Creationist's mind: The phrase translated from the original German doesn't appear in Creation 1(2):5, 1978 - nor is it true: pp. 1139 - 1240 give a summary of Nilsson's work in English! There is no original German text which had to be translated - this is an invention by an unknown creationist (perhaps David Catchpoole, author of Creation Ministries' article): He spotted the incongruence of an English sentence in an obviously German book, and - instead of checking the original source - just invented a solution to this problem.

Confessions of Evolutionists (Harun Yahya) [8]

Dr. Nils Heribert-Nilsson, is [sic] a Swedish geneticist and Professor of Botany at the University of Lund in Sweden:

My attempts to demonstrate evolution by an experiment carried on for more than 40 years have completely failed. At least I should hardly be accused of having started from any preconceived anti-evolutionary standpoint

Heribert Nilsson, Synthetische Artbildung (lund [sic], Swewden [sic]: Verlag CWK Gleerup, 1953), p. 31. [sic]

Reasons to quote Heribert Nilsson[edit]

For a creationist, the reasons to quote Heribert Nilsson are obvious: He was a professor at a university who wrote something contesting evolution. And the creationist doesn't have to look through the great volumes of work Heribert Nilsson produced. All the creationist needs to do is just has to copy and paste (or memorize) the snippets which can be found in the texts of other creationists.

It's doubtful that any of those who quote Nilsson today has ever even seen a copy of the two volumes of Synthetische Artbildung.

The spelling errors in the reference section of the pamphlets quoting Heribert Nilsson indicate that these were copied without any further knowledge of the author and his works, perhaps from photocopies of the same arguments written in pre-internet times.

Reasons not to quote Heribert Nilsson[edit]

The reasons for not quoting Heribert Nilsson in the discussion of evolution are manifold. They range from the obvious to the more subtle:

  • Generally you shouldn't quote anyone whose work you don't know beyond the actual quote.[9]
  • The older the quote, the more important the scientist has to be to justify the quotation (the converse of this sentence is not true). Creationists try to sidestep this problem by inflating the importance of Nilsson: in their texts, he becomes well-known, or at least noted, and the number of his professional positions seems to be increased in each copied text. This is necessary because the quotes are more than sixty years old - and Nilsson was in his seventies when he wrote the quoted book, so his time as an active scientist was pretty much over.
  • If you read the book - or at least a summary[10] by someone who actually has done so - you'll find that Nilsson subscribes to some outrageous (and very outdated) ideas, e.g., that enzymes are genes.
  • A subtle point: In the 1920s, various national schools of the understanding of biology developed. Oftentimes, scientists saw their research backed and co-opted by their countries' governments for nationalistic purposes, and they often happily obliged. Nazi Germany's embrace of racial theory is one of the most notorious examples, but French biologists continued to defend Lamarckism well into the 20th century, and a case can be made that the Piltdown Man hoax was the result of a desire by British biologists to prove that early humans had settled Britain (there was a notable dearth of hominid fossils on the British Isles).[11] So, if you find a book written in German in 1953 by a Swedish author, one should look further into the matter before embracing it without better knowledge. For instance, Nilsson proposes some elements of Hans Hörbiger's absolutely nutty Welteislehre as the geological setting for his theories.

A critique of the book[edit]

A certain Joel Hedgpeth[12] wrote a critique[13] of Nilsson's book in 1954:

Synthetische Artbildung. Vols. I and II. Grundlinien einer exakten Biologie. Heribert Nilsson. Verlag CWK Gleerup, Lund, Sweden, 1953. 1303 pp. Illus. Paper, Kr. 225; cloth, Kr. 250.

The thesis of this elegantly printed two-volume opus is somewhat as follows:

The concept of evolution as a continuously flowing process can be proved only on Lamarckian lines, since "evolution and Lamarckism are inseparable because they include the same fundamental ideas." There is no proof from the data of genetic recombinations or mutations to support the generally accepted concept of evolution; therefore, evolution is not occurring at this time. Nor does it seem to have occurred in the past, since the fossil record is the result of the piling up and preservation of world biota during the periods when the nearness of the moon induced tremendous tidal action (the "Tethys sea") and freezing at high latitudes because of the pulling of air toward the equator hastened such preservation. During these revolutionary periods there was resynthesis of the entire world biota by gene material or gametes along the same basic lines (hence, there is no point to phylogenies, since the similarities of organic life are due to the synthetic activity of similar "gametes"); this process is termed "emication."

The author of this imposing work (there are 43 pages of references) is aware of the objections that will be raised against his theory:

I will be asked: "Do you seriously want to make such a statement? Do you not see that the consequences of such a theory are more than daring, that they would be nearly insane? Do you really mean to say that an orchid or an elephant should have been instantaneously created out of nonliving material?" Yes, I do. And, please, reflect, because now I am going to put a question: Is the elephant of today "ready-made"; does it not originate from gametes? You must admit the truth of the latter statement. Why, then, assume that the first elephant appeared as the fully formed animal? He was created as a gamete, unicellular, a monocyte.

For those who may be inclined to side with Lyell and against Cuvier as far as the major premises of this argument are concerned, it must be said that there is a great accumulation of information about genetic processes and the biochemical nature of chromosomes in these two volumes of fact and fancy. Such works also serve another useful function (in addition to keeping printers employed): they challenge us to tighten our own arguments, for up to the point where the author takes his flier into paleontology, his criticism of evolutionary theory is philosophically respectable.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography,
La Jolla, California


According to Conservapedia, Nilsson was "not a creation scientist but was a founder of an evolutionary hypothesis called emication". At Conservapedia, emication is defined as follows:

Emication was an evolutionary theory which was described by a review in the Quarterly Review of Biology as stating that 'at various periods in geological time, violent revolutions have destroyed all the earth's biota, only to have living forms reconstituted by a sudden coming together of organic molecules to form gametes possessing the capability of developing into some highly complex form such as a pine tree, and elephant, or a man.' The evolutionary theory of emication was developed by Dr. Heribert Nilsson who was a well known Swedish geneticist and Professor of Botany at the University of Lund in Sweden.[14]

An evolutionary theory? Here is the last paragraph of the scathing review of Nilsson's book by G. Ledyard StebbinsWikipedia[15] in the Quarterly Review of Biology:

The last part of this remarkable work is devoted to the author's own substitute for organic evolution. This is not, as one might at first assume, a reversion to the doctrine of special creation, but a new theory which he calls "emication." This states that at various periods in geological time, violent revolutions have destroyed all the earth's biota, only to have living forms reconstituted by a sudden coming together of organic molecules to form gametes possessing the capability of developing into some highly complex form such as a pine tree, and elephant, or a man. About this hypothesis the writer [i.e. Stebbins] need make only one comment. If any evidence were needed to show how firmly rooted in biology is the modern concept of evolution, Heribert-Nilsson's book helps to provide such evidence by the absurd length of fantasy and misconceptions to which he must go in order to produce a scientific "denial" of this phenomenon.

Swedish Botanical Institute[edit]

Amusingly, the only hits at Google [16] for "Swedish Botanical Institute" are creationist websites (except for the article you are reading now) which state that Nils Heribert Nilsson was director of said institute. It seems to be safe to say, at least, that Mr. Nilsson was not director of "The Swedish Botanical Institute", but a "Swedish institute" - namely the Department of Botany (Swedish: Botaniska Institutionen) at the University of Lund, which is, indeed, in Sweden.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  2. [sic] broken link
  3. Bible Study Manuals
  5. What Are All the Scientific Possibilities For Original Kinds?
  7. Gladiator—an ‘extinct’ insect is found alive by David Catchpoole
  8. Confessions of Evolutionists
  9. The interested reader is directed to This YouTube post, which places Nilsson's quotes in context - the evolution he is quoted as doubting seems to be based on a false premise: that new species can arise only by hybridising already established species. That Nilsson held this belief is his own affair, and in quoting his conclusion out of context, the creationists have shown once again that they are not even wrong.
  10. McIver: Anti-Evolution: An Annotated Bibliography, pp 194-195
  12. See the Wikipedia article on Joel Hedgpeth.
  13. Science 13 August 1954: Vol. 120. no. 3111, pp. 257 - 258
  14. cp:emication
  15. The Quarterly Review of Biology, Dec. 1955
  16. Google search