When most people who embrace evolution as an explanation for the origin of all living things are asked why they subscribe to this view, a number of very specific schoolbook images are generally called to mind. This is true of biologists and non-biologists alike, because most people have learned what they know from the “same few textbooks.” (p.6) In Icons of Evolution, Jonathan Wells refers to these popular images as “icons” and effectively demonstrates how the teachings they convey are often misleading and, in some instances, plainly dishonest in the light of what is now known.
He lists the following ten “icons of evolution” and proceeds to subject them to (in the words of science historian Thomas Woodward) “withering criticism” in as many chapters:
- The Miller-Urey experiment that purports to demonstrate how the chemical building blocks of life originated in the atmosphere of the primitive earth
- Darwin’s tree of life
- The similarities in the limbs of vertebrates
- Ernst Haeckel’s pictures of human and other embryos that appear similar at this stage of development
- The fossils of the reptile/bird Archaeopteryx
- The peppered moths
- Darwin’s finches
- The four-winged fruit flies produced by gene mutations
- Fossil horses
- The drawing showing the various stages of human development from ape-like creatures to modern man
Chapters two through eleven take each of these subjects and explain what is commonly believed versus what the evidence now tells us.
Chapter Two — The Miller-Urey Experiment
Popular View: Amino acids, the chemical building blocks of proteins, can be created in a closed glass apparatus in conditions that simulate the early atmosphere of the primitive earth.а It is believed that the low-oxygen or “reducing” nature of Earth’s original atmosphere allowed for proteins to be created in a kind of primordial soup and, from these, living cells were able to emerge.
Updated Understanding: For more than a decade most geochemists have believed this experiment failed to duplicate the atmosphere of the primitive earth. Earth likely had a neutral or slightly oxidizing rather than a ‘reducing’ atmosphere, and this would have prevented the spontaneous creation of life’s chemical building blocks. Yet this illustration persists in school textbooks.
Chapter Three — Darwin’s Tree of Life
Popular View: In The Origin of the Species, Darwin wrote:
“I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Cambrian system was deposited.”
Darwin thus used the illustration of a tree to picture the descent of all living things from possibly “one primordial form,” with the “green and budding twigs” representing modern species and the root being the presumed universal common ancestor. Harvard neo-Darwinist Ernst Mayr stated in 1991 “there is probably no biologist left today who would question that all organisms now found on the earth have descended from a single origin of life.”
Updated Understanding: Rather than supporting this view, the fossil record shows that the major groups of animals appeared suddenly and dramatically in the Cambrian geological period. This has come to be known as “the Cambrian explosion” or “biology’s big bang” Instead of indicating gradual “descent with modification,” from the lower categories (species, genera, families, orders) to the higher (classes, phyla, kingdoms), the higher levels appear right at the start. As evolutionary theorist Jeffrey Schwartz expressed it, the main animal groups “appear in the fossil record as Athena did from the head of Zeus, full blown and raring to go.” So Wells aptly observes: “Since higher levels of the biological hierarchy appear first, one could even say that the Cambrian explosion stands Darwin’s tree of life on its head. If any botanical analogy were appropriate, it would be a lawn rather than a tree.” Still, Darwin’s “great Tree of Life” continues as a popular icon of evolution.
Chapter Four — Homology in Vertebrate Limbs
Popular View: The skeletal similarities in the forelimbs of vertebrates (e.g., bats, porpoises, horses and humans) indicate common descent from the same progenitor. Among Darwinists, homology is understood to mean features inherited from a common ancestor.
Updated Understanding: It is circular reasoning to teach that homology is due to common descent, while at the same time teaching it is evidence for common descent.
It is very much like saying, “common ancestry is demonstrated by homology which demonstrates common ancestry.” In 1985, philosopher Ronald Brady wrote concerning this situation:
“By making our explanation into the definition of the condition to be explained, we express not scientific hypothesis but belief. We are so convinced that our explanation is true that we no longer see any need to distinguish it from the situation we were trying to explain. Dogmatic endeavors of this kind must eventually leave the realm of science.”
Also, it has been known for decades that similar genes are not responsible for these similar features so the mechanism that produces them remains unknown. Indeed, it is known that it is far more common for identical genes in different organisms to produce non-homologous or differing structures. This is contrary to what would be expected if there actually were a common genetic thread of descent in the lineages of organisms with similar features.
Chapter Five — Haeckel’s Embryos
Common View: Darwin wrote in The Origin of the Species “the embryos of the most distinct species belonging to the same class are closely similar, but become, when fully developed, widely dissimilar.” His understanding was that similarities in early embryos demonstrated not only descent from a common ancestor, but how the ancestor looked as well. He considered this to be “by far the strongest single class of facts in favor of” his theory. Among others, he relied on the conclusions of German biologist Ernst Haeckel, whose drawings make fish, salamander, tortoise, chicken, hog, calf, rabbit and human embryos appear virtually identical in the earliest stages of development. It was Haeckel who coined the famous evolutionary phrase, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” This was understood to mean that, as embryonic development (“ontogeny”) takes place, the adult ancestral forms are reproduced or “recapitulated” in the various stages of the process, in essence repeating its evolutionary history or “phylogeny.”
Updated Understanding: Biologists have known for over a century that Haeckel faked his drawings and that they do not accurately represent the appearances of these embryos in their earliest stages. In 1997, British embryologist Michael Richardson published an article in the journal Anatomy and Embryology that compared the textbook drawings with actual embryos. He was subsequently quoted in Science magazine as saying: “It looks like it’s turning out to be one of the most famous fakes in biology.” The late Harvard paleontologist and historian of science Stephen Jay Gould attempted to downplay the significance of this by blaming news reports for sensationalizing the story and giving the impression “that Richardson had discovered Haeckel’s misdeed for the fist time.” Gould acknowledged he personally had been aware of this for over 20 years and wrote in the March 2000 issue of Natural History that Haeckel “exaggerated the similarities by idealizations and omissions. He also, in some cases in a procedure that can only be called fraudulent simply copied the same figure over and over again.” Gould blamed the textbook writers for “dumbing down” their material to the point of being inaccurate and stated: “We 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.”
Chapter Six — Archaeopteryx The Missing Link
Popular View: First discovered in 1861 in a limestone quarry in Solnhofen, Germany, the eight known fossils of Archaeopteryx (meaning “ancient wing”) have been viewed as evidence of a “transitional link” between reptiles and birds. Wells notes itа “had wings and feathers; but it also had teeth (unlike any modern bird), a long lizard-like tail, and claws on its wings.” It has been recognized as perhaps the most widely published and revered fossil specimen in history. Ernst Mayr referred to it in 1982 as “the almost perfect link between reptiles and birds.”
Updated Understanding: Paleontologists now agree that Archaeopteryx is not the ancestor of modern birds and, in the midst of a heated controversy about bird origins, this fossil has been quietly set aside as the “First Bird.” Nonetheless, it persists in modern textbooks as a classic example of a missing link. Sylvia Mader’s 1998 Biology refers to it as “a transitional link between reptiles and birds,” and William Schraer and Herbert Stoltze’s 1999 Biology: The Study of Life states that “many scientists believe it represents an evolutionary link
between reptiles and birds.” Yet neither side of today’s controversy would now give it this status.
Chapter Seven — Peppered Moths
Popular View: Considered to be the classic textbook example of natural selection in action, in the early 1950s British physician and biologist Bernard Kettlewell conducted experiments
on a phenomenon that had been observed by British scientists after the advent of the industrial revolution. Whereas it seemed most peppered moths were light in color before certain areas were industrialized and became polluted, it was observed that more were dark or “melanic” in color afterward. This came to be called “industrial melanism.” Kettlewell concluded that this occurred because of the camouflaging effect of the trees upon which the moths rested. When the trees were light in color and covered with lichens, birds would more easily spot the dark-colored moths and eat these. When pollution darkened the trunks of trees, conversely the darker moths now had a selective advantage in surviving predation and they were the ones to live and reproduce.
Updated Understanding: It has been known since the 1980s that peppered moths in the wild do not normally rest on tree trunks, and that textbook photographs were staged by gluing or pinning dead moths on trees, or by using live moths that were manually placed on trees during the daylight hours when they are in a dormant state. Furthermore, additional studies have shown there are discrepancies that contradict the expected results if only bird predation and camouflage were the operative factors at work here. Included among these are: 1) the heavily polluted areas by Manchester, England, where the proportion of dark-colored moths was never as high as theory predicted, 2) East Anglia, where the proportion of dark-colored moths was high despite lichen-covered trees, 3) South Britain where,
despite the introduction of pollution control, the percentage of “melanic” or dark-colored moths increased, and 4) the Wirral Peninsula where the incidence of dark-colored moths began decreasing before the trees became lighter due to the return of lichens. Of course, though hailed by scientists as “the most spectacular evolutionary change ever witnessed” (geneticist P.M. Sheppard) and “the clearest case in which a conspicuous evolutionary process has actually been observed” (biologist Sewall Wright), it is apparent that it demonstrates nothing more than a proportional change in the numbers of two varieties of a pre-existing species of moth, not the creation of a new species. And, as it turns out, the hypothesized evolutionary reasons for such changes really do not square with the facts.
Chapter Eight — Darwin’s Finches
Popular View: The finches found in the Galapagos Islands and on Cocos Island during Darwin’s five-year voyage (1831-1835) on the H.M.S. Beagle are often referred to in textbooks as being influential in helping him to formulate his theory of evolution. Later observations conducted during the 1970s on the variations in beak sizes among the fourteen
species of finches are considered to be evidence for the theory.
Updated Understanding: The Galapagos finches were not viewed by Darwin as being significant and had little to do with the formulation of his theory. The Origin of the Species does not even mention them and they received only one passing reference in the diary of the voyage of the Beagle. Science historian Frank Sulloway notes that “possessed only a limited
and largely erroneous conception of both the feeding habits and the geographical distribution of these birds.” Regarding the view that these birds figured into Darwin’s thinking in developing his theory, Sulloway wrote “nothing could be further from the truth.” Studies conducted in the 1970s indicated natural selection favored birds with larger beaks during periods of drought because they were better equipped to feed on the remaining tougher, larger seeds. However, this was negated in the following years when increased rainfall reversed the direction of the changes. Overall, there was no evolutionary change. And rather than continuing to branch out in different directions as Darwinian evolution would predict, several species now appear to be merging through hybridization.
Chapter 9 — Four-Winged Fruit Flies
Popular View: Since 1978 four-winged fruit flies (Drosphila melanogaster) have become an increasingly popular means of illustrating how gene mutations can produce large-scale changes that affect the morphology or body shape of an organism. Without such morphological changes it is apparent that evolution could not take place.
Updated Understanding: Four-winged fruit flies are not a naturally occurring phenomenon, but the result of careful breeding experiments involving three artificially maintained strains of mutant flies. Rather than being a selective advantage, the extra pair of wings is a handicap since they lack the flight muscles necessary to make them functional. There is no question that these flies are a testimony to the skill and ingenuity of geneticists and that they provide valuable insights into how the genetic code affects development. However, they provide no proof that genetic changes or mutations in DNA are sufficient to produce the kind of alterations required to bring about large-scale evolutionary modifications that actually improve the body design of an organism.
Chapter 10 — Fossil Horses And Directed Evolution
Popular View: This well-known icon of evolution showing the straight-line development of horses from tiny, multiple-toed Hyracotherium (Eohippus) to the large modern day animal with a single toe has already been removed to a large extent since the 1950s by neo-Darwinian paleontologists. A branching diagram is now preferred because evolutionists want to discredit the idea of “orthogenesis” (from the Greek words for “straight” and “origin”) or directed evolution. Whether this direction is considered to be from a divine source or internally generated by the organism itself, modern-day biologists (as was apparently true of Darwin himself) want to place their explanation on a purely materialistic footing that does not allow for any type of overarching guidance that might suggest forces not explainable in purely physical terms.
Updated Understanding: The basis for attempting to discredit the idea of orthogenesis is philosophical in nature rather than empirical. The concept of undirected evolution predates Darwin’s theory and the evidence available today does not even begin to place it on a sound scientific foundation. Natural selection acting on random genetic mutations is now accepted as the process by which evolution has proceeded, but, as demonstrated in earlier chapters, peppered moths, Darwin’s finches and four-winged fruit flies fall short of demonstrating
the efficacy of this proposed mechanism for bringing about morphological change. Furthermore, presenting horse evolution as a branching tree does not disprove directed evolution inasmuch as there is still a line of descent from Hyracotherium to the modern horse. Extinct side branches do not change this. (This is not to argue that directed evolution is true, but only that changing the diagram of horse evolution does not really have the effect intended by scientists.) The important point to stress in connection with the icon of fossil horses is that the changes made in the last fifty years help to illustrate how current ideas about evolution “materialistic philosophy in the guise of empirical science.” Despite this, modern textbooks are not hesitant to teach that the random, purposeless, undirected nature of all life is established scientific fact on a par with “Newtonian physics or Mendelian genetics.”
Chapter 11 — From Ape to Human: The Ultimate Icon
Popular View: The fossil record shows how modern man descended from early ape-like creatures that evolved to become increasingly more like modern man over the centuries.
The clear implication of this icon of evolution is that man is nothing more than an animal resulting from an undirected process. This image, perhaps more than any other, encapsulates the Darwinian view of the ultimate meaning of our existence.
Updated Understanding: Although fraudulent transitional links have been presented in support of the proposed chain of human evolution (like Piltdown man, which proved to be parts of a human skull and the altered jaw fragment of an orangutan), it appears that some genuine fossils belonging to bipedal primate creatures (or “hominids”) have been found over the years. However, all the evidence accumulated since DarwinТs time thought to relate to early human evolution “can be fitted into a small box,” according to Henry Gee, Chief Science Writer for Nature magazine. Moreover, the significance given to these fragmentary fossil finds over the years is largely the product of human imagination and philosophical preconceptions rather than hard science. This was nicely illustrated in the very pro-Darwinian magazine National Geographic (March 2000, p. 140) when four artists were asked to draw depictions of the creature represented by seven bone fragments thought to be from a pre-human ancestor. The illustrations (tucked away in the back of the magazine on an unnumbered page among the advertisements) show four vastly differing depictions with features ranging from gorilla-like to human. (See above illustration) Commenting on the difficulty of connecting fossils, Gee wrote: “To take a line of fossils and claim they represent a lineage is not a scientific hypothesis that can be tested, but an assertion that carries the same validity as a bedtime “amusing, perhaps even instructive, but not scientific.” Similarly, Oxford historian John Durant observed, “ideas of human origins turn out on closer examination to tell as much about the present as the past, and as much about our own experience as about those of our remote ancestors.” He concluded by stating: “As things stand at the present time, we are in urgent need of the de-mythologisation of science.” Arizona State University anthropologist Geoffrey Clark suggested in 1977 “that paleoanthropology [the study of fossil man] has the form but not the substance of a science.” Although a self-confessed “ardent evolutionist,” Canadian philosopher of biology Michael Ruse is critical of the Darwinian establishment for presenting philosophy as science. He wrote, “If people want to make a religion of evolution, that is their business,” but “we should recognize when people are going beyond strict science, moving into moral and social claims, thinking of their theory as an all-embracing world picture. All too often, there is a slide from science to something more.” This is clearly true of the “ape-to-human” icon of evolution.
When attacking goal-oriented evolution in his 1989 book, Wonderful Life, Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote on page 28:
“The iconography of persuasion strikes even closer than words to the core of our being. Every demagogue, every humorist, every advertising executive, has known and exploited the evocative power of a well-chosen picture.”
But many of our pictures are incarnations of concepts masquerading as neutral descriptions of nature. These are the most potent sources of conformity, since ideas passing as descriptions lead us to equate the tentative with the unambiguously factual.
How accurately his words describe both the nature and impact of these popular icons of evolution! Without question, the “tentative” has been equated with “the unambiguously factual” in the field of evolution. For example, Harvard neo-Darwinist Ernst Mayr wrote in the July 2000 issue of Scientific American: “No educated person any longer questions the validity of the so-called theory of evolution, which we know now to be a simple fact.”
The famous evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the leading figures in the development of the neo-Darwinist synthesis (the current theory), announced in 1973 that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” His words have served as a rallying cry for the past thirty years in efforts to suppress any evidence that might call into question the tenets of modern evolutionary thinking. Those who might attempt to do so are denounced for not understanding “how science works” or for trying to inject religion into science. Wells beautifully counters this and concludes his book with the words:
“How do we know [the icons of evolution are true]? Because of the evidence? No, because Dobzhansky says ‘nothing in biology’ makes sense except in the light of evolution.
This is not science. This is not truth-seeking. This is dogmatism, and it should not be allowed to dominate scientific research and teaching. Instead of using the icons of evolution to indoctrinate students in Darwinian theory, we should be using them to teach students how theories can be corrected in the light of the evidence. Instead of teaching science at its worst, we should be teaching science at its best.
And science at its best pursues the truth. Dobzhansky was dead wrong, and so are those who continue to chant his anti-scientific mantra. To a true scientist, nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evidence.”