Darwin's theory of evolution has always got under people's skin. Darwin himself sensed it, and held off publication for years for fear of the response it might spark.
His fears were well-placed: even now, more than 150 years since his treatise appeared, bitter arguments still rage over its implications.
They are not all fuelled by fundamentalist Christians insisting that the world was created in six days, either. Over the past couple of years I have read at least half a dozen books where mainstream scientists have bickered with each other over the limits to Darwin's theory.
I must admit that while I have no serious doubts about the fundamental correctness of evolution, I am far less confident about some of the supposed evidence that is wheeled out to support the standard account of life on Earth. Some of it bears the distinctive signs of square pegs being bashed repeatedly until they fit the round hole of theory.
As a teenager, I was told that in the early 1950s scientists had successfully created "the building blocks for life itself" in laboratory mock-ups of conditions on the early Earth. Only years later did I learn that those "building blocks" were just amino acids, which are as close to "life itself" as a cheese sandwich.
It also turned out that the experiment was based on a faulty guess about the early Earth's atmosphere; when repeated with a more likely mix of gases, it struggled even to produce amino acids.
More recently the famous 19th century drawings of Ernst Haeckel - supposedly showing how embryos undergo a re-run of evolution in the womb - have been debunked, along with the celebrated Case of the Peppered Moth, whose camouflage against predators was supposed to show natural selection still at work today, propelled by the rise and fall of industrial pollution.
Dr. Jonathan Wells, a biologist working at the Discovery Institute in California, has now collected these and many other examples of "knock-out" evidence for Darwinian evolution that has proved to be anything but. In his new book Icons of Evolution (Regnery Publishing, pounds 16.99), Dr. Wells shows how biology textbooks continue to trot out the same dodgy stories to support evolution, years after they have been abandoned even by hard-line evolutionists.
It's a safe bet that the defenders of the Darwinian faith will still decry the book as the ravings of a creationist. Certainly Dr. Wells is mistaken in his apparent belief that Darwinism must be abandoned simply because some of its adherents have been a little over-zealous in their interpretation of evidence.
Even so, no amount of ad hominem attack on Dr. Wells can hide the fact that pretty feeble evidence is still routinely used to back up some Darwinian conclusions.
Just last month, the journal Nature carried a report of the finding of yet another "entirely new" form of early human, dubbed by its discoverers Kenyanthropus platyops, "the Flat-Faced Man of Kenya". At 3.5 million years old, the new discovery is said to create all kinds of problems for the "already murky picture" of human evolution.
It is not half as murky as the logic by which the scientists make their claim. They compared the armful of bones they had found with similar arms-full found for other, supposedly distinct human species. They found the new bones did not really fit in with these others. So hey presto: new species - which sounds vaguely convincing, until one notices that each of these other "species" was typically represented by just three individuals.
It's a good job these researchers aren't in charge of the current census. If they were, they'd be claiming the discovery of dozens of "new species" of human living on my street alone.
File Date: 5.03.01