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Book Review: Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth?

By Jonathan Wells


Reviewed by Jim Dawson
Posted March 2, 2001 B7 Issue 97

Before reading Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth?, take a few minutes to visit the Web site of the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based think tank where the author is a senior fellow. Navigate your way to Wells' biography page, and note the image at the top: a version of Michelangelo's "The Creation of Adam," with God reaching out to give life to the first human. In the Discovery Institute's version of this famous painting, Adam has been replaced with a strand of DNA.

For more than a century, creationists have attacked Darwinism because they believe it undermines the biblical account of creation. Repeatedly stymied by federal and state courts in their attempts to get creationism into science classrooms, creationists have turned to the "intelligent design" argument, which holds that the complexity of organisms is in itself "scientific" evidence that some unnamed "designer" must hover in the background.

Wells, who holds two Ph.D.s, one in religious studies and the other in biology, prefers to call the notion of intelligent design "directed evolution." Deep into the book, in a chapter on the evolution of the horse, he notes that one can follow a pathway through the branching evolutionary tree that links the modern horse and its most ancient ancestor. Although some of the branches of the tree stop, representing extinct species, a line can be traced from bottom to top. To most scientists, this might seem to be a nice evolutionary link between the present and the past.

For Wells, however, it is somehow evidence of evolution with a set goal. "The mere existence of extinct side-branches," he writes, "doesn't rule out the possibility that the evolution of modern horses was directed." In an incredible analogy that evokes an image of God as a cowboy, Wells explains that "a cattle drive has a planned destination, even though some steers might stray from the herd along the way."

The premise of Icons of Evolution is that the entire concept of Darwinian evolution and "its neo-Darwinian interpretation/version/incarnation stand on a handful of experiments, all of which are false, fakes, or simply wrong. There is the 1953 Miller-Urey experiment, which produced some of the building blocks of life by creating a version of the Earth's early atmosphere and then sparking it with an electrical charge. The composition of the atmosphere used in the experiment has been challenged for years, and the experiment has been redone in various forms in the decades since the original. But Wells declares that because the original experiment was fundamental to demonstrating the feasibility of evolution, and because it has been challenged and modified over time, evolution must not be true.

On Wells goes, pointing to normal challenges and questions raised about where and how species should be placed on evolution's tree of life. He notes that embryos drawn back in the 1890s are inaccurate fakes, and quotes paleontologist and ardent evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould to prove his point. That these drawings are still referred to in textbooks must be part of some overarching fraud being perpetuated in American schools by . . . well, it is here that Wells writes like an ideologue working from the fringe.

Throughout Icons you are presented with the supposition that there is a grand conspiracy being conducted by leading evolutionists, apparently with help from the National Geographic Society. To get around the problem that the overwhelming majority of biologists and other scientists understand and accept evolution as one of the basic tenet of science, Wells assumes that they are either part of the conspiracy or dupes unable to comprehend how they are being conned by their colleagues.

As the title of the book implies, Wells focuses his attacks on the icons of evolution. He raises questions, familiar to science, about classic evolutionary experiments involving Bernard Kettlewell's peppered moths, Darwin's finches on Galapagos, four-winged fruit flies, and, of course, human evolution. We are treated to a retelling of the Piltdown Man fraud from the early part of the last century, apparently to remind us that scientists can be both sneaky and blind to the truth.

By book's end Wells makes clear that he believes the evidence supporting evolution comes more from mythology than from science. "In 1973, neo-Darwinist Theodosius Dobzhansky announced that 'Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,'" Wells writes. That statement, he continues, is neither science nor "truth-seeking," but is instead "dogmatism, and should not be allowed to dominate scientific research and teaching.

"A democracy needs well-educated citizens who can spot faulty arguments and think for themselves, not docile masses who swallow what they are fed by authority figures," he concludes. Wells is angry that taxpayers' money goes to research that supports evolution, and if you don't believe it does, "simply pick up a biology journal at a university library," he writes. "[M]ost articles on evolution published by Americans acknowledge financial support from the NIH (National Institutes of Health), NSF (National Science Foundation), or NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration)." He fails to mention that almost all basic scientific research in the United States is supported by such federal agencies.

He also fails to suggest what might be the most useful part of such an exercise - actually reading the articles to see what the scientists are saying.

Apparently, if you're really smart, you'll rationalize away the overwhelming amount of scientific evidence in support of evolution and buy into the conspiracy-theory mentality of an author who interprets science to fit his (never quite stated) religious beliefs.

Jim Dawson covered cops, courts, education, politics, and most of the other standard newspaper beats before moving into science writing for the Minneapolis Star Tribune 10 years ago.